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Smart farmers, Climate Change resilient Cordillera farms
Hanna C. Lacsamana

CLIMATE CHANGE-SMART -- Coping with the effects of Climate Change requires Cordillera farmers to be smart by employing good agricultural practices and business sense to add value to their products, so they can help ensure food stability by feeding a larger population and help the country meet its obligations as an ASEAN member . -- Hanna C. Lacsamana


As the war on drugs in the country rages on, Criminology board passer Victor Palocpoc Jr. is spotted calmly trimming the leaves in the plots of strawberries that he manages at the strawberry incubator farms in La Trinidad, Benguet. Although the farmer is suitably clothed for a day’s toil under the scorching heat of the sun, his plants are not. They need his help and the sunlight to bear fruit, so excess leaves blocking the way should be removed.

More than that, Victor knew he would not get a high yield with limited farm space. He knows his plants would not even reach the fruit-bearing stage when irrigation sources has become scarcer due to longer dry spells, and when pests now come in droves in the time they were not expected and merely scoff at pesticides.

Victor also knew that soil quality has deteriorated due to past excessive use of chemicals, affecting its fertility, and thus the volume and quality of its yield; and that his ground plots have no match to floods caused by typhoons that have become more frequent, more destructive, and unpredictable.

Opting to till the lands as his farmer-parents do back home in Kibungan, Benguet, Victor comes across a different war: the alarming situation of major crop producers, found mostly in Southeast Asia, in the light of changing climate that has muddled the agricultural food production cycle and which now threatens food security in nations.

The warming planet has started placing human activities at its mercy. It has been playing with the usual cycles of people for the worse, having already claimed lives and destroyed resources within the initially most vulnerable and unprepared regions.

The aging habitat did not have much help from its inhabitants, whose pursuits largely contributed to the deterioration of their environment, which is promising impacts greater than those that have resulted from recent weather conditions man never before experienced.

The agriculture sector, which plays a major role in securing food – the populations’ basic need for existence – is one of the major sectors threatened by climate change. Without the existing land, water, sun, and air that are now depleted due to high temperatures, crops and livestock naturally would not grow. Without food, everything else would not matter.

On the plate now of Southeast Asian nations’ farmers like Victor is a tall order, as it is deeply rooted and urgent. To put food on the others’ plate, they need to sustain their production and profit from it to sustain themselves. They could not do so when the climate messes up with the planting process, when they do not know what to do with it, and when they do not realize they are part of the warming of the climate.

As one of the most vulnerable sectors, Filipino experts from the Cordillera region suggest that farmers through their techniques and technologies need to outsmart the effects of the changing climate by redefining the term “empowerment.” They say agriculture, in fact, can be a part of the solution: by helping people feed themselves and adapt to changing conditions while mitigating climate change.

Having climate-smart and productive farmers and resilient farms is seen by the academe as crucial in setting the pace in the Philippines’ goal to secure its own food basket and help mitigate climate change, so that it can fulfil its responsibilities to a greater population.

In the Cordillera, the plan is to achieve this through the “Disaster Risk Reduction of Climate Change Impacts on Vegetable Terrace Farms in Benguet, Philippines” project, devised under the Climate Smart Agricultural Center (CSAC) of the Research and Extension of Benguet State University.

The project, implemented in 2015 and completed in 2016 with Atok and Buguias in Benguet as its pilot areas, is planned to be replicated in all provinces of the Cordillera to make them “climate-smart,” an approach that involves the direct incorporation of climate change adaptation and mitigation into agricultural development planning and investment strategies.

Under the Agricultural Technology Business Incubator/Innovation (ATBI), another BSU arm, Victor and 50 other strawberry farmers in La Trinidad are also now reinventing themselves and their farming techniques by adopting innovations to increase their productivity and resilience under worst conditions.

At a glance: Climate and Cordillera’s vegetable terraces

The Cordillera has the biggest production of five of the major vegetables in the Philippines based on 2009 Bureau of Agricultural Statistics. These are broccoli – 1,853.03 tons or 69 percent of national production; cabbage – 99,155.22 tons or 79.51 percent; carrots – l59,023.77 tons or 86.38 percent; Chinese pechay – 43,879.11 tons or 88.73 percent; and white potato – 101,060.68 tons or 84.81 percent of the total Philippine production.

But production of four of the five crops is lower compared to that of 2008. Cabbage dropped by 3.63 percent; white potato – 0.29 percent; carrot – 2.12 percent; Chinese pechay – 2.43 percent; and cauliflower, another highland yield – by 0.29 percent. As a whole, Cordillera’s 2009 production declined by an average of 2.2128 percent from that of 2008.

The decline was expected to drastically increase with climate change.

The BSU highlights studies that say that the adverse impacts of climate change undermine the goal of sustainable development. Therefore, adaptation has been regarded as one of the key issues for developing countries like the Philippines. For being archipelagic, the country is also highly vulnerable to climate-related events, and water and agriculture sectors are likely to be the most sensitive to its impacts. Because of increasing temperature, severe drought, flood conditions and soil degradation, agricultural productivity suffers, aggravated by the deteriorating conditions of the watershed ecosystems in the country which are critical to economic development and environment protection.

Vegetable production areas in Cordillera also suffer from varying degrees and types of degradation due mainly to its rugged terrain, made worse by unstable use and inappropriate land and crop management by farmers. Aside from these, there is large scale land degradation in the region due to minimal or non-adoption of adequate soil and water conservation measures, improper crop rotation, and indiscriminate use of agro-chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides. Further, loss of vegetation occurs due to shifting cultivation and encroachment to forest lands.

“These factors led to inefficient and wasteful use of land and water resources. Recently, these have been aggravated by climate change with extreme environmental conditions being experienced in the region,” said Dr. Carlito P. Laurean, BSU vice president for Research and Extension and first CSAC director.

Defining climate change-smart:

Atok and Buguias, Benguet as pilot areas

The CSAC, established in 2012, came up with the “Disaster Risk Reduction of Climate Change Impacts on Vegetable Terrace Farms in Benguet, Philippines” project to address the situation.

Laurean said the project was piloted in the vegetable farms of Atok and Buguias in Benguet in 2015 and completed last year. They taught farmers on technological measures suited to climate-smart agriculture approach, which seeks to increase sustainable productivity, strengthen farmers’ resilience, reduce agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions, and increase carbon sequestration.

First, Atok and Buguias farmers are trained on the use of improved crop varieties and species of livestock and poultry, which means using heat-drought-flood-salinity tolerant varieties of crops and those that are resistant to pests and diseases. They were encouraged to use the diverse farming system that avoided the use of synthetic chemicals and inputs, or apply good farming practices which involve the balanced application of organic and chemical inputs. BSU introduced its liquid organic fertilizers and solid organic fertilizer, which uses trichoderma as decomposer.

The farmers were also introduced to greenhouse technology, rain shelters for crops, windbreaks, rain water harvesting facility that allows farmers to store water for use during long droughts, and drip irrigation system.

They were also oriented on solid vegetable gardens in sloping lands called sloping agricultural land technology or SALT, designed to withstand heavy rains and storms and to prevent soil erosion. SALT also helps restore soil structure and fertility, applicable to at least 50 percent of hillside farms, and works as a permanent vegetative cover.

Laurean said the farmers were encouraged to do intentional combination of agriculture and forestry to create integrated and sustainable land use systems, like what is being done in a sloping land at the CSAC compound in Talingguroy, Wangal where Arabica coffee are planted under alnus trees.

“This way, farmers are not only correcting their destructive farming practices. They are also now part of mitigating the effects of Climate Change by helping in re-greening the environment,” he said.

Laurean submitted a project proposal to a funding agency to have the Atok-Buguias project replicated in the other provinces of the Cordillera. The proposed two-year project requires P38 million funding and will be implemented in partnership with the concerned academes in Abra, Apayao, Ifugao, Kalinga, and Mountain Province, along with respective local government units and farmers’ organizations.

Planting upwards: Reinventing LT’s

strawberry fields through elevated plots

Aside from being densely green that promises a robust yield, the plots Victor Palocpoc is working on at the BSU La Trinidad strawberry incubator farms are not the typical plots on the ground. These are elevated platforms which allow one to cultivate or harvest strawberry fruits in standing position.

Para hindi nakayuko ang mga turista or ang nag-aani,” Victor jokingly said, but he knows that the idea serves a greater, nobler purpose.

BSU-ATBI Director Ruth Diego explained the hanging gardens or elevated plots techno-logy is a new program of ATBI aimed to elevate the farmers’ understanding of the importance of innovation in increasing their productivity and way of farming that translate into farmers’ better quality of life.

The program is part of the three-year training BSU gives for free to interested and willing farmers. It exposes strawberry farmers to the many opportunities of technology and for them to learn the business aspect of their industry by adding value to their product and upgrading their farm practices.

“Here, farmers will understand how the market works, which we don’t leave to chance. Hindi rin ‘yung hirap na hirap sila sa trabaho tapos ang liit liit ng kita. We want them to view farming as technology-based,” Diego said.

The elevated plot technology, she said, primarily targets to increase farmers’ yield by 50 percent, in addition to the produce from traditional ground farming. “Since land space does not expand on the ground, we have to find ways to increase our farming area. So we encourage them to plant upwards.”

With ATBI providing basic information and procedural trainings, farmers are given the free rein to experiment on plot designs as long as these are elevated and they could meet the minimum 50 percent increase in yield.

More than the pleasing appearance, the results of the farmers’ imaginations are remarkable: farm brands like Sweet Charlie Road, showcasing elevated plots of the strawberry variety that are waist high; Terrace Lane, as strawberry plants were planted in terrace-like layers in single elevated plots; Two Decks, which comprises of two levels of elevated plots; Sky Garden; strawberries planted on vertical grow bags; “recycled” elevated plots made of rows of five-gallon water containers; and rows of large PVC pipes, which allows water to circulate; and Sky Tower, another design using grow bags. Others used recycled bits and pieces like rain boots washed out during typhoons and soft drink bottles.

Most of the elevated plots, including the initial ones made of bamboo that are protected with special plastic covering, have withstood last year’s strong typhoons and floods in the area. “We have to be ready to cover. We are now into protective farming,” Diego said.

Initially, Diego said farmers were sceptical of going beyond traditional ground farming and were unsure about spending their money on new technologies. But Victor, for instance, proved the technology, along with good farming practices and pest management, works when he met the targeted output.

Also, due to the unpredictable weather that has compromised sufficient irrigation and depleted ground water sources, Diego said the farmer incubator program implemented at the strawberry field employs water harvesting in preparation for long droughts or when rain does not come in the usual season, and chiefly depends on treated recycled water.

“We do not believe that farmers cannot be taught or could do nothing to survive climate change. They can and they could, as long as they meet the most important requirement in this program: they must be willing to learn. They have to be empowered by helping themselves first. When they do, there is no reason they will not overcome,” Diego said.
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