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Agriculture & Food-Local By Necessity

* Information used as a preamble in this post is intended to provide context and is not intended as political commentary or opinion.*

The 1990’s in the Philippines saw an extensive conversion of agricultural lands to golf courses, residential subdivisions, industrial parks and resorts on various islands. Some land owners felt pressured to sell the land for lack of capital for seed, labour and other basic farming necessities. In addition to reduced agricultural lands, need for high crop yields meant a reliance on chemical based fertilizers and pesticides. In recent years there has been an increased focus on the environment and organic farming. In the Philippines there is currently a 40% rural poverty rate – food security is a necessity and not just a buzz word or ideal.

Across the Republic, the average age of farmers is 57, with a life span of around 70 years. With many younger people leaving for bigger cities, the lack of a new generation of farmers is critical for food security. Here on Tablas Island, at the Romblon Breeding Station and Farmers Training school, a whole new generation of farmers are being trained to participate in local agriculture.

I was welcomed by Emile, who showed me to the shallow disinfecting pool I drove my motorbike through. The school has a focus on organic farming methods, teaches animal husbandry, and has many gardens, groves and greenhouses (covered in black mesh to shade, rather than to capture heat). I could have driven up, but I walked so I could see more as I went along. Walking uphill in the heat seemed to amuse quite a few people along the way…only a foreigner would walk.

I stopped at the lookout to view the Station’s fields, crops and livestock areas. Students were in the school but a teacher came out to speak with me after hearing I was from Canada and had a farm. (Farm Cred, … always a door opener). I asked what some of the challenges were for local farmers, and he said that while there is increased support for agriculture overall, at the local level it can be difficult to access grants needed to set up infrastructure for farming.

Some farms are smaller holdings where market vegetables and fruits are produced and sold locally at a town market, or most often at roadside stands. For larger scale farming, the land owner may typically receive 60% of the crop profit and the workers 40%. Depending on the size of the operation, or a particular skill, an average farmer makes between $5,000 pesos (around $110 Cdn) to $10,000 pesos (around $215 Cdn) a year. Hence the rural 40% poverty rate.

I was advised to go to the market in Odiognan on Wednesday or Saturday, as smaller farms bring their ‘natural’ vegetables (usually smaller and tastier, no genetic modification etc). On the other days, produce displayed may have travelled some distance to market – with no refrigeration, they would not be as fresh as local goods, and more imported foods are displayed. Most food produced in a municipality is consumed there.

Our discussion turned to sheep – I had seen white sheep with a scruff of wool, much like our St. Croix sheep on our farm in west coast Canada.

I asked the breed and didn’t quite get the name, except that they were native to the island. They also breed sheep and goats together and the cross-species was a larger, rangier, brown spotted animal that was intended to be hardier and more non-selective eaters. Locals purchase piglets, geese, goats and other animals from the Station to raise for their own food.

After speaking with the teacher, I hiked up a steep mountain behind the Station for the stunning 360 degree view of agricultural lands. Hot and humid but so worth it!

Lessons of the Day:

  • We consider our Happy Willow Bottom Farm to be small scale, at 6 acres. I learned that would be a large private holding here that would produce enough for many families with surplus for market.

  • Food security not a land use goal here, it is a life necessity – if you don’t produce food, you have to buy it, which can be prohibitive for many. Or you go hungry.

  • Organic farming on Tablas Island translates to ‘traditional farming’. Not a new concept, but a way of life. We could learn a lot from this.

“The average person in North America is still under the aberrant delusion that food should be somebody else’s responsibility until they’re ready to eat it”. – Joel Salatin

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