If the enactment and inescapable enforcement of the Rice Tariffication Law (RTL) has put the Filipino rice farmers right at the belly of the beast, then the organic farmers of Don Bosco Multipurpose Cooperative (DBMPC) based in Makilala, North Cotabato have extricated themselves unscathed.
While they remain unaffected by the plunging prices of fresh palay in the market, it took years of preparation for the cooperative to survive the effects of the RTL – slow yet steady.
‘Soul to soil’
The Cooperative traces its roots to Don Bosco Foundation for Sustainable Development Incorporated (DBFSDI), an offshoot of a program called Don Bosco Diocesan Youth Center Inc. established in Kidapawan City, North Cotabato in the 1980s.
It was led by Maria Helenita Gamela, a former philosophy professor at Xavier University Ateneo de Cagayan in Cagayan de Oro City.
“During our consultations when I was at the youth ministry, poverty always came as a hindrance to young people,” Gamela revealed. The crux of the matter is that it was challenging to teach Christian values when people don’t have enough food on their table. It is said in various ways that no one can preach on an empty stomach. To help uncoil the problem, Gamela’s team began focusing on agriculture.
“But what agriculture?” she asked, narrating how they started given that during that time, phrases such as ‘sustainable agriculture’ or ‘organic farming’ were not yet buzz words.
Gamela’s exploration led her to the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center in Bansalan, Davao del Sur and learned their way of ‘farming with faith.’ Soon enough, Gamela’s team gained their own ground and started teaching upland farmers. They then extended their help to farmers in the lowland.
For her, it was all learning by doing. When the foundation began teaching the rice farmers on organic farming, the challenges began to surface – from production, lack of drying facility, to marketing.
“That’s when we conceptualized our extension modality – from seeds to shelves,” Gamela said.
It was the kind of packaged value chain that made Gamela and the foundation realize that the most difficult task was changing the farmers’ mindset. The paradigm shift, Gamela believes, must be from soul to soil.
People, prosperity, and planet
When the partner farmers were converting from conventional to organic farming, the next challenge then was marketing their produce.
While buying and selling rice was easier if it were produced conventionally, that is not the case for organic rice.
“You can’t just sell all at once. You need to sell them gradually and have a steady supply because your clients have already changed their lifestyle,” Gamela learned.
And selling needs an effective marketing strategy that includes brand development and design. The foundation named its brand of products Bios Dynamis. Under the alternative marketing services of the foundation, Gamela and her team gradually opened nine shops located in Regions 11 and 12 selling organic products such as brown, red, and black rices. When they aimed to put their products at the supermarkets of big shopping malls, the intricacies of the market opened the opportunity.
“Our followers began asking supermarkets in the malls if they have our products, and then the malls notice you and they try to look for you,” Gamela narrated.
The market, according to her, must be the fuel or engine of production that must be linked to the farmers. She analyzed that many NGOs fail for not having the holistic approach in extension.
“When you talk of value chain, you are just the enabler. When you leave the program, it would still continue because you have already linked them to the market,” Gamela reflected.
For Bios Dynamis, sustainability involves balancing these three factors: people, planet, and profit.
Green and profitable business
In 2007, the foundation finally established a cooperative with 50 organic farmers.
Today, DBMPC has more than 70 organic farmers with 152-ha total area of production and an average yield of 10t/ha annually. One of their farmers is Antonio Palec, 59, from M’lang, North Cotabato. In 1999, he converted his 1-ha farm to organic farming.
“My cost of production back then was P20,000/ha. With organic farming, I now spend P15,000/ha,” Palec recalled.
Thankful to be on board at the early stages of the cooperative, what really made the difference for him is the price of fresh palay in the market.
“The Cooperative buys my fresh organic red and black rices at P21/kg. My fellow farmers here who practice conventional farming are selling their palay at P13/kg,” Palec said.
He now owns a 5-ha farm and owing to a stable selling price of his produce, he was able to college-graduate his three children.
The Cooperative packages and sells the organic rice at P60/kg in Mindanao. In Metro Manila supermarkets and high-end malls, the price balloons to more than P120/kg.
According to the Organic Rice Industry 2019 Global Market research report, worldwide market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.5% for the next five years.
In 2013-2017 alone, the cooperative exported premium organic rice to various countries such as Singapore, Italy, Netherlands, Germany and cities Hong Kong, Macau, and Dubai.
Surviving the RTL
During the Mindanao Rice Farmers’ Forum in September, Gamela shared that organic rice is not vulnerable to the rise and fall of commodity rice as it has a non-price-sensitive following who are willing to pay higher to be healthy.
The said event, organized by the Mindanao Development Authority (MinDA), helped organic farmers seal a deal with a US-based buying group.
On his online post, MinDA Secretary Emmanuel Piñol wrote that the marketing agreement “would give American consumers access to organic rice” grown in Mindanao. He also shared that the event formed the Mindanao Organic Rice Council (MORCO).
“Chosen as Interim Chair of MORCO was the Don Bosco MPC with Agro-Eco Philippines and SRII Technology Group as vice chairpersons,” Piñol wrote.
Today, the cooperative is doubling its efforts to meet the demand of the US-based marketing firm, its biggest deal since its establishment.
DBMPC, indeed, is breezing through the notorious effects of RTL.
“We’re not affected. I told them we are not selling a commodity; we are selling a product.”
The thing is, a product must be defined according to Maria Helenita Gamela. It has character.
The cooperative made rice different. They made it a product. There lies the difference.