Way before the onset of the storms we are experiencing now, there have been many times when 57-year-old Mang Kikoy stood under the scorching heat and looked afar, wondering if he still has crops to harvest. Every time rain has been scarce, the prolonged heat eventually shrank and withered his plants.
“Malaking dagok talaga sa amin ang kalamidad. Dahil sa tagtuyot noon, nawalan ako ng hanap-buhay at napilitan ang tatlo kong anak na magtrabaho sa kalapit na mga probinsya para mapakain ang pamilya at mapag-aral ang bunso nilang kapatid,” relates Mang Kikoy.
Mang Kikoy embodies the life of 180,000 farmers in Isabela when a dry spell hit the province in 2013. In four months of reduced rainfall, more than 3,000 hectares of land dried up, resulting to more than Php 33 million worth of crops lost.
Despite its title as the rice and corn granary of the Philippines, Isabela faces problems aggravated by strong typhoons, frequent drought patterns and climate change. After every major disaster, food supplies are cut short; children are stopped from going to school; and with little or no savings at all, farmers tend to borrow capital from loan sharks who charge extremely high interest rates and bargain farmers’ products after harvest.
The solution: organic agriculture
Realizing the vulnerabilities of farmers, several Belgian missionaries founded by Dirk Detemmerman visited the municipality of Gamu in Isabela in 1985 to assist the farmers through the non-government organization Parish Youth of Gamu (Payoga NGO). Originally formed to give free education to the children of farmers who cannot go to school, the organization later on promoted organic farming upon realizing that the poor conditions of farmers stem from the acquisition of costly synthetic chemicals and fertilizers – eventually dragging them to debts, especially with the occurrence of natural calamities.
Organic agriculture is a farming technique that uses natural inputs such as animal manure and crop waste to produce quality crops without damage to the environment and the people who live and work with it. In contrast to chemical farming, organic agriculture enriches the soil and is cheaper with the use of existing resources in the farm.
For instance, a farmer who wants to plant 1.8 hectares of land will only need a total amount of Php 6,000 for 20 bags of organic fertilizer, compared to at least Php 20,450 worth of chemical fertilizer in one planting season. Users of chemicals also expect higher cost for the succeeding years since its regular use develops dependency and thus, greater amount of chemicals is needed to sustain the same yield of crops every year. Its prolonged use also depletes the soil with microorganisms necessary to bear quality and nutritious crops.
With seminars and trainings provided by the organization, Mang Kikoy felt his responsibility in taking good care of the environment because it is where he gathers his livelihood. In 2008, he shifted to organic farming.
“Akala ng mga farmers ay hindi ka makaka-ani kung hindi ka gagamit ng chemical fertilizers. Pero unti-unti kong nakita na mali pala ito, nakasasama ang kemikal sa lupa at kalusugan,” explains Mang Kikoy.
Despite the initial hesitation of some farmers, Payoga NGO continues to work in educating them about protecting the environment through organic farming. To date, 2,650 rice and corn farmers in Isabela have joined the cooperative and shifted from chemical to organic farming.
Becoming a cooperative
Seeing the positive results, members of Payoga NGO decided to sustain its operations by becoming a cooperative. But as the cooperative grew in assets, they developed management problems that made it rethink its commitment to the mission of educating and lifting farmers’ lives through organic farming.
Led by Julie Flores-Madrid, general manager of Payoga/Kapatagan Multipurpose Cooperative (Payoga/Kapatagan MPC), the cooperative retained its awareness-building activity and added capacity-building, livelihood and sustainable agriculture training, zero management training, values formation and community service, like giving of seeds to households and school children.
It also ventured into nursery, trading and marketing, selling of livestock and production of organic fertilizer. Its organic fertilizer called Greenfriend is made up of biodegradable raw materials such as chicken, bat, carabao manure and rice straw. It is formed by mixing these materials with carbonized rice hull, agricultural lime, legume and enzymes in 80 percent water.
Members and non-members earn money from selling fertilizer inputs to the cooperative. Farmers who collect rice straw get Php 500 for every 250 kilograms while Php 30-45 for 50 kilograms of chicken, bat and carabao manure. Members who compile the mixture during harvesting and packaging also earn Php 16 per 50 kilograms.
From 45,000 in 2006, the production of Greenfriend bags has momentously increased to 280,000 in 2015. Regular employees also reached 70 and each member benefits from the low buying price of an organic fertilizer bag at Php 210 compared to dealers and government offices which buy each bag at Php 230 and Php 245, respectively.
Aside from these services, the cooperative also markets farmers’ products to private companies and government at marked-up prices. Compared with the traditional system where farmers sell their produce at a very low price, the cooperative ensures that the farmers are paid reasonable amounts for their quality organic crops. On top of marked-up price, members who are contracted to produce seedlings are given patronage refund and shared dividends of about 70 percent of the total earnings of the cooperative at the end of the year.
As the cooperative grew in terms of membership, so is its determination to encourage more farmers to practice organic farming. It was at this point when Payoga/Kapatagan MPC heard about the Foundation for a Sustainable Society (FSSI), a social investment organization that supports the development of sustainable communities through social entrepreneurship. It has been developing social enterprises in marginalized communities that are owned, managed and operated by the poor, and are economically sound and environmentally-friendly.
“Mula nang marinig ko ang FSSI, naisip ko na magandang makipag-partner kasi pareho kami na nagpo-promote ng welfare ng tao, ng environment at gusto din nito na makapag-business ang farmers or mga tao sa community,” says Madrid.
At the onset of the partnership, FSSI gave the members financial and technical assistance and introduced the concept of social entrepreneurship to which they took delight on, as they realized that it is what they have been doing for so long. As a social enterprise, Payoga/Kapatagan MPC is equally mindful of its economic, social and environmental goals.
Thereafter, Payoga/Kapatagan MPC was asked by the local government unit to represent all farmer organizations in the Council on Organic Farming, National Disaster, and Small and Medium Enterprises apart from helping in the implementation of the municipality’s environment policy.
Regional government agencies such as the Department of Education, Department of Agriculture and Department of Environment and Natural Resources also formed partnerships with the cooperative by becoming the market of seeds and organic fertilizer.
The partnership with FSSI has also been essential in the cooperative’s participation in the Isabela Social Enterprise – Local Economy Development Network, a group of 14 organizations united to steer local economy development in the province of Isabela through social enterprises.
Looking back, Madrid can say that majority of what the cooperative envisioned has been realized. But among its achievements is the increased awareness of the farmers on protecting the environment.
“Way back 2001, kapag nag-discuss ka sa farmers about sa climate change, pagtatanim ng puno at kung bakit kailangan ng organic farming at fertilizer, marami sa kanila ang nagsasabing matagal pa iyan. Pero ngayon, nakita namin na nagbago ang pagtingin ng mga tao sa environment. Sinasabi na nila ngayon na ‘Mababaon lang ako sa utang sa chemical farming at saka sayang naman yung environment na siya nating pine-preserve for the next generation,” adds Madrid.