Jan 242015

FOR 35 YEARS, Margarita Rola and her husband, Juanito, would set up makeshift stalls at the public market in Aguilar town in Pangasinan province three times a week to sell tomatoes and bell peppers harvested from their garden in the upland tribal community of Mapita in Barangay Laoag.

They would hitch on cramped passenger jeepneys or trucks that transported the produce of other farmers from their village for the one-hour ride to town.

But on their way back, the Rolas would often hike uphill for four to five hours, most of the time carrying the tomatoes and bell peppers that were not bought.

The village, where some 1,000 indigenous residents belonging to the Kankanaey, Ibaloy and Bago tribes had settled in the 1960s, is nestled in a 496-hectare rolling terrain of the Zambales mountain range, about 15 kilometers from the town.

The villagers till some 150 hectares of land surrounding the settlement, planting rice, corn, vegetables and root crops.

“It was very hard for us then,” said Rola, 57. “People in the market would buy our produce for P2 or P3 a kilo, and we still had to take home what we were not able to sell. We earned barely enough for us to buy our basic needs for the day.”

But in 2011, Rola and 23 other vegetable farmers in the village stopped setting up makeshift stalls at the market. In January that year, they boarded a rented truck to deliver their harvest to the Jollibee Foods Corp. (JFC) commissary in Canlubang town in Laguna province.

They had gone big time.

“We were so happy that, for the first time, we were selling our produce to a big company. It was life changing for us,” said Rola.

How their tomatoes and bell peppers reached Jollibee’s kitchens is a story that Rola loves to share.

In 2010, Rola’s village was chosen one of the four pilot areas in the province for the Farmer Entrepreneurship Program—a private-public partnership of JFC, National Livelihood Development Corp. (NLDC) and Catholic Relief Services (CRS). The project was launched in 2008 to improve small farmers’ income by linking them to the supply chain of institutional markets.

“Somebody from a [local] rural bank visited our village and offered to lend us money for our livelihood projects,” Rola said. The bank turned out to be the local NLDC conduit.

What followed was a series of training sessions throughout the year that took Rola and the other farmers to different places. They were also organized into the Sitio Mapita High Value Crop Growers Association (SMHVCGA), with Rola’s husband elected as its first president.

“They trained us until we could stand on our own. Then the NLDC released funds through the local bank. We borrowed money depending on our needs. Some borrowed P50,000, others P100,000,” Rola said.

Rola’s group delivers 1,000 kilos of tomatoes and 400 kilos of bell peppers to the Jollibee commissary every week.

“This has been a big help to us. We have been getting good prices for our harvests and we are inspired to tend our gardens because we now know that our produce will be bought,” Rola said.

Today, Rola and her husband also grow ube, Taiwan pepper and calamansi (Philippine lemon) in their garden.

Rola’s group has been receiving help from other government agencies. Recently, the group acquired a tractor from Sagip Saka, an advocacy project of the National Confederation of Small Farmers and Fishers Association.

Pangasinan Gov. Amado Espino Jr. also financed the construction of a water tank, where they can draw water for their plants. Pangasinan Rep. Leopoldo Bataoil facilitated the electrification of the village.

“With God’s grace, we have been receiving a lot of help,” said Rola.

She said, more than improving their living conditions, what she treasured most was the self-confidence that the series of training sessions had given them.

“We learned how to organize, we learned how to produce quality vegetables, we learned how to deal with big businessmen, and we acquired self-confidence. Even if we are only farmers, we can go now directly to big businessmen, unlike before when we all seemed to have inferiority complex,” Rola said.

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