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Benguet frost welcomed by visitors, hated by tillers

/ 01:55 AM January 06, 2014

FROST has blanketed sections of Atok town in Benguet province once again, but it’s a seasonal phenomenon for which most vegetable farmers are prepared. Atok and other upland towns become far colder than Baguio City between December to February each year. GLADYS MAXIMO/CONTRIBUTOR

BAGUIO CITY—Old-timers in this city and tourists welcome the steady drop in temperature as it provides them with their closest version of winter in a tropical country.

But to residents in upland towns, such as Atok, Kibungan and Buguias in Benguet province, dipping temperatures still create a little panic.

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Concepcion Dangpa-Subagan, 48, an organic farming advocate, grew up in Buguias, where temperatures dropped lower than the normal cold.

Melt frost layer

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It was a life of dread for farming families that needed to rush out of the comfort of their homes to melt the layer of frost clinging to their produce, she said.

Atok, Buguias and Kibungan are the biggest producers of highland vegetables—cabbages, carrots, potatoes, lettuce, broccoli and beans—sold in Metro Manila markets.

Subagan said children might cheer the beautiful blanket of ice glistening over cabbage patches in Benguet, but it was different during her childhood.

“My childhood was about wrapping ourselves in extremely thick jackets handed out for free in the mountain areas as we huddled around the open fire and cooked our breakfast,” she said.

Colder than Baguio

A popular assumption is that these towns get an uncomfortable 6 to 8 degrees Celsius, whenever the mercury in Baguio drops to 8 to 10 degrees, “but we never really recorded [temperatures during the] cold weather,” Subagan said.

Baguio’s coldest was 6.3 degrees in January 1961, which would have meant 4 degrees in these Benguet towns, she said.

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Subagan said fewer people in Benguet had been bothered by the cold these days because the erratic weather had made it a fleeting experience.

When Atok experienced a temperature of 9 degrees on Jan. 1, farmers scrambled to the patches of farmland still embraced by frost.

Sitios (subvillages) Lower and Upper Engladad in Barangay (village) Paoay in Atok suffered pockets of frost, which also affected the Kibungan villages of Nilicob, Proper Madaymen, Taliboy-oc, Cagam-is and Masala, and the village of Cada in Mankayan town, according to agriculture data released by the Philippine Information Agency’s office in the Cordillera.

Thinner frost

But Atok Mayor Peter Alos, a farmer himself, said the frost used to cover far more areas of the town.

“Frost used to reach the front yards of the houses, but today, frost can be seen only in vegetable gardens near the river,” he said.

“I also remember that farmers experienced frost in [the villages of] Natubleng and Loo in Buguias [town], but now there’s frost only in Loo,” he said.

Alos said the frost the town was experiencing was thinner than the sheets of ice he remembered as a boy.

Thicker in ’70s, ’80s

A splash of water or sunlight were all it took to melt the ice from cabbage leaves, he said.

In the 1970s and the 1980s, farmers took hours to melt the frost wrapped around cabbage heads, Alos said. The icy layer was too thick, he said, so farmers had to spend more time watering the farms in order to save their produce.

Morning ice

The frost has shaped community life in upland Benguet.

Marilou Zarate, an Atok municipal employee, said the cold used to freeze tap water so families huddled patiently until midday for the frozen water to melt.

In her youth, Zarate said, water was pumped into the houses using hoses. “Instead of morning dew, we had morning ice,” she said.

“I remember, as a young girl I would wear my rubber boots for an early morning walk with my playmates. We loved the sound of ice sheets breaking under our feet,” Zarate said.

Upland diet

Subagan said meat, common in upland diet, took on a different dimension in colder Benguet towns because people there believed animal protein kept the body warm.

“That’s still the justification today for people here who won’t go on a proper diet,” she said.

Subagan said vegetable farmers spent all that effort to cope with the frost because many of them used most of their resources for the season’s harvest.

Over the past 40 years, vegetables have been a substantial profit center for Benguet. Each day, farmers send out 1,500 kilograms of vegetables to the trading post in the capital town of La Trinidad, where these are bought by 120 traders who supply Metro Manila and other Luzon markets, trading post records showed.

Subagan said the change in weather gave most farmers less time to deal with frost.

Farming cycles disrupted

“But the diminishing frost also adds to the confusion they now have about our farming cycles,” she said. The farming cycles have been disrupted by out-of-season typhoons and longer dry spells.

“Our farmers have been used to a system. They plant on areas that receive less irrigation during the monsoon season and once that cycle ends, they proceed to plant irrigated areas,” Subagan said.

“But these last few years, they plant when they expect rains but the rains don’t come. So farmers have been relearning…. They’ve been reconnecting with their environment,” she said.

Frost has not yet completely disappeared because of the extreme weather patterns.

In 2011, the Department of Tourism proposed to develop a tour in villages that experienced frost.

Alos said the tour would take visitors to vegetable-growing areas as early as 4 a.m. because frost disappeared by 6 a.m. when the sun was up.

Originally posted: 10:37 pm | Sunday, January 5th, 2014

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TAGS: Agriculture, Baguio City, Benguet, farming, Frost, Regions, Tourism, Travel, Vegetables, Weather
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