By Julius Barcelona and Aubregyn Villablanca

Think back to when you were teenager. What were you doing? Maybe studying in college, just starting to figure life out? Yet by the time she was nineteen, Lita Sondia was already dreaming of a time when her family and friends would no longer be hungry.

Sondia is a career politician in what would seem to be the unlikeliest of places: tucked away in a tiny barrio in the hills of Sta. Barbara, Iloilo. Now 42, she is married to Nestor Sondia, 50; they have five children. She is currently the barangay kagawad (councilor) committee chair for Women and Children. She is also the president of the Farmer’s Federation P4MP Sta. Barbara, and the secretary for the Farmer’s Federation of Barangay Guno Association. This vibrant, energetic woman’s eyes sparkle as she talks about how she wants to uplift her community from poverty.

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Her shirt boldly proclaims “Free Hugs! (And a kiss if you’re lucky).” Yet, she shies away from the camera, as she has a strong sense of modesty.

Sondia firmly believes that true change cannot be achieved unless you yourself are worthy of it. Seeing politics as the best chance for reaching her dreams, she first ran for barangay kagawad at the age of nineteen. She won, and became the sole member of the Assistant Committee on Agriculture. Her dream, then and now, is to unite her local community of farmers and develop them into professional suppliers of vegetables to Sta. Barbara.

Yet life never goes the way it’s planned. Despite her best efforts, little has changed in her sleepy barrio since she started 23 years ago. Only recently was she able to organize the Farmer’s Federation of Sta. Barbara in hopes that having a professional association would galvanize her community into action. With only 31 farmer-members, however, their organization is still far too small to effect any real change.

Nonetheless, she remains the Federation’s most active member. True change, she reiterates, cannot be achieved unless you yourself are worthy of it. She hopes that her efforts will serve as a model for her fellow farmers and perhaps influence more farmers to join them in the future.

Sondia planned to develop sweet corn as the Federation’s first product. As a kagawad, she knew she could start by selling sweet corn to her fellow public servants. More than that, sweet corn is easy to grow and needs few resources to maintain. She quickly realized, however, that sweet corn was not as practical as she initially thought. A high volume of yield was needed for it to be profitable, as the individual price of corn was not very high. To do that, a large area of land was required—land she did not have, and even if she did, she would not be able to maintain it by herself.

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Unsure on how to proceed, she approached Allan Umadjay, a friend of hers working as an agricultural technician in the DA-Region VI Office. He immediately suggested Red Lady papaya as an alternative crop. She learned from him that Red Lady was a low maintenance crop, only needing fertilization once or twice a month, depending on how well it was growing. It could be harvested for a very long time after its first fruiting, providing a certain stability to the income she could receive from the sale of her produce. Since no one else she knew of was planting Red Lady in Sta. Barbara, her product would be unique and she would be able to get a better income from it.

Filled with excitement, she met with Percival Barsal Jr. a technician from Known-You Seed Philippines, Inc., and bought 2 grams (g) of seeds to try out. She half-jokingly remarked that she would wake up at 4 AM and instead of preparing breakfast for her family, she would first run to her field and check her growing papaya trees under the meager light of her cellphone. Then she could return home to start cooking without worries.

As her Red Lady was planted at the foot of a hill, the gentle slope meant that water would run off while she was irrigating. She planted her trees parallel to the hillside and dug deeper canals between high-mounded plots to trap the water between them. Thankfully, her soil is loamy and excellent at retaining moisture. She covered the plots with plastic mulch to prevent soil erosion and moisture evaporation.

It has been four months since she started her Red Lady project and already, the trees are heavy with fruit. She recently harvested her first batch: 52 kilograms (kg) of papaya from her little 50 square meter plot. Her fellow public servants immediately snapped everything up as they had never seen this kind of red, thick-fleshed papaya before, and the juicy sweetness of Red Lady made them hungry for more. Sondia sold her entire harvest for Php25/kg, and regrets she didn’t sell for a higher price. “If I knew my friends and colleagues would be willing to buy [Red Lady at] Php25, I would have sold it for R 35/kg!” she laughs. True to her word, she is selling her next harvest for Php35/kg.

But what truly makes her happiest is that her fellow farmers have started approaching her about Red Lady. Many of them were surprised to see that the crop could be grown in their areas now planted to kamote (sweet potato) and monggo (mung bean). She has started planting seedlings as her fellow farmers have asked if they could buy these from her, and she is more than ready to share what she has learned. After all, it has been 23 years.

She firmly believes that Red Lady Papaya is the break she has been waiting for. We will follow her story as she continues on the road to her dream, and perhaps in the future, we will be able to present to you the story of her success.

Red Lady Papaya is a product of Known-You Seed Philippines, Inc. and has been distributed in the Philippines for the past 18 years by Harbest Agribusiness Corp. For inquiries and orders, call 0917.3201689 or 0999.9680630, fax (075) 632.1785, email kyp@knownyou.com, or visit www.facebook.com/kyp168.

This appeared as “How a Red Lady Made a Woman Smile” in Agriculture Monthly’s April 2016 issue.