The difference in dreaming

Michelle Solano
'I want to change the way people see farmers as 'just farmers.' Do not discriminate the uneducated, they have their own innate genius' - Cherrie Atilano

TRUE JOY. Cherrie Atilano smiles not because of popularity or material gain, but because she is helping our farmers and our country in her own way. All photos courtesy of Michelle Solano

MANILA, Philippines – When I first encountered Cherrie Atilano, founder and president of Agricool — a social entreprise that aims to make farming a mainstream business choice for today’s entrepreneurs — I thought she was just another normal girl next door.

Boy, was I wrong. 

Cherrie Atilano is not normal; she is extraordinary.

The hero’s journey

HER FATHER'S DAUGHTER. Cherrie's love for farmers and their rights stems from her experience growing up with her dad who was an overseer in a hacienda

As a student of literature, I learned that a hero’s journey does not start when the adventure begins.

Most heroes, or at least the really epic ones, begin their journey at birth.

The same goes for Cherrie. She spent her childhood at her father’s side, while he fought for the rights of the sacadas (farmers in haciendas in Bacolod) in Negros Occidental. Her father was an encarregado (overseer) and he opened her young eyes to the injustices of the feudal system still being perpetrated in the haciendas.

“Hacienderos don’t care about the laborers or their rights,” Cherrie says. 

At 6 years old, she started working to send herself to school.

At 12, she was training farmers to help them transition from the old ways to new farming technologies while being named class valedictorian.

4 years later, she was once again giving the valedictory speech, this time for her high school diploma. It came as no surprise to all who knew her when she was given full scholarship at Visayas State University, graduated magna cum laude and named one of Ten Outstanding Students of the Philippines (TOSP).

To her family and friends, she was on the sure road to success. The trajectory of her dreams and hard work culminated when she was awarded the Fulbright Scholarship, an international honor bestowed upon only the best and brightest in the world.

For Cherrie, the Fulbright was her best chance to accomplish her dream of working for the United Nations.

Listening to the call

IT'S COOL TO FARM. Cherrie's Agricool Center in Angat, Bulacan

Exceptional as her achievements may be, destiny had greater plans for her.

Mere months before her flight to the U.S. for the Fulbright Scholarship, Cherrie volunteered and lived at GK Enchanted Farm in Angat, Bulacan.

Her stay in Angat — with the farmers and their children — opened her eyes once again to the reality of the land.

She, the girl who grew up in Silay, Negros Occidental, could relate to the youth of the farm and their realities. She asked them about their dreams.

Most of the girls wanted to grow up to be dancers for famous noon time shows. One boy proudly proclaimed that he will go to Makati someday and become a driver.

“They don’t know what dreaming is all about,” Cherrie says.

Another realization came to her upon seeing the state of many farmlands in the Philippines.

She says, “We have 12 million hectares of unused farmlands, yet according to the 2011 SWS survey, 41% of Filipinos are food poor.” She felt that something had to be done and it had to start with restoring the love for farming in the country.

Without any trepidation, Cherrie gave up her Fulbright Scholarship to start her own farming social enterprise right there in Angat.

Challenging the impossible

NEVER 'JUST' FARMERS. 'Do not discriminate the uneducated, they have their own innate genius'

Giving up Fulbright was not an easy decision.

Imagine giving up the doorway to 20 years of hard work and diligent studying. Her family and friends advised her against it.

But Cherrie was undeterred. “Investing on my ambition alone is not worth it when I can invest on 42 dreams,” she says.

The 42 dreams she is referring to are the 42 youth her social enterprise, Agricool, is sending to school. 

Agricool serves as a sustainable source of income to the farmers of Angat.

Rather than treating them as laborers, the farmers become the business partners and take part in the decision-making side of the enterprise. The farmers no longer have to struggle with middle men or in finding a market for their crops, because Agricool serves the manpower force and is the raw materials provider of other businesses.  

“I want to change the way people see farmers as ‘just farmers.’ Do not discriminate the uneducated, they have their own innate genius,” Cherrie explains, citing instances when her farmers astounded agricultural experts by growing sunflowers and organic lettuce in lowland Bulacan.

According to Cherrie, the more you honor them, the more they believe in the genius within them.

Each week, Cherrie meets with her Agricoolers (Agricool youth scholars) to mentor them in both academic and leadership development. Her eyes shine with happiness as she tells me she has no regrets about the life and dream she had to give up.

She says the difference now is her dreams are no longer only for herself.

“I am now going after things with a greater purpose, things beyond the imagination.” – Rappler.com

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