Benguet

Healthier harvests: Organic farming initiative flourishes in Benguet

Mari-An C. Santos

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Healthier harvests: Organic farming initiative flourishes in Benguet

PREPARING. Dulnuan Apote tills the land for the next crop.

Mari-An C. Santos/Rappler

Our Farmers’ Haven, established under the Social Action Ministry of the Catholic Diocese of Baguio-Benguet, strives for a healthy environment and healthy people by providing safe food

BAGUIO, Philippines – Organic agriculture has many advantages. Among them are climate change mitigation, and healthier and sustainable lives and livelihoods.

Benguet, the salad bowl of the Philippines, supplies 80% of the Philippines’ vegetable demand.

According to the Provincial Agriculturist Office, of the 87,610.5 hectares of agricultural land, only 176.8 hectares are devoted to organic agriculture, tended by 1,206 farmers.

Historically, farmers and fisherfolk are among the poorest sectors despite providing a basic human need.

Planting the seeds

Our Farmers’ Haven (OFH) was established in 2017 by Father Bede Lee, under the Social Action Ministry of the Catholic Diocese of Baguio-Benguet, to promote and support organic farming as a sustainable livelihood for residents.

Organic farming Benguet
CONJUGAL CROPPING. Oliver and Ursula Sacley help each other in an organic farm. Mari-An C. Santos/Rappler

“It is consistent with Pope Francis’ call in Laudato Si (encyclical from 2015), which encourages out-of-the-box thinking to better care for the environment,” said Father Manuel Flores Jr., current OFH program director.

Our Farmers’ Haven Federation Incorporated Philippines is non-sectarian and non-partisan, with chapters in Atok, Bakun, Buguias, Kabayan, Kapangan, Kibungan, La Trinidad, Mankayan, Sablan, and Tublay. At last count, its membership is composed of 92 females and 32 males. 

“We strive for a healthy environment and healthy people by providing safe food,” program officer Vivian Concepcion said.

OFH conducts extensive training on organic agriculture for all new members. They provide a crop program that farmers follow, with different chapters supplying different vegetables to avoid over- or under-supply. 

OFH consolidates the farm products, subjects them to quality control, and then repacks them. Then, they deliver the produce to OFH shops at the San Jose Parish in La Trinidad, Saint Joseph the Worker Parish and Leonard Wood Terraces in Baguio, and Cubao, Quezon City. The fruits and vegetables are transported via cooler van to shops in the NCR and Pampanga, like Farmery Deli and Good Food Community.

By removing middlemen or traders from the process, OFH avoids price fluctuations. “In consultation with farmer members, we put together a fixed price list. We review it with them annually,” Concepcion said. 

Some wonder why organic produce costs more than conventionally grown vegetables. Consider this: during the pandemic, many plantitos and plantitas enjoyed tending their home gardens. Now, imagine the daily tasks of organic farmers: mixing natural fertilizers, maintaining compost, removing pests by hand, following crop rotation schedules, and keeping meticulous records. They also face extreme weather challenges like droughts during El Niño and floods during La Niña. This labor-intensive process explains the higher prices of organic produce.

Growing from grassroots

“[I shifted from conventional farming] so our family could eat healthier food,” said Janette Laruan, a member of the Kapangan Organic Practitioners’ Association in Kapangan town.

Another pioneering member, Irene Aludos, said the change from hauling heavy chayote on her back to lighter vegetables like French beans and cucumber, which they supply to OFH, proved beneficial to her and her husband – not only physically but in terms of budget planning as well.

“It also feels good to sell food that’s safe for people to eat,” Aludos said. 

Oliver Sacley recounted how he felt stinging in his nose and lungs whenever he used to spray chemical fertilizers and pesticides on his crops. So it was easy for his mother to convince him and his wife Ursula to go into organic farming. 

“You have to budget for farm inputs [like pesticides] with conventional agriculture, but with organic farming, you take home all of your net income,” Ursula said.

Melia Alcino only started organic farming in 2019 to augment her family’s income. It turned out to be fortuitous because when the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns were imposed, her husband, a small-scale miner, was left jobless. Now, they share responsibilities in their plot. 

Adela Awidan said appreciates that they have a consistent market to supply through OFH.

“Having a list of orders for each week takes the gamble out of bringing your harvest to the market and hoping people will buy them over cheaper [conventionally-grown] vegetables,” she said.

Dulnuan Apote, a farmer for 30 years, complained of chronic headaches and gut pain. Almost immediately after stopping the use of pesticides in 2019, he said felt better health-wise. 

“I no longer have to be assaulted by the stench of pesticides! Plus, organic produce tastes really good,” Apote said.

Organic farming Benguet
CONTROLLED CONDITIONS. Melia Alcino (right) grows French beans in a greenhouse to better control conditions. Mari-An C. Santos/Rappler

Farmers devote most of each day to different farm activities. So, OFH also facilitates paperwork preparation so that its members can access assistance from the Department of Agriculture (DA). 

Toward sustainability

“OFH is a social enterprise. While we teach them about the market system, we also organize the community to encourage cooperation among farmers,” Father Flores said. A long-term plan is to have a food establishment where the organic produce can be used, minimizing food loss. 

According to Concepcion, gender mainstreaming and disaster risk reduction training programs are in the pipeline to better equip their members and make their organic farms truly sustainable. – Rappler.com

The OFH may be reached through ofh.federation@gmail.com.

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