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Connecting the garden to the classroom: Teaching schoolchildren to plant

By William Dar Published Jul 29, 2022 5:00 am

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There is a running worry about the future of agriculture. Despite all of the Department of Agriculture (DA)’s efforts to digitalize operations and mechanize our farms, the sector is pressed to inspire the next able bodies to take over an increasingly complex sector.

Our aging population of farmers poses a cultural challenge. They are, of course, a rich resource of conventional farming wisdom. Their years of experience give them an intuitive feel of the fields. Their intuition plays into their farming decisions — which plants to cultivate, and the alignment of the basics such as water, fertilizer, and soil requirements.

Different organizations, residents of Old Balara, Quezon City, and PUP students participate in a community tree planting activity in Sitio Payong.

They possess farming knowledge passed down quite informally. Tradition, ritual, and ancestry are their teachers.

I witnessed how the youth movement in agripreneurship was just starting to pick up.

Farming is practically inescapable for children of farmers. The household farming family, which involves all members, including children, in a range of production and processing activities, is the most common smallholding farming arrangement. This is the reality in rural areas. Children help out in the fields and the fields are their play area. They are thrust by birth into the farming environment and innocently miss out on more privileged leisure activities during their vacations from school — if they are able to go to school at all.

Farmers plant rice at Brgy. Balinad, Polangui in Albay. The Philippines is the 8th largest rice producer in the world.

So in the rural backdrop, agriculture as a formal economic sector is often accused of child labor. This is true, to an extent, for exploitative arrangements such as harsh tenancy systems. But I propose that the labor structure within a small household farming family be understood in the context of rural development, poverty, and agrarian histories.

The startling outcome is that, even as children in rural areas are called to farm early in their lives, the country remains short of next-generation farmers.

Instruction versus interest

The tall order to involve the next generations — the Gen Z and Millennials — in agriculture, I fear, may have come late in the game.

Plant growers showcase their homegrown plants at the first green exhibit of a mall in Pulilan, Bulacan.

In the last two years and 10 months that I served as secretary of the Department of Agriculture, I witnessed how the youth movement in agripreneurship was just starting to pick up.

The pandemic even became an accelerator of this movement, as agriculture came to be recognized as a flywheel of the economy. The millennials in the city emerged as “plantitos” and “plantitas” during the lockdowns. Worries about our internal food supply during the pandemic, what with supply chain blockages, sparked interest in urban and household agriculture. The DA's pandemic recovery program, Plant, Plant, Plant, managed to galvanize this new consciousness into a movement. It was suddenly cool to be a plantitx.

The new generation has to experience the needed affective (emotional) and cultural attachments to agriculture. Forming a relationship with the environment and the community takes all of one’s life, and these two factors lay down one’s identity as a farmer.

That is a good start. But if we are to go deeper into initiating and sustaining profound interest in farming among the youth, then perhaps we have to go way back.

Being a child of farmers, and having been immersed in agriculture all my life, I am aware of the pains of farm labor. This is where agriculture gets less attractive for middle-class, educated youth who have both the entrepreneurial education and capital. Agribusiness is the profitable end of agriculture, and transforming the way our farmers exercise their profession is a lesson in class and circumstance.

Farmers from Anao in Tarlac at work.

We cannot simply impose on our current crop of farmers the demands of export-oriented economies, while they are busy producing the raw material with little budgetary support from the government in the past decades. We in the DA know that it takes much more than communication campaigns and widespread distribution of technologies before agriculture becomes an attractive livelihood, or even before the current generation of farmers adopts modern practices.

Teaching schoolchildren to plant, or at least making food cultivation a pleasant and not necessarily a laborious experience, cements early the responsibility, identity and passion of providing food for families and communities.

The new generation has to experience the needed affective (emotional) and cultural attachments to agriculture. Forming a relationship with the environment and the community takes all of one’s life, and these two factors lay down one’s identity as a farmer.

As long as agriculture is evolving and adopting more scientific approaches, the educational system must step in to provide early cultural awareness of the role agriculture plays in family and community life, and nation-building.

To learn about farming from a young age is to recognize the importance of our natural resources and the hard work of the country's agricultural sector.

Schools as food security hubs 

These days, curriculum revisions take a backseat to student welfare in the prioritization of education issues. Schoolchildren go to school hungry and compete for the meager facilities of most public schools. The urgency of the school feeding program of the Department of Education proves that hunger, malnutrition, and stunting are the foremost hurdles to educational progress.

I propose that agriculture addresses both food security and educational opportunities. It is a domain that is yet to be formalized in curricula, yet it should be seen as a viable, profitable livelihood. Teaching schoolchildren to plant, or at least making food cultivation a pleasant and not necessarily a laborious experience, cements early the responsibility, identity, and passion for providing food for families and communities.

It is a cultural and affective experience that most millennial or Gen Z agripreneurs would have missed. Teaching agriculture as early as primary school gives the next generation the advantage of both farming intuition and technology savvy to run a modernized and industrialized sector.