Archive for May, 2013

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Maluto (The Grain of Life)

May 18, 2013

the grain of life

Growing up in the United States, the child of an Italian-American mother and an English/Scandanavian-American father, rice did not make very frequent appearances at our kitchen table. Perhaps once a month we were treated to Chinese take-home — always the same, chicken chow mein — which we would eat with white rice from the little cardboard container. Other than that, my meals consisted of a constant cycle of potatoes and pasta. Though I had a peripheral awareness through reading and school of the importance of rice in the diet of the world, it was not until I arrived in the Philippines as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1970 that my understanding became real. There I was confronted with both how critical and beloved this food staple was to a substantial percentage of the population of the planet.

I lived with a family in the small town of Pamplona in the heart of a rice farming area in the center of the province of Camarines Sur. For the next two years, rice — maluto — became a part of my life. Breakfast. Lunch. Merienda. Supper. And no more of that nondescript bland stuff from China Garden in Bergenfield. A multitude of dishes previously unheard of paraded before me in an astounding display of versatility and delectability. Bibingka. Biko. Puso. Suman. Not to mention Lumpia and Pancit that were made from rice flour. However, my involvement with rice soon went far beyond mealtime when the oldest son of my host family, an intelligent and charismatic young man, introduced me to the world of rice farming. Willie was one of a new generation of farmers, a graduate of the University of the Philippines with a degree in Agriculture, and I became inspired.

After a few months of what I considered fruitless toil in the school system, my idealistic impatience had caused disenchantment with the slow pace of change in an educational bureaucracy seemingly bogged down by the ingrained habits of entrenched educators. I wanted to do something more helpful, something with more immediate and tangible results. I filed a request to participate in an upcoming rice training program and surprisingly got the okay from the powers-that-be. So in January of 1971, off I went to learn about growing this grain of life.

I joined up with Peace Corps Group 40 at Baybay National Agricultural and Vocational School in Siniloan, Laguna Province. The location was significant because of its proximity to Los Banos, the home of the prestigious International Rice Research Institute, the epicenter of the worldwide movement to increase rice production through the creation of new varieties. Their goal was to shorten the growing period while at the same time increasing the yield. This sounded like a quick and innovative solution to the problem of food production in a burgeoning population, but there was more to the story that I had yet to discover.

Peace Corps Group 40 Rice Training (me, top right, 2nd from the end)

Peace Corps Group 40 Rice Training (me, top row, 2nd from the right)

I’ll never forget the very first task in the initial session of the Rice Production Training Program. The eager and supposedly worldly collection of college-educated Americans was led to a long table on which sat a lineup of trays with small plants growing in them. The instructor gave us simple directions.

“Okay, now, look at the plants and write down the tray number of the one with the rice plants.”

I had absolutely no idea what I should be looking for. The only rice I had ever seen came with the chow mein in the container. I looked around me and saw that my companions were all similarly stumped. Most of us selected what turned out to be a weed. Quite a humbling experience for us all, but a necessary one to drive home a salient point: we had to start from square one. We would be entering a world in which farmers had worked their whole lives equipped with knowledge passed down for countless generations. If we were to help them, we’d better know what the hell we were talking about. And now was the time to start learning.

The following two weeks were crammed with sessions in the classroom and application in the paddies. We learned about the problems of growing rice in the tropics: the diseases, insect pests, weeds, and weather conditions. We were introduced to all the varieties of rice from the indigenous native ones that had been traditionally grown throughout the archipelago to the modern ones being developed at IRRI. We studied morphology and growth stages, land preparation and testing of seed viability, incubation and transplantation methods, pesticide and fertilizer types and how to calibrate their proper use, water management and irrigation practices. I had never studied as hard as an undergraduate in college. There was so much to learn in such a short period of time, but the commitment of the staff and the shared perseverance of my fellow volunteers made the task possible. We went out into the paddies to get a taste of the realities of rice cultivation. Knee deep in mud, the snorting of the water buffalo as accompaniment, we manned the plow in the time-honored way and became immersed in this ancient way of agriculture, for this is what we would encounter once back in the countryside. The modern farming methods had not yet arrived there, and we were to be the heralds of this brave new world.

Practice in the paddy with the ubiquitous water buffalo.

Practice in the paddy with the ubiquitous water buffalo.

After finishing the course work, we had our final evaluation. I scored an 87 and qualified for my Katibayan Ng Pagtatapos — my Certificate of Completion. I value it as much as any diploma I have ever received. Armed with a notebook full of information and a great sense of responsibility and anticipation, I returned to Pamplona. As I watched the rice paddies go by through the window of the train, I saw them now through new eyes. What had once been merely the constant backdrop for this exotic tropical land now took on a significance of pressing import. And I wondered if I could actually make a difference with my newfound knowledge.

certificate

Once back, I implored my brother Willie to take me to the farms so I could get right to work. I didn’t quite understand his wry grin when he suggested that I “relax na lang,” but he eventually relented after my persistent badgering. We went to the farm of a weathered old-timer who had worked this land since before anyone could remember. He grew the traditional rice called Peta, an old variety that grew very tall with droopy leaves. Its growing season lasted 140 days, significantly longer than the new IRRI varieties, and yielded less rice. Willie walked about checking the crop, chatting respectfully with the group of locals who had gathered there. A bottle of gin materialized as it usually did in such gatherings, and a single glass was passed around. Then Willie signaled me that it was time to go.

“But Willie, what about trying to get them to change? They could probably almost double their production with IR20 or IR22! Think of how much better off they all would be!”

He smiled, but his face was serious.

“I know you are anxious to see changes, and so am I, but these can only come slowly. There are things you must understand about these farmers. They are used to the old ways. Yes, this rice takes longer to be ready for harvest, and yes, the harvest is smaller. But they also know many things the scientists do not.”

“Like what?” I was curious to see how Willie, educated and an advocate of agronomic development, could possibly defend these antiquated practices.

“Well, you learned about the new rice varieties, no? How they need much fertilizer and pesticide and the equipment to use them? These people have no money to do this. It is the rich farmers who can use this. Right now this will only continue the imbalance of those who have and those who do not.”

I stood there stunned by what he said, not because he was wrong, but because I hadn’t even considered what should have been such an obvious thing.

“Besides,” he continued, “these old varieties are strong. They can stand up to the disease and insects on their own. They have learned to do so over the many centuries they have grown here. They do not require the effort the new varieties do. The farmers like this.”

A meek “Oh” was all I could muster in response.

“Also, the taste.”

“The taste? What do you mean?”

“They don’t like the taste of the new rice.”

It sounded so simple but was profound. Rice was the heart and soul of the food of these people. Taste is paramount in importance to what one eats. I had never even thought about this aspect.

I felt discouraged but accepted that Willie and those farmers were far wiser than I. I redirected my efforts to my original education assignment, but this foray into the realm of rice had not been for naught. I had learned much of value even if I would not be an agent of agricultural transformation. I gained an everlasting appreciation for the life of those who work the land and insights into the interconnectedness of the food that is grown with the needs of the society and the expectations of the culture. My awareness grew of the pivotal struggle that existed in so much of the world of the small group of haves versus the masses of have-nots, and this further shaped my political sensibilities. I also was able to use my new knowledge of the land and farming to help a small group of social-minded nuns working in a poor community in Naga, the Provincial capital. I became a liaison between them and non-profit organizations in Manila to obtain seeds and equipment to help them expand their community garden on which the children in their care depended. I stopped by to pitch in with the actual gardening work whenever I could.

In the many years that have since passed, it appears from what I’ve read that the Rice Revolution, once only a promise, has taken hold, though I don’t know if this is true for the poor tenant farmers like the ones I had encountered. I look at the photos online of the rice farmers at work in Thailand taken by a new Peace Corps friend, and I am reminded of my time in the fields of the Philippines. Faith also often posts pictures of Thai tables filled with local delicacies that make me long for my own days of sticky rice. Faith said that she is “in constant awe of the farmers who spent their days working so hard in the heat of Thailand, day after day.” Though my current dinner table still contains pasta and potatoes, rice has gained an increasingly large place, and each time I see it, I remember that awe too, and I am glad for that.

the paddies that feed the people

the paddies that feed the people

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Portal (for Ida)

May 12, 2013

Portal

“There is another world, But it is inside this one” –Eluard

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There is another world

that’s inside of this one,

a world of my childhood,

the world of my mother.

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The world inside this one,

has a portal so simple;

I just have to open

her old sewing box.

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Sometimes when I enter

the world inside this one,

I reach out and touch her

and still feel her love.