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: