Since the onslaught of the pandemic, food prices have continued to rise, reaching its highest point since last year. In the Philippines, food prices have increased across the country while income source of people have declined during the pandemic, making it harder for people to access the food they and their families need. Some of our neighborhood and residents of far-flung areas have heavily relied on the distribution of ayudas and other care package assistance from various government agencies.
Essential workers, from our fields to our markets, have helped keep the country’s food supply chain on track in the face of these challenges. Now, during the country's lockdown and heightened community quarantine (ECQ, GCQ, MECQ, or what have you) we are reminded of the risk and dangers essential workers face and the critical role they play in our lives as the pandemic rages on.
With such predicaments in mind, the Agricultural Training Institute – Regional Training Center 10 (ATI-RTC 10) which is based in Poblacion, El Salvador City, Misamis Oriental, have aimed and accomplished, to assist a record number of people in terms of growing their own food by giving vegetable garden-variety seeds, seedlings, livestock, and other farming implements as post-training support to counter the effects of the pandemic.
Since launching the Go Urban Gardening: Making FOOD Available (GUGMA) in Hinigdaan, El Salvador City in August last year, farming organization such as the Tag-Ilas Organic Vegetable Farmers Association have been gaining steady income out from their fresh and organic produce.
GUGMA is a gardening initiative of the center which aims to establish community gardens in the urban area; this is in support to the Urban Agriculture Program and Plant, Plant, Plant Program of the Department of Agriculture (DA). Introducing GUGMA was easy since the 32 members of the Tag-Ilas Organic Vegetable Farmers Association have already established a community garden of their own. As natural farming practitioners and advocates, their community garden is teeming with cash crop varieties such as string beans, eggplants, tomatoes, pechay, okra, chili, squash, bananas, and bell peppers. They sell their organic produce and regularly supplies organic goods in the market of El Salvador City.
Gugma is a Cebuano word for love, but for the women farmers of Tag-ilas, the hunger mitigation efforts of the center, coupled with their grit and resilience to come up with organically-grown vegetables for their consumption and to their patrons, have reached a whole new meaning in terms of extending a labor of love.
Despite the challenges, the women farmers were unfazed braving the extreme heat and weather, poor farm to market road, issues of mobility to transport their farm produce, geographical location, land stewardship, and a presence of an alleged “aswang”, a scary-looking creature of the night stealing their crops and farm goods just before they can even make a harvest.
As I tagged along with my colleague, Project Evaluation Officer I Cheriemy D. Generol and Lionel Rey G. Apdian of the City Agriculture Office, to monitor the farming progress of the members, we spoke to eight empowered women farmers who represent the thousands of people throughout the food supply chain. Sharing their experiences of risk, determination, resilience, and hope:
Concesa U. Sumili – “I work as a food peddler with different snack items like hotcakes, puto, bibingka, syakoy, and ice candy. I sell food and peddle snacks from one house to another, since this is my way of earning a living aside from farming. I can earn 600 pesos in a day’s work.
I feared this pandemic a lot. If I had the financial ability to support my family without leaving the house, I would have stayed home, so that I could guarantee my family’s safety. When I am home, I tend to my diversified farm planted with bell peppers, okra, string beans, spring onions, and tomatoes. When selling vegetables in the neighborhood, I can earn 300 pesos a week. Since I am old already, I can only work on the one-hectare land out from the five hectares. I feared this disease a lot. If I had the financial ability to support my family, I would not have opted for peddling food in our area and the nearby barangay. I would have stayed home so that I could guarantee my family's safety.”
Emelita Obaob – “The pandemic has given me the opportunity to develop my 1.8 hectare farm. I admit that the coronavirus pandemic wasn't a pleasant experience for me or my fellow farmers. I didn't want my vegetables to rot, sometimes I would sell them at a lower cost. I had to take several risks. Transportation access is cumbersome and limited. Still, we get by and our farming activity continues.
Meanwhile, I was able to help my neighbors with my farm produce and income. I was fortunate enough to have food at my house. Many people were not as fortunate. Knowing that, I couldn't let them stay hungry. Given the same conditions, I am sure my neighbors would have helped me. I found a sense of community in this period. Even though we were isolated, I believe that we are all in this together.”
Emalyn Cagobcub – “I am blessed enough to already have a group of “suki” based in Tugasnon. Whenever there is an order from them, I deliver whatever vegetable is in season like eggplant, string beans, ampalaya, pechay, Chinese kangkong, and okra. Normally, I earn one thousand to two thousand pesos per order. In our three-hectare farm, we make sure that it is utilized all year round. I am also grateful to have attended various trainings on organic agriculture and urban agriculture provided by the DA, ATI, and TESDA.
In my life, I have never experienced anything like this pandemic. My family was constantly worried about me. I was also worried I might bring the virus home. But I had no choice, we depend on our farm and in selling of vegetables. I am hopeful that once we get vaccinated, me and my family will once again enjoy our lives like we used to.”
Mobile communication proved to be an effective way to sell our produce since we were able to fix a price and sell to them over the phone. Sometimes, we post our farm goods and sell it through social media since my kids are adept in using Facebook. In many instances, we arranged our own transport, went to nearby barangays and sold vegetables and other farm goods. If we don't plant and produce, people won't get food. We also have our basic needs and in these difficult and trying times, giving up is not an option.
Mary Ann Mugot Virtudazo- “Had I not known the farming technologies taught by the City Agriculture Office and ATI, I would not be productive today in terms of my farming endeavors. My harvest nowadays is a big improvement than my harvest before. Way better. I am very thankful to the trainings on organic farming and urban agriculture because I was able to apply such technology like the production and application of Oriental Herb Nutrient (OHN).
In one harvest alone last December 2020, me and my husband Richard were able to profit 14 thousand pesos from selling ampalaya and string beans. Our ampalaya in 800 hills is a bestseller since it is a Galaxy variety F1 hybrid from EastWest. We also have other crops and vegetables like okra, eggplant, corn, banana, coconut which we sell when we are in town. We were into backyard gardening before, and we were just as fortunate to have received livelihood support from ATI like chickens and vegetable garden seeds, while CAO gave us vegetables seeds comprising of a chopsuey set.
In our farming experience, we have now a pattern in planting crops which aligns with the season. During summer, we plant ampalaya and string beans. Come rainy season, we plant corn. In our 10-hectare farm area, there are seasons when our crops are pestered with fungus or blight, that’s why we consult with our local technician.
Marisa V. Payla - “Since we work with our hands through farming, we have no income, let alone savings, if we don’t farm in this time of pandemic. Some of the members even resorted to borrowing money from their relatives and neighbors. With that money, they barely managed to have some food and cover the bare necessities, that’s why we work hard in the farm to have a good harvest.
As a member, I don’t put the hassle and burden to send all my vegetables to my co-farmers whenever they go to Poblacion every Thursdays. Normally, one farmer member can bring up to 200 kilos of farm goods. What I do, I limit in sending up to five kilos per vegetables. On a weekly basis, I can earn 700 up to 1,500 pesos from selling ampalaya and string beans.
Most of us here were scared last year since the vaccine weren't accessible yet. Wala’y natakdan namo ug covid, pero dili malikayan mabalaka nga basin matakdan mi (None of us or our family members were infected with covid-19, but we were often worried we would be). I have to say that our farming business isn't as flourishing as it used to be before covid.”
Lea Jamis – “As a farmer, maintaining distance with the rest of my co-farmers was new to us. We were never used to carrying sacks of farm goods while wearing masks. We frequently stopped to breathe and take some rest. But that would take us longer than usual to carry our farm goods to the market. I often earn 500 pesos weekly selling ampalaya, eggplant, string beans, and okra every Thursdays. Usahay, kung unsay mabilin mao nala’y ma-harvest kay problema ang kawat kawat dere ug ang farm to market road (Sometimes, I only harvest what’s left since some thief has been harvesting our crops before we can, our farm to market road is also not favorable).
The fear associated with covid-19 and what it would bring is always there. I was aware that I might bring the disease home. Therefore, I tried to be extra cautious at all times. I will always be grateful to my family for their support. They understand if I am called to attend a monthly meeting and other projects involving the Tag-ilas Daisy Women's Farmers Association.
Edelyn Edroso - “As a family member, I am constantly worried. What if I bring the virus home? I have had my fair share of doubts about our situation and our future. At the same time, I couldn't neglect my duty and work in the farm. I realized that a lot of people relied on us for food. Being a social person who loves spending time with people, the entire period was difficult for me.
Although we had to maintain our distance, my farmer colleagues and I would talk about our days in the field. We would talk about what we would do once this pandemic is over.”
Rowena Lopez- “It wasn’t with my one-hectare eggplant that gave me the most profit, but it was with planting tabacco which gave me a 20 thousand income last year. Working on our farm, with the utmost dedication and care to my crops for not getting infected by any plant diseases and pest, was all worth it. And because of hard work and perseverance, I was able to buy other farming implements as well as established a drying are for my tobacco.
Farming in this time of pandemic, the most challenging part for me was getting used to the safety gear. I wasn't used to wearing masks back then, as I am now. I also had to wear PPE and gloves. It used to feel suffocating, especially if you are working in this environment in the heat. But coming out for work for my family, I care for their safety as well.”
Since coordinating with the Local Government Unit of El Salvador, the group have been selling their farm produce every Thursdays beside the City Hall Office, the said association has been supplying organic vegetables for a year now. According to Helen J. Baa, Vice President of the Tag-Ilas Organic Vegetable Farmers Association, they normally earn 10 thousand pesos from their harvest in Barangay Hinigdaan.
Also, we were informed by Helen that aside from selling organically-grown garden vegetables, they are into chips processing. Their banana chips which comes in classic, cheese, and sour cream flavors are sold at 25 pesos per pouch. They also sell camote and cassava chips. Helen is assisted by her daughter-in-law Ediliza J. Baa, President of the Daisy Women’s Association. At the moment, more housewives in Barangay Hinigdaan have joined their farming and food processing venture, since it gives them income and that the fruits and vegetables they are harvesting are very safe for consumption since it is organic.
The recently concluded monitoring of their farming activity was in coordination with the City Agriculture Office (CAO) of El Salvador led by City Agriculturist Nolly Adrian B. Gabule with Agricultural Technologist Lionel Rey G. Apdian who served as our area guide.
As empowered women farmers, I believe that their farm work and contribution in food production during the pandemic had a deeper impact. If they didn't work, a lot of people would not have food at all, and fewer farmers would have been able to sell their produce. It would spin a different tale and scenario, in terms of supply and demand.
I am humbled and deeply honored to capture their testimony and experience by committing it to paper (or post it online), knowing that their hard work made a difference. Knowing that people did not go to bed hungry because of what they do, makes such empowered women deserving of stellar recognition and all the applause in the world.