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Farmer by farmer, an organic transition

Authors Robin and John with Gil and Teresa (at center) and Don Bosco staff. Photo courtesy of Robin Broad and John Cavanagh.Authors Robin and John with Gil and Teresa (at center) and Don Bosco staff. Photo courtesy of Robin Broad and John Cavanagh.We spend an afternoon with Gil and Teresa, who have farmed one and a quarter hectares of non-irrigated land in the southern Philippines since 1973. We walk into their land through a line of young trees, past a row of pineapples, and over a narrow patch of rice. Chickens wander the yard with chaotic authority. We sit on a bench in their front yard, shaded by an impressive diversity of fruit trees: mango, pomelo, and others.

Rice farmers, we discover, are like the rest of us in that they do not like to change their ways unless they are convinced that change will bring tangible benefits. Several families of rice farmers in three Philippine provinces showed us clear evidence that organic rice was better than rice grown with chemical inputs in reducing costs, in improving the health of the farmer and consumer, and in preserving the soil, water, and environment.

But, we wanted to know, what triggered farmers to make the switch from decades of chemical farming to a more “rooted” organic agriculture?

Gil starts their story, with Teresa standing quietly by his side. They farmed with chemicals for over a quarter century until 1999, when Gil, tired of being in debt, went to a training by the Don Bosco Foundation on sustainable agriculture. “I was sick of the loans and the high costs of conventional farming.”

Gil started with a small portion of his land, where he planted “zero-chem” rice in one plot and string beans on two. “I really wanted to try what I learned in the seminar. I wanted to leave chemicals.” His wife Teresa was skeptical: “I thought zero-chem would mean zero-caldero [nothing in the pot].”

Gil and Teresa's rice farm in the Philippines. Photo courtesy of Robin Broad and John Cavanagh.Gil and Teresa's rice farm in the Philippines. Photo courtesy of Robin Broad and John Cavanagh. According to Gil, Teresa “was very happy because we harvested two big basins of string beans and we were able to earn money even before the rice harvest. It was the string beans that did the trick.” They quickly diversified the farm to other fruits and vegetables so that today, a decade later, they have enough healthy food to feed their family, and they are virtually self-sufficient. According the Gil: “Only about 2 percent of what we eat comes from outside the farm: salt, some cooking oil, spices. That’s it.”

A couple of miles down the road, another couple, Romeo and Elsie, describes their conversion. We join them in an open-air bamboo hut at the side of their home and their 5 hectares of irrigated rice fields. Romeo, quiet with a powerful build, starts in his native language: “Elsie was the key person because she is in charge of the finances on the farm. Already during land preparation, we regularly incurred debts from the middle-men and the lenders. By harvest time, there was very little left, sometimes not even enough to repay the lenders and get new loans for the next cropping. That was the cycle; always lots of debt.”

Elsie continues: “Romeo was no longer inspired [to farm] since nothing was left for us after the harvest. Sometimes he wondered why he was even going through with the harvest.”

So, they too attended a Don Bosco training on sustainable agriculture. This time it was Romeo who was skeptical: “If I’m not going to spray chemicals, how will there be a harvest?” So they compromised. They did a trial on one of their five hectares, the one that Elsie inherited from her father. The result was phenomenal as far as they were concerned: Costs plummeted and the yield was only slightly less. Recalls Romeo: “The experience of that one hectare was more powerful than the training.”

Elsie is now extremely animated as she describes the full conversion of all 5 hectares to organic: “Our debts have been repaid. Our four children have finished their schooling. We can buy used or even new clothing. And, our health has improved.” And, they tell us, two of their children are working, trying to save enough money to buy land so that they too can do sustainable farming.

We want to learn more about the conversion of farmers like Gil, Teresa, Elsie and Romeo, so we visit the director of the Don Bosco Foundation. Betsy Adarna, a petite woman with short, black curly hair and seemingly boundless energy, runs the foundation, which has trained these two couples along with thousands of other farmers in a version of sustainable agriculture called “biodynamic” farming.

In addition to spreading traditional seed varieties and recipes for natural fertilizers and pesticides (more on these “concoctions” in our next blog), biodynamics trains farmers to know the right time to plant and harvest in sync with cycles of the moon: for example, you do not want to harvest in a full moon since it attracts many pests. And, biodynamic farming emphasizes a healthy lifestyle and a reverence of the plants one is growing. “It’s not simply farming,” one farmer explains to us. “It’s healing the earth.”

Betsy is fighting the expansion of banana plantations, which are not only encroaching on rice land, but are also “hijacking” the water needed by rice farmers. And, with financial assistance from Europe, the Don Bosco Foundation helped a group of farmers purchase a large rice mill so that they can maintain their independence from the rice traders and other “middle-men.” Don Bosco also has six retail stores. Betsy and Don Bosco are demonstrating that sustainable farming can work on a large-scale, from farm to retail.

As we learn in the Philippines, a number of nonprofits like Don Bosco are helping speed this transition to organic. The Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement and other nonprofits, for example, launched a large “Go-Organic” coalition in 2009 that aims to increase organic rice farming to 10 percent of the Philippine’s rice land. A dynamic network of organizations called Rice Watch and Action Network (R1) provides policy ideas to help government, with its army of agricultural extension workers and its key role in upgrading irrigation canals, play a strong role.

But still, the transition occurs farmer by farmer and, at the end of the day, new farmers will make the conversion when they see the real benefits on the ground, as did Teresa and Gil and Romeo and Elsie.

John Cavanagh and Robin BroadJohn Cavanagh and Robin Broad wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Robin is a Professor of International Development at American University in Washington, D.C. and has worked as an international economist in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Congress. John is on leave from directing the Institute for Policy Studies, and is co-chair (with David Korten) of the New Economy Working Group. They are co-authors of three books on the global economy, and are currently traveling the country and the world to write a book entitled Local Dreams: Finding Rootedness in the Age of Vulnerability.

Editorial Notes: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License

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