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Building an inclusive farming model in Aklan province

In the Philippines, those who feed the plenty often face hunger themselves because of a farming system that puts money in the pockets of middlemen rather than the farmers.

Nono Tolentino's, home in Barangay Caticlan, Aklan is about as far removed from the trappings of one of the world’s most famous beach destinations as you can get.  It's a 30-minute banca ride to Caticlan jetty port and a five-minute jeep ride inland.  Another 25-minute stroll and three shallow streams later bring you to his doorstep, which sits right on the edge of a four hectare-property owned by San Miguel Properties. Tolentino's backyard is the foot of a small mountain; to one side of his home is a hill. His nearest neighbor is some 500 meters of dirt road and one stream away.

Tolentino is a caretaker of SMPI's model farm and incubator. Where he resides is also his workplace, an agri-laboratory where Tolentino experiments on what mix of crops might grow best on small homesteads and how the company, through San Miguel Foundation, might scale similar farms across three of Aklan provinces' municipalities, Malay, Nabas, and Buruanga. The model farm is the centerpiece of Manabu Farms, a collection of farms spread out across the three towns and managed by SMPI. Manabu borrows from the first two letters of the three host municipalities.

The land is what the local government units have put on the table. In exchange, SMPI provides seedlings, water access, and irrigation technology, training the farmers in land preparation to ensure the quality and consistency of production.

Tolentino grows salad greens, string beans, sigarillas, tomatoes, cucumber, radish, and okra. Along the hilly perimeter of the property, he's planted two or three different varieties of pineapple and coconut. He's also experimenting with hydroponics and vermicomposting and has even dug a small pond in which he's tossed several dozen tilapia fingerlings. Virtually every square foot of land is productive.  "I want to see what works best and what the yields are like," he says.

He's proudest of his fishpond, which Tolentino says he dug all by himself and irrigated by building a small dam to catch the water runoff from mountain streams. "Even with all the work on the farm, there's downtime. Every day I would dig a little until I managed to create a small pond over five feet deep." Tolentino uses the pond’s nutrient-rich soil and water to irrigate his leafy green vegetables. Healthy soil imparts its health to the plants that are grown in it, making the food produced more healthy and rich in micronutrients.  It's an entire ecosystem that Tolentino's trying to create, where nothing goes to waste and where there is very little intervention of the sort made popular by modern, intensive farming methods. Tolentino's produce is organic, "We don't use pesticide and our fertilizer is 100% percent organic." 

 

Tolentino is training a women's cooperative to grow oyster mushrooms. ROI is roughly 45%. In Nabas, these women have assembled some 1,500 fruiting bags that can yield around 10-15 kilos of mushrooms a day.

Productive as it is pretty, San Miguel Properties model farm sits on a three-hectare lot in Caticlan, Aklan. Apart from garden plots, Tolentino keeps a small fishpond, and a vertical garden.

Following Typhoon Ursula, work had to begin all over again. Thankfully, the farmers had harvested some of the produce before the typhoon hit Aklan.

Family farmers are the future of communities and agriculture, but in the Philippines, like in many developing countries around the world, those who feed the plenty are likely to face hunger themselves.

Manabu Farms is the brainchild of Cecile Ang, trustee of San Miguel Foundation and project lead of Boracay Gateway, a multimillion hotel, and water park complex that San Miguel Properties is setting up in Caticlan. Apart from this development, San Miguel also manages and owns the concession to Boracay airport just a stone's throw away from the Gateway complex.

Ang wanted to develop a stakeholder approach that would benefit the entire province and saw an opportunity in developing the farming sector. "There's so much land but it's not been utilized."

Boracay and Caticlan, while popular tourist moneyspinners are cut off from traditional supply chains. Ang was astonished to find out that much of the island system's supply of fruit and vegetables originate from Benguet or Baguio via the Batangas port or Mindoro.

She shakes her head, "I can't imagine why that is. To transport vegetables hundreds of kilometers from the source is so unnecessarily expensive. Think also of the number of fertilizers and preservatives that the farmers are using to keep the products fresh over the two to three-day journey from Benguet to Boracay or Caticlan."

Ang hopes that adopting a small-scale farm model and sourcing locally from smallholders will redound to much cheaper (minimal transport cost) and fresher produce. Aklan's dependence on a province nearly 800 kilometers away requires a complex logistics system which results in much loss and damage in transit.  The only people making money says Ang, are the middlemen and aggregators. Very little money reaches the farmers' pockets.

In the case of Manabu Farms, San Miguel is guaranteeing off-take and will buy directly from the farms, eliminating middlemen in the process. The mayors of all three municipalities are on board, providing assistance from the local agricultural officers and going so far as to lobbying for the hotel and restaurant association to buy a certain percentage of their fruit and vegetable needs from Manabu Farms.

All of this planning is still some months off. Tolentino and his team suffered a setback after Typhoon Ursula pummeled Aklan province in late November uprooting trees and damaging crops.

"We were able to harvest some of the vegetables shortly before the typhoon hit, but in many places we've had to start over, fixing the irrigation ditches and cultivating the soil."

A week after the typhoon, Jennifer Rodriguez, San Miguel Foundation's program head for Manabu Farms, visited the farmers, offering not just encouragement but funds to buy more seedlings.

"They couldn't believe it," says Tolentino. "When Ma'am Jenny showed up, a few of our farmers cried. They weren't expecting that level of commitment from SMC."

Ang confirms San Miguel is in it for the long-term. "We want to get to the point that our salad greens, our cochinillo, our carabao milk will be sourced from Manabu."

"If we teach the farmer how to grow better, more varied crops, deal better with post-harvest issues, and connect them to market, we'll be transforming the entire sector in Aklan province. Ang wants to inspire young and beginning farmers to get started. “They'll see for themselves that there's profit in farming," Ang says.

In Nabas, Tolentino is teaching a group of five women how to grow oyster mushrooms. The women are stuffing fruiting bags with damp rice stalk and sawdust and dabbing the ends of the bags in mushroom spawn. Their goal is to make 1,500 bags capable of producing 10-15 kilos of mushrooms a day. The fruiting bags will be suspended from a rope and stored in the darkened shed that Tolentino has had to rebuild because of the typhoon. The women have never grown mushrooms before but they're already anticipating their first harvest—which should take place in four or five weeks. Apart from spending P15,000 for the shed and P200 pesos for the mushroom spawn, there’s very little other cost associated with growing mushrooms. Tolentino projects a 45% return on investment following a successful harvest.

Says Tolentino, "This is new for our communities and our cooperatives are excited. We've never really had a farming mindset in Aklan, but already we are seeing change."

"We are building an inclusive supply chain that rewards and works for the primary producer – the farmer himself," says Ang. Manabu, as it turns out, means "it will happen" in the Aklanon dialect. "We didn't know that when we settled and finally agreed on the name, but it seems like a very good sign to us now. Everything is falling into place."

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