Hope in young farmers

FOOD FOR THOUGHT - Chit U. Juan - The Philippine Star

Imet a journalist who graduated with an Agriculture (particularly horticulture) college degree, has a family farm and is passionate about farming. Instead of him just interviewing me for a feature about ECHOstore, I ended up interviewing him for my Organic Agriculture class. I signed up at UP Open University and predictably took Organic Agriculture, just so I can learn more from professionals, rather than my trial and error method over the last few years.

In our class we were asked to write a reflection paaper based on a Zoom meeting we had two weeks ago. After I met this young farmer journalist, I realized how much I did not know and continue to realize there is so much to learn.

For our older farmers, however, there is so much to unlearn – if they choose to do so. First, many of them were taught by their LGUs or municipal agriculture officers (MAOs) how to get fast yields using urea and ammonia concoctions, using Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) that allows a certain maximum amount of chemicals and pesticides and generally apply the use of Western ways.

There is so much unlearning that is happening now because if a farmer cannot buy the whole nine yards (so much fertilizers and pesticides for each crop), his crop will fail and he will end up being frustrated. If he learns his lesson, he will start to go back to the old ways – using Open Pollinated Varieties (OPV), using organic fertilizers from his own compost and using pest management with flowering shrubs that insects feast on in lieu of eating what would be his harvest.

This young farmer, let’s call him James, had so much to share with me. We discussed about natural insect repellants, companion plants, converting eggplant root systems to bear tomatoes and other stuff nerds can answer. I asked him just about anything like a live Google – I called him Dr. Google – and he completely entertained me on our drive to the farm and back.

He even said my coffee trees can use some help, and this we already know as many experts have said we could fertilize more and prune more diligently if these trees are to be more productive. We have been on it, since the pandemic, trying our best to keep our biodiversity mantra with coffee trees growing alongside native forest trees, and our local favorites – banana, papaya and coconut. It is not easy for a newbie like myself, and you will really find a lot of areas untouched yet needing attention.

That is also the state of our agriculture industry.

James and I talked about the positive developments as he has interviewed many farmers.

1. Farmers now realize that natural is better. It is more sustainable to go back to low yields but needing less money to maintain their farms. In other words, stop buying and using chemicals and stick to your own compost and accept lower but healthier yields.

2. Younger farmers who have been educated in agriculture are pushing the needle because farming is now in fashion. We talked about coffee farming and how younger ones are trying their hand at growing specialty coffee. We have seen second generation farmers helping their parents in coffee farming because coffee is sexy.

3. There is also the realization of older farmers that if they cannot buy the whole “dose” of fertilizers as prescribed by the suppliers and sales agents, their yields get worse and that they should have just NOT fertilized at all. BUT, if they use these new hybrids, fertilization is the secret. So, there, another realization to go natural even with seeds.

4. Farmers choosing old seeds or Open Pollinated Varieties (OPVs) rather than new hybrids that promise bumper crops. Farmers now are thinking of sustainability more than high yields. The simpler solution is to go back to natural farming.

And this is what we have been advocating especially as Slow Food (www.slowfood.com) believes in good, clean and fair food for all. That means using old varieties of seeds or heirloom seeds if not OPV, and using natural means to control pests and making your own fertilizer.

It takes years to impart these old but radical ideas to a farmer whose whole life has been about fertilizers and chemicals. An elderly farmer bought chemical inputs from a friend’s store in Palawan and when interviewed revealed that this is what was taught to them. Whether by NGOs or other authorities, they were told fertilizers are the magic potion to farming. It is the sad but true state of our agricultural industry.

And people from policy-making bodies just keep harping on scale and GAP or Good Agricultural Practices as the winning formula to be successful.

Then, you have the advocates of Sustainable Agriculture – now they are the young who want to bring about change in the fields. I told James it is his generation that will make the difference. And so he will be going back to his family farm – which we jokingly call his backyard of 2.5 hectares – and he will again plant food for his family and save the excess to sell for a small profit. After all, what is important is to have enough provisions for your household before even thinking about a profitable crop.

It takes time to convince the older farmers, so we realize it may be better to start anew with the next generation. Just last weekend, we inspired a young woman to plant in her small “backyard” of one hectare. She will replicate our coffee and herb garden and get volunteers to help her populate her small piece of inherited land.

The young generation have a whole lifetime ahead to correct what the older farmers made mistakes on and which the seniors are giving up on. A fresh outlook from the next generation may be what it will take to change the course of Philippine agriculture.

Bravo to James and the other young farmers!

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