Almost every year for the past decade I have put together a calendar of photos that reflects our life on board over the last 12 months. Usually I have more than enough images of bucolic anchorages, dramatic landscapes, exotic local scenes and a few usable pictures of us. This year when I looked back over the images that chronicled our year all I saw were the troubles and tribulations we had in the yard. Those were not experiences I wanted to re-live, or share.
That’s not to say that I didn’t take many photos in 2018. On the contrary. Instead I turned my camera to the landscape that surrounded us, and more often than not the business of growing rice, a subject that I find as fascinating as it is beautiful. So, I decided to put together a calendar of “Scenes from the Philippine Rice Fields,” and then I wrote a short essay to accompany it. Instead of just sharing this annual project with family this year I decided to share it here as well. I hope you enjoy the images and your next bowl rice.
Scenes from the Philippines Rice Fields
In the Philippines rice is eaten with every meal of the day. In many poorer communities it is eaten AS every meal of the day. In big cities restaurants advertise “unli” (unlimited) rice to entice customers. In small communities it is sold by the kilo at almost every local sari sari (corner) store. It is estimated that each person in the Philippines consumes on average 125 kg of milled rice per year, 90% of which is grown in the country. With a population that is set to exceed 109 million that is a lot of rice. (source)
Luzon, the largest of the over 7000 islands in the archipelago and home to the capital Manila, was also where we spent most of 2018. The boatyard where we hauled Kate was located just south of Manila in a region where towering rugged hills protect fertile, flat valleys. Our weekly trips to the nearest city of Nasugbu for provisions took us through some of the prettiest landscapes on the island. I felt compelled to document what we saw, even from the back of a speeding motorcycle taxi. I didn’t know then that we were travelling through what is know as the “Rice Bowl” of the Philippines, a region that produces almost 20% of all the rice in the country. (source)
Throughout the seasons we witnessed the cycle of tilling, planting, tending and harvesting the rice fields. Then we watched as many of the streets were diverted so that the rice could be sundried on the hot pavement. Traffic in these areas would be slowed to one lane but hardly ever would you see a vehicle purposely drive over the rice. Instead there was a patient and understood system of stopping to allow oncoming traffic to pass. The rice had the right of way.
The work of growing rice is hard.
Buffalo are still used to till the fields in most places, although you do see gas powered tillers rusting on the side of the road, the farmer probably unable to afford the petrol to run it or parts to fix it. Planting is done by hand; men and women bend at the waist and up to there knees in mud for hours. Tending and harvesting are also done using manual labourers. Mobile threshing machine make the rounds when the rice is ready to be separated from the chaff, but it is often buffalo that are used to drag the machines from paddy to paddy.
After harvest the rice is then either dried in small batches on the road or sold to a community mill. Here it is dried on large concrete slabs that often double as the local basketball court in the late afternoons after the rice is piled up and covered in plastic to protect it from the evening dew. Although modern fertilizers and herbicides are used to help rice crops it is common to see large flocks of big, brown ducks in a flooded rice paddy. The ducks are used as a natural means of controlling bugs that damage the rice, and they have the added benefit of fertilizing the plants as they go.
Rice is a thirsty crop.
70% of the rice fields in the Philippines are irrigated and many of these fields are located in Central Luzon. It is also a country heavily affected by typhoons, which can wreck havoc on the rice production; successive heavy rains causing drainage problems and high winds blowing blossoms off flowering plants rendering them unable to produce. During a typhoon advisory the national weather organization PAGASA (Philippines Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration) not only publishes potential damage to buildings but what damage may occur to the rice crop. Rice crop losses due to typhoon Ompong in September were estimated at more than P4.97 billion pesos ($96 million USD). This was one of only 20 typhoons the country suffered in 2018, albeit a big one. (source)
In the later part of the year we sailed to the small island of Busuanga, just north of Palawan. While travelling around the island by rented motorcycle we rode through the same, familiar scenes; rice being harvested and dried on the road, boys and men guiding and riding buffalo. Yet I couldn’t resist raising my camera to capture a few more photos. Like each grain of rice, each moment was unique and beautiful.
Bread is often referred to as the “staff of life” but it is rice that feeds much of the people across the globe. Rice is not expensive, even in the western world where it is imported, yet how often do we stop to consider where it comes from, how it is grown, and the human cost required to put it on the shelf? Rice may be one of the most basic foods available, but very little about it is simple.