A daunting sight for Malipayon Farms’ workers.
Culture Spotlight

How the farmers of Taal are dusting off the ashes and making the first steps to recovery

The farms in the vicinity of Taal Volcano continue to reel from the effects of the January 12 eruption, but they’re starting to find ways to recover from the disaster.
Marilen Fontanilla | Feb 01 2020

“When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what the storm’s all about,” writes Haruki Murakami. In their own tragic way, the hundreds of farms located in the vicinity of Taal Volcano walked out of the “storm” that was Taal’s January 12 eruption no longer the same as before.

It was an idyllic Sunday in Tagaytay City, with the peak of Taal Volcano highlighted by cloudy summits and a bright blue sky. Villagers were going about their daily routine at the base of the volcano, with visitors high on the Tagaytay Ridge milling around to get the requisite snapshots of the scenic lake. But when steam started shooting out from the volcano’s cone, spewing ash that rained down on its surroundings, the repercussions would be felt for days to come, not only for those living in the Cavite-Laguna-Batangas zone, but for the farmers whose only means of livelihood took a heart-sinking hit.

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In its latest report, the Department of Agriculture stated that damage and losses to agriculture caused by Taal’s eruption amount to over P3 billion, encompassing 15,790 hectares of agricultural lands, affecting commodities like rice, corn, coffee, coconut, cacao, banana, pineapple, and other fruits and high-value crops, not to mention livestock.

 

Fields of gray

“I’ve always been happy about growing my own food—until the ashfall came. This time, not only our vegetable plots but our coffee trees were also affected,” relates Pacita Juan of ECHOfarms in Amadeo, Cavite. Juan’s lament was echoed by independent farmers in Batangas and Cavite whose once lush and verdant hectares have been transformed to murky gray fields.

Juan surveyed the 300 barako coffee trees in her farm and sadly observed that the large palm-size leaves bore the brunt of the ashfall from the volcano. “The leaves fell and only God knows if these now bald trees will survive,” she relates. 

Bald barako coffee trees at ECHOfarms.
Only the coffee berries remain on this tree.

It’s worth noting that, according to Juan, the coffee farms in Cavite and Batangas translate to 15% of total production in the country or about 500 metric tons of coffee, which may now be lost due to the damage from the Taal eruption.

As of now, the coffee harvest is gone in Juan’s farm. “We managed to harvest some coffee fruits, but will now just make planting materials out of them. Usually, we gather some to taste—but we were warned by experts that the taste may change due to the ashfall getting into the porous walls of the coffee fruit,” she comments.

Coffee berries caked in ash at ECHOfarms.

Mary Rose Jimenez of Malipayon Farms located in Silang, Cavite narrates a similar tale of destruction. “We lost all our produce. Nothing was spared. The farm is open and exposed. We don’t have any greenhouses. We use short trees and bamboos to provide shade during the warm season,” she describes.

Ravaged crops at Malipayon.

In her farm, the ashfall caused the trees to lose their leaves and the bamboos to bow down to the ground. She laments, “We had to cut the bamboos. We use vetiver grass to demarcate our plots of land. Even the vetiver grass is no longer visible.” What were once lush fields with all sorts of crops were suddenly transformed into a carpet of gray, Jimenez continues, with each plot identical. “It was like the plants were burned to ash color. My workers describe it as nasunog sa alat. The acidity of the ashes burned all the plants up to the stalk.”

The bamboo groves aren’t spared.

Despite all the destruction, Jimenez was able to save their carrots. She describes, “We did one harvest of carrots. But as we harvested the smaller ones, we noticed the crown was already rotting, pushing its way inside the carrots. So even the carrots that were starting to grow underground were not spared by the ashfall.”

Lucciole Natural Family Farm in Amadeo, Cavite was directly hit by the ashfall as well. According to its owner Henry Brolagda, although they had done their weekly harvest on Friday ahead of the Sunday eruption, there was still a lot of damage done as the heavy ash smothered their crops like lettuce, herbs, papaya, banana, coffee, and more.

Ash-covered fields at the Lucciole Natural Family Farm.
Banana trees weighed down by the ash.

Brolagda describes, “The ashfall is different in color and texture compared with the ashfall from Pinatubo.” It may be hard to fathom that minute particles could do so much damage, but when coupled with the hot temperatures that coated each plant, it is inevitable that those picked would be inedible.

Brolagda narrates how their smaller livestock were also not spared, “A number of our small animals (rabbits, chickens, ducks, etc.) instantly died a few hours after the ashfall.” He adds, “Fortunately, our big animals (horse, cattle, native black pigs, goats, sheep) survived.”

Native pigs surviving the ashfall.

 

Rising from the ashes

Brolagda prefers to see the positive side of the situation. “We were exceedingly fortunate that Lucciole has a unique (integrated natural) farming system. We don’t use commercial fertilizers. Thus, we can see faster recovery of our soil, and eventually the plants, with lesser human intervention.”

Before and after ashfall clean-up at Lucciole.

Brolagda was initially challenged by what kind of food to feed their livestock. “Lucciole is a natural farm and all our animals eat only vegetables, fruits, and grass from the farm. We bought sacks of commercial feed mix from the nearby market and it went to waste because they don’t want to eat the commercial feeds. Therefore, we have to give them the trunk of the banana for the next four days and clean water from the nearby ilog.”

At Lucciole, feeding farm animals with banana trunks and natural feeds.

At Malipayon, Jimenez ensured that their first steps would be to take care of their workers. “In farming, our greatest assets are our people. Our workers make the farm grow.” She describes the mood, “The day after the ashfall, the spirit of our workers was so down. They were confused, scared, angry, uncertain, and hungry. I had to be strong. I had to assure them that everything will be ok. I had to have faith and hope for them.”

Jimenez made sure to provide their workers with N95 masks, food, and toiletries. Her concern also extended to those workers who had small patches of vegetation in their backyards. “They had no source of income and also no source of food. So I made more trips to the farm during these weeks to assure them that we will not abandon the farm.”

 

Seeds of hope

Since the Taal eruption more than two weeks ago, and with the volcano alert brought down to level 3 (or “a decreased tendency towards hazardous eruption”), farmers have begun taking steps to get their farms back in operation. “Life will go on and has to go on,” Juan says. “We dusted each tree and hopefully this will allow the tree to breathe and get its needed air to live. We also may cut some trees to give it a chance to rejuvenate and grow new leaves and stems again.”

Surviving coffee trees after the clean-up at ECHOFarms.

Brolagda showed the same spirit and grit as he narrates their next steps, “I tell friends and fellow farmers that there is really something with the texture of the ashfall which may be beneficial to our crops and now we see a number of articles about it. I am doing my own experiment on this.” He adds, “Hopefully it works.”

Planting seedlings at Lucciole.

Jimenez started rehabilitation by planting again as soon as the alert levels were lowered. But she had to inform all their clients that the farm would need some time before getting back to normal. Nevertheless, she stays optimistic as she surveys the land, “The only thing we did not lose are the roots of our plants. Not all of them, but some. At the moment, there are signs of life as leaves are starting to grow back, indicating that the roots are saved. These roots are planted in the original soil with the ashfall on top not affecting the roots.”

Signs of life at Malipayon Farms.

However, she cautions, “Usually, it takes two months from seed to harvest, but the ashfall has changed the composition of soil that we are now uncertain if we can even plant. As my workers say, ‘masyado maalat.’” They are still figuring out how to plant in this new ashfall-mixed soil composition. “It will take time for the ashfall to process itself naturally and become ready to be added to the soil,” she comments.

Brushing aside the ashes is just the first step for these resilient entrepreneurs and farmers. Right now, both Juan and Brolagda hope that they can see harvests in the next year or so. Jimenez is even hoping that the farm will be operational in six months. It was a tough question to answer when I queried them about this and only time will truly tell what the future brings. Brolagda shares, “Real farmers will just stand up and continue to go back to work. We have no other options or business to support our difficult situation.”