Monday, February 14, 2011

Part 2 - Farming kangkong on floating gardens

Abe V Rotor

rom the garden of fragrance - sampaguita - we walked to another farm. The produce here is not a surprise for no sinigang can be as tasty without this vegetable. In fact it is the most popular vegetable in the Philippines, that it is often dubbed as gulay ng masa (people’s vegetable), scientifically known as Ipomea aquatica. It is because kangkong is cheap, and is available everywhere and anytime of the year. It is here in Barangay San Jose in San Luis, Pampanga that our group witnessed kangkong being cultivated just like any vegetable or field crop.

Mang Ben Miranda took us at the edge of a stream. He rowed a flat bottom boat to a kangkong pen and showed us how the shoots grow outward from the “floating gardens” similar to the Aztec method of growing vegetables on Texcoco Lake in Mexoco, or the Burmese method of raising vegetables on mud mound or plot with the farmer rowing a dugout canoe to attend to the plants. Another version of this unique agriculture is the Sorjan farming in Pakistan and India. The farm is made of intervals of plots and canals.

The thick mass of kangkong, two to three meters across, is tied to poles to keep it steady in the flowing stream and keep the floating vines intact. By rowing the boat, the harvester picks the shoots at standard length, which he later bundles into thigh size. This is later repacked into 5 to 6 shoots per bundle, the one we buy in the market. A bundle cost P5.

The key to productivity of kangkong is the fresh, unpolluted water of the stream. Contrary to general belief, kangkong is not just a wild plant growing in canals and swamps, even if some people call it swamp cabbage. The truth is that there are several varieties of kangkong and the commercial ones are really cultivated the same way as other field crops are raised. The upland variety is short and lean, and is preferred for adobong kangkong, or fried kangkong - or simply blanched for table salad, adding tomato, onion and a dash of salt. Some cooks take the short cut by using seasoning instead.

Food and Mineral Value of Kangkong

What do we get from kangkong as vegetable? According to Maranon in the Philippine Journal of Science, young shoots of kangkong, are rich in minerals, mainly Phosphorus, Calcium, and Iron. The significant food value consists mainly of 3.64 percent carbohydrates, and 4.25 percent protein. Crude fiber however, cannot sufficiently supply our body’s fiber requirement since it does not even reach one percent.

One objection in eating kangkong is its danger that it may carry toxic metals. One experiment conducted by Myrna Ramos in her masteral thesis at the University of Santo Tomas showed that lead is absorbed by the plant and is deposited in its stems and leaves. Others suspect that even mercury, a more toxic metal is likewise absorbed by the plant and is passed on to humans when taken in as food. But seeing how kangkong is farmed at San Jose allayed our fears. The water is apparently free from pollution and there is no contamination of any kind. It is a rule of thumb that we should know the source of the kangkong we eat – or any vegetable for that matter.

Enterprise and Cooperative

The profitability of an enterprise is one thing, but its collective success as to be able to create an impact to the community is another.

What I am saying is that, it is true that there are successful entrepreneurs such as these examples I have just discussed. But there is need to organize small enterprises such as a cooperative to be able to compete in the market on one hand, and to be able to set plans and programs on long term objectives, on the other. Economics of scale dictates that big ones can easily swallow up unorganized small businesses. And this is the reason why and how a multinational business can dominate the market and subsequently force small ones to fold up. I brought up the idea of organizing a cooperative with the barangay council led by Mr. Reynaldo de Jesus.

“We had a multipurpose Cooperative before,” the chairman confessed, “ but it did not succeed.” Since then no one thought of reviving it or putting up another. I said, “Why don’t you get in touch with the Cooperative Development Authority?” I pointed out the new thrusts in cooperatives development and the support both government and private sector are extending. I cited successful ones here and abroad, such as the multipurpose cooperative of Nagpandayan, Guimba N.E. that was able to generate an asset of more than P100 million in after ten years of continuous operation. Its membership grew from 30 to 300 during the same period. Tagudin Credit Cooperative in Ilocos Sur is another success story. So with Lukban Cooperative in Bay, Laguna. Just to illustrate the bigness of a cooperative as compared to a corporation, Swiss Air, one of the biggest airlines in the world, is a cooperative.

Small is Beautiful

I have no bias against big business. But I learned from experience how difficult it is to manage a big one. I have also learned many things from Schumacher’s book, “Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered,” which pointed out that progress has a limit, and that bigness alone is not a guarantee of dominance and stability. We know of stories on how giant corporations met their doom – the dinosaur syndrome. The latest is the US-based giant corporation, ENRON, which toppled like a domino. Small enterprises on the other hand, are more resilient in weathering socio-economic storms, which explains the book’s title. This award-winning book won the author the title, “Hero for the Planet Earth,” given by by Time. Small businesses are more environment friendly and both economists and ecologists agree with Schumacher’s philosophy.

Manila Market and the Concept of a Greenbelt

In our discussion with the family we pointed to the advantages of being near a big market. With Metro Manila’s population of more than eight million, neighboring provinces, which include Pampanga are very lucky indeed. They form a “green belt” of the metropolis. Aren’t the zones CAMANAVA (Caloocan, Malabon, Navotas, and Valenzuela) and CALABAR (Cavite, Laguna. Batangas, and Rizal) based on the concept of providing a peripheral source of goods and services for the thickly populated metropolis? We all know that the stimulus created by a good market cannot be compared with any other formula in enhancing the profitability of trade and commerce.

Thus in our interview, orchard products, principally mango, we were told comprise a major “export” of the barangay to Manila. Another is rice. Imagine a huge surplus coming from 900 hectares which are planted twice a year with the aid of an efficient irrigation system sustained by the massive Pampanga River. Rice harvest which averages 70 bags to a hectare is high as compared to our national average which is just above 40 bags. And vegetables after rice is a boom in the barangay.

The last thought that came to my mind was to wish that the success of these model enterprises can be translated into better health and nutrition, education and employment. It reminds me of the question I raised in a symposium on people’s economics. What justification can a state give for having a good GNP and bad HDI, too?


Let me put it this way. Yes, the Gross National Product can be raised as much as say 10 percent, which is a very high estimate to Philippine standard. (Our projection is only 3 percent this year, as compared to Vietnam’s 7 percent.) But what equally matters is that increasing or having a desirable GNP should be accompanied by a desirable Human Development Index. HDI is measured in terms of education, health, employment, literacy and the like, of the people, including mortality and malnutrition of infants and children. Thus I asked myself, if there are successful enterprises, if the returns of agriculture and industry are high, how come there are so many people seeking medical assistance.

I said goodbye to Brigida and Mang Ben the sampaguita and kangkong entrepreneurs, so with the other entrepreneurs, and community leaders and folk. I wish them that their efforts should serve as catalyst for progress and development of a community - something that can decipher a good relationship between GNP and HDI in the microcosm of a barangay.

On our way back to Manila, my thoughts traced the flow of goods and services coming from the barangay to the yawning huge Manila market. Barangay San Jose, so with many similar villages, is indeed a gold mine – but a gold mine yet to be tapped.

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