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Senator Kiko’s life on the farm

It wasn’t until he became a farmer himself, says Sen. Kiko Pangilinan, that he fully understood the challenges faced by the Filipino magsasaka.

In his book “Tagsibol,” the season of spring, of growth, of new plants pushing their way through the earth to find nourishment from sun and rain, the senator recalls his beginnings as a farmer in 2012, when he bought property in Alfonso, Cavite. Because a spring runs through a portion of its 1.7 hectares, Pangilinan and his wife, actress Sharon Cuneta, named the property “Sweet Spring Country Farm.” This is also the trade name they have given their produce, mainly high-end organic lettuce and herbs, but also the so-called “bahay kubo vegetables,” plants mentioned in the folk song and found in dishes from Luzon to Mindanao. “Sweet Spring” likewise produces and markets organic vinegar and coffee, and even insecticides.

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The decision to turn to organic farming may have stemmed in part from Pangilinan’s stint as chair of the Senate committee on agriculture and food in 2010, as well as his term as presidential assistant on food security and agricultural modernization. But it was also born of personal need, since daughters Frankie and Miel are both asthmatic, and “allergens such as preservatives or eggs laced with growth hormones cause Miel to break out in rashes.”

And so, writes the senator, they “became one of the many Filipino families whose food on the table came directly from our toiling the land. Life could not get any more basic than this.”

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But as every farmer, fisher and anyone else who works with nature know, life in the agricultural sector can get far more complicated than it appears.

There is, for one, the unpredictability of nature, as the senator discovered in 2012 when monsoon rains “extended to a week of stronger torrential rains strengthened into a super typhoon” that caused 95-percent crop failure in most parts of the country, including his own farm. And with climate change creating extreme weather conditions — typhoons, floods and drought — the farmers’ already difficult life has been made much more trying and unpredictable.

But aside from having to cope with natural disasters, which resulted in “tremendous losses” for his own farm as well as for much of the agricultural sector, Pangilinan likewise had to cope with personal crises in the years since “Sweet Spring” was founded, especially the passing of his mother-in-law and, more recently, of his father.

“I even found myself saying that life isn’t fair and wishing that the universe spreads the difficulties, the hardships, and the trials more evenly,” he writes.

The senator’s attempt at living the farmer’s life has opened his eyes to the continuing neglect of the sector, which is crucial to our survival and health. “Sometimes I struggle to understand why our country continues to struggle to help our agriculture and fisheries sector,” he notes. Which is why, while he held important posts that had to do with food production and distribution, he spearheaded initiatives to provide credit and technical support for farmers, and emergency funding in the wake of calamities and climate crises.

Pangilinan has since turned over hands-on management of “Sweet Spring” to others, given his responsibilities in the Senate and in the political opposition. But during the book launch, Sharon shared that in time they might open a bed-and-breakfast in the farm, and, who knows, even an organic restaurant “that will serve food that I cooked myself!”

There are also indications that the next generation of Pangilinans might be ready to try their hand at farming. Speaking during the launch were nephews who spoke of a summer spent doing farm work, “paid with minimum wage” but nonetheless teaching them valuable lessons on “where our food comes from,” and “the valuable role that farmers play in our lives.”

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At times when they’re forced to buy their vegetables from supermarkets when the farm crop fails to come in, Sharon said, “our children take one taste and complain that these don’t seem to have come from the farm.” From such simple lessons are lifelong advocates made.

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TAGS: agriculture, At Large, Francis Pangilinan, Organic farming, Rina Jimenez-David
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