Standing under the scorching heat, the 57-year-old Mang Kikoy looks afar, wondering if he still has crops to harvest this season.
For the past four months, rain has been scarce and the prolonged heat eventually shrank and withered his plants. “A natural calamity is a big blow to us.
Because of the drought, I lost my livelihood and three of my children were forced to work in nearby provinces to feed the family and send their youngest sibling to school,” relates Mang Kikoy.
Mang Kikoy embodies the life of 180,000 farmers in Isabela when a dry spell hit the province in 2013. In four months of reduced rainfall, more than 3,000 ha of land dried up, losing more than Php33 million worth of crops.
Despite its title as the rice and corn granary of the Philippines, Isabela faces problems aggravated by strong typhoons, frequent drought patterns and climate change.
After a major disaster, food supply are cut short, children are stopped from going to school and with little or no savings at all, farmers tend to borrow capital from loan sharks who charge extremely high interest rates and bargain farmers’ products after harvest.
Realizing the vulnerabilities of farmers, several Belgian missionaries founded by Mr. Dirk Detemmerman visited the municipality of Gamu in Isabela in 1985 to assist the farmers through the non-government organization Parish Youth of Gamu (Payoga NGO).
Originally formed to give free education to the children of farmers who cannot go to school, the organization veered in promoting organic farming upon realizing that the poor conditions of farmers stem from the acquisition of costly synthetic chemicals and fertilizers – eventually dragging them to series of debts, especially with the occurrence of natural calamities.
Organic agriculture is a farming technique that uses natural inputs such as animal manures and crop wastes to produce quality crops without the expense of the environment and the people who live and work with it.
Contrast to chemical farming, organic agriculture enriches the soil and is cheaper with the use of existing resources in the farm.
For instance, a farmer who wants to plant 1.8 hectares of land will only need a total amount of P6,000 for 20 bags of organic fertilizer compared to at least P20,450 worth of chemical fertilizer in one planting season.
Users of chemicals also expect higher cost for the succeeding years since its regular use develops dependency and thus, greater amount of chemicals is needed to sustain the same yield of crops every year.
Its prolonged use also depletes the soil with microorganisms necessary to bear quality and nutritious crops. With seminars and trainings provided by the organization, Mang Kikoy felt his responsibility in taking good care of the environment because it is where he gathers his livelihood.
In 2008, he shifted to organic farming. “Farmers thought that it is impossible to harvest if you will not use chemical fertilizers.
But I gradually saw that this is wrong, chemicals are harmful to the soil and human health,” Mang Kikoy said.
Despite the initial hesitation of some farmers, Payoga NGO continues to work in educating them about protecting the environment through organic farming.
To date, 2,650 rice and corn farmers in Isabela have joined the cooperative and shifted from chemical to organic farming.
Seeing the positive results, members of Payoga NGO decided sustain its operations by becoming a cooperative.
But as the cooperative grew in assets, they developed management problems that made it rethink its commitment to the mission of educating and lifting farmers’ lives through organic farming.
With dedicated members led by Julie Flores-Madrid, general manager of Payoga/Kapatagan Multipurporse Cooperative (Payoga/Kapatagan MPC), the cooperative retain its awareness building activity and added capacity-building, livelihood and sustainable agriculture training, zero management training, values formation and community service like giving of seeds to households and school children.
It also ventured into nursery, trading and marketing, selling of livestock and production of organic fertilizer. Its organic fertilizer called “Greenfriend” is made up of biodegradable raw materials such as chicken, bat, carabao manure and rice straw.
It is formed by mixing these materials with carbonized rice hull, agricultural lime, legume, and enzymes in 80 percent water. Members and non-members earn money from selling fertilizer inputs to the cooperative.
Farmers who collect rice straw get P500 for every 250kg while P30 to P45 for 50 kilograms (kg) of chicken, bat, and carabao manure. Members who compile the mixture during harvesting and packaging also earn P16 per 50 kg.
From 45,000 in 2006, the production of “Greenfriend” bags has momentously increased to 280,000 in 2015. Regular employees also reached 70 and each member benefits from the low buying price of an organic fertilizer bag at P210 compared to dealers and government offices which buy each bag at P230 and P245, respectively.
Aside from these services, the cooperative also markets farmers’ products to private companies and government at marked-up prices. Compare to the traditional system where farmers sell their produce at a very low price, the cooperative ensures that the farmers are paid reasonable amount for their quality organic crops.
On top of marked-up price, members who are contracted to produce seedlings are given patronage refund and shared dividends of about 70 percent of the total earnings of the cooperative at the end of the year.
As the cooperative grew in terms of membership, so is its determination to encourage more farmers to practice organic farming.
It was at this point when Payoga/Kapatagan MPC heard about the Foundation for a Sustainable Society (FSSI).
By becoming a social enterprise, Payoga/Kapatagan MPC sees more opportunities to sustain itself while spreading its mission of promoting organic agriculture and transforming the lives of farmers all throughout the farming communities of Isabela.