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At Large

Hope and energy for farmers

/ 04:07 AM November 20, 2019

Folk in Jaro, Leyte, used to dread coming to the farming village of Villaconzoilo. “Not only was the farming village poor and remote,” wrote Inquirer correspondent Joey Gabieta, “it was also a sanctuary of communist rebels.”

“There was no access road. Poverty was widespread and we were once tagged as a haven of the New People’s Army,” said Alex Aborita, barangay chair from 2007 to 2018. But change has come to Villaconzoilo. It is now one of the local tourist destinations in Jaro, and is “the most developed village in Leyte with malnutrition nonexistent.” Indeed, added Aborita, “almost all families now own a motorcycle and have household appliances. Parents can send their children to school. They have their own savings. These are the things unimaginable before.”

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Organizing 17 of his neighbors, Aborita formed the Villaconzoilo Community Association and tapped the government’s livelihood programs. “With a capital of only P1,800, the group tilled the small plot owned by Aborita, growing lettuce, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower. They sold their produce on market day in Palo and the nearby town of Carigara.” The growers later branched out into other fruits and vegetables, such as tomatoes, eggplant, watermelon, rambutan, jackfruit, cacao and even strawberries.

Villaconzoilo has also transitioned into a farm tourism destination. “Our guests are enjoying their visit here because they themselves harvest the fruits and vegetables that they want to eat,” said Aborita.

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To improve their knowledge and skills, the community association underwent training at the Agricultural Training Institute, an attached agency of the Department of Agriculture and the provincial agriculture office. The farmers were then convinced to create a “farm school,” a relatively new concept being pushed by the Department of Tourism.

The story was a refreshing, bracing diversion from the spate of worrying, crisis-centered news sent in by agricultural journalists from all over the country vying for the Bright Leaf Agriculture Journalism Awards, now on its 11th year. The awards are sponsored by Philip Morris Fortune Tobacco Corp. Inc. represented by PMFTC Inc. president Dennis Gorkun, and LT Group president Michael Tan.

In awarding Gabieta’s work as “Agricultural Story of the Year,” the board of judges, this columnist among them and headed by writer Krip Yuson, cited the piece for “shedding light on how the villagers were able to recover from poverty and violence by consciously cultivating a growing interest in farming and tourism in this region.”

Gabieta was one of three Bright Leaf winners from this paper, including photographer Willie Lomibao for his agriculture photo of year for his dynamic, dramatic shot of salt harvesters; and Karl Angelica Ocampo for best agricultural news story, which tackled the use of solar-powered irrigation systems.

Also recognized were two Oriental Leaf awardees who had won five times in the competition. They are: Ian Ocampo Flora of SunStar Pampanga and Karren Verona of ABS-CBN Davao for the program “Agri Tayo Dito!”

Gorkun in his opening remarks observed that Philippine agriculture is “on the cusp of change.” Indeed, many stories among this year’s entries covered the “aging” of Filipino farmers, with farmers’ children eschewing the traditional craft of their fathers and ancestors, choosing the “easier” path of desk-bound careers which their parents’ years of toiling with the soil had made possible.

Not to mention the many crises that arise for the sector, especially the onset of African swine fever, which the entries, starting with early coverage of the “threat” of the disease to full-blown amelioration measures, traced with growing alarm. Indeed, as Gorkun mentioned in his remarks, the Filipino public remains largely unaware of the dire straits of the agricultural sector, which is why competitions like Bright Leaf provide not just needed attention and recognition, but also a morale boost to the fading number of agricultural journalists, with the “agricultural beat” increasingly sidelined and ignored.

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Significant then was the presence of so many young journalists at the awards night, infusing the proceedings with a much-needed boost of youthful energy and optimism.

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TAGS: Alex Aborita, At Large, Gabieta, Leyte, Poverty, rina jimenez david, Villaconzoilo
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