By YVETTE TAN
The Philippines and Korea have always been on good terms. Many Filipinos have found good jobs in Korea, and The Land of the Morning Calm continues to share its knowledge and resources in different industries, including agriculture.
The Korea Program for International Cooperation in Agricultural Technology (KOPIA) Philippines Center is an organization that facilitates the transfer of Korean agriculture technology to farmers in developing countries with the aim of helping them increase their income. There are around 23 KOPIA centers around the world.
KOPIA Philippines Center, hereafter referred to simply as KOPIA, was established in 2010 inside Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) in Nueva Ecija, transferring to the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI) in Los Banos in 2018. Its current projects involve training farmer cooperatives to produce crops as well as constructing relevant infrastructure such as greenhouses and post-harvest and storage facilities to enhance production and increase profits.
Dr. Kyu-Seong Lee, former International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) scientist and current KOPIA Director, oversees the organization’s latest project, the establishment of KOPIA Pilot Villages in Lucban, Quezon; Siniloan, Laguna; and Zaragoza, Nueva Ecija.
Working with farmers’ associations, the LGUs, and some private entities, KOPIA built greenhouses and post-production facilities. They also engaged participating farmers in skills enhancement and financial literacy courses to ensure that the project will continue even after the organization turns it over to the stakeholders. “LGUs who applied for Pilot Project [had] to prepare at least a one hectare area for good accessibility,” Dr lee explained.
This editor visited the Lucban site, which houses nine 6x40 greenhouses planted to various crops and a 6x16 one that is being used as a nursery. At the time of the interview, the Lucban greenhouses were planted with French beans and Korean cucumbers and the Siniloan ones, with lettuce and cucumbers (the types were not mentioned).
The organization also donated machinery such as a multi-cultivator to help with land preparation, power sprays to aid in watering, and a tractor for the field. Lee explained that profit from the greenhouse harvests alone wouldn’t be enough for everyone, so the farmers are encouraged to have a separate source of income, such a field, outside of the project, which KOPIA may help them with as well.
At the time of the visit, a post-production facility, which includes cold storage, was being constructed. Lee mentioned that since about 80% of the farmers KOPIA works with are women, the first thing he requested for the post-production facility was a female restroom. There are also plans for a kimchi-making facility to cater to the growing local interest in Korean food.
Members of the Siniloan site are composed of two cooperatives, totalling about 80 people. The Lucban site is composed of five barangay cooperatives totalling about 30. All of them are volunteers. Every six months, 70% of the income generated from the harvests goes to the coops and the rest is divided among the members.
These projects have a deadline, by which Lee hopes the communities will have become self-sufficient. “…if there is no sustainability, this is meaningless,” he said.
As of the interview, the harvests have either been for self-consumption or have been sold to the community. KOPIA has also been working with Mike Caballes of Bukid Amara, who is introducing them to potential buyers, as well as conducting farming and finance classes for the farmers.
The biggest myth that Lee continues to dispel, even among longtime farmers, is that farming, even in a tropical country, is easy. “[It is believed that] if you throw a seed [anywhere], it will grow on its own,” he said. “[But even] in tropical countries, [it is difficult to consistently] produce vegetables without a protective kind of cultivation.”
He stresses the importance of greenhouses because they protect crops from pests and extreme elements. The ones in the Pilot Villages are equipped with ventilation and irrigation systems, enabling farmers to control their growing environment. Because sourcing water can be a challenge in the Philippines, the Pilot Villages sometimes have to depend on natural sources. The Sinaloan Village, for example, uses water from a nearby river.
To prove this, the Sinaloan Pilot Village conducted an experiment: they planted the same crops in a greenhouse and an open field and gave both the same amount of cultivation and input. “ The harvest period is more than 25 days in the greenhouse, but outside, less than one week. So the percentage is more than 800,” he shared.
Lee stresses that KOPIA’s mission isn’t just to donate infrastructure and machinery and educate farmers on Korean agriculture technology, but to impart a business mindset to the farmers as well. “I always [tell] our farmers [that] this is only not to gain income, but we also need to cooperate and [establish] good communities [so we can] help each other,” he said. “Without cooperation, without self-help, without standing by each other, without loving each other in our barangay, you cannot work very well on the outside. So this is the baseline.”
Cooperation, he notices, is a muscle that Filipino farmers need to practice. “...they are very good farmers individually, but [we tell them that] as soon as we have [a project together], we should not be individuals. That is why we are talking and emphasizing cooperation,” he said.
Part of learning to get along with everyone included allowing members to volunteer according to their spare time and to be paid their shares accordingly. For example, members were divided according to folks who worked for the whole day and folks who worked half day, with attendance recorded for transparency.
“I know what is really important in village levels. Working is not the most important, but the cooperation and mind of the members. Comfortability and harmony with others are more important,” he shared. “I am more [concerned] about the mindset of our people, self health, diligence, and cooperation, and how these are important.”
Lee hopes to be able to set up at least 10 more Pilot Villages, and is trying to get the Korean government on board. The three Pilot Villages can be learning sites so that the model can be replicated nationwide. He added that in a way, projects like these are Korea’s way of thanking the Philippines for their participation in the Korean War, where over 7,000 Filipinos served under the United Nations Command.
“Because of the Korean war 70 years ago, now they are the one with gratitude for the Filipino people,” he said. “Then [Filipinos can] express [our] appreciation to [the] Korean people [by making] a successful project.”
Entrepreneurs in the making
In the end, the future of the Pilot Villages will depend on its members. “Whether they make sustainable Villages… or not, this also depends on them. That is what I [keep] emphasizing,” Lee stressed. “At the end of the year, KOPIA will provide all the seeds, all the materials for the operating cost of the greenhouse. It will be shared by the KOPIA because they should not spend on operating costs from their income and [they should] save their income. And after the end of next year, I will be transferring the money to the farmer communities.” What the coops will do with the money is up to them.
“My point of view is that when we establish a pilot village, it should be a sustainable culture. While we are making pilot projects, we have a source of income we have to develop and give to the farmers. Farmers do not know how they can make it, so our leaders, we are the one to find out that kind of income source to… be a sustainable pilot village.”
The Siniloan Pilot Village was formally opened last September 2023. Present were DA Senior Undersecretary Domingo Panganiban, and Republic of Korea Ambassador to the Philippines Sang-hwa Lee, DA-BPI Assistant Director Herminigilda Gabertan.
At the time of the interview, the Pilot Villages were about to transition to high value crops, but the members had not decided on which ones yet. Lee was very excited, especially since he had noticed big changes from when the project started to the present. “Definitely, there are very big changes. They (the farmers) are much [more] diligent. They have [a sense of] duty. They are really eager to do something. They have hope. Without hope they [would not]… voluntarily come to work.”
Photos courtesy of Patrick James Alpay