A New Narrative For Agriculture - Episode Transcript

Find the transcript of my interview with Cherrie Atilano below.


Welcome to Exploring Filipino Kitchens. I’m your host, Nastasha Alli.

Today we’re talking with Cherrie Atilano, a young Filipina farmer who started a social enterprise called AGREA - “AGREA” being a combination of the words “agriculture” and “gaea”, for earth. I first learned about them a couple years ago because of this hashtag floating around on Instagram called “#farmingiscoolsmartsexyandhumane”. Even Cherrie admits the hashtag’s a bit long, but it gets the point across - and gets you to notice that finally, the seeds of change in how agriculture is perceived in the Philippines, are being sowed by young farmers keen to make a difference for themselves.

01:10 Young Filipino farmers

That change starts with people like Cherrie, who’ve made it their mission - and business - to improve the lives of Filipino farmers, for too many who live below the poverty line. As someone who grew up in the Philippines, in a large urban capital - it’s easy to not really think about where the food you’re eating comes from.

This is one of those subjects that, frankly, seems way too big to tackle - where would you even start? With a country as large as the Philippines - with so much land that can still grow and nurture this diverse amount of fruit, vegetables and grains - farmers have just been under-appreciated and not given the rights and respect they deserve.

Admittedly, this interest grew for me because of this farming and agriculture “renaissance” here in North America, with farmers who appear in magazines and TV shows, who talk at industry events like the Terroir Symposium I recently attended in Toronto. I got to learn about Ontario wines and how they’re made, and taste an incredible variety. All of this helped me understand that with a little context and the right products, made of the best ingredients you can find around - you really can taste the terroir of a place through its food. What’s in the ground, what’s in the atmosphere, everything that exists around the animal or produce at the farm. Now that we have so much information at our fingertips - it’s so much easier to ask these kinds of questions.

As my personal interest in food and where it comes from, started to grow - I also started to wonder, that if I could ask where my food comes from here in Canada - would I have been able to ask that same question, if I still lived in the Philippines?

To be honest, I wasn’t sure. I just didn’t know what existed, and again, where to even start. Did farmers under 30 even exist? But of course, they do. These people who have put their life’s work into bringing those foods from the soil and seas, into the hands of consumers who appreciate and support them - they exist. This story we’ll hear today about someone who discovers what grows on the island of Marinduque is equal parts thrilling and educational. And yes, all of this is about farming.

Let’s get to it.


CA: I’m Cherrie Atilano. I’m based in the Philippines and a pure Filipina. I’m the founding farmer and CEO of AGREA, Agricultural Assistance International Inc. It’s an inclusive business - some people call it a social enterprise. Our company’s goal is to build the first sustainable island in the Philippines. The Philippines has over 7,000 islands - it’s not just about Manila. There are so many beautiful islands in the country and I’ve asked myself: why are none of these sustainable in terms of food? Many of these islands import food from other islands, even other countries.

04:50 Building a "one-island economy”

Our goal is to build the country’s first “one island economy” - starting from what we call “the heart of the country,” Marinduque Island. It’s about 100,000 hectares of land, shaped like a heart. There are 260,000 people on the island, with six towns. The “one island economy” means we want to tackle the development of the island through three major pillars.

05:50 3 pillars of AGREA

First, through zero hunger - not just about hunger from the stomach, but about the hunger for human beings to belong. It’s the hunger for living a decent life, having a home and being educated.

Second, through zero waste - basically about environmental sensitivity. How can we develop the island while respecting its environment? We work with a lot of farmers and fishermen; the environment is really their social and security system, more than anything else. When the environment is destroyed - everyone’s affected. Our food producers especially are affected.

The third is through zero insufficiency - that’s about economic development.

NA: As Cherrie describes, the main crops produced in Marinduque are rice and coconuts. The island, however, currently imports 91% of the rice consumed by the people who live there - despite the fact that there are over 4,000 arable plots of land on the island itself! It’s a crazy statistic, and unfortunately, all too common.

Copra - the island’s other main source of income - is basically dried coconut husks, that are used for building material and handicrafts. This reliance on copra - with so much of the remaining coconut under-utilized, I think - is a whole other topic. For now, Cherrie adds, farmers earn $2 a day on processing dried coconut husks.

CA: So we work on those economics. For us, “zero hunger,” “zero waste” and “zero insufficiency” translate to creating “social impact,” “environmental impact” and “economic impact.”

NA: A one-island, self-sustaining economy.

CA: Those are the 3 pillars we try to work on. We try to base and measure our work through the impact we makes on these 3 aspects. That’s what we’re doing. It’s a lot of work. We’re giving ourselves 20 years to work on the island. We’re on our third year now and actually expanding some of our best practices (to other islands). I’m flying to Siargao soon - an international surfing capital in Asia. Anywhere between 20,000-50,000 tourists arrive every month. But they don’t have a steady supply of food. Local farmers and fishermen are so disconnected. They have to fly food into the island to sustain tourists coming.

09:00 What agriculture looks like today

NA: Those are questions that a lot of Filipino-Americans and Canadians who have never lived in the Philippines have. They know the country’s surrounded by agricultural resources, by the ocean. But why is it that a lot of Filipino farmers live below the poverty line? It’s hard to explain the context behind why that’s the case. I wanted to ask these kinds of questions, to folks like yourself, to shed a little light. There are many factors contributing to this reality. What can we do about it, today, to change that narrative?

10:05 "I found my purpose"

CA: Everyone starts with an inspiration, there’s a reason why they do things. When people say, oh, you do what you do because you’re passionate about it, I say, “It’s not only my passion. I found purpose in doing it.” Agriculture is the hardest track to do, as a woman. It’s a male-dominated industry. If you’re just passionate about it, you will not last. For me, it was about purpose in doing it.

NA: So where did your story as a farmer begin, I asked?

10:55 Dad's wisdom in salt

CA: It started when I was young. My father was into farming sugarcane, in Negros. Before he died, he said: “The life of a farmer is equivalent to a period and comma.”

NA: Like a grammatical period, and an oxford comma.

CA: If you’re an author and you combine both - if the story’s too good to tell, you would never end it with a period. You would use a semicolon, to continue telling your story, because it’s worth telling.

NA: So the story is that Cherrie’s dad would get some rice, some salt and bagoong - that’s fermented shrimp or fish paste - when he wanted to talk about what it was like to work with the farmers on their sugarcane fields. Then…

11:30 Why a farmer's life is like a period and a comma

CA: He’d dip his finger in salt, to make a period. The salt would stick to his finger.

NA: And in between sugarcane harvests, when many local farmers had little to no income - this salt would be their dinner. Like a little clump of rock salt on a plate, with a bit of sticky rice. You’d scoop up the rice between your forefingers and thumb, and then dip the rice cake onto that little clump of salt. This, according to Cherrie’s dad, was like a period at the end of a sentence.

CA: In Filipino, there’s a saying called “Magdildil ka ng asin.” It’s very literal, but also very figurative. 

NA: This particular saying - and there many like it in the Philippines - stems from a truth. From this way of life that many people lived long ago, and still live today. When someone tells you “Magdildil ka ng asin,” that literally means you’re about to eat salt for dinner. But figuratively, it’s also something like advice that an older, wiser person would say - to remind you that you just have to deal with the way things are, just a little bit more. It’s old wisdom that reassures you, in the end, that even challenges which seem insurmountable at the time you’re experiencing, inevitably shape you into the person you become.

Then, there’s bagoong - the comma, the thing that allows the story to continue.

CA: On the other hand, if farmers have a little bit of money, they’ll cook bagoong - which sticks on your finger, when you make it into a comma.

NA: So compared to salt, which sits in one spot on your plate - bagoong, with its slightly larger “granules,” those little bits of fish or shrimp that make eating fish or shrimp paste so pleasurable, this stuff that makes the almost syrupy byproduct of natural fermentation akin to liquid gold - becomes the kind of food that sustains people. An “ulam” or viand that families can rely on.

As Cherrie’s dad recalls, if you smear some bagoong on a plate, even the simplest bagoong has texture, a consistency that allows you to swipe your finger through it. Like finger painting. If you had bagoong, you could make a comma. Bagoong allowed your story, and life, as a farmer to continue.

Hearing this kinda story amazes me, I think because, even though I grew up in the Philippines - my childhood in Manila was nothing like the childhood of someone like Cherrie, who grew up in a rural area, near a farm. My life, big as it felt at the time, was simply one of millions, that much I understand now. In the city, it’s easy to feel isolated from the rest of your surroundings, and my Manila was a place where you needed a special sticker on your car to drive through a gated subdivision. Talk about building bridges! My experiences, I now realize, were simply one of millions that we could now tell - and tell through our love of food.

I asked Cherrie to tell us a little bit more of what her childhood was like.

14:20 Growing up on a sugarcane farm

CA: We lived on a hacienda, a sugarcane farm. My parents were very generous. Our house was always open for people to eat in. I remember, at 6:00 in the morning, we’d have this thing called an “arima,” like an assembly of sugarcane workers. They’d come to our house and have coffee and pandesal (salted bread rolls). My dad had a bakery put up to make the bread.

NA: As Cherrie shares, one of the biggest questions she had as a kid, was really: why did we have enough while some people - like the farmers she grew up around and saw everyday at 6:00 am for coffee and pandesal - have barely enough to get by? What really made her different from the other kids around her who also lived on the farm?

CA: Other kids my age didn’t notice it. My mom says I was observant, that I asked so many questions.

NA: This curiosity basically led to discovering what became one of Cherrie’s real lifelong loves - gardening.

16:30 How a book on gardening changed everything

CA: When I was 11, I read a book about bio-intensive gardening. It’s basically planting vegetables around your house. The book said that if you’re poor, up to 100% of your income goes to food. 70% to rice. Filipinos have this saying: “Hindi yan kain kung walang kanin.” (It’s not a meal without rice.) If you’re Filipino, you always look for rice. The remaining 30% goes to your viand, your “ulam” to partner with rice.

The book said that if you plant vegetables around your house, you can save that 30%. You could go out to your garden, pick some tomatoes, eggplants, kangkong (water spinach). You could partner that with rice. And it’s healthy.

NA: Now, I know this sounds like basic stuff - that growing vegetables in your backyard is basically free food, which you can grow and care for and get your kids involved with preparing. But hearing Cherrie say this paints the picture so vividly. Over time, what started as a rich tradition of making the most around what grew in fields in the Philippines - around a nipa hut in a rice field, for example - making things like cooking snails in coconut cream, or quick pickles with ferns and wild plants that grow around - this stuff went away as farming regulations in the country forced many farmers to produce “x” amount of grain to sell to a middleman with an outrageous cut. That means, at best, breaking even with the time and work that each farmer invests in growing crops on their field.

And on top of not earning profit from the work they put in - many Filipino farmers, who grew up during the American occupation - grew up with a dependence, and preference, for canned food as ulam, which they had to spend money to buy. What Cherrie wanted to know was, where did the vegetables go? In a nutshell, that’s what drove her to gardening. At 11!

CA: I asked my mom, for my 12th birthday, to get me a bike.

NA: And Cherrie wanted a bike so she could bike around the farm and tell their farmers about this way of basically growing free food. About growing vegetables - something everyone used to do.

CA: My sister and I were showing them how to compost. We were teaching them from this book. At the time, it was clear to me that I loved what I do.

NA: Even if her mom wanted her to be a doctor. It would take day and night to earn a scholarship for medical school. Cherrie has four other siblings, and when her dad got sick and had to be taken to the hospital, they lost everything - the sugarcane hacienda, the workers, their capital.

19:55 "I did not want to be a doctor”

CA: We paid everything to the hospital. At that point, I didn’t want to be a doctor.

NA: So Cherrie forged her own path, and applied to Visayas State University, two islands over in the province of Leyte.

CA: Leyte’s far. It’s 24 hours of travel from Bacolod (where Cherrie lived). We’d have to take a “ro-ro” or ferry to Cebu, then take an 8 hour bus from Cebu City proper to the other end of Cebu. Then another “ro-ro” to Leyte. For a 16 year old girl, that’s a lot of travel - with a lot of safety issues. But my mom allowed me to go.

20:30 Learning agriculture

CA: At Visayas State University I learned about agriculture. I also intentionally chose that school because I wanted to learn the different dialects in the Philippines. There, I learned Bisaya, which a lot of people in the regions of Visayas and Mindanao speak. I spoke Illongo already, so I knew almost 2/3 of what the majority of people speak in the Philippines. I immersed myself in school.

NA: In university, Cherrie specialized in learning horticulture and landscape design. Things that really allowed her to dive into a love for the natural world.

CA: But in my head, I kept telling myself, “Someday, I want to have a company to help farmers.” Because that’s what my parents did, that’s what my dad did when he was alive.

21:30 Moving to Manila

CA: Eventually, I moved to Manila and worked with the Ayala Land Company, as a landscape designer for their real estate development. I volunteered with Gawad Kalinga and worked with on the food security component of their program. We called it “Bayan Anihan.”

NA: The idea behind this “Bayan Anihan” program - which literally translates to “harvest for a nation” - is basically that each participating family gets a small garden plot, around 10 square meters, to plant seeds that ideally would turn into 10 kilos of vegetables every month. That’s roughly two large sacks of potatoes in a North American grocery store. According to Gawad Kalinga, that amount would provide up to 30 meals per family. Basically, one whole month of “free” dinners from vegetables you can grow in a garden.

Sound like a familiar concept? I tell Cherrie that it’s like a throwback to biking around her family’s hacienda as a 12 year old, talking about how amazing it was that you could grow vegetables in a backyard garden. Like the families that Gawad Kalinga assists today, the sugarcane workers Cherrie knew lived on the fringes of poverty.

CA: After three years, I was supposed to go on a Fulbright scholarship to the US. I got admitted to this beautiful ivy league school. I was torn, because we just started the Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm in Angat, Bulacan.

23:00 Starting the Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm

CA: I was so inspired with starting it. I’d worked with Gawad Kalinga before and understood their vision of uplifting lives of the poor and their goal to eradicate poverty. But these were all bold words to work towards. I lived at the farm for four years; I could write books about it. It was beautiful. After that, I needed to start my own thing - and that was AGREA.

24:05 Inspiration behind AGREA

CA: The inspiration for AGREA came because of my experience with agriculture. You can’t take me out of it. I breathe it every single day. I wake up and sleep with it. While I was working with Gawad Kalinga, I also worked as a consultant with the Department of Agrarian Reform. My job was to help consolidate farmers into cooperatives and associations, and help with business development. It gave me a chance to travel all over the Philippines. That’s how I realized that I needed to start on an island to develop (my ideas).

NA: It was this insight - after travelling across the country and working with individual families - that led to AGREA’s “one island economy” model. This next part of the story goes that Cherrie meets a couple who pretty much become both mentors and second parents to her.

CA: I met Yong Villanueva, who’s from Marinduque, and his wife Ivy Almario - people who became my second parents. They really supported me with starting AGREA. I was crying because I didn’t want to leave the Enchanted Farm. But I needed to start my own life, because it was all volunteer work.

25:30 Life on an island

CA: Daddy Yong and mommy Ivy brought me to Marinduque in November 2014. From the moment we left Manila at 9:00 pm and arrived there early in the morning, it was sunrise - it was so beautiful by the bay, on an island so green. I fell in love with the island and kept exploring it. I didn’t know anyone there, but felt that people on that island would become my family.

NA: Over time, as Cherrie returned to the island - on weekends, after leaving her day job in the city and travelling for 8 hours by bus, car and ferry…

CA: I got stuck in the middle of the sea three times! I’d travel in the evenings. I got stuck on a boat three times, they weren’t always reliable. I’d ask myself, what am I doing here? It’s not even the province I’m from.

NA: But as with anything that’s worth doing, you kinda just learn to get past the challenges and constant questions that swirl around in your head.

CA: So I kept coming back. I remember once, I was there for a few weeks getting to know the farmers and fishermen. I love the fact that it’s very Filipino, that every time I went, we’d drink tuba, the coconut wine. We’d sing karaoke. The fishermen would arrive with their catch of tuna, they’d just grill it then we’d eat it. I was like, “this is life,” in a simple way. I said, okay, this is a good dose of inspiration. So there was no backing out. I needed to make sure AGREA would work.

NA: This last bit reminded me of something else that piqued my interest in AGREA. Something they call “the ecology of dignity”. For Cherrie and her team, this means looking at the bigger picture, in terms of farming.

28:00 Creating an "ecology of dignity"

CA: We have this entire ideal sustainable food value chain. If you wanted to dissect it, it’s driven by producers, but mostly consumers. In Marinduque, we worked with so many producers. It’s a crime to humanity that our producers are the poorest and the hungriest. In the Philippines, if you’re a rice farmer, for example - you only earn about $400 a year. That’s if you plant rice once a year. How could you survive on that? We needed to give dignity back to the people producing our food. To me, if we couldn’t dignify them, it wouldn’t be enticing for their children, in the future, to become a food producer.

NA: In short, if the farmers themselves feel like there no dignity in the work they do - if, at the end of the day, between getting up before dawn and labouring in a field all day, literal back-breaking work - if that still isn’t enough to meet even the most basic needs for your family -  that person’s dignity for themselves, at the most basic level, is broken. Then, that farmer with knowledge of the fields, weather conditions, crop rotation and what it’s like to farm in this particular region, will think, “Why should I pass this onto my children?” And like any parent, they’ll want their kids to do better - which means leaving the farm, and the generations of tradition that comes with growing, harvesting and preparing their own food.

And I get it - technological change will come, has come in Western countries - but there must be a way for us to save and preserve the knowledge we have left, of those foods that grow and speak distinctly of the Philippines.

I agree with Cherrie in that it starts with providing rural farmers the respect and, frankly, patronage they deserve. Going back to the beginning of this interview - if the people of Marinduque, this one island, import 91% of the rice they consume, all the way from Vietnam - just take a second to think, how would that make local farmers feel? Would you want your children to continue farming? How many times does this scenario play across the country?

CA: Knowing that the Philippines is an agricultural country, I believe our farmers have suffered so long. I know that the idea to stop their suffering is bold, but I’ll do my fair share. It’s so easy to exploit farmers, because most of them don’t know how to read and write. The average age of Filipino farmers is 58 years old. Their average educational attainment is grade four - the same as a ten year old. So we created a program to equip them and help bring back dignity for themselves.

NA: And like all good programs, implementing AGREA’s goals starts with understanding HOW to go about doing things. For them, this starts with a “capacity building framework.” Like in programming or project management, having this kind of framework really helps with guiding your team to make sure everyone’s aligned with the right methods to use, the goals you’re shooting for, and how to measure success.

At AGREA, their goal was to enable farmers by making them three things: “grounded” through values formation; “skilled” through technical training; and “empowered” through financial literacy. 

32:45 Developing values, technical skills and financial literacy

CA: We have capacity building programs that the AGREA foundation runs to support our business. We start with values formation, and teach the value of dreaming. When we go to farming communities, I always remind my team that when we train our farmer partners, we’re not here to be “messianic,” to solve their problems. I tell farmers, “Hindi ako naaawa sa inyo. I don’t pity you.” But of course, deep inside, there is “awa” because we’re all human beings. I don’t pity you because you have potential. I believe in you and that you can be the solution to the problems you’re complaining about. So let’s work together on that solution, and cultivate it. Agriculture isn’t just about the cultivation of land and crops; it’s about the cultivation of people. “The ecology of dignity” is about cultivating peoples’ dreams, for themselves, their families, communities and the island as a whole.

After values formation, we teach “hard” skills development and continue with training. For example, with rice farmers, we equip them to be climate change adaptive. Knowing that our country is visited by an average of 21 typhoons every year. We teach the latest “technologies,” things like planting certain types of rice that are “short.” Normally, when a typhoon hits - if you had traditional varieties of “tall” rice, the undeveloped grains would just fall out. You’d lose your rice harvest. We teach things like while you’re waiting for your crop of rice to mature - you could grow vegetables. You could take care of organic chickens and pigs, to diversify your source of income.

After skills development, we equip them with financial training. We train farmers on financial literacy; basic things like how to budget and keep balance sheets. For example, if you plant rice, how much would you need to budget for land preparation? When would you apply fertilizer? How much would that cost? How much would your family need to live until the harvest comes? Things that would help give a better understanding of their financial resources. That allows them to see they’re becoming entrepreneurs, because they now know how to compute budgets and project how much they’ll have at the end of the harvest, because their crops can yield this much. So now, when traders come in, they can haggle with traders (who have been known to take advantage of farmers with little education).

NA: This is why I’m such a fan of this particular model - because it starts from the ground up. We could talk about the beautiful parallels between training farmers and seeing them grow, like the plants that feed us - or wax poetic about life in the countryside - but, I’m equal parts a realist and a dreamer, and the reality is that there’s just a long way to go. None of these ideas are new, but what does make them unique is that what it largely takes is a mindset change. I have so much respect for everyone involved here - for the farmers who work to educate themselves, and the people who work to make that happen.

36:50 AGREA in action

NA: I wanted to learn more about how exactly AGREA puts these ideas into action, so I asked Cherrie to explain a bit more.

CA: At AGREA we also provide things like processing, packaging and marketing support. If farmers plant something, we buy from them. If a rice farmer had one hectare of land that produces five tonnes of rice, we’d ask things like, “How many families in your household do you need to feed?” They’d say, eight people. We’d compute that and see they’d need two tonnes to feed them for the full year. So if they only harvest once a year, we’d give them those two tonnes immediately, to ensure food on the table. So it wouldn’t be like it is today, where they’d grow rice, and then still have to buy rice from the town market to feed their family. The remaining three tonnes, they’d sell to AGREA, which we buy at a fair trade market price.

NA: And this is key, although it may not seem like it. This single step in the process - in partnering with AGREA to ensure that what you actually plant at the start of the season is guaranteed to meet your family’s needs - is huge. Because again, the reality is that most farmers just haven’t been equipped with the capacity to plan ahead, because they’ve dropped out of school at age 10. This single step makes a difference.

CA: We buy what’s equitable for them. Actually most of the time, we pay more than what others traders would pay, because this is about trust and building family with each other. In our training, dignifying farmers isn’t about “doling out.” Many people are used to the government “dole out” mentality, where they just “receive.” 

When farmers apply to work with AGREA, we also give them an opportunity to apply for “fellowship training programs.” Thirty of our “top” rice farmers, for example, have become trainers for other farmers. These farmers have the capacity to train - and really, are the people our “new” farmer partners really listen to. That’s our strategy.

So imagine: a farmer who thinks he has “no hope” would now have the capacity to build and dream. It’s finding ways to translate their dreams into tangible goals with actionable steps. Eventually, they could be consultants and trainers. They can be farmer-entrepreneurs in the future. It’s a long way to go, but this is the process we take.

NA: I am all for this. I can only imagine how that feeling of empowerment affects those farmers, who’ve gone through the training themselves. To become someone that your contemporaries look up to, psychologically, can do incredible things for the way that you see yourself.

40:15 "We're all in this together”

CA: This is unique to AGREA. Of course, a lot of organizations train farmers, but they kinda just end there - with training. We really work with farmers. We don’t even call them “suppliers” or “producers.” We call them “partners” in our business. If AGREA flies, all of us will fly. Basically, we’re all in this together. Those are our principles, and people feel it.

During training, if you’re absent, we mark that in your assessment; you can’t become a trainer if you’re absent a lot. You need to aspire and work for it. Aspiration is something we try to inculcate, that life isn’t about simply waiting for the government to give you something. That kind of support is crippling. Here, if you aspire to become a trainer - to have a uniform, a kit and 25 farmers under you that need to be trained - people feel pride towards that.

NA: That brings a really holistic approach to mind. One aspect I find really interesting is how it affects their kids, who grow up and see the returns of what their parents learn. I know there’s a growing number of young people now in the Philippines becoming more interested in agriculture…what kinds of feedback have you heard so far?

43:25 Training agri-preneurs

CA: We have AGREA’s foundation, where we’ve started programs with young farmers on leadership and how to build an “agri-business,” specifically, to increase awareness that there’s money in farming. That farming isn’t just a hobby, it can be your profession. We’re lucky because most of our youth “agri-preneur” programs have been funded by the US Embassy. We just finished a really successful one, with 36 youth leaders from Mindanao. A third of them come from Marawi - they survived the (recent) war there. Others are from indigenous communities in Mindanao. We’ve formed them into six groups and they’re now implementing projects we’ve helped provide a “seed fund” for.

Education really is the best place to start with changing mindsets. Imagine, here in Marinduque; if we work on the island for 20 years, that means we can influence a generation of primary school students.

44:50 The garden classroom

NA: Next, I learn about a program called “the garden classroom.”

CA: Right now, we have 19 “garden classrooms” on the island. We teach kids about basic backyard gardening, and then anything that’s harvested from these gardens go towards the feeding program at each school.

NA: And Cherrie says that for one school…

CA: Students started bringing vegetables home and their parents were shocked. They’d say, why aren’t you coming home with assignments, but with sitaw, eggplants, tomatoes and okra? And kids would say, well, we have this garden at school. We recently trained 60 parents to help set up these garden classrooms and now, even in their households, they’ve started planting. I thought wow, we started with the school, and now it’s spreading to the community. Even the barangay captain and local councillors joined.

NA: And it’s gotten to the point that…

CA: Seven “puroks” - the smaller unit in a barangay - submitted something like 60 additional names for training.

NA: Another school on the island, Cherrie shares, despite being heavily damaged by a typhoon last year….

CA: Their school sold over 400 kilos of pechay (napa cabbage) at the market. Another school produced a lot of seeds for replanting. It’s pretty amazing. We still need a lot of improvements to that program, since it’s the first time we’re doing it, but we’re working with the Department of Education in Marinduque. This year, we’ll be working with the Department of Agriculture as well to promote it in more schools.

NA: I guess, change really does start with one step after another.

46:35 Resilient kids

CA: We’re kind of “embedding” this vision of making the island sustainable. In 20 years, those kids are going to be our age. At point, hopefully, they’ll be equipped with the mindset that we plant for our food. We’ll be the most resilient kids. It’s beyond sustainability.

NA: And this, I think, is another one of those big ideas that kinda get buried underneath what seems like a minor detail. Teaching 7 to 12 year old kids how to farm - that planting seeds that you save from the last harvest, can turn into food to sustain your family, and additionally, income in the form of vegetables to sell at the market - these things make a world of difference in these communities. It’s a real, physical way of showing that you can be the master of your domain. That being a caretaker of a garden plot puts food on the table. And important, it breaks that chain - of older generations of farmers whose entire lives revolved around feeling this despair, this lack of hope, where all the work they did never amounted to much, where simply waiting to be given a small amount of money from the government was it.

CA: We teach kids how to produce organic fertilizer; they do “vermi-composting” in their schools. It’s wonderful to see. In the Philippines, vegetables have always been regarded as “the poor man’s crop” - that when you eat vegetables, you’re poor because you can’t afford meat or fish. But now, people are actually eating it. School feeding programs serve a lot of malunggay (moringa) and okra - and people love it!

48:45 Lessons from a 10 year old

CA: There’s this ten year old boy from one of our communities called Bayak-bakin - like, far up in the mountains. We went there and met this kid who grew up with his dad, who couldn’t read and write. His dad only knew how to plant corn. Now, his dad knows how to plant eggplants, tomatoes, squash and other vegetables. I asked him, “How did your dad learn?” And he said, “I taught him.” His dad has since joined our training program and now grows a complete set of cereals.


NA: I learned so much from this interview, about agriculture and what it’s like in the Philippines today, and more importantly, where it’s going, with the help of people and organizations who see the value of investing in youth and community-based learning. Because even if the world’s biggest problems seem way too big to tackle - like hunger, poverty, and restoring human dignity - sometimes, solutions can start with a backyard garden.

My sincerest thanks to Cherrie Atilano for meeting with me in Manila for this interview. Head over to the show notes for links to AGREA’s website and the various programs they run. And you can find Cherrie, aka @farmerpinay, on Instagram. Between everything she does - I’m super thankful she took time from her day to share these stories with us.

Music for this episode is by David Szeztay, Eric and Magill, Podington Bear and Blue Dot Sessions.

Visit exploringfilipinokitchens.com for past episodes, and follow @exploringfilipinokitchens on Facebook and Instagram to say hello.

Maraming salamat - and thank you, for listening.

This is a transcript of “Episode 13: A New Narrative For Agriculture With Cherrie Atilano” (Click the episode link for the audio!)