Gloomy skies don’t dampen the spirit of Virginia Nazareno as she happily waters organic vegetables on an April morning in Kiday, a sitio or hamlet on the banks of the Agos River at the southern tip of the Sierra Madre mountain range.
“Our pechay are so big, customers are amazed,” the 66-year-old says, pointing the sprinkler to the foot-high leafy vegetables. “They say it’s their first time to see pechay as large as these.
“They ask what fertiliser do I apply? I reply, ‘It’s just organic materials, no chemical fertilisers,’” says Nazareno, the farmer-leader of the Kiday Community Farmers’ Association (KCFA).
The organisation has 35 members, 30 of them women aged 30 and above, including Nazareno. Based in Quezon province on the Philippines’ main island of Luzon, the group was formed and introduced to organic farming in 2005 through the Social Action Center, a Catholic Church-led nonprofit. The assistance came following four successive tropical cyclones that battered the area in November 2004, causing the Agos River to swell, inundating homes and farms and killing more than 1,000 people.
In Kiday, a hamlet of around 50 households, this disaster led to a community shift from conventional to sustainable farming. After the three-year grant from the Social Action Center ended in 2007, the KCFA worked with MASIPAG, a nonprofit organisation that since the 1980s has promoted agroecology through partnerships between scientists and farmers.
The Philippines’ agriculture sector has suffered weak growth over the years due to a host of factors, including farmers’ lack of access to inputs and markets, leading to widespread poverty in farming communities. MASIPAG says it hopes to address this by supporting agroecology practices with its nearly 600 partner organisations across the country.
“Organic farming is what we see as the most appropriate response to food scarcity and poverty in the agriculture sector, because in organic farming or agroecology in general, you don’t need many external inputs, and it enhances diversity in the community, making agroecosystem flourish,” MASIPAG Luzon coordinator Weng Buena tells Mongabay.
It’s a great feeling for us farmers whenever we see our crops growing and thriving. You can’t contain the happiness because you finally see the benefits of cultivating the land. All the love and dedication you put into your crops for them to flourish are ultimately paying off.
Virginia Nazareno, farmer-leader, Kiday Community Farmers’ Association
This type of sustainable farming, however, isn’t widely practised in the Philippines, largely due to the government’s continued reliance on conventional farming and limited support for alternative methods. In Quezon, public investment in a mega-dam project also threatens the propagation of this practice, and the perpetuity of community values it instills.
On a drizzling afternoon in April, KCFA members gather at the association’s centre to prepare compost, a mix of organic materials helpful for soil nutrient management. One man switches on the government-donated grinding machine and feeds coconut husks into it. Then, two elderly women funnel the ground husks into a sack filled with fruit and vegetable peels and other biodegradable kitchen waste.
Kiday members also add into the mixture other nitrogen-rich organic materials like chicken manure, banana trunks, rice straws and grass clippings, and store the mixture for three to six months. When the compost is ready, they apply it on their communal farm to enrich their diverse vegetables, including okra, pechay, kale, eggplant, chili pepper, pole bean, cucumber and bitter gourd.
“We have seen and proven that our plants, our vegetables grow better and fuller with the use of organic compost — chemicals harden the soil, so we never use them,” Nazareno says. “If you are truly diligent, your farm will have a continuous source of compost, because as you plant you are storing organic fertiliser and this can be used in the next planting season while you’re using what you previously composted.”
This practice, in which crop residues are recycled and their nutrients added back to the soil, is a cost-effective and sustainable form of nutrient management, says Ma. Lourdes Edaño, a professor of sustainable agriculture at the University of the Philippines Los Banos.
“In organic agriculture, we want our farmers to build their resources within their farm, utilise it to make a closed system, wherein their resources are built up and used, resulting in minimal wastage within the farm,” Edaño tells Mongabay.
“The prices of chemical fertilisers and pesticides are usually increasing because we have to import this [from] outside our country,” Edaño says. “If farmers would be utilizing their own resources, this way, they do not have to keep on buying these external input[s].” Incorporating organic materials into the soil, she adds, increases its water-holding capacity and helps crops withstand droughts.
To continue feeding the crops with nutrients, the association produces its own liquid fertiliser that’s applied directly to the leaves, known as foliar fertiliser. It’s made from chopped banana stems, madre de cacao (a nitrogen-fixing tree), moringa and water spinach, which are rich in nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other nutrients that support plant growth. These are fermented in a bucket for two weeks, after which a sardine can’s worth of concentrate is mixed with water in an 18-litre (4.8-gallon) knapsack sprayer and applied on crops twice a week.
“It’s a great feeling for us farmers whenever we see our crops growing and thriving,” Nazareno says. “You can’t contain the happiness because you finally see the benefits of cultivating the land. All the love and dedication you put into your crops for them to flourish are ultimately paying off.”
They also concoct a natural pest repellent instead of using chemical-based pesticides that kill beneficial insects and contaminate water bodies. One morning, women huddle around a wooden table beside a stream using bolo knives to mince chili pepper and leaves of madre de cacao and a variety of herbs, including lemongrass, oregano, basil, giloy and nami.
One elderly woman puts the concoction in a clay pot, mixing it with warm water and squeezing by hand to get its extracts. It’s left overnight, then the mixture is sprayed directly on the vegetables’ foliage to ward off worms, bugs and other harmful insects. The same mixture is also used on the organic rice farm behind of the community’s vegetable garden, where pest-repelling flowering plants like marigold also abound. “These are effective because we can see that our crops are not attacked by pests as much,” Nazareno says.
The group’s lowland organic vegetable and rice farms are surrounded by lush hills where agroforestry is practised. Across the slopes, fruit-bearing and hardwood tree species are planted, a practice known as contour farming, which conserves rainwater and reduces soil erosion. The wide variety of trees attracts the return of wildlife, performing vital ecosystem functions that maintain stability in the area.
To retain seeds in the community, locals practice seed banking, both communally and individually. “We’re storing seeds, because how can you call yourself a farmer if you do not have your own seeds? Seed is life — it is the lifeline of farmers,” Nazareno says.
At the KCFA centre, heirloom seeds are housed to support members and conserve seed diversity. They say this ensures the seeds they plant are natural, not genetically modified, unlike those distributed by the government to most farmers across the Philippines.
“I inherited these seeds from my ancestors,” Nazareno says. “It’s a must that you keep your own seeds so you don’t have to source it from anywhere, and since you’ve stored your own, you can plant crops any time during the planting season.”
Bayanihan or communal unity and cooperation is a Filipino tradition, once practised widely in the form of communal farming. But it has faded with modernisation and private land ownership. Kiday is an exception. The practice remains alive here, helping each farmer weather the impacts of household and community challenges.
“[Agroecology] reduces the financial burden of the community members, and also enhances social structure, because going into this type of farming requires cooperation and support from each other, so those are the values restored by organic farming,” says Buena from MASIPAG.
Every day, members volunteer their effort and time to manage their communal farm. Early in the morning or late in the afternoon, some manually weed grasses growing in vegetable plots, while others water the crops. There are also members tasked with producing and applying compost, natural fertiliser and pest repellent.
In all these activities, women’s active participation is evident. “As women, we feel that our engagement is important, because we’re mothers and grandmothers who prepare food on the table,” Nazareno says. “Through our involvement in organic agriculture, we know that the food that we cook and feed our family is safe and diverse.”
Almost every household in Kiday maintains its own backyard vegetable garden. Surplus produce from the communal farm and homes are sold at the village and town centres, providing community members with cash income.
The KCFA has also ventured into food processing to produce cassava chips, ginger candy and tea, bignay wine, and jam both for local and international markets. Proceeds are shared equitably among members, with a portion returned to the communal fund to support farm management activities and charitable work.
During the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic, the group and its agroecology practices proved their relevance to the community. Members extended their produce to households in nearby hamlets and villages, allowing them to survive through what would become some of the most stringent lockdowns anywhere. This, they say, has motivated others to establish their own backyard vegetable gardens.
Giving back to the community is part of the KFCA’s practice. Each May, the association invites people from other communities to join in its festival called patikim, meaning “taste.” During this annual festivity, members cook their traditional vegetable- and coconut-based cuisines to feed the attendees, who also return home with takeaway vegetables.
While organic farming is promising, it has its share of challenges. For one, it’s more labour-intensive than its conventional counterpart, and organic farmers’ perseverance and diligence are put to test. It requires months or even years of conditioning the soil and periodically controlling weeds and pests to enjoy bountiful harvests. In a country where the poverty rate among farmers is 30 per cent, the upfront time investment and delayed financial returns can be a barrier to people already living hand to mouth.
Kiday farmers say they’d rather make the extra effort because they can’t afford to go into conventional farming and risk getting mired in debt. Conventional farmers, according to Nazareno, have been conditioned since the country’s “green revolution” in the 1960s to use heavy chemical inputs to improve agricultural productivity, thus many end up applying for loans. If their farming fails and their household financial responsibilities accumulate, they have a hard time paying up, leading some to pawn their land to loan sharks to free them from debt.
It’s true, Nazareno says, that their first two years of doing organic farming were disheartening. Despite the extreme effort required, the method didn’t give them yields comparable to conventional farming.
Experts say this low yield is part of the early stages of organic farming adoption. “We often remind the farmers, especially if they’re coming from conventional transitioning to organic, do not expect that it will be equal from the get-go,” says Edaño, the agriculture professor. “There is really a time that the yield will decrease, primarily if the soil has become too degraded, but despite that, three years later, or three croppings, they can recuperate in the long run.”
In Kiday, members have endured and seen their harvests increase over time. Bolstered by support from MASIPAG, they continue to regenerate their soil with organic material, and practice other natural farming methods that improve their agroecosystem diversity.
The Philippine government’s continued prioritisation of conventional farming is also a challenge for farming communities who already practice or are thinking of shifting to organic agriculture. This is reflected in the limited funding directed to organic farming, despite the presence of a national law that specifically advances it.
For 2023 alone, the fortified organic fertiliser development program only received 3 million pesos (about US$54,000), representing 1.2 per cent of the total 250 million peso (US$4.5 million) budget of the Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority. If the budget were increased, advocates say, funds could be channelled toward building farmers’ technical capacity and improving food processing technology and market networks to help sustain and scale up community-based organic farms across the country.
Meanwhile, the flood risks associated with a nearby dam are worrying Kiday and other farming communities in Quezon province. A Philippine government project funded through a US$211 million loan from China, the Kaliwa Dam aims to provide 600 million litres (159 million gallons) of water daily to crisis-prone Metro Manila. It’s set to be built within a protected watershed and ancestral domain upstream of Kiday in the town of General Nakar. Project construction has been underway since December 2022, and the dam is projected to be completed in 2026 and operational the following year.
Living on the typhoon path, Nazareno says they fear a repeat of the 2004 calamity, which could be amplified if the dam releases floodwater, especially during the storm and monsoon season. “The dam will flood our farmlands, a huge amount of water will be captured, that’s why, as women, we see it as an imminent danger,” says Nazareno, whose group joined a nine-day protest march covering 150 kilometres (90 miles) from Quezon to the Philippine president’s office in Manila in February 2023. “We will not cease in our call to stop the Kaliwa Dam because it is not good for our livelihood.”
Buena says this concern warrants government attention: “We cannot simply set their worries aside, because they have past flooding experience as a basis, and they are the ones living in that community. They were the ones who experienced the tragic impact [of the typhoons] and they are also the ones who can say how it can possibly affect them.”
If a catastrophic flood happens again, Edaño says, organic farmers would have to spend years reconditioning their soil, especially if forced to relocate to marginal lands. Their access to water during the dry season would also be affected, she says, as capturing water in the reservoir could limit the water flowing to downstream farmlands.
For Buena, concerns about the dam don’t just touch on environmental or tribal concerns. They’re also an issue for marginalised rural women who are increasingly making themselves heard in the sustainable agriculture sector to ensure the future of their families.
“The society’s issue is a women’s issue, and women’s issue is the society’s issue,” she says. “You cannot really separate them because we know that women, especially during these times, are really the ones doing many roles in the family. They’re making a living, taking care of the family, even providing food, so all the issues with the dam are their concerns as well.”
This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.
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