Have you ever walked through rice paddies? The other day was the first time for me to tread on the pilapil. In spite of all the care I took to follow the footsteps of the woman ahead of me who would kindly look back every so often to see if I was still there, then holding out her hand for me to cling to whenever I have to jump over canals, I still slipped – sprawled flat in the mud, my feet and hands soaked in mud and my skirt all muddy! Thank God that was just once. That means I could have fallen many times more but I had good guides.
I visited the farms in Munoz and Caranglan, Nueva Ecija as part of our Pondo ng Pinoy Projects monitoring program. We spoke with the farmers to whom we had given loans for their organic farming project. This was facilitated by the Diocese of San Jose Social Action Desk and it was great to see how more and more farmers were using the organic farming technology while getting away from the use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides.
The diocese had aptly called its project “Gratia Plena” or “Full of Grace”. On display in one of the rooms of the 2-story building that serves as their training center, packing area, storage and marketing office were packs of organically grown rice –white, red, brown, pink and violet. In another shelf were beautifully bottled jams and fruit juices from wild berries, passion fruit, guava, and other mountain harvests. We were told that their products are now for sale at leading department stores and groceries through the efforts of their marketing staff who bring the products to Manila every week.
The farmers in “Gratia Plena” patiently explained to us how they produce the natural fertilizer by composting the rice stalks and husks. We saw those spread out at the back of the building, waiting for time to transform them into rich soil once again after the farmers had sprayed them with homemade fermented ingredients. They said that the artificial fertilizers had depleted the soil of natural minerals and vitamins and had killed the helpful organisms so that it takes years for the soil to be “alive” again. Organic farming, while more tedious and takes longer to accomplish, involves more people and keeps funds within the community, unlike commercial fertilizers and pesticides that siphon our money to multinational companies.
My trip to the rice paddies during their harvesting time filled me with even more insights into the life of the farmers and their families. I found out that very few farmers in the Philippines have their own land — most of them are hired. So a hectare of rice land would need around 25 persons to prepare the land and plant the seedlings, each one given a space they would take care of, from land preparation to planting to weeding and then to harvesting and threshing. Each one is paid P150 a day for the five days of preparation and planting.
In order to obtain more income per family, not only the father works. I saw the wives and older children involved too. I even saw children as young as 9 years working side by side with their fathers, all quietly bent in cutting the sheaves of palay and looking up only when we passed by. Before noontime, a couple of girls around 12 years old arrived, carrying the lunch for their parents. This means that the children skip school during the planting and harvesting time, if they even go to school at all.
My greatest shock was finding out that the farmers do not get paid during harvest time. The arrangement with the land owner was that each farmer would get one sack of palay rice for every 13 sacks he/she harvests and threshes. It takes around 3-4 months from planting to harvesting, so the rest of the months, the farmers wait and wait, often with no other source of income. If the area has water irrigation, planting can be two times a year. Otherwise, the farmers just wait for the next rainy season, and pray that no typhoon would devastate what they had so laboriously planted.
I left the place with a deeper commitment to help our poor brothers and sisters in whatever way I can – at present, through assisting with more Pondo ng Pinoy projects, through giving out information on what the state of agriculture in our country, and through joining efforts in lobbying for more just laws, policies and programs. My heart was filled with resentment at how our government and rich people have so neglected such an important sector of our society, but my heart was filled with inspiration from the stories of the farmers, their faith in a God who year in and year out does not abandon them but continues to send the rain and the sun and the wind to be able to put rice on our tables.