There was a time when 4 p.m. meant Norberto Sarita, Sr. would stop work at the farm, pack his produce — mostly root crops and vegetables –then walk more than a kilometer on dirt road with a sack on his back, and wait. And wait. Like all farmers in barangay Mahayahay, Sarita had no way of bringing his harvest to the center of San Jose, the provincial capital of Dinagat Islands, unless he walked to where there was a paved road and some form of transportation that can take him to the local market. But everyone had to wait patiently. “Everything used to be manual labor. It was hard but it was good exercise. Sometimes, we would pay people to carry our produce to the market,” Sarita, 65, said in Filipino. The fee is P20 per sack carried to the access point. The road was bad so no four-wheelers traversed barangays Mahayahay, Luna and Aurelio, where many of the farms are located. Other farmers used motorcycles to transport their produce but not on rainy days when the unpaved road was muddy and slippery.
“Farmers were not encouraged to focus on farming because it was hard for them to bring their produce to the local market,” Sarita recalled. As a result, many farmers neglected their lands and turned to another source of income on Dinagat Islands—mining. Families in the province would always have a member working at the mines instead of the farms, Sarita said. The landscape changed in 2005, when the Department of Agrarian Reform completed the construction of a 1.5-km cement-and-gravel road that passes through barangays Aurelio, Mahayahay and Luna.
The road construction cost P6.26 million, but the access it gave the residents of the three barangays was priceless. The way to go Vehicles became a common sight, and people began to reconsider farming as a major sourceof livelihood. The road literally paved the way for the revival of farming in San Jose. “It really enhanced farming. Even bringing in of fertilizers is no longer a problem. What used to take us one-and-a-half hours to travel can now be reached in 30-40 minutes,” Sarita, an agrarian reform beneficiary, said. His farms—one 2.8 hectares and another one hectare, are planted to cassava, camote, mangoes (which he does not recommend because of the weather) and mahogany. Coconut, however, remains the biggest incomegenerator for Dinagat farmers because of copra, he said.
A former vice-mayor of San Jose, Sarita was instrumental in helping the DAR distribute disposable and alienable lands in the municipality. Passionate about encouraging other farmers in his area, he established the Kamanting farm to showcase inter-cropping, organic farming and integrated farming. Located between Leyte and Surigao, Dinagat Islands is one of the smallest provinces in the Philippines and is frequented by typhoons. As such, it needs to secure the food supply for its small population of120,000 (as of 2007). “Our campaign now is for food security. We want to have enough food when calamities strike,” he said. “In previous years, calamities always destroyed our crops, which were mostly vegetables like pechay, eggplant, squash, etc. Today, we have a bigger harvest because farmers are paying attention to their farms.” Farm-to-market roads are crucial to achieving the province’s goal of food security, Sarita said, because farmers need to know that their produce would have somewhere to go. While others bring their harvest as far as Surigao del Norte, which is more than an hour by boat, most farmers are happy to unload their produce at the local markets. The local government is maintaining the Aurelio-Mahayahay-Luna road, forbidding10-wheelers to use it, not just for the sake of farmers but for their families as well. In the aftermath of typhoon Pablo, which destroyed homes and highways in Mindanao, Sarita’s multicab went a long way to fetch relatives and friends who sought shelter in Dinagat Islands. Now on his last term as provincial board member, Sarita is pushing the governor’s office to allot a bigger budget to bring farming technology and know-how to Dinagat Islands.
Productivity cannot be driven by equipment alone, as many farms are on hilly portions where tractors are not effective, he said. “I’m also planning to retire from politics,” said Sarita, an incumbent provincial board member on his last term.”I want to focus on farming so I can maximize the development of my lands,” he said. He said the eldest of his five children has taken an interest in farming as well, raising chickens, goats and tilapia on the farm. The Aurelio-Mahayahay-Luna road, it seems, will lead to farming legacies for this family.