Urban Micro-Farming: Promising First Results from a Philippine CSA Test Project

Hunger is not something that requires a lot of explanation to most people, and it is an unfortunate fact of life in the Philippines that far too many people – about 4% of the population most of the time, and about 20% at least some of the time, according to a non-commissioned SWS survey conducted in mid-2009 – understand on an intimate, personal basis. The hunger problem is widespread throughout the country, and has many causes: poor land distribution and use planning, densely concentrated populations in unproductive urban areas, and a poor infrastructure to move what food can be produced on inefficiently-managed, low-yield agricultural lands to the consumers who need it. It is not at all surprising given these circumstances that hunger rates are worst in Metro Manila, affecting an estimated 550,000 families, or about 2.75 million people.

None of this is news to the alphabet soup of government agencies and NGOs attempting to fight the hunger monster in the Philippines, but until now agriculture- or aquaculture-based sustainability programs have been focused on disadvantaged rural areas. To be fair, these programs are vitally-needed by the communities they are trying to help, and many of them represent parts of a long-term solution that will benefit the entire country. That, however, is cold comfort to the poor citizen of Mega Manila facing an empty dinner plate today.

A small pilot project I have advised for a little over a year has shown promising results, and may be a practical short-term solution worth applying on a wider scale. Borrowing a concept from developments in organic farming in the U.S., a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) program was started in Cavite on an informal test basis in January 2009. Using a donated lot of 140 square meters’ area, the eight members of the grandiosely-named “Guada Tricycle Owners & Drivers Cooperative Farmers’ Association” have, through their collective efforts, supplemented their own families’ food requirements while earning enough through careful and disciplined management to make their small, city-side farm self-sustaining. To date, the farm has produced:

  • Small but virtually constant crops of ampalaya, kangkong, alugbati, chayote, tomatoes, green and red sili, snap beans, garlic, and red onions.
  • A large surplus of mangoes from an existing productive tree on the property, amounting to about P4,000 in extra income (apart from everyone having so many mangoes for themselves that we’re all kind of sick of them now).
  • 14 geese from an original mating pair, who are still healthy and productive. Three of the young female geese were kept as layers; geese do not produce eggs nearly as frequently as do chickens, but the ones that are harvested are considered a prized delicacy and are usually the source of the group’s only disputes.
  • 36 chickens from two original mating pairs, plus 12-14 eggs a day from the hens that are still kept in the farm.
  • 8 turkeys from an original mating pair. Two pairs have been kept by the farm to increase production in the coming seasons.

The eight members give varying estimates of the benefit, from one-fourth to one-half of their basic food supply, which is defined in this case as the food which they would otherwise purchase from the local palengke. Most of the revenue from the surplus produced has been turned back into the operation, but all eight members have recovered their initial P2,000 investment and earned several hundred pesos’ profit – small change to be sure, but when the value of the food supply is taken into account, the net benefit has been from P8,500 to P14,500 per person.

The program is deliberately kept as simple as possible, to maximize the benefit of a minimum amount of participation. Buy-in to the cooperative was set at P2,000 per person, with the clear understanding that the risks were shared and that the investment might be entirely lost. This money was used to purchase a few tools, seed plants, and the first pairs of birds, plus make some small improvements to the water supply and the fence surrounding the property to discourage pilferage. Each member is required to dedicate two hours per day to tending the farm and flock, which has not been a problem since the property has evolved into a social gathering site.

Decisions as to what to plant and how to manage the growing poultry stock are reached by consensus; in a larger group, a more structured organization and decision-making process would most likely be required. Expenses for sustaining and improving the farm are taken from any revenue earned before the rest is distributed; one member of the group was elected as treasurer, with myself and another outsider – a local barangay official – who are not financial contributors to the cooperative serving as auditors. The actual produce of the farm is divided equitably, and has so far been manageable with an informal code of honor: members have agreed not to take any more than what their immediate needs require, and are conscientious in informing their partners when a special occasion for which they need more than their usual share arises (which usually results in invitations to the birthday/graduation party/wedding/wake for the rest of the group, anyway).

I believe the program has worked, at least on this very small scale, because it makes the best use, in a structured way, of the positive attributes of community among long-term neighbors. Disputes over money are entirely avoided, because for all intents and purposes the money is invisible once each member’s initial contribution is collected. The “what’s in it for me” factor and concerns about receiving a fair return for the effort expended and a fair share compared to the other group members are largely abstracted; a handful of kangkong to toss in that day’s soup pot is hard to conceptualize as a sort of currency. It is also important to acknowledge that this particular group are members of a TODA cooperative, and are accustomed to working in a comparable organization. This was part of the consideration that resulted in their being recruited as the test group; the purpose of the pilot was not necessarily to study social interactions, but to figure out if a simple, small CSA could actually help feed people, and whether the concept, which has been pursued on a much larger and organized scale in the U.S. and U.K., had potential here in the Philippines.

I am encouraged by our first results, and inclined to believe it does have potential, despite the many daunting obstacles to a larger application of it that would have to be overcome. The next big test will be to see if it can be repeated on a larger scale, at the level of an entire subdivision or a barangay. Hopefully, the outcome of the impending elections will provide opportunities for me to explore the concept further in my own area, and perhaps – given that all it really requires is some effort and common sense to get started – someone reading of our small achievement will be encouraged to try it elsewhere.

Learn more about CSAs and Micro-farming:

Information and links from the USDA Alternate Farming Systems Information Center

Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education

The Plunkett Foundation (UK): Making Local Food Work

About bkritz

I'm a writer, and I do things my own way. That might sound cool to you, unless you're one of the people who actually knows me, in which case you're probably shaking your head in exasperation at the depth of that understatement.
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23 Responses to Urban Micro-Farming: Promising First Results from a Philippine CSA Test Project

  1. Ma Xianding says:

    WOW BenK! Ang galing naman ninyo. You have brought a “change in man” in Filipinos just like what Gordon did in Olongapo. Better to till idle lands than too much partying and watching Wowowee. That is great work!

    • BenK says:

      I’m involved with a handful of projects on this scale, and I generally hesitate to publicize them too much. Not every solution is universally applicable, and some of my consultative work is on projects that are immediately beneficial to some people, but really dead-ends as long-term solutions. In other words, I don’t want to be Efren Penaflorida about the whole thing, and I certainly don’t encourage the people I work with to be that way about it, either.

      This project is a bit of an exception, and I’m comfortable that I’m not misleading people in encouraging them to think about it, provided it’s clear that it’s one solution of many possibilities, some of which are not even conceived yet. The best thing that could happen, from my point of view, is for someone to read this, be encouraged to do a little research on their own, and conclude, “Hey, we can do this in my area.” The next best thing would be for someone to read this, be encouraged to do a little research on their own, and conclude, “This wouldn’t exactly work for us, but if we can do this and this and this a bit differently, we’ll be on to something.” So that’s really my whole purpose in even bringing it up.

      • I was into container gardening sometime between 05 to 07. http://jetsjeepney.blogspot.com/2006/03/gardening.html#links… planted lettuces, cherry tomatoes, rosemary and BASIL (sweet). It’s possible for low value crops but not high value ones… i just have to stick with kamote, gabi, ube, ampalaya, alugbati and malunggay…

      • BenK says:

        As for the crop selection I encouraged the group to use their own tastes and judgment; most of them are originally from the provinces and have some useful knowledge to work with. At one point, I was able to get a real live expert from CMU to come and spend a couple days giving some pointers, which was a big boost to productivity.

  2. FreeSince09 says:

    If people kept most of their actually working in the fields producing food and cash crops, a lot less people would be hungry.

  3. benign0 says:

    This is great work BenK! Local growing and sourcing of food is a worthwhile initiative that should gain traction in the Philippines considering that transport and bulk handling infrastructure is poor and contributes to high cost of food. This is aggravated even more by the fractured land geography of the country.

    But it is also interesting to note that even in advanced societies, there is a growing movement that is calling for a return to a food supply chain that is based more on localised farming and food processing (as compared to, say, the large-scale industrialised food production in specialised regions in the U.S. which is made possible by its excellent transport and handling infrastructure). The current industrial food production of advanced countries is heavily fossil fueled; that is, its large-scale farming uses petroleum-based mechanised methods and input materials such as synthetic fertilisers. Specialisation of entire regions for agriculture necessitate large amounts of transport and handling before the food these produce gets to our dinner tables.

    The low cost that industrialised farming and food production enables is really just an illusion because the financial/monetary system does not adequately factor in the full cost of what fuels this industrial efficiency — the petroleum which results in the environmental degradation and the wars we fight today. Both of these cost us. Unfortunately these costs are treated separately and are not factored into the costs of the “cheap” food the advanced world is enjoying.

    Industrial food production also poses a security threat in terms of

    (1) vulnerability to a collapse in the system (which becomes more real as supply chains become more globalised and inter-dependent); and,

    (2) reduced genetic diversity of the food crop gene pool (due the large tracts of homogenous-crop industrial farms) — which makes our food crop vulnerable to catastrophic blight/disease and pest attacks.

    More localised farming may not yield the same kind of industrial cost efficiency but compensates for these with benefits whose intangibility are more a function of the flawed way we (i.e. our current monetary system) used to measure our economies. These benefits include a more robust crop gene pools (because of disjoint farms and better application of crop rotation methods) less transport and storage costs, and less waste due to spillage and degradation during storage and transport.

    Perhaps the underdevelopment of the Philippines in this regard is an opportunity in that it forces us to start from a baseline that the advanced West might actually have to move back to eventually given the realities of the environmental challenges we face.

    • BenK says:

      The Philippines has a natural framework for small-scale agriculture, and what has been really disastrous is trying to cherry-pick certain aspects of industrial methods and apply it to that; this is one area where the IRRI is really on the wrong track. Case in point, a small rice farm of about three hectares right across from my house. They plant and harvest four times a year, make heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides, and have a constantly decreasing yield — the farmer showed me some figures for the last couple years, and he’s getting about 10% less in terms of actual yield (never mind the price fluctuations) each successive year.

      The reason, I think, lies not so much in the actual farming methods (although they certainly are not the best answer, which is obvious to even a non-agricultural person like me), but in the mindset of the farmers. They regard it as an income-generating opportunity first rather than an opportunity to meet their basic needs first. So they grow the rice inefficiently, produce less than they could, sell it, use the money to buy food, and then wonder why they come up short. The fundamental reason for the shortfall is that they are not operating on a true commercial scale.

      Granted, there still needs to be large-scale food production to meet the needs of the large part of the population who simply cannot be expected to grow their own food. I’m certainly not suggesting that the CSA model can be applied to the entire food security requirement of the country. But it most definitely can supplement it — for every family or small co-op group that meets at least part of their own needs, a small surplus is generated somewhere else in the supply chain. If there is a surplus from the CSA after subsistence needs are met, that too stretches the overall supply.

      It’s really a pebbles-on-the-pile approach, I realize that. But somebody has to start somewhere, and it’s a concept that coincidentally suits the prevailing culture pretty well.

      • Kahlil says:

        hi benK

        i was just wondering, would this project have worked out the way it did if the ‘lot of 140 square meters’ area’ wasn’t donated but instead acquired through loans and what not? or is it a prerequisite for projects like this? at what price of lot (i’m not really sure of my terms here) could this project have worked considering ROI (for the coop itself) in relation to loan payments and such.

      • BenK says:

        The available land resource is the single (and unavoidable) governing factor of the whole idea. In this case, the lot was available first, and the project grew out of an idea of how to best utilize it. Ideally, of course, the less money spent on actually acquiring the land the better, and if you place the CSA concept in an urban setting, straight-out purchasing the required property is probably the least-available of all possible options. But if that is necessary, then the short answer is that the co-op becomes a property-owning entity, the initial buy-in becomes higher for each member, and the number of members would likely have to be increased in order to moderate the buy-in level. That would be a tricky balancing act — too many members per certain area of productive land, and they can’t derive the benefits from it at a meaningful level because the produce has to be divided too far.

        Similar (and better funded) projects in the U.S. and U.K. have also followed the same course — see what’s available in terms of property, and build the project based on that.

        One idea I’ve had, which I’m sure would be a really tough sell, is to convert some of the ubiquitous basketball courts to useful micro-farms for the community. Does every barangay need a basketball court? I’m sure some people (especially the politicians who schmooze votes by sponsoring their construction) think so…but as a value proposition, the worth of a community farm is unassailable compared to five hundred square feet of flat concrete.

      • Parallax says:

        these darned basketball courts at the expense of actual passable streets give local politicians bragging rights that they’re keeping kids off drugs by keeping them in sports. blasted delusional trapos they are. i’d choose a project like yours over these courts any day, benk.

  4. ilda says:

    For some reason, I can picture an Amish community while I was reading this article. And with Harrison Ford too 🙂

    I’m quite envious of your advocacies BenK. You can actually see people benefit from the activity.

    Filipinos should really be encouraged to be more self-sufficient because the government cannot be relied upon to ensure that the supply of farm produce in Metro Manila is adequate or will be met. We all know that transporting vegetables can become a problem when there is a mudslide or landslide in the North for example. And the current drought in Isabella can have a long term effect on the prices of the goods.

    I do hope that the community spirit will be uplifted with these activities. It should bring back the real “bayanihan” spirit that existed in the olden days. Hopefully, the expansion of the program will copy the success of the test case.

    Good on you!

    • BenK says:

      When I was very young, we actually lived among Amish people, in fact rented our house from them. I wish I had been a bit older, so I could better appreciate getting to know their culture; as it was, I was at an age when what impressed me the most was the proximity of a lot of horses. Horses are cool.

    • John Amend-All says:

      A first-class response from Ben to those who think all he does is complain. I actually live in Isabela and the route from rice field to table in Manila is a lot more circuitous than it needs to be. The cavan-laden trucks must travel down our one-lane superhighway along with kuligligs, carabao carts, tricycles avoiding potholes and palay spread across half the road surface to dry. Then there are two mountain passes in Nueva Vizcaya to negotiate, the second, Balete Pass, a real switchback. It takes 8 hours to Manila in a SUV, I dread to think how long in a rice truck.

      We have a small field about 10 times the size of Ben’s plot and wanted to grow vegetables on that (not rice, shock! horror!) so we employed a local guy who was near destitute to tend it for us. Started off fine but then we discovered he was a drunkard and he gradually abandoned any pretense at working on it. We paid him well, too, and gave him half the produce. Ben’s report has given me new impetus to explore ways of developing the field co-operatively. Good on you again!

  5. benign0 says:

    This is very inspiring indeed, BenK. I published a follow-thru article citing jumping off on yours on GetRealPhilippines.net to further promote this initiative of yours. 🙂

  6. benign0 says:

    Thanks. I also a long time ago wrote about how the payment system on jeepneys (believe it or not!) actually offer proof that Pinoys can somehow be involved in a system based on trust. In jeepneys, payments even from sabit passengers somehow get to the driver. Drivers also seem to trust that their passengers will pay him (unless they have some sort of ingrained ability to keep track of pax coming on and off their vehicle).

    It comes down I think to (1) a stake in the system and (2) that it is somehow evolved indigenously (compared say to systems developed in the West and implemented in the Philippines).

    This urban micro-farming is a similar thing and for me is really promising as an additional approach to urban renewal in Manila.

  7. ChinoF says:

    Here’s one way to teach people to fish and not to just hand out to them fish (or in this case, veggies!). The trust element in the earnings management here is one essential aspect I see. If this could be made into a larger scale project, it could help a great deal in some depressed areas. Now as for that land distribution thing… I know some oligarchs we need to bother about it. hehe.

    • BenK says:

      If you read that recent article about Mindanao that BongV wrote, the project that was proposed had a similar co-operative aspect to it; I found the similarities interesting when I read about it. There again, though, is another rural application; certainly nothing wrong with that, those folks need it, but as long as someone is on top of the rural situation, I’d like to see what can be done to get the city folks on a better path.

      The financial management is no different than in any organization, which is to say that it is critical, and the protocols and safeguards must be set down in specific detail and made clear to everyone before a single peso crosses the table. In this group, it has not been a problem at all. In a larger group, I would expect it to be a source of more stress, but it’s certainly not something that would be unmanageable by normal sound business practices.

    • benign0 says:

      I believe it is when people feel like they are not in control of the outcomes of a system within which they work and live that disengagement and eventually counterproductivity creeps in.

      • BenK says:

        I was relating to someone earlier today that the hardest thing about it, from my perspective, is getting the people used to the idea that it is their project, to really take ownership of it, and to stop looking to me as some kind of boss. I don’t think it’s just because I’m a foreigner, either; the culture of deference seems to exist regardless of who the facilitator might be. It’s a tough habit to break. It can be done, but it takes a lot of patience and constant reminders of what (to me, anyway) should be obvious.

      • Zadkiel says:

        I know how it feels. the mere fact you have lighter skin they treat you as their superior.

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