Sharing a caring universe and its indigenous food system product-A A +A
Monday, September 23, 2013
DA-RFO-CAR Director Marilyn V. Sta. Catalina sent me a mobile photo last Friday of the 14 tons of heirloom rice ready for shipment to California, USA. She closely followed the processing activities from the Cordillera provinces up to this point where the rice are well stocked, ready to sail across the seas.
The photo shows Director Sta. Catalina and Mary Hensley happily posing together with the sacks of heirloom rice behind them. The pose appropriately concludes the most difficult and exhausting phase of this export endeavour.
Mary Hensley may have signaled the difficulty of this phase of their operation to me when she said that Vicky Garcia, her Filipino counterpart attends to four cell phones communicating to several people from all directions on the road and while they retire to their rooms at night. They don’t go to bed right away. They read communications left on their tabs from all over.
For both of them, day light hours are meant for inspection and processing of the rice export, Vicky attends to the coordination of schedules, transport, cash transfers, and needed equipment. She confirms processing and inspection schedules, fumigation, and anything needed that will move the grains in their tip-top shape and condition from the farm-level to the port where the product is loaded into the ship. Mary undertakes product evaluation, talks to farmers and other stakeholders. She communicates to markets outlets in the USA, Canada and other parts of the globe during the night. She continues this work back home in the USA.
This phase of the enterprise is tense and turbulent as the Philippine weather during these times of the year. Changes can alter expectations and commitments. It is loaded with surprises - some bring delight, the rest plain bad as to subject on-going operations at great risk. I came to realize this in Kalinga, where I joined Mary and Vicky at the start of their provincial tour. They felt pride with the women inspectors talking about their kids whom they trained to take over their roles in producing and processing quality heirloom rice for export and home consumption. That was happy news that promises sustainability for the business. The mood it created was carried over to Mountain Province on the following week, where I found them one early morning engaged in a lively chatter with their farmer partners.
Later in the afternoon, the mood was quite moody. Mary and Vicky shared to me that the processing and transport of the "Mountain Violet" or Ominio Rice and Chorchor-os from Barlig was already behind schedule. It was scheduled to be shipped to Canada, chosen to open up a potential market there.
Before this, Mary has done work testing and examining its potentials as export rice. With chefs in the USA, they developed recipes and with Filipino artists, information and educational promotion materials were prepared for potential buyers. The Mountain Violet, in its packaging and processed forms were so delightful to the eyes. We agreed with Mary that anybody that anybody who sees the products would just like to eat them.
There is more to it. Aside from the physical appearance of the product, the information materials speak about the farmers and how the product is grown in the rice terraces. It tells consumers about the indigenous and inherent quality of the product, its pricing and how the cost being paid is shared by the stakeholders. Listening to Mary share that information, in behalf of new members and those old ones who may not have heard her before, everyone in this gathering seemed more agreeable than amused or critical. It is their product being sold or are selling. They simply felt pride about their product and its potentials as a top quality product from an indigenous food system. They are being paid a premium price upon delivery and inspection.
Still they receive dividends from the sale of their produce and as members of their cooperative.
The operation comes at great cost to Ms. Hensley. She shoulders much of the risk. For instance, on September 9, the members of the Rice Terraces Federation of Cordillera (RTFC) from Barlig went home hoping to bring their produce to Bontoc for inspection and re-sacking. From Bontoc, the produce was brought to Banaue for further processing work. Mary and Vicky arranged for the shipment of the produce to sail straight to Canada as earlier scheduled. A confluence of events and factors had both ladies silent most of the time on our way to Banaue, Ifugao. First, it was behind schedule and strong rains during the transport of the produce from Barlig to Bontoc delayed it even more. On September 11, during breakfast, Mary decided that the shipment to Canada cannot be undertaken now. It is much too expensive caused by further delays. The machine from PhilRice that would have processed it in Banaue, bogged down, so it must be delivered to PhilRice along with the other shipment for final processing. The decision and its cost, does not affect the farmers. They were already paid after acceptance of their produce at the field level (Bontoc). The alternative suggested was for Mary to have the shipment delivered to the USA and then shipped to Canada. I suspect it is not only the added cost but considerations about direct shipment from source and storage affected Mary’s decision not to proceed with the opening of the Canada market now.
On the production side, this phase of the operation is also tense. Imagine strictly following through agreed quality production and find yourself facing seemingly insurmountable problems on drying because of the weather, transport problems due to road closures, milling and processing problems. And too, sometimes trained inspectors are not available due to health problems. This can delay schedules.
For eight years, not all the farmers who joined the export operation continue to this day. But many of them remained. Now on its eight year, the Cordillera Heirloom Rice Project has proven that our village farmers can engage in this kind of global operation. The farmers do us a favour.
Heirloom rice is a product passed on from the generations. No product of high quality is handled this long. If the enterprise succeeds, it may yet be one of the most awaited solutions to the on-going abandonment of the rice terraces. We cannot just let this living structures become extinct and suffer the loss of their myriad of roles in the cooling of the environment and their connection to the protection and conservation of watersheds. The rice terraces and heirloom rice is part of a caring universe yet to be fully understood. It’s being shared in the high end market will hopefully hasten the day that the world will bless us for keeping them for as long as forever.
Published in the Sun.Star Baguio newspaper on September 24, 2013.