When Catholic Relief Services set out to help rice farmers reap better harvests from their land in the Philippines, staff considered potential benefits to people in the project. They focused on more rice grown in a more natural way, measuring success by bigger harvests that families keep for themselves or sell in markets.
For rice farmer Silvano Fortin, goals accomplished. His rice harvest has nearly doubled—from 4 tons to 7 tons from 2.5 acres of land. These numbers only hint at the transformation the project has created for his family. He is most excited with a secondary result: better health and lower medical bills.
"Before I began using natural fertilizer from worm compost and natural methods to repel pests," Silvano says, "I was often sick from the chemicals we used on the field. I experienced breathing problems, coughing and rashes on my skin."
"I used to visit the hospital for these problems at minimum once every 3 months, and sometimes more."
His old method of farming required potent chemical concoctions to encourage overcrowded rice to grow and to repel insects and fungus that would damage his young crop. With the new farming methods, though, Silvano says, "I don't need to spend money on doctor's visits and medicine. The men I hire to help with the farm are also in better health when they work on my land. They prefer to work for me because they know they won't get sick."
He adds, "I learned how to prepare my land with the use of farm machinery and compost from the worms provided by [CRS partner] Kasilak Development Foundation and CRS. I now know how to keep pests away with natural solutions."
Sharing Knowledge Improves Incomes
Silvano is in a strong position to share his knowledge with other farmers in his community in the North Cotabato area of Mindanao in the Philippines. He leads a cluster of farmers who receive training together. Farmers also market their rice as a group, which allows them to command better prices.
The marketing groups are as important to improving the farmers' incomes as the amount of rice they grow. Previously, Silvano relied solely on a local trader who offered a poor price for each rice harvest. When Silvano didn't have enough money to see his family through to the next harvest, he was forced to borrow from the trader, which meant that he would be required to sell to the same person at harvest season.
CRS' agro-enterprise coordinator Jun Ramirez emphasizes the importance of a holistic approach to helping farmers. "From learning new planting techniques to showing people they can actually harvest more and spend less on seeds by using natural solutions, we're giving farmers a new approach that will bring in additional income."
For his part, Silvano, who initially was skeptical about the new farming approaches, is convinced that they are an improvement over his old methods. "As long as I'm farming rice," he says, "I will use this new technology and natural methods." He is especially pleased that he can now save enough rice to last his family from one harvest to the next.
And as for the rice he will serve in his own home, Silvano is adamant that only the best of the harvest will make it to the table.
"I make sure that the rice I set aside for my family is only from fields grown the natural way. I feel much better when I work in those fields, so I want my family to share that benefit. I've seen that what's good for the environment is also good for my family."
Jennifer Hardy is CRS' regional information officer for Asia and the Pacific Rim. She is based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.