By: Sheila Mae H. Toreno
IT IS HIGH time to revitalize the soil fertility, said Joby Arandela, chairman of the three-year old Zarraga Integrated Diversified Organic Farmers Association (ZIDOFA).
It all started in a meeting of three minds who envisioned of adopting a farming system that would ease the emerging problems in the rice sector.
Joby and his farmer friends, Edgar Tono and Johny Subong, saw that degrading soil fertility, high costs of farm inputs and low prevailing market price of palay are the constraints faced by a majority of farmers.
“There came a time that farmers sell their harvests for only P12 per kilo. And that would mean they are not getting enough of what they have labored for,” Joby explained.
Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol had been emphasizing that there is a need to liberate farmers from the control of the middlemen.
“The oppression of Ilonggo farmers must end now. I will not allow it to continue anymore because it is an outright injustice and oppression. The Department of Agriculture (DA) is devising programs that would provide a direct solution to the farmers’ lack of access to technology, financing, and marketing support,” he added.
In the local scene, there are farmers groups who shared the same initiatives with the department. ZIDOFA is just one of the several farmers’ associations in the Region who exists to help the small farmers improve their living condition.
Founded on June 21, 2015, ZIDOFA members have been adopting the Organic-Based System of Rice Intensification (SRI).
SRI is a long-time farming practice with 50 million adopters from 50 countries worldwide. It started in Madagascar in the early 1980’s and was first introduced in the Philippines around 2002 to 2003.
However, it did not flourish because Filipino farmers have the huge dependence on synthetic inputs, Joby explained.
SRI is a set of principles for rice production based on the use of less water, fertile soil, healthier plants, greater root growth, and the nurturing of soil microbial abundance and diversity (CIIFAD).
“With this system, we have lesser production cost. We reduce our water use to irrigate the rice paddies by 50 percent. And we are not using herbicides anymore. In consonance to the DAs thrust on mechanization, we are controlling the weeds with a rotary weeder,” Joby added.
Before, conventional rice farmers in Zarraga had a yield of more than 200 cavans per hectare but it decreased over time due to the changing climate patterns and loss of soil biodiversity with the incessant application of synthetic chemicals and fertilizers.
“There is a downtrend in the yield, thus we are trying something new that will potentially bring higher yield and at the same time restore the soil biodiversity. We are still rehabilitating the soil by putting organic inputs. Our recent soil analysis shows that the organic matter has increased in the rice paddies where SRI is being practiced,” Joby stressed.
Of the 20 hectares adopting SRI cultivation in Zarraga and adjoining towns, farmers achieved their highest yield of 9.8 metric tons per hectare.
ZIDOFA members are organically producing pigmented rice such as the red and black. The darker the pigment, the higher the antioxidant content. It also has anti-inflammatory properties. The group wants to make organic rice available and affordable in the market.
Brown rice or locally known as pinawa is a healthier rice option that is suitable for people suffering from some diseases like diabetes, atherosclerosis, heart failure, and cancer. Pinawa is rich in micronutrients, iron, phosphorus, zinc, fiber, and antioxidants.
OREGENA (Organic, Regenerative Agriculture) Rice is being sold at P85 for one-kilo pack and P230 for the three-kilo packaging at the Iloilo Supermarket in Atrium Mall, Balance Earth Friendly Lifestyle Store at the B-Complex Building, Tinukib Pasalubong Center at the Festive Walk Parade, Megaworld, Tinukib Cafe at the Gamboa Heritage House and at the Iloilo Provincial Capitol canteen.
Its organic-based SRI black, red and white rice are being served at the Farm to Table Restaurant near the Iloilo Convention Center and at the Cafe and You Korean Restaurant in front of Central Philippine University.
“It is a good thing that our farmers now have direct access to the market. They are getting premium price for their produce. We are maintaining quality in the milling and packaging of our rice products,” Joby said.
ZIDOFA makes the whole rice value chain competitive enough by holding training on making organic compost, bokashi, concoctions, seed selection, and seed banking. Aside from that, they also mentor, monitor, and assist the farmers during the harvest, drying, milling, packaging, labeling, marketing and advocacy promotion.
“We raise public awareness not only on consumers’ health but also to help the environment when people buy and support our initiatives,” he said.
Joby said they already acquired a rice mill with a dryer that is yet to be established.
“We still need a warehouse and a delivery vehicle to complete the chain. Hope that these would be attained since we are expanding another 10 hectares in the second cropping.”
He had also mentioned that the government interventions they received had significantly helped their rapid progress within a short period. The DA Organic Agriculture Program had granted their requests for a flatbed dryer, transplanter, and a greenhouse facility.
“We are receiving convergence projects of agencies like DA, DOST, DTI, and PhilMech. And hopefully, they will guide this project to completion.”
For now, ZIDOFA is preparing for their application to the Organic Agriculture Certification to fully institutionalize their initiatives and efforts toward sustainable agriculture.
“This year, they were lucky to be included among the top five social enterprises of the 2017 Sinag Accelerate Awards of the Bank of the Philippine Islands Foundation and Bayan Academy. I am truly grateful that our association is among the top social enterprises in the country. This won’t be possible without the support of the government and of our strategic partners,” Joby said. (DA Regional Field Office 6 Information Section)