TEACHING AGRICULTURE. Students from Marinduque work on their school garden in one of AGREA's projects 'The Garden Classroom' that helps teach kids the value of growing their own food, eating healthy, camaraderie, love for the environment. Photo courtesy of AGREA
MANILA, Philippines — One of the greatest ironies of our time is that our food producers – farmers and fisherfolks – are among the hungriest and poorest.
Farming and fishing are noble professions, but they are being neglected. So it’s no surprise that the average Filipino farmer is 57 years old, with younger generations opting out of farming in pursuit of a "better life" elsewhere.
This is why Cherrie Atilano is pushing to make farming "cool, smart, and humane."
Growing up in a farm in Negros Occidental, Atilano started her advocacy in agriculture when she was 12 years old.
"It pains me everytime I talk to our farmers. We ask them if they have bank account or if they have a notion of having a bank account. They think it's just for rich people. They don't have any concept of saving," Atilano said.
Farming has been a neglected sector by the government for decades, Atilano added. There is much work to be done in empowering farmers and farming communities.
"Agriculture was the Philippines' backbone before. But along the way, it was somehow forgotten. I always say that agriculture in the Philippines is politicized. We measure the yield of crops but we don’t really measure the impact on the farmer’s lives," she said.
Atilano added: "The government should really focus on building this backbone. Because agriculture is a huge industry. When you plant rice, it is a plant industry. You know, when you plant coffee, it can be a coffee industry. When you plant cotton, of course, our clothing comes from cotton. You know when you plant a cacao, it will be a chocolate industry."
Agriculture for millennials
Atilano started AGREA (‘agriculture’ and ‘Gaea’), a social enterprise that hopes to empower farmers and get more people to start farming. It’s goal is three-fold: to eradicate poverty for farming and fishing families, to mitigate the effects of climate change, and to establish food security in the Philippines.
"We believe in Agrea that everything we do is about cultivation of human beings. That’s why it took us a while to do a lot of community organizing with our farming communities...We do sustainable agricultural practices so the farmers can be resilient even if there are typhoons or floods that may come. But more than that our goal for them is to really be financially literate," she said.
Currently, their efforts are focused in Marinduque — one of the poorest provinces in the entire archipelago due to decades of mining. By implementing a “one-island economy” model, AGREA hopes to ensure foood security for and mitigate environmental and social impacts on the community.
If the model becomes successful, Atilano plans to replicate it in other parts of the country.
The work is not easy but Atilano says it's worth it.
"I think, going out of your comfort zone is the most comfortable thing in life. It’s the most comfortable zone in life that you can experience,” Atilano said.
EARTH MOVER. Cherrie Atilano (center) receives her award during the Move Awards 2016 night at the Ayala Museum. Photo from Rappler
She added that millennials need to commit to their passions and advocacies in order to make them work.
"Many young people, they’re so passionate in things. But when it demands more sacrifices, it demands more going out of your comfort zone, it’s so easy for them to give up," she said.
Atilano added: "The world needs sustainable nurturers. Nurturers that could endure the problems in our society. That could always see opportunities out of these problems. And for me, for those millennials, it is really more on investing on, sacrificing for what you love to do."
This is why Atilano was named Earth Mover for the Move Awards 2016. Her work shows that farming can be a friendly, sustainable, and lucrative profession. – Rappler.com