Jonjon Sarmiento: Ecological Agriculture Practitioner

Farming for families

If there is one thing that best illustrates Jonjon Sarmiento’s life work, it would be the Kuatro Marias Agro-ecology farm in his hometown in Mindoro.

“I call it Kuatro Marias because of my four daughters,” he says. They are aged 21, 20, 19 and 10. “Ultimately, this farm is not mine. It is the next generation’s.”

Sarmiento, himself a son of farmers, started thinking about cultivating his own farm when he was just 18 years old. This dream was borne out of feelings of resentment; he observed that while he and his family did backbreaking work in the farm, they did not get to eat the good things that they worked so hard to produce.

“We sold all the good rice. The same went for the best chickens, the best fish, the tastiest bananas. I thought, something was wrong there. I ought to do something. I wanted to rebel.”

Yet another observation that fanned his zeal was the way his fellow farmers seemed to hold themselves in lower regard than they did other people: less in material wealth, in knowledge, and in all other respects.

“This is why children of farmers do not see an incentive to working in the fields,” he said. “Farming is portrayed as lowly work, even a punishment. How many parents have told their children: ‘If you don’t shape up, you will end up tilling the land!’”

“Where is the pride in being a farmer?” he said. “I wanted to restore that pride. I am not just a farmer. I am a farmer!”

Years later, Sarmiento joined the social action team in Calapan and through his church work became exposed to the way of life – sometimes plight – of the native Mangyan. He was able to see, understand and appreciate how they cultivate their farms and produced food. It was then he began to toy with the idea of, and research on, what he now calls “ecological agriculture” – even though at that time there was yet no term to describe the kind of farming that he intended to do.

When he got back to his own farm, he applied these new principles. He wanted to build a small forest. Whenever he got the chance, he obtained other plants from other farms. He learned, through trial and error, the ways of the crops and animals under his stewardship.

At around this time, as well, he joined the civil society group Pakisama, which championed Integrated Diversified Organic Farming System. He felt right at home and felt he was among allies and longtime friends.

Pakisama has been around for 30 years, and it has spent all this time advocating the mindsets and practices – just like what Sarmiento has done with his own farm.

Sarmiento has some ideas on how to entice the younger generation to stay, or return, to the farm. For example, children should be compensated according to their contribution and not be treated as cheap – worse, free – labor. They must have their share in the harvest. The family must also realize that the father is not the sole decision-maker. Mothers, especially, need to assert their voices, because it is they who have intimate knowledge of how the farm system, from the land to the crops and animals and even the dynamics among family members, works.

Children, too, need to be given the freedom to pursue whatever it is they want – while being reminded that the farm will always be there for them to come home to.

He remembers one of his children telling him, in the middle of a meal: “Dad, I did not realize we were so rich!” pointing out that they were partaking of various kinds of rice that sold for such high prices in the market.

Sarmiento, 44, dreams of being an old man – resting in the farm that he has built for his family, seeing them happy and content and not in want of anything. “When you wake up, you will have food, you will have things to harvest, there are chickens, and you will rest assured knowing that there will be more than enough for the next generation and that you are nurturing your environment even as you partake of its riches now.

“It’s a stress-free life,” he says with a wistful smile.

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