Trials and Triumphs: The Organic Farming Experience in Panay

Sustainable and organic

In 2004, Organic Farming Field Experimental Resource Station – Panay (OFFERS – Panay) introduced to members of Asosasyon sa Magagmay ng Mangunguma sa Tigbanaba (AMMAT), a peasant organization in Igbaras, Iloilo, an alternative farming system in the hopes of ridding the farmers of excessive production costs. OFFERS – Panay’s food security program, funded by the Belgian non-government organization New World, promotes sustainable agriculture and organic farming.

In sustainable agriculture, more importance is given to farmers’ well-being as well as natural resource conservation than to profit-making. It utilizes indigenous methods of driving away pests and increasing soil fertility. Sustainable agriculture is an alternative to the prevalent farming system that relies on commercial chemical inputs, which damage crops and the soil.

Trial farm

Merlyn and Bienvenido tried at least 50 varieties of indigenous rice seedlings from OFFERS – Panay’s seed bank of traditional rice varieties (TRVs). OFFERS – Panay gathered these TRV seedlings from its partner peasant organizations as well as sustainable agriculture advocacy groups.

Because some rice varieties are site-specific, which means they grow only on certain soil types and in particular environments, there the Eleccions needed a system for determining which TRVs grow best in their area. Everyday during the trial period, they, with the help of fellow AMMAT members, observed the crops. The farmers took note of the crops’ quality and counted the number of follicles in each sample. Based on such observations, Tigbanaba farm technicians selected the best varieties, 15 in all, found to be best suited to Tigbanaba’s soil and environment.

These 15 TRVs have now been planted in OFFERS – Panay’s other project areas in an effort to replicate Tigbanaba’s success. The Eleccions’ organic farming experience encouraged all of the 30 members of AMMAT to use organic methods.

However, AMMAT peasant leaders admit that they find it difficult to convince farmers in neighboring communities to shift to organic farming. Small farmers are hesitant because of the initial decrease in rice yield.

“I cannot blame them. They are afraid to risk the already small harvest they are getting each cropping period,” Merlyn said.

The transition to sustainable agriculture is a process that requires certain resources. According to OFFERS - Panay executive director Karen Villaprudente, farmers would find conversion less risky and burdensome if they had bigger tracks of land. If their land is large enough, farmers can divide it into organic and conventional farming areas during the early stages of conversion. Then, once the organic yield increases, the rest of the farm can be converted. Unfortunately, most farmers in Tigbanaba and other areas assisted by OFFERS – Panay are tilling small plots of land.

“That is why we, along with the peasants, are still pushing for genuine land reform to be implemented by the national government. The government should also, as policy, support the farmers and promote sustainable agriculture through subsidies,” Villaprudente said.

Reaping the harvest

Since its establishment in 1998, AMMAT has been organizing to advance the rights of poor farmers. Among its services to Tigbanaba farmers is affordable equipment rental. The rice threshers and hand tractors that OFFERS - Panay provided to AMMAT in 2004 are rented out to members at minimal cost. The funds collected are used for equipment maintenance and repair and for the organization’s other needs. AMMAT also has a lending program, providing money and cavans of rice, to members requesting support, especially those transitioning to organic farming and getting low yields.

Owing to the village’s self-sufficiency, Tigbanaba farmers were cushioned from the rice price increases in early 2008. Improved harvests at lower production costs lessened Tigbanaba peasants’ reliance on usury and local seed retailers. Because they no longer had to purchase seedlings and chemical fertilizers, the farmers did not incur debts for the cropping period. Instead of selling all their harvest to pay debts, they had enough rice for family consumption. They did not go hungry despite the price hikes because they did not have to buy rice.

Amidst the economic hardship the country is experiencing, the Tigbanaba peasants are resolute in their efforts to better their lives. They continue to cultivate the seeds of sustainability that they, in collective determination, had planted to overcome hunger and poverty.

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