Sierra Madre food on the table
LOS BAÑOS, Laguna — Cherrys Abrigo needed someone to bring her to the uplands of Tanay town in Rizal province, where transportation is limited, for her volunteer work.
So the 33-year-old chemical engineer asked her friend, PJ Santos, if he knew how to drive a motorcycle.
Whatever little driving skill Santos has, the 35-year-old made up with his background in economics and community organizing.
Together, the two launched Sierra’s Table, an upstart social enterprise with a community of Dumagat. Both described the project as a work of two “like-minded” individuals.
“It’s basically bringing the products of Sierra Madre to your table,” Abrigo said. “The mountain itself is a rich banquet table,” she added.
In December 2016, Abrigo and Santos facilitated a P1.6-million UN Development Programme (UNDP)-funded project to teach and promote organic farming to 12 Dumagat families.
The indigenous farmers had been engaged in illegal logging and “kaingin” (slash-and-burn).
“To lessen the impact of those activities, we wanted to create a sustainable livelihood,” Santos said.
At first, the Dumagat beneficiaries were skeptical about the agriculture training. The fund lasted only a year, but Abrigo and Santos did not see a reason to pull back.
“We wanted products that farmers themselves could produce, package and market,” Santos said.
Sierra’s Table took off with the organic fruits and vegetables delivered directly to consumers weekly, at 80 to 100 kilograms.
To make sure of a regular market, it runs an online “palengke” (marketplace), a closed Facebook group named “Los Baños Community-Supported Agriculture.”
Every Thursday or Friday, Abrigo and Santos post available harvests for the week. Patrons place their order by clicking on their preferred products (minimum of P250 worth of fruits and vegetables), which are placed inside a “bayong” (woven native bag) for pickup during a mini-vegetable bazaar every Saturday at the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB).
Among the produce are sweet potatoes, “gabi” (taro), fruits in season, such as avocado, watermelon and lanzones, and basically all vegetables named in the popular children’s song, “Bahay Kubo.”
Since their community is in an upland area, the Dumagat farmers also try to grow Baguio pechay, arugula, lettuce and other vegetables often grown in highland farms.
“Right now, we are enhancing our processing to make products like chili powder, ginger and lemongrass tea,” Santos said.
From P900 a week from illegal logging, each Dumagat family is now earning P2,000 weekly from selling organic produce.
“Consumers get them at a low price and farmers sell them at a fair cost. No more middlemen. We think that’s fair trade and we think that is what’s important,” Santos said.
For instance, if a kilo of eggplants costs P45 in the public market, it is sold at almost the same price with only a P5 to P10 markup to cover labor and transportation costs.
“Farmers are the ones dictating the price [of their produce],” Santos said.
It is not exactly communal farming, but each family is assigned to cultivate a particular field of 300-500 square meters, which used to be kaingin land.
“As part of biodiversity conservation, they are taught not to go beyond that size anymore. They are asked to put up a ‘bio fence’ by planting coffee or fruit-bearing trees [as demarcation],” Santos said.
The farmers practice crop rotation. Each family is assigned three to five specific crops per season to prevent an oversupply of the crops.
“What we need to realize is that these farmers, by nature, are using indigenous methods because they can’t afford agrochemicals [as fertilizers] in the first place,” Santos said.
Natural ingredients, such as “kakawate” leaves, are used as pesticide and guano (bat excrement) as fertilizers.
Sierra’s Table’s latest product is the bamboo drinking straw called “IP-ipan” (the name is derived from the local term “ip-ip,” which means to sip or absorb, and “IP” for indigenous peoples). The straws were launched at the UPLB fair this month.
“The idea [of a bamboo straw] is actually not new. But from what we’ve noticed, those being produced are meant for export. Nothing so far is made for the local [market],” Abrigo said.
The straws are made from “buho,” a native bamboo species that grows abundantly in the Sierra Madre mountain ranges. These are cut, cleaned, and its edges smoothened.
Unlike plastic or metal straws, the bamboo straws are biodegradable and leave less carbon footprint. It can also be reused “up to 10 times” unlike paper straws, Santos said.
“What sparked everything [with the bamboo straw] is the drive and determination of farmers themselves. Even the name ‘IP-ipan’ was their idea,” Abrigo said.
Four straws in a cheesecloth pouch are sold for P100. The Dumagat farmers produce 500 pieces a week, which are, in turn, sold to local coffee shops and restaurants or as wedding or birthday souvenirs.
The earnings go to Sierra’s Table operations and to the Dumagat families.
“We know there are a lot of big companies capable of mass-producing [the bamboo straws]. But before that happens, we want it (IP-ipan) established as an IP brand,” Abrigo said.
To Santos, more than an enterprise, Sierra’s Table is actually “a lifestyle of eating and buying local.”