A former two-term Marikina councilor and newbie to the agricultural industry is on a mission to eradicate ‘gawat’ – the Ilocano word for ‘scarcity’ – one farm at a time through Our Farm Republic (OFR). OFR is an integrated, diversified, organic farm in Mangatarem, Pangasinan, which promotes modern techniques and best practices among rice farmers through the support of the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (RCEF).
“I’ve always believed that there is money in agriculture. It will remain a sunrise industry,” shared Lea Santiago, founder and now head of Our Farm Republic.
Santiago is at the forefront of a new generation of Filipino farmers who were previously professionals or executives from other industries and are now promoting positive transformations in the country’s largest industry. In her case, the inspiration for farming started from a career as a public servant in Marikina City.
PUBLIC SERVICE BACKGROUND
“I got elected to public service at the age of 19 through the SK [Sangguniang Kabataan]. I was part of the first batch. Gradually, after SK, I became a barangay kagawad until I became councilor in Marikina for two terms,” Santiago said.
Through her experience in governance, Santiago noticed numerous challenges hindering her family’s province from accelerating its economic development.
“Every time I came back to Pangasinan, I noticed that we had such a large land area for growing rice. My town, Mangatarem, is considered the rice granary of Pangasinan, but farmers are in debt and don’t even have money to buy their own rice,” Santiago lamented.
Santiago perceived ineffective practices and mindsets as part of the problem.
“One of my frustrations is the word ‘gawat’. I was surprised because most farmers would attribute their problems to ‘gawat’. They would borrow money to buy food for their families, even though they’re farming food. And I thought to myself that someday, I would help so that ‘gawat’ will become a thing of the past. I don’t want to hear farmers suffering because they don’t have anything to eat even though they themselves produce food,” she shared.
OUR FARM REPUBLIC
After retiring from public service, Santiago took over the management of a private farm purchased by their family in the 1990’s. Since she had no prior experience in agriculture, Santiago decided to attend various training programs from both the public and private sector. Things changed however when she attended training programs from the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the Agricultural Training Institute (ATI).
“The trainings had a deep effect on me because it helped me realize that farming is good but it’s better to share my knowledge to others, to the community. They were teaching us in the training, but they were also asking us to teach others right away,” she recounted.
Officials from both the DA and ATI urged her to transform their family’s farm to a learning site or farm school, and Santiago heeded the call due to her continued concern for farmers in the region.
“Immediately after the training, we were asked to already teach at our farms, and that’s where I knew my heart lay. I made Our Farm Republic a farm school because I know that farmers here are hungry for this kind of technology and the good practices they get from training,” shared Santiago.
By attending training and certification programs, Santiago was able to upgrade OFR as a DA-accredited Organic Techno-Demo Farm, an ATI Learning Site for Agriculture, and a farm tourism site accredited by the Department of Tourism (DOT). The farm has also been certified as following Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) in the Philippines.
“I started without knowing anything but I was committed and I wanted my farm to be a model to others. Today, we teach different areas from farm tourism, good agricultural practices, organic farming to rice production,” Santiago said.
PROGRAMS FOR RICE FARMERS
With the support of the Rice Extension Services Program (RESP) of RCEF, OFR provided free training to 75 farmers last year on the latest methods and technologies on producing high-quality inbred rice, seed certification, farm mechanization and financial literacy under the Farmer Field School (FFS) program.
OFR is one of over 200 farm schools that conduct RCEF-FFS nationwide. The RCEF-FFS program is supported by the DA – Philippine Rice Research Institute (DA-PhilRice), ATI, Philippine Center for Postharvest Development and Mechanization (PhilMech), and Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA).
Apart from modern techniques, Santiago is also advocating for smarter financial management among farmers, saying, “A lot of farmers still don’t know how to count their expenses. They don’t count their labor, the time they spend on their farm, and the rent they pay, but we’re now teaching them to include this in their costing.”
Santiago shared that it is also important to share her passion in farming.
“What’s great is that I’m able to share my passion, my advocacy with others. I want them to understand why we do this, and not just aim for the certificate or the allowance or title after the training. I want them to really apply what they’ve learned. That’s our focus. We’re training people so that they themselves would become agripreneurs,” she shared.
Marivic Himmawat, 55-year-old rice farmer from Mangatarem, Pangasinan, reported that she is now earning more, thanks to the training she received from OFR in November last year.
“We learned about using fertilizer the right way. It’s great because you can save from fertilizer and other costs. I also learned good land preparation. They taught that it’s important because it makes your soil better for planting, and it’s true; I’ve tried it,” Himmawat shared.
Himmawat, who is the president of her barangay’s farming association, is eager to teach other rice farmers in her community.
“I want to share these with people in my town, so that we can all earn from the modern rice practices. I’ve always wanted to help my community and now I know how.”
For Santiago, another critical contribution of Our Farm Republic is in sharing positive values among fellow farmers.
“Across our training programs, we also make sure to teach farmers that we have to be good stewards of the earth. Pandemics like the one we’re experiencing now will not disappear completely if we don’t hold ourselves responsible, if we don’t care for the earth. If we don’t fix our lifestyle, we will continue to have these viruses and diseases,” Santiago said.
Santiago believes that more professionals must invest in agriculture to help other farmers and their communities.
“There are so many problems [in our country], and we have to be part of the solution. I think the only way to be part of that solution is go back to basics, go back to farming, go back to agriculture,” she shared.
According to ATI, farmers with at least a hectare of property can submit a letter of intent and attend trainings to be certified by the agency. Owners of farm sites can earn up to Php 140,000.00 per month for a batch of 25 students.
Farm school will also receive support in attracting students, with ATI and the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) providing scholarships and additional incentives for farm schools in order to fast-track the modernization of farming practices nationwide.
If you are interested in becoming a farm school, you may contact the DA-Agricultural Training Institute (DA-ATI) at 0920-946-2474.