F&B World - - NEWS - Text by DIANNE SIBAL Photo by SONNY THAKUR

Un­der­sec­re­tary Berna Ro­mulo-Puyat her­alds agri­cul­ture’s re­turn to form, thanks to hard ef­forts to re­vive its vi­a­bil­ity

Let’s get this straight. Berna Ro­mulo- Puyat is a pub­lic ser­vant, not a politi­cian.

While her im­pres­sive back­ground ( grow­ing up in a fam­ily of re­spected gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, child­hood spent cam­paign­ing for an as­sem­bly­man and sen­a­tor, and years spent in the Univer­sity of the Philip­pines as an econ­o­mist and ed­u­ca­tor) has groomed her for the es­teemed role of an elected of­fi­cial, she has never been tempted to go back to pol­i­tics af­ter tak­ing a stab at it “back when I was very young,” she re­calls fondly.

“They ask me every now and then if I want to run, and I al­ways say no,” she says. “There are many ways to serve your coun­try, of course, and be­ing an elected of­fi­cial is one of them. In fact, you can help any­where you are— even if you’re in the pri­vate sec­tor. I feel I can help more where I am now.”

Where she is now is the De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture ( DA), where she serves as the chair­per­son for the Gen­der and De­vel­op­ment ( GAD) Fo­cal Sys­tem, su­per­vis­ing un­der­sec­re­tary for the youth, el­derly, and in­dige­nous peo­ple, and al­ter­nate chair of the National Or­ganic Agri­cul­ture Board ( NOAB).

Ro­mulo- Puyat’s job takes her to dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try, vis­it­ing farm­ers and fish­er­folk in their work en­vi­ron­ment. They wel­come her into their homes and their fields, and she im­merses her­self in their daily rou­tines so she can get a first­hand ac­count of how they toil and take care of the land.

“We walk or hike with them to the farms, help with the plant­ing and the har­vest, eat with them, talk to them about their con­cerns. Hear­ing them tell their sto­ries helps us un­der­stand their sit­u­a­tion bet­ter so we can craft more rel­e­vant poli­cies and pro­grams for their com­mu­nity.”

She adds, “It’s one thing to know about the plight of our farm­ers from re­ports, but it’s an­other to hear about it first­hand.” Re­al­iz­ing that many farm­ers and fish­er­folk still have dif­fi­culty get­ting ac­cess to gov­ern­ment fa­cil­i­ties, Ro­mulo- Puyat is work­ing ex­tra hard to make sure they get the sup­port that they need to be more pro­duc­tive and profitable in their fields. “We pro­vide them with mar­ket­ing as­sis­tance, help them with credit, and cre­ate more pro­grams for ca­pac­i­ty­build­ing.” The goal is to sup­port and ed­u­cate the farmer or the fish­er­man to build a sus­tain­able liveli­hood so he can stand on his own two feet.

A cause that is close to her heart is women in agri­cul­ture. “It al­ways sur­prises peo­ple when I tell them this, but around the world, and in the Philip­pines, women ac­tu­ally play a ma­jor role in agri­cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties. Go to the fields on any given day and you’ll see women work­ing just as hard along­side their hus­bands, their fa­thers, and their sons.”

In some cases even, the men’s only role is the up­keep of the ma­chines and farm fa­cil­i­ties while the re­spon­si­bil­ity of plant­ing and har­vest­ing falls solely on women. “It’s be­cause women are such hard­work­ing but dili­gent creatures. They also have a del­i­cate touch that is re­quired in han­dling some crops. And in some com­mu­ni­ties, it’s the women who pos­sess the tra­di­tional knowl­edge in the prop­a­ga­tion, har­vest­ing, and pro­cess­ing of cer­tain crops.”

This is true for the heir­loom rice farm­ing com­mu­nity in the Cordilleras and the fe­male cof­fee farm­ers of Sag- ang, Ne­gros Oc­ci­den­tal. In both cases, 90 per­cent of the work­ers in the fields are women.

In the Cordilleras, the women are seed­keep­ers, hold­ers of tra­di­tional knowl­edge in seed breed­ing as well as the knowl­edge for plant­ing and har­vest­ing. Heir­loom rice va­ri­eties are passed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion through the women in the fam­ily. It also falls upon the Cordilleran women, es­pe­cially the moth­ers, to take charge of ed­u­cat­ing the younger gen­er­a­tion about heir­loom rice farm­ing.

There is gen­uine af­fec­tion and re­spect in Ro­mulo- Puyat’s tone when she talks about women farm­ers. “Did you know that in Sag- ang, the women trek for hours every day just to get to their cof­fee farms at the foot of Mt. Kan­laon? I’ve done the hike with them and it’s not easy. These kinds of ex­pe­ri­ences make me ap­pre­ci­ate fe­male farm­ers more be­cause af­ter a long day in the fields, they still have time to go home and take care of their fam­ily.

“This is why plat­forms like the DA’s Gen­der and De­vel­op­ment ( GAD) pro­gram or the PCW ( Philip­pine Com­mis­sion on Women)’s Gen­der- Re­spon­sive Eco­nomic Ac­tions for the Trans­for­ma­tion of Women ( GREAT Women) Project are put in place,” Ro­mulo- Puyat ex­plains. They are geared to­wards the eco­nomic em­pow­er­ment of women and pro­mo­tion of gen­der equal­ity.

“It makes me happy when I see restau­ra­teurs or­der newly dis­cov­ered in­gre­di­ents and fea­ture them in their res­tau­rants,”

says Berna Ro­mulo-Puyat.

Her of­fice over­sees the im­ple­men­ta­tion of var­i­ous projects like pro­vid­ing gen­der- sen­si­tive plant­ing ma­te­ri­als and post- har­vest fa­cil­i­ties for fe­male farm­ers, like lower ma­chines more ap­pro­pri­ate for a woman’s height or even a day­care area nearby so the moth­ers can bring their chil­dren to work. They also help pro­mote prod­ucts made by women.

Ro­mulo- Puyat is also very com­mit­ted to en­gag­ing the youth in agri­cul­ture by con­duct­ing train­ings and sem­i­nars in lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. “Sadly, a lot of them are los­ing in­ter­est in car­ry­ing on their par­ents’ liveli­hoods be­cause they grew up see­ing the strug­gles of run­ning a farm and think there’s no fu­ture in it.”

Pro­grams like Cof­fee Youth Camp, which Ro­mu­loPuyat staged with the Ori­gin Cof­fee Net­work, are teach­ing kids how to set up their own busi­nesses us­ing prod­ucts or crops avail­able in their com­mu­ni­ties. “The par­tic­i­pants were young ones from the Cordillera Ad­min­is­tra­tive Re­gion. It was nice to see the sons and daugh­ters of cof­fee farm­ers gain new ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the work of their par­ents and re­al­ize that they, too, can make a living out of it.

“Ed­u­ca­tion and aware­ness play a big part in all of this,” Ro­mulo- Puyat stresses again and again. “Not only among the ac­tive play­ers in the agri­cul­tural in­dus­try but also those who work with and ben­e­fit from the work of the farm­ers and fish­er­folk.”

She is re­fer­ring to the surge of in­ter­est among mem­bers of the food and bev­er­age in­dus­try in con­nect­ing with the farm­ers and fish­er­men from whom they source their in­gre­di­ents.

“Presently, chefs are con­sid­ered as in­flu­encers, and they are ef­fec­tive chan­nels for rais­ing aware­ness on our farm­ers’ sit­u­a­tion. The chefs we have worked with love talk­ing about the farm- to- fork con­cept with their cus­tomers and fel­low food­ies. And this also helps pro­mote lo­cal in­gre­di­ents in their cir­cles of in­flu­ence.”

Just re­cently, the DA’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Philip­pine Har­vest Trade Fair and in­ter­na­tional event Madrid Fusión Manila helped shine a spot­light on lo­cal in­gre­di­ents. Pro­mo­tion of re­gional cui­sine also gives Filipinos and for­eign­ers alike a bet­ter ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the va­ri­ety of prod­ucts avail­able in the coun­try.

“Even I am still pleas­antly sur­prised when­ever I dis­cover new prod­ucts in un­ex­pected places,” Ro­mulo- Puyat says. In her most re­cent field vis­its, her team was in­tro­duced to grapes from La Union, lob­sters from Is­abela ( which is known to be a corn- pro­duc­ing province), a new va­ri­ety of large ba­nanas from Bukid­non, in­dige­nous sour­ing agents from Min­danao like tabon- tabon and sua, 300 va­ri­eties of heir­loom rice from the Cordilleras, and ad­lai, which is fast be­com­ing a fa­vorite among chefs. “It makes me happy when I see restau­ra­teurs or­der newly dis­cov­ered in­gre­di­ents and fea­ture them in their res­tau­rants.”

“It’s great that so many peo­ple are now mak­ing the ef­fort to con­nect di­rectly with our farm­ers and form­ing re­la­tion­ships with them. Every time this hap­pens, we cre­ate more op­por­tu­ni­ties for them to in­crease their pro­duc­tion and, of course, in­come, and fur­ther di­ver­sify their pro­duce in the fu­ture.”

Ro­mulo- Puyat de­rives deep plea­sure and ful­fill­ment from see­ing more and more peo­ple gain ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the hard work of lo­cal fish­er­folk and farm­ers when­ever they ac­com­pany her dur­ing her vis­its.

“There was this one time when a group of friends joined me on a visit to the rice fields. They helped har­vest and pound the bi­gas and saw the back- break­ing work that goes into that cup of rice that’s served on their ta­ble. So while we were eat­ing, I just had to laugh and smile when some­one ex­claimed, ‘ Uy! Ubusin niyo ’ yan. Ang hi­rap mag­tanim ng palay.’ It’s one of the sim­ple joys of my job. This is why I do this.”

Some­one said that Ro­mulo- Puyat has helped make farm­ing cool again. Hope­fully, her tire­less and ded­i­cated work will con­trib­ute to not only sus­tain­ing the ris­ing in­ter­est of Filipinos in farm­ing but also to a more last­ing shift in the way we view agri­cul­ture.

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