“We’re not here because it’s an easy life. We’re here to make lives easy.”

This is the essence of serving the Filipino rice farmers, according to Dr. Santiago R. Obien, now 87, first DA-PhilRice director. A crux deeply ingrained that no insurgencies, vandalized fields, travel ordeals, and limited resources can interrupt.

Conflict passers-by

Reaching the marginalized farmers entails faith without neglecting self-preservation.

Datu Ali “Alex” Sumlay of DA-PhilRice Midsayap, development worker for 17 years, feared not returning home, which he left daily at 6:30 a.m., during his assignments in the fourth phase of the Japan International Cooperation Agency – Technical Cooperation Project and as agricultural promotion officer deployed in Maguindanao.

While handling the Farmer Field School (FFS), Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) fighters had to escort him to the learning sites as most of the learners were combatants. He requested the participants not to bring firearms during the sessions to avoid distracting the facilitators and fellow farmers.

Sumlay had the scare of his life when they narrowly escaped a hijack attempt on their trip going to Lanao del Sur in 2007. Their truck was loaded with rice seeds, fertilizers, and FFS kits, among other forms of agricultural assistance.

“Thanks to the heavy rains, good maneuvering of our driver, and pure luck with the proximity of a Philippine Marines detachment, we were able to sidetrack the chase,” he shook his head.

Susan Brena of CES, a postharvest physiology/seed technology expert for 27 years, also had to sleep with guns under her bed in one of her field works in a remote, mountainous area of Lanao del Sur during the Hybrid Rice Commercialization Program in 2003. They were instructed to teach a seed grower how to rogue his AxR seed production field. Instead, she and her team ended up roguing his field themselves. Due to distance, they stayed overnight in the cooperator’s house whose cabinets were full of high-powered guns. Although quite frightening, his house was still the safest place to pass away the night as going out and looking for better accommodation could have meant getting stuck in the crossfire of an armed conflict. That night, she survived on a pack of crackers and a liter of mineral water.

Cliff hangers

To serve farmers also means blending with their way of life and trails.

Dr. Ricardo “Dong” Orge of CES, agricultural biosystems engineer for 30 years, remembered pretending to eat “tinolang aso (salted soup with dog meat)” with kuchay or garlic chives during the pilot-testing of the DA-PhilRice-developed microtiller in the highlands. His stomach churns out at the mere thought of eating dog meat, but he did not want to offend their host, a respected tribe member in Brgy. Bugnay, Tinglayan, Kalinga.

“I only ate kutchay, then put some of the leftover bones of my colleague on my plate,” he giggled.

To reach the village, the multi-awarded engineer said they had to traverse a rough road with hairpin turns and steep cliffs for half a day. One false move in driving would mean being swept away to the Chico River. With a shortage of luck, the possibility of being caught in the firing line of warring tribes was also high.

“After hitting the dangerous highway, we had to cross a rotting bridge for three minutes. Every swayed step made me think of my comfort zone. I never looked down at the Chico River because it was like staring at death,” Orge would rather forget.

The mountains also sized up Bethzaida “Tsibay” Catudan of DA-PhilRice Batac, agricultural economist for 21 years, during her days in Ifugao conducting surveys on manual milling and adopters of the microtiller. In these visits, she had to rely on her physical strength to get to the destination and to fight motion sickness for two hours.

“To reach them, I had to negotiate some terraces and had to walk hundreds of steps of earthen stairways up and down hills. One of the study sites for the microtiller was Mayoyao, which is more than 1500 meters above sea level. Since the survey was conducted during a cold month, having no amenities for hot shower led me and my survey team into sometimes missing our baths. I also got to unload my meals during the trips,” she narrated.

Meanwhile, CES’ Evelyn “Belen” Bandonill’s unforgettable story as a food researcher was when their microbus almost lost its balance due to the muddy slippery soil on the way to their workshop in Banaue.

“I was afraid and was already thinking our vehicle would slide off the cliff. Some of the staffers already got off the vehicle and pushed it away from the cliff. I was really praying hard that God would spare our lives and that we could still go home safely. Thank God, He allowed it!” she exclaimed.

Weather toughie

Faith, as solid as the cedar tree in the Bible – strong, durable, graceful, and spreading wide, is more than a survival means, an anchor providing a soft, comfortable pillow during uncertainties.

Traveling around the climate-challenged areas of DA-PhilRice Bicol, according to Branch Director Dr. Victoria “Vicky” Lapitan, is “challenging and a bit ‘scary’ due to our country’s archipelagic nature. Her travels are usually by boat.

Once, on her way back to Albay, she was stranded for five days in Allen, Northern Samar due to big waves brought about by a strong typhoon. Although they stayed in a rural hotel, food became inaccessible so they consumed the pasalubong intended for their staff and family. They ate suman, moron, binagol, and pineapple to survive the cruel weather. They were lucky to have bought clothes and personal stuff before the typhoon intensified its wrath.

Newbie Shantel Anne Nicole Chavez of CES, agroenterprise development specialist for a little over a year, was also restless for almost two hours thinking of the heavy rains diminishing the quality of rice, which farmers will sell to a trader in San Jose City, Nueva Ecija. She is a co-implementer of the Rice Business Innovations System program.

“Although we’re safe in the truck, I was worried that this consolidated harvest of the farmers in Batitang, Zaragoza, Nueva Ecija would get soaked and would not be sold at a good price. I can’t let the farmers down. This is their first transaction of collective marketing. Only prayers then could help us,” she said.

Social surmounters

In bringing new technologies to farmers, DA-PhilRice staffers are further weathered with challenges from the public and even colleagues.

Dr. Antonio “Tony” Alfonso who worked with DA-PhilRice for 25 years in various capacities, would never forget the day when the Golden Rice field trial in Pili, Camarines Sur was vandalized and destroyed by those opposing the technology.

“On that fateful day in August 2013, I was attending an important meeting in Manila when the attack happened. I remember talking to my project researcher who was sobbing as she told me, ‘Wala na Sir, sinira na nila’ (The site is gone, already ruined),” Alfonso said.

Fences were destroyed and the plants were trampled upon and uprooted. The incident was painful for him and the team, for all of their work were unceremoniously decimated by the violators.

“We worked hard and were meticulous in getting all the necessary approvals to establish the trial, and in making sure that we comply with country regulations and local government unit requirements. We knew that an attack was a possibility so we did extra work on community engagement and ensured safety measures at the site but the destruction was deliberate and the attackers were determined,” the plant breeder recounted.

Reward reapers

Amidst these struggles, Alex, Susan, Dong, Tsibay, Belen, Vicky, Tony, and Shantel shared common sacrifices while performing their duties: being away from their families during field work, working beyond the hours, paying for some project expenses, and going out of their comfort zones, even into dangerous situations.

“There are challenges. Sleepless nights and tiring days are innumerable. But I’m happy here, especially when farmers I work with tell me that I inspire them. When I slackened for a while, they were texting me, asking me to come back. I’m happy ‘cause the farmers in our sites appreciate and are happy with us. It gives fulfillment,” Shantel said.

For Vicky, her heart was touched witnessing a farmer’s joy way back in 2004.

“I brought a check as payment to one of the hybrid rice seed growers in Narra, Palawan. When I handed him the check, he called his three children and shouted excitedly, ‘Makakakain na tayo sa Jollibee, may bayad na ang DAPhilRice (We can now treat ourselves at Jollibee with this DA-PhilRice payment).’

“It eases all the fatigue to see how we are affecting the lives of our farmers in a positive way,” Vicky said.

These stories of staffers’ braving challenges only show that the Institute and its partners are striving to bring their best for the farmers at all times and in all places – because DA-PhilRice does not only hope to be a conduit of technologies, but also a source of joy and hope for the farmers.

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Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) is a government corporate entity attached to the Department of Agriculture created through Executive Order 1061 on 5 November 1985 (as amended) to help develop high-yielding and cost-reducing technologies so farmers can produce enough rice for all Filipinos.

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Philippine Rice Research Institute