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?”
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.