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Model farm in a green town: A look at the “Disneyland of organic farming”

At MBRLC, trainees can learn about plant propagation. (Henrylito D. Tacio)

By Henrylito D. Tacio

The municipality of Bansalan is touted as “the green town of Davao del Sur.” No one can contest the fact. After all, it is home to several farms that practice ecologically-sound and environment-friendly systems.

In barangay Kinuskusan, there is a training center that has been visited by thousands of people from all over the country, if not around the world. Even before farm tourism had become a buzzword in the travel industry, people had already been flocking to the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center (MBRLC) to see the farming technologies it has developed through the years.

“The MBRLC has been at the forefront of improving the lives of the Filipino people, both physically and spiritually,” commented then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo during the Center’s 30th anniversary. “The center has provided our people with the necessary guidance in order to become productive members of society.”

Since its humble beginning in September 1971, MBRLC has become one of the most visited places in Mindanao. People from other countries—from Australia to Zimbabwe, from Afghanistan to Vietnam, from the United Kingdom to the United States—have also visited the center.

So far, about half a million people have paid a visit to the Watson Farm, as it was then called, since it was founded by an American agricultural missionary from Mississippi named Harold R. Watson (In 1985, Watson received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for international understanding).

“From an initial effort to train and improve the productivity of farmers in the area, it has spread as a reputable model throughout the Philippines and touched all of Asia,” said Jerry A. Rankin, then president of the International Mission Board (IMB) based in Richmond, Virginia. “Agricultural technology and methods have turned barren hills into productive farms.”

At MBRLC, trainees can learn about plant propagation. (Henrylito D. Tacio)

Natural farming

Some scribes have described MBRLC as a “Disneyland of organic farming,” also called natural farming when practiced without organic certification.

“What we are promoting at the center is organic farming,” said Jethro P. Adang, the second Filipino to become director of the center (the first one was Roy C. Alimoane, as the center was previously managed by Americans: Watson, Jon J. Palmer, and Steve L. Musen.) “We want to show to our guests and visitors that farming systems which protect the environment can also be productive and sustainable.”

The United Nations Food and Agriculture (FAO), in its report, Organic Agriculture and Food Security, believes organic agriculture is one of the methods that can fight hunger, tackle the issues of climate change aside from being beneficial for farmers, consumers and the environment.

That’s what MBRLC is trying to do on its farm, located about 10 kilometers away from the town proper. As 60% of the country’s total land area of 30 million hectares are considered uplands, it has developed four sustainable farming schemes for this kind of terrain.

The Bureau of Soil and Water Management, a line agency of the Department of Agriculture, considers organic agriculture as one of the methods that can combat land degradation. In fact, it has been found that natural farming does not only help improve soil fertility but also prevent wind and water erosion of the soil, improve water infiltration and retention capacity, reduce surface and ground water consumption and subsequent soil salinization and reduce ground and surface water contamination.

Soil erosion

Erosion is the most pervasive form of land degradation. “Soil is made by God and put here for man to use, not for one generation but forever,” Watson said. “It takes thousands of years to build one inch of topsoil but only one good strong rain to remove one inch from unprotected soil on the slopes of mountains.”

When he received the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Watson pointed this out:  “Soil erosion is an enemy to any nation – far worse than any outside enemy coming into a country and conquering it because it is an enemy you cannot see vividly.  It’s a slow creeping enemy that soon possesses the land. We must consider ourselves in a state of emergency; our topsoil is all going…”

The possible solution to the erosion problem is Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT 1), where two hedgerows of nitrogen fixing plants are planted together following the upland’s contour lines.  “The idea is to stop the topsoil from eroding,” Adang says. Uplands under cultivation in the country have lost about two-thirds of their valuable topsoil, the primary resource in agriculture.

READ: SALT: a possible answer to environmental problems in the uplands

The technology is very simple. The hedgerows are planted in very dense double rows to serve as erosion barriers. When the hedgerows – a combination of various nitrogen fixing tree species and shrubs like ipil-ipil, kakawate, flemingia, indigofera, and rensonii – attain the height of two meters, they are cut back to about 40 centimeters and the cutting are placed in the 3 to 5-meter alleys where crops are growing.

SALT is considered a diversified farming system. Aside from the hedgerows, rows of perennial crops such as coffee, bananas, and citrus are grown in areas occupied by corn. The annual crops are rotated: corn is followed by soybeans or peanuts and then followed again by corn. “In this way, a farmer has something to harvest every month throughout the year,” Adang said.

The success of SALT ushered to the birth of three more variants, each one addressing a certain niche for the upland farmers.

Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT 1) is created for crop production in the uplands. (Henrylito D. Tacio)

Malnutrition

Malnutrition is a big problem in the uplands as many farming families have no definite sources of protein. They are far from the sea so fish, the primary source of protein among Filipinos, is out of reach.

Because of this problem, MBRLC developed Simple Agro-Livestock Technology (SALT 2).  Livestock particularly refers to goats, whose milk and meat can be the source of protein for the family. Twelve female dairy goats and one buck are raised in one-half hectare. The goat house is located at the center.

The lower portion is planted to various leguminous crops and napier grass, which are a source of forage for goats. The upper portion is allotted to agricultural crops. The farmer may opt to plant fruit trees, too.

“…we are raising dairy goats because we practice zero grazing,” Adang explained.  The leguminous crops are cut, carried, and given directly to goats. The goat manure below is used as fertilizer for the forages and agricultural crops. “The sources of income for the farmer are milk, goats, and some from his crops,” he said.

Milk is a source of protein for the upland farmers. (Henrylito D. Tacio)

Saving trees

The Philippines is fast losing its forest cover. To save the lingering forests, MBRLC tries to integrate more trees into its SALT systems.  In fact, the remaining two systems have more trees in them: Sustainable Agroforest Land Technology (SALT 3) and Small Agrofruit Livelihood Technology (SALT 4).

The two-hectare SALT 3 is a small-scale reforestation; one hectare is planted to agricultural crops while the other hectare is allotted to trees like mahogany, narra, raintree, and ipil-ipil.  The forest component is located at the upper portion to douse the impact of the raindrops.

To further curb the rushing water from the upper portion, bamboo is planted in the middle of the two components as a boundary crop.  In the lower portion, the original SALT scheme is still followed.

Fruit basket and vegetable gardening

Since Mindanao is touted to be the fruit basket of the country, MBRLC developed the one-half hectare SALT 4. The area is planted to various fruit trees like durian, mangosteen, lanzones, marang, and guava. While the fruits are still young, the area is planted to annual crops (banana and pineapple) and vegetables (string beans, peanuts, cucumber).

For the lowlands, the center has developed a gardening system called Food Always In The Home (FAITH), which can provide all-year round vegetables for a family with six members. “We call it a refrigerator in the farm since the family can always harvest fresh vegetables, which are free from pesticides,” Adang said.

In a sense, it is. You can pick fresh tomatoes, eggplants, ampalaya, alugbati, winged beans, malunggay, and okra. You can even harvest fruits like pineapple and papaya, which are planted along the boundary of the garden as fences.

The 100-square meter garden can provide 300 grams of fresh vegetables daily. The central feature of the garden is a series of raised garden beds into which bamboo baskets and trench composts are set about one foot in depth. These are filled with little manure and some decomposed garbage and packed with leaves of grasses and leguminous plants like kakawate, flemingia, rensonii, and ipil-ipil.

In FAITH gardening, the central feature is basket composts, where grasses, weeds and kitchen scraps are thrown to become organic fertilizer for the crops. (Henrylito D. Tacio)

No chemicals

In all its systems, the center doesn’t use pesticides. “The key to good pest control,” Adang said, “begins with knowing your crops and checking them regularly to make sure they are healthy and not bothered by something that might want to eat them before you do! When you see a pest or disease problem, with diligent scouting it can be controlled before it becomes a major problem.”

If infestation is immense, however, the center makes homemade pesticides using neem, kakawate, marigold, garlic, and hot pepper.

At the MBRLC, wastes are no waste. They use them as feed for their night-crawling earthworms (Eudrilus eugeniae). “With the aid of aerobic microorganisms (that is, bacteria and fungi), earthworms digest processed organic materials under favorable temperature and moisture conditions,” Adang explained. “The materials that pass through the digestive tract of the earthworms come out in a texturized, sanitized and deodorized form of castings known as vermicompost.”

They use vermicompost in fertilizer for their crops. “While low in major plant nutrients compared to chemical fertilizers,” Adang said, “vermicompost supports microorganisms, which make nutrients more readily available to plants and produce substances that promote plant growth and health.”

MBRLC also has fishponds where it raises tilapia. In some parts of the ponds, azolla and golden apple snails are also raised (although not together). Azolla is used as feed for tilapia and ducks. Azolla contains 4-5 percent nitrogen, 1-1.5 percent phosphorus, and 2-3 percent potassium. “As such, azolla can also be applied as organic fertilizer in fresh, dried, or composted form.” As for golden apple snails, they are utilized as feed for ducks.

Tilapia is now the second most cultured fish in the country. (Henrylito D. Tacio)

Training

The MBRLC was actually conceptualized based on the masteral thesis of Watson. He found out that most agricultural training centers in the 1960s already had sophisticated facilities but didn’t have demonstration farms where the trainees can immerse themselves.

“In those years, training centers had huge buildings where people could learn modern techniques of farming,” Watson said. “But unfortunately, they didn’t have demo fields that show how to do those techniques.”

At the MBRLC, training is conducted every week. The trainees don’t learn only the basics of the organic farming systems but also absorb the skills in doing them. “We call it hands-on-experience,” Adang said. “Only 25% of the training is done in the room, the remaining 75% are finished in the field.”

Even those who come to the center for a day tour, they can still learn so many things.  “We usually have a short orientation at the training hall,” Adang said. “After that, they can tour around the center, which usually takes about half a day. But in some instances, if farmers have so many questions during the tour, it may take about one day.”

“Our farming systems are far from perfect,” Adang admitted.  “Every day, we are learning. But we are happy to share what we know.  We don’t hide anything here. Everyone is free to copy what we do.”

The MBRLC has also received recognitions from the regional office of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, various government agencies, and a Presidential Citation from former president Corazon C. Aquino.

Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio

 

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