This photo essay by Tyler McCloskey captures his discoveries of the nuances, joys and struggles of agricultural life in rural Philippines. All photos were taken at the Coconut Creek Bio-Organic Farm over the course of one harvest season from seed germination to mouthful of cooked food in Bani, Pangasinan, island of Luzon.
Coconut Creek uses traditional, non-industrial methods for preparing their rice fields. Water buffaloes are indispensible and farmers often develop tight bonds with them as if they are part of the family. Since water buffalos do not sweat, it’s vital that they have a water source to be able to lower their body temperatures on breaks from work, and they do so here in the bordering creek.
The farm produces rice, ginger and other vegetables to sustain their operation. Aside from production, the farm serves as an educational outreach for other like-minded communities looking to wrest themselves from the insidious cycle of irikan in which low-income farming families are exploited and indebted to a life of labor on rice farms. Coconut Creek Farm teaches these farmers how to work the land to its financial and environmental advantage and has seen success in Bani and surrounding towns.
Typically, a landowner will employ a family as caretakers for the farm where they live and tend to the day-to-day operations. This particular farm was watched over by Inggo—who has an amazing videoke voice—along with his wife and two sons. With one more child on the way, they fashioned a hammock crib for their newborn seen in the doorway.
The first step in the process is to amass dried cow pies. How? Ask cattle owners if you can clean up for them for free. Not many decline. You’ll need a lot.
Visitors to the farm can learn how to produce their own vermicast (an organic fertilizer processed by African nightcrawlers) with meager start-up funds. In a matter of months, they can produce enough fertilizer for a small rice farming operation.
Both planting and harvesting are painstaking, labor-intensive acts. Holding the sprouts like a pencil, veteran rice farmers poke a hole with their middle finger and insert the seedling with their thumb and forefinger in one deft motion. With this method, a team of two can easily plant a perfect grid on a few acres in a couple of hours.
The farm can become a somewhat hazardous place for unwitting pedestrians. Cobras and monitor lizards (shown here) can be found in the rice paddies hiding in the tall grasses. They are a source of excitement, caution and invaluable protein on the farm.
Meat is a luxury while living in such remote areas where access to a marketplace can take hours to walk when transportation isn’t available. An alternative is spearfishing in the nearby creek. Goggles are fashioned out of coconut wood and the spear gun is carved from a guava tree branch, which is valued for its buoyancy and its increased rigidity over time.
Another fact of rural farm life is that you are involved at every level of food production. Slaughtering a goat is usually reserved for special occasions and nothing goes to waste. A popular dish in the region—papaitan, translated as bitter-bitter—is a bile stew of goatskin and chopped organs.
Being that meat is a rare commodity on the rice farm, the running joke is that meals are akin to a goat’s diet, with plants like squash blossoms and leafy vegetable greens making a regular show on your plate alongside the ever-present mound of rice.
How to make rice coffee: char dried rice, steep in boiled water, add sugar, imagine it contains caffeine when you drink it. The toasted grains lend a nuttiness to balance the bitterness of the char.
Another unique delicacy on the farm is what’s called jumping salad. Imagine a bowlful of live fresh water shrimp in the middle of a dining table with a plate on top. When you uncover the dish, the farthest jumping shrimp is admired, then eaten whole while still alive, snapping on the roof of your mouth. It is at once both sweet and energetic.
Coconut Creek’s organic farming methods offer an inexpensive approach that yields a robust harvest, which can be applied to other, more nutritious varieties of rice like brown, pink and black grains. Once the rice plants reach a certain level of maturity, the field is flooded to induce the growth of the rice grain. The fields are then drained and the rice is harvested—just as painstakingly as it was planted—and the rice is threshed and dried on woven mats or concrete basketball courts in the direct sunlight.
Tyler McCloskey is a freelance travel writer/photographer, Creative Nonfiction MFA student at the University of Pittsburgh, and general Curious George. He’s lived in several countries including the Philippines, where he stayed for 2 ½ years collaborating on environmental conservation projects. His writing has appeared in TRVL, National Geographic’s Glimpse, Matador Network and elsewhere. Connect with him on LinkedIn.