From binhi to bigas: The laypersons’ guide to the rice production process (Part 1)

Published May 7, 2021, 12:12 AM

by Yvette Tan


Yvette Natalie Tan

Just what exactly is needed to produce a grain of rice?

Quite a lot of labor and capital.

Despite rice being a staple of the Pinoy dining table, not many Filipinos understand how the country’s favorite grain goes from binhi (seed) to bigas (milled rice).

When Make a Difference (MAD) Travel, his social tourism business was put on hold because of the pandemic, agroforest and tourism entrepreneur Raf Dionisio tried his hand at growing rice. He partnered with two farmers from Sitio Yangil in Zambales, the community MAD Travel works with, to see if growing rice could be a viable business addition to MAD Market, the brand’s farm-to-household online store, and to find out why it’s such a controversial industry.

He breaks down, for the layperson, a simplified process that many Filipino rice farmers go through.

Land comes first. Some farmers own their own land. Others will rent it from a landowner in exchange for a cut of the harvest. The profit share will depend on their negotiations, but is usually between 10-20 percent of the harvest.

Will there be water? Rice is a water-intensive crop, so the farmer will have to figure out how to make sure their field never dries out. The best way to do this is through irrigation, but since many farmers in the Philippines don’t have access to proper irrigation facilities, they have to rely on the weather. “If it’s natural irrigation, so rain-fed, then they will probably plant in May-June. If it’s irrigated, then they can probably plant most of the year,” Dionisio said.

Prepare the soil. Soil health is a crucial part of farming. The farmer will have to check if the soil has enough nutrients to support the planted crops. If not, it will have to be amended with fertilizer. They’ll also till the field to aerate it. This is actually what is being depicted in those paintings of farmers with carabao-driven plows. Fertilizers will cost money, and farmers often have to borrow from a moneylender at around 140+ percent interest annually.

See to seeds. Next, the farmer has to acquire seeds. These can be bought or they can sometimes be acquired for free from the Department of Agriculture through the Provincial Agriculture Office. The seeds will be germinated in a small lot before they are planted in the field. The germination happens at the same time as the land preparation.

Time to plant! Once the seedlings reach the desired height, the farmer will transfer it to the field once it starts to rain because rice needs a marshy environment to thrive. “Here, it’s manually planted so the distance and the spacing may be a little prone to human inconsistency, but we do see that a machine would be very helpful with planting, if we can get it, of course,” Dionisio said.

Care and cultivation. While the rice grows, the farmer maintains the field by keeping pests like birds and rats away, as well as making sure their crops are disease-free. They also need to make sure that the rice is adequately watered, and in areas without enough rain, this can mean using gas-powered pumps to pump out groundwater for watering. Paying for gas is another expense.

Harvest time! If the farmer is lucky, they’ll have waited the full 115 days before harvesting. Sometimes an incoming typhoon will force them to harvest a week or two early, but it’s better to have a young harvest instead of none at all. “When you harvest, again, it could be manual, so guys come out with their sickles and knives and scythes or could be machine done, as with other countries,” Dionisio said.

If you think the process ends here, you’re wrong! Next week, I’ll lay out the rest of what Dionisio found about the rice production process, as well as the areas where the farmers need to shell out cash, and why they end up spending so much but yet earn so little.

And here you thought planting rice was just about putting seeds on the ground and pulling up grown plants after!