Albeit worried and uncertain, two PhilRice women-leaders did not lose their reins in handling the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (RCEF) programs when the Luzon lockdown was resorted to beginning in mid-March. Amidst the intimidating pandemic, their worries were beyond contracting COVID-19 and their own welfare. Selfless, their foremost concern was helping drive national programs crucial in motivating farmers to continue planting rice.
For about two months, Dr. Flordeliza H. Bordey, PhilRice RCEF Program Management Office director and Lea dR. Abaoag, member of the Rice Extension Services Program (RESP) Technical Working Group and head of PhilRice’s Technology Management and Services Division, with ample support from their respective teams, seemed restless, in a positive way, while the situation ordered most Filipinos to stay home and slow down. They could not loosen up.
Bordey dealt with implementing RCEF seed distribution given travel restrictions everywhere; delayed production of sacks that nearly froze seed bagging, sampling, and seed certification; unsettled payments for seed growers; and staff quarantine impositions.
Meanwhile, Abaoag managed several stranded trainees at PhilRice CES who were then undergoing the Rice Specialists’ Training Course (RSTC) before the lockdown, and led in developing concepts or strategies on resuming the training in adherence to safety and health protocols while fulfilling its objectives.
Minimizing risks during seed deliveries
Bordey, an economist, knew that agriculture is vital in the country’s recovery from COVID-19, especially that the lockdown occurred during harvesting with some farmers incurring losses owing to restricted mobility. The program’s free, high-quality inbred rice seeds would help farmers increase their yields come wet season (WS) planting.
While enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) was already in effect, memoranda on postponing early seed deliveries during the first week of ECQ and later on allowing cooperatives to use alternative packaging for RCEF seeds were released. A specific protocol for seed delivery and distribution in locked-down areas, which also identified RCEF personnel as part of the skeleton force, was issued thereafter in time for the WS sowing in certain Luzon areas.
The program’s strategies resulted in more than a million bags of seeds delivered, reaching 64% of target municipalities amidst the two-month lockdown ending in mid-May.
“While seed delivery was postponed, we coordinated with the DA-regional field offices and local government units (LGUs). The specific protocol was shared immediately to DA offices and the National Rice Program, branch RCEF focal persons, regional and provincial coordinators, and LGU partners,” Bordey, also a PhilRice deputy executive director, said.
To remedy mobility, RCEF personnel were given IDs from the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases while seed cooperatives were issued food lane accreditation-certification and stickers. Inter-island transportation to ferry personnel during seed deliveries was also successfully sought from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.
Suppliers of sacks for seed growers cooperative’s were likewise requested to continue printing the RCEF seed sacks. Payments for partner-seed-growers were then expedited by maximizing limited transaction days with banks.
To cope with strict quarantine measures, two operation teams were created. One team would be delivering seeds to municipalities, while the other team was being isolated as a precautionary practice. Temporary but exclusive quarters were provided for workers traveling outside Nueva Ecija and an isolation area was put up for personnel who would show the mildest symptom of the feared disease. Providentially, the entire PhilRice CES family remains COVID-free, thanks to the Institute’s close coordination with the barangay and city rural heath unit.
“We only minimize the risks by providing PPEs and vitamins, but we could not eliminate them. RCEF people braved the risks of contracting COVID-19. Being responsible for their welfare, the heavy toll would be on me if something undesirable happened to them,” the program director said.
A day’s work for an RCEF staffer on field largely involves mobilizing partners so that seeds are delivered on time. The job demands more than the normal working hours; being on site before 8 am until way past 5 pm, many times until midnight.
Imagine that at 5:30 pm, when many workers and their families would probably be getting ready for a decent dinner, you would be kicked out from your rented apartment. This happened to Leyte provincial coordinators Jahseel M. Bien and Michelle L. Manabat when their neighbors learned that they came from a place where a positive case was confirmed.
“We were traumatized. When we arrived, a drum of disinfectant was ready at our door. We were told through text to abandon the apartment in 30 minutes! We’re not familiar with the place and with the short notice given to us, we didn’t know where to go then,” Jahseel recounted.
“I once felt like leaving the work I started here. But the experience was a blessing in disguise. I became more emphatic. I also became more focused on serving the farmers and on fighting for what’s in my heart,” she narrated.
Continuing learning for competitive farmers
Like Jahseel, Alladin G. Abdul of Cotabato City, an RSTC trainee from the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) in Region 12, also felt that he turned out to be a stronger person after becoming a locally stranded individual (LSI) at PhilRice CES for 3 long months.
“It’s hard to be stuck in a place where all I could think of was my family. I’m thankful that the training management team, especially Ma’am Lea, did their best to help us. Anytime, I am now ready to educate farmers,” Alladin, a family man said.
While on lockdown, he and three other LSI-trainees from Mindanao were encouraged to read rice production materials; but it was difficult for him to focus as he constantly thought of his wife who is a nurse, a medical frontliner who was required to report for duty despite being almost 9-month pregnant.
“I tried to read the books, but nothing seemed to register. Peace of mind was wanting. It’s good that Ma’am Lea invited us to try harvesting in the FutureRice Farm and we attended rice-based production activities in the Palayamanan Plus (PalayPlus) area,” he said. The Farm exhibits modern farming technologies and new rice varieties while PalayPlus is a rice-based production system that integrates vegetables and livestock with rice growing.
“Because of that exposure, our 2,000m2 home lot does not only have a house, but it’s now also planted with vegetables and some space for livestock. I also look forward to improving our fish pond,” Alladin articulated.
Other than securing the physical and mental health of the four stranded trainees, Abaoag also worked on strategies to continue the training programs while maintaining the safety of the implementers and trainees. Amidst community quarantine, her team and the DA-Agricultural Training Institute launched the online updating of PalayCheck, a dynamic rice production system, for the Agricultural Development Officers of the Community or the AgRiDOCs who will be tapped in conducting the Farmers Field School. She also said that her team will soon pilot-test combined online lectures with hands-on, face-toface learning.
At long last in early June 2020, when Central Luzon was put under the more lenient general community quarantine, an official PhilRice vehicle delivered “door-to-door” Alladin and his batchmates to their families in different addresses in Southern Mindanao. Alladin was finally home, with his newborn child, his sixth! He and his fellow TESDA employees didn’t bring home any dreaded virus. They’ve arrived safe. Their minds no longer locked up.