By MAVIC CONDE
For organic farmers, innovation starts with seeds.
“Seed for us is a form of technology,” Ronald Labrador of Tarabangan sa Bicol, Incorporated (TABI) Farm tells Bulatlat.
TABI Farm is a trial/research farm in Barangay Imalnod in Legazpi City. At the farm, traditional rice varieties are tested and recommended to farmers who, as adaptors, can grow or breed them.
The ten most resilient are picked and then undergo a verification process so that would-be adaptors can decide which is best suited for their farming areas.
Prior to it becoming a trial farm, it was simply a group that organized relief aids for disaster-affected farmers.
“We’ve seen it all, from 2006, Reming… and those really brought devastating impacts. We realized that rehabilitation wasn’t enough,” said Tom Borjal, who is the farm’s coordinator for the climate resilience program.
With climate change, powerful typhoons are expected to become more frequent. In the 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, this unprecedented warming of the planet is undoubtedly caused by human activities due to global greenhouse gas emissions. These include not only burning of fossil fuels but also from chemicals used in food production.
Hence, TABI Farm’s shift to a more proactive measure. That is, the Balik Binhi Program: a farmer-led diversification of rice varieties through trial, distribution, and community seed banking.
The farm got 90 traditional rice varieties from MASIPAG, a network of thousands of farmers in the Philippines. As one of MASIPAG’s trial farms in the country, its mode of knowledge and training diffusion is farmer-to-farmer. This makes co-creation of knowledge and cooperation central to the approach.
Why start with seeds?
Labrador said that if the government wants to reach the smallholder farmers, it should start with seed distribution. “They should allow farmers to propagate their own seeds into resilient crops by letting them have the control of their food production.”
To make that happen, farmers should not be dependent on external farm inputs such as seeds and fertilizers.
The trial farm uses natural fertilizers and pesticides, from fermented microorganisms that are found in the farm’s soil, snail shells, and other organic materials found around the farm.
The seeds are also accessible to members and their communities, as long as they return a portion of their harvest to replenish supply for the next cycle of trial and seed distribution.
Maria Rowena Buena, regional coordinator for MASIPAG, said in a Zoom interview that one of the most farmer-preferred is that from breeder Pepito B. Babasa of Bato town in Camarines Sur. That is because it can withstand flooding which happens every time Bato Lake overflows.
Labrador said that the immediate benefit of this method is that farmers like him save on farming costs, which they can use for other family expenses. Moreover, it prevents them from getting burdened by debts just to buy chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Their produce, which are mostly for food consumption, are also not exposed to chemical fertilizers. During the pandemic, some of the harvests from the trial farm were set aside for the ‘Mobile Hot Meals,’ a feeding activity of one of TABI Farm’s partner people’s organizations (POs): the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas-Bicol.
However transition will not happen overnight. Adaptors may start planting just a few lines of their rice fields and trial takes years. That’s why diversification of food sources, like livestock, planting of fruit-bearing trees and vegetables is also part of the approach. A school is also integrated for technical courses related to agriculture for its partner POs.
From a relief community, TABI Farm has evolved into a research farm to help farmers mitigate their vulnerabilities to climate change. Doing so allows it to address the systemic issues that relief operations will not be able to, like poverty and food emissions.
While these benefits may not be the usual value metrics like yield-per-hectare or market profile, in a recent report these prove to be key indicators for a transformative food system. One of the initiative’s assessed is MASIPAG.
In February 2021, the trial farm was flooded due to typhoon Auring’s heavy rainfall. Five of the rice varieties grown survived, while the others didn’t. According to Labrador, those that survived are among the proven and tested to be resilient and have been part of the farm’s mass production.
Currently, the farm is testing varieties that could survive in salty water because during high tide the nearby river’s salinity level increases and it tends to spill to lower land levels including the trial farm.
Bicol Umalohokan is a group of communicators formed because of Oscar M. Lopez Center’s Umalohokan Fellowship. Fellows create a campaign about climate actions and solutions, like the practice of saving seeds in the Philippines.
This report is produced with the support of Oscar M. Lopez Center for its Umalohokan Fellowship.