(This is my first article in the Ilocos Times. While columnists are expected to be men of notable knowledge, allow me to begin by writing about something I have no expertise on. “Wisest is he who knows he does not know,” says the enigmatic philosopher Socrates, and I am in the mood to believe him.)
NEVER HAVE I FELT MORE IGNORANT in my life than when I went to a farm. Having grown up in urban areas, I have never stayed in an agricultural community. The perpetually neglected ornamental plants in my bedroom terrace would be first to attest that planting is not my cup of tea.
Last year, I left my job in Manila to teach here in the province. Unlike in the nation’s capital where I taught sons and daughters of the bourgeoisie, most of my students here are children of farmers. Concerned that having kneel knowledge of agriculture made my teaching less relevant, I decided to embark on a self-imposed immersion in a farm. This happened when Albert Daguro, one of my former students, invited me on a weekend visit to their home in Brgy. Agunit, a farming community in Marcos town. He was apprehensive at first, saying that there was nothing much to see, but invited me anyway when he felt that it was something really meaningful for me.
Aboard a rusty jeepney, I then traveled to Agunit with the excitement of a groom and the curiosity of a child. Passing through the uninterrupted farmland bordered in the horizon by majestic mountains, I realized how little a part of the universe I was and how much space there is to explore. The experience was spiritual. Borrowing Rizal’s description of Dapitan, Agunit easily struck me as “picturesque and very poetic… without comparison.”
There I met Albert’s family. True to the Ilocano mold, his father, Tata Pascual, is known to be a very industrious man. At 68, this former barangay captain remains one of the most active farmers in Agunit. Far from the melodramatic tales of farmers in Sumilao and feudal haciendas, the Daguros are fortunate. With sheer discipline and guts, Tata Pascual and his loving wife started from scratch and gradually acquired parcels of land. Now totaling a few hectares, their farm is more than sufficient to provide their family a decent life.
The Daguros have eight cows, three carabaos, six goats, four pigs, and egg-laying ducks and chickens that were too busy running around their backyard to be counted. A miniature pond also produces fish for their consumption. Add to these the mango and avocado trees that diligently bear fruits. They have their own farm machines: a tractor and a kuliglig. To top these all, their sitio enjoys an efficient irrigation system that allows farmers to plant rice three times in a year. Given these blessings, I was interested to know whether Mang Pascual’s children are building their dreams around agriculture. Or, as with most families, do they see education as gateway to redemption?
Ronald, the eldest among the Daguro siblings, finished criminology and is now a newly sworn policeman. Albert is a civil engineering senior while Russell, the only female, is a nursing freshman. Six-grader Oliver, their youngest, tends their goats, but only Jhoan, the second eldest son, now works full time in the farm. After finishing a two-year technical course, Jhoan was requested by Tata Pascual to help him till their land. Being a good son, the former naturally obliged, although he occasionally resents being tied up to backbreaking work in the fields. Jhoan mulls of going back to school when his siblings graduate so he, too, can be a “professional”.
This reminded me of many students who strive in college, hoping they can eventually turn their backs on farming and do white-collar jobs. They subscribe to the belief that wearing a coat, working in an air-conditioned office, and speaking the language of colonizers are the main indicators of personal growth. Convinced that education is the best legacy they can leave behind, parents are quick to remind their children: do well in your studies, less you become just farmers like us.
I lament at how formal education is overvalued. Our present crop of political leaders proves that honesty, integrity, and unity—virtues that our nation miserably lacks—are legacies not guaranteed by a diploma. I do not say that children of farmers should not pursue other careers; everyone is entitled to see more of the world and discover new things as I do now. I was just wondering if they realize their sector’s worth and promise.
In MMSU, for instance, courses in agriculture register significantly lower enrolment compared to the health and business fields. This situation aggravates the already wide mismatch between our country’s human resource requirements and the graduates produced by universities, resulting to an increase in rates of unemployment and underemployment. Students taking up agriculture bear with people taunting them: mannalon ka la ngaruden, agriculture pay laeng ti innalam! They remain undistracted, however, as many of them have their dreamy eyes set, not in our own land, but elsewhere greener, like New Zealand. Meanwhile, queues for affordable rice now reach scandalous lengths.
In sociology, structural functionalist theory explains social stratification by assuming that positions essential to society’s survival are awarded more than those that are not as important. Of course, the “important” positions’ higher remuneration and prestige are justified by the long formal training and the skills acquired in the process. In this perspective, the lifetime training of farmers does not count because they don’t get any diploma for it. That small farmers are important for the population to survive is taken for granted, especially now that agriculture has become the milking cow of manipulative multinational firms.
In an attempt to convince his people that farming is a good a profession as medicine, Rizal himself became a farmer in Dapitan. Writing to his sister, Lucia, our national hero remarked: “We cannot all be doctors, it is necessary that there would be some who would cultivate the soil.” But who can blame farmers who wish they could do something else? Much is to be desired from government and society at large. While it is true, for example, that the prices of farm produce have skyrocketed, so have the costs of plant inputs. Hence, many farmers are buried in debt even as the “fertilizer scam” remains unresolved and is doomed, as many other scandals are, to be forgotten. The recent distribution of free sacks of fertilizers to farmers may sound commendable, but it is just another band-aid solution in the absence of a well-implemented and sustainable program to alleviate the plight of the mannalon.
When I left Agunit and went home to my place in the city, I felt a vacuum inside me. Aside from the breathtaking sights and subtle sounds of the fields, there were much more to my enchantment. I was drawn to the farm folks’ solidarity with nature, their spartan way of life, and their ability to appreciate the simple joys brought by simple things. I witnessed how members of farming families are tightly knit, how their neighbors are treated as family, and how belief in an unseen God is manifested in their day-to-day attempt at co-creation.
I went to Agunit so secure of myself, but left the place humbled at how little I knew about the more basic things in life. Unlike farm kids who, by taking care of animals and helping out in the paddies, have developed a sense of responsibility and stewardship early on, I was the bratty type of child. Our family has always had househelps who made life easier for us. Our domestic comforts, quite ironically, are brought by folks who come from agricultural families not as fortunate as Tata Pascual’s. Now in her fifties, Manang Glory, wife of a tobacco farmer, works in our household so she can help send her children to school.
With reasons now more personal than professional, I have included in my lifetime’s to-do list working as a full-time farmer, even just for an entire season. As an apprentice, I want to experience all the processes from pre-planting to post-harvest, and feel both the joy and despair that go with transforming nature and being transformed by it in turn. An employee under the tyranny of the Bundy clock, I am not sure how this can be possible. But just as a farmer has faith that the seeds will fertilize, I have high hopes this dream will happen in time. While most academics aspire for scholarships in top universities, I yearn for a semester or two in the farm. Hopefully, in my next visit, the Daguros would let me dirty my hands, and not pamper me the way they did during my first sojourn.
As I nurture this agricultural dream, news are abound that two monuments of materialism will be built in this province known for her people’s frugality and hard work. One mall will rise in the flourishing town of St. Nick while the other will be built in the middle of Laoag City, posing threats of more traffic, pollution, and an empty lifestyle—banes of urban life that Agunit folks are lucky to be spared from.
Each one of us is said to have a rightful place under the sun. I found mine inside the classroom, Tata Pascual found his in paradise. My classroom, however, need not always be four-walled, and I need not always be the teacher. ###