The ap­peal of heir­loom pro­duce is fla­vored by its com­pelling back­story


We’ve painted a pic­ture in our heads of what farming is like. We sketch lines to make grids and add lit­tle check­marks in­side each box to il­lus­trate seedlings of rice. We draw a nipa hut be­side the grid, a carabao and a farmer wear­ing a straw hat in front of it.

Farming is of­ten un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated, not only by city dwellers, but also by any­one born in to­day’s gen­er­a­tion. We think that pro­duc­ers just carve grids on the ground just like in our child­hood draw­ings, plant seeds, and wa­ter them ev­ery day. The rest is just a mat­ter of wait­ing. We con­sumers, on the other hand, al­ready see food packed and ready to be cooked.

But with the per­sis­tent pro­mo­tion of slow liv­ing via so­cial me­dia, we’ve started to ask im­por­tant ques­tions: what goes into our food and where does it really come from? And as the sys­tem is rat­tled, the more we try an­swer­ing th­ese ques­tions that were never asked be­fore.

Let’s start with the most ba­sic good, the sta­ple in ev­ery meal: rice.

Palay. Bi­gas. Si­naing. Kanin.

The dif­fer­ent terms of rice in our mother tongue only em­pha­sizes its sig­nif­i­cance. In the lo­cal mar­ket, we’d see an ar­ray of va­ri­eties from which any con­sumer could choose. There is jas­mine, sinan­domeng, di­no­rado, malagkit, and the list goes on. There are dif­fer­ent colors, too—red, brown, white, black. But have you seen a card­board sign atop heaps of grains that says: “tina­won?”

Na­ture’s high-rise

Grown in the high­lands of the Cordilleras, the tina­won rice, as well as over hun­dreds of heir­loom rice va­ri­eties, are most likely un­known in ur­ban ar­eas. An im­age of time­less beauty with­stand­ing the forces of na­ture and a sym­bol of our an­ces­tors’ un­wa­ver­ing crafts­man­ship, the tow­er­ing Banaue Rice Ter­races is home to the thou­sandyear-old rice va­ri­eties.

In its most ba­sic sense, “heir­loom” is de­fined as any valu­able ob­ject passed on from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion. In the con­text of rice, it’s the mother of rice va­ri­eties. It has no ad­di­tives, no ge­netic mu­ta­tions or en­hance­ments. Through the years and be­cause of tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance­ments, re­searchers and sci­en­tists have found ways to mod­ify the unas­sum­ing grain to in­crease yield and boost seed qual­ity.

The in­dige­nous peo­ple of the Cordillera moun­tain range have pre­served the art of rice farming. Its im­por­tance lies not just in the phys­i­cal nour­ish­ment it gives but also in its spir­i­tual im­pli­ca­tions. Their an­ces­tors cre­ated a re­li­gion, named gods, and pat­terned their cal­en­dars ac­cord­ing to the rice pro­duc­tion cy­cle.

The oral tra­di­tion in this part of the Philip­pines is still rich, the Ifu­gao Tina­won myth sur­viv­ing for over two cen­turies. It is be­lieved that one of their ma­jor gods, Lid­dum, gave them a par­tic­u­lar rice va­ri­ety, the tina­won, in ex­change for fire. Since then, the dif­fer­ent in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties have been offering rit­u­als for a pros­per­ous year of plant­ing rice. Its ob­ser­vance is also said to bring a pest- and dis­ease-free year for all their crops.

A grain of truth

Un­der the do­min­ion of Chris­tian­ity, fewer com­mu­ni­ties con­tin­ued the tra­di­tion. How­ever, the preser­va­tion of tra­di­tional prac­tices en­dured, and heir­loom rice steadily gained pop­u­lar­ity lo­cally and even glob­ally. Three of the heir­loom rice va­ri­eties, in fact, are part of the in­ter­na­tional cat­a­log of her­itage foods called Ark of Taste.

What has brought about this come­back? Ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Rice Re­search In­sti­tute (IRRI), th­ese va­ri­eties are re­silient, show­ing high lev­els of re­sis­tance

to diseases and tol­er­ance of en­vi­ron­men­tal stresses. What’s more, they have ex­cep­tional cook­ing qual­ity, fla­vor, aroma, tex­ture, color, and nu­tri­tional value. The clamor for heir­loom rice has boosted the lo­cal econ­omy, giv­ing rise to more jobs and giv­ing more peo­ple rea­son to pre­serve the tra­di­tion.

Archiv­ing of the dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties be­gan a year ago, when the Heir­loom Rice Re­search kicked off. “Most of the tra­di­tional va­ri­eties sowed in the ter­races are non-aro­matic. But when I was young, al­most all were aro­matic,” Jimmy Lin­gayo, Rice Ter­races Farm­ers Co­op­er­a­tive man­ager shares. “[ It’s called] the

tina­won rice. Then, IRRI pri­or­i­tized high-yield­ing va­ri­eties. But when they saw the eco­nomic po­ten­tial in heir­loom rice, they started dif­fer­ent projects that will aid in pre­serv­ing the tra­di­tional ones.” Mar­i­lyn Sta. Catalina, Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture-Cordillera Ad­min­is­tra­tive Re­gion di­rec­tor fur­ther em­pha­sizes, “More than profit, we are pro­mot­ing the rich Cordilleran cul­tural her­itage through this ex­port.”

Fields of glory

A first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence on har­vest­ing the mother grains is life-chang­ing, and a dif­fer­ent level of ap­pre­ci­a­tion to­ward the meal sta­ple is rekin­dled.

De­pend­ing on the lo­ca­tion of a landowner’s property on the grand ter­races, it could take an hour or more to reach the patch of golden field ready for har­vest. Walk­ing through ir­ri­ga­tion canals and man­made walk­ways by the cliffs, it is a shock­ing rev­e­la­tion that farm­ers could travel back and forth sev­eral times a day. It is more sur­pris­ing that women—from those who have just reached pu­berty to those in their se­nior years—are re­spon­si­ble for plant­ing and har­vest­ing rice.

Wear­ing pants, shirts over long-sleeved tees, and big hats, women tra­verse the wind­ing walk­ways ev­ery day. As they reach the field, they form a line cov­er­ing its ex­panse. They have de­vel­oped a sys­tem: cut­ting pan­i­cles on one hand and hold­ing the har­vest on the other. Once their hands are full, they pass it to the end of the line and give it to a man. The sole role of the man is to col­lect and carry the har­vested bun­dles of palay to the com­mu­nity cen­ter.

“Sow­ing to har­vest takes a to­tal of six months. Dry­ing takes at least a month and the milling-topack­ag­ing process could last [up] to two months be­fore it is ready [to be sold],” ex­plains Lin­gayo.

One kilo of tina­won rice, or any heir­loom va­ri­ety, would range from P100 to P120. A far cry from the com­mon sinan­domeng that could range from P40 to P50 only. But, given the ex­tra­or­di­nary ef­forts ex­erted by lo­cal and women farm­ers, and the re­sult­ing ex­cep­tional qual­ity that the tina­won pro­vides, th­ese grains are truly our coun­try’s pride and glory.

We are what we eat. Food re­veals iden­tity. The grow­ing sup­port we give to th­ese prod­ucts will not only help our farm­ers el­e­vate their liveli­hood, but also cre­ate a rip­ple ef­fect that could sus­tain the coun­try’s eco­nomic sta­bil­ity.

A lo­cal woman with freshly reaped tina­won on one hand and a plas­tic of nganga on the other; Golden stalks of the heir­loom grain ready for har­vest­ing.

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