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Story by Leslie G. Pascua Jr. | CORD Coordinator
Pollen Tuguinay | Program Officer | North Philippines
and Karla Narcise-Rodulfo | PME Manager | Heifer Philippines
Photos by Leslie Pascua Jr. | CORD Coordinator

Rogelio "Rolly" Abes Jr., a 40-year-old Filipino farmer was recently nominated for Regional Outstanding Farmer of the Year?was doubtful Heifer International would generate positive results when he first joined a project.

"[Farmers] live in a hand-to-mouth existence. We worked all day away from home in somebody else's field to put food on our table-it was never enough," Rolly said, cringing. "We had days when we would go hungry. I worked in a neighbor's rice field during cropping season, earning 3,000 pesos (about $75) a month…it was a hard life."

Rolly lives in Isabela province with his wife Adelina, 35, and their children Reynald, 13, and Sherwin, 15. Heifer Philippines and Community One Resources Development Inc. (CORD) implemented a self-help group (SHG) in their community.

Learning Heifer's Cornerstones
"When they invited us to the 12 Cornerstones for Just and Sustainable Development workshop it slowly dawned on me–if Heifer and CORD willingly spend their time, budget and effort on us, the project must be really true," Rolly said, trying to contain his excitement. "When our time for reflection came during the Cornerstones [training], I could no longer hold back my tears. It was like the floodgates came bursting as I recalled my family's hardship and challenges, and how I tried to face them by forgetting my values along the way. The Cornerstones brought me to the light…I went home renewed and excited to start a new life on the right path."

Rolly's inquisitive nature and helpful attitude made him a perfect fit to be trained as a Community Animal Health Worker (CAHW). Now, Rolly offers low-cost or free services to those who otherwise couldn't afford it. 

Passing on the Gift®
His family received two goats, one heifer, 10 chickens, assorted vegetable seeds and fruit and forest tree seedlings. They passed on two goats each to two families and five chickens each to five families. The families did not belong to the SHG, but they agreed to pass on the gift. In addition, he teaches other SHG members how to overcome hunger and poverty through Heifer's Passing on the Gift® (POG) model.

As a CAHW, Rolly attended the Entrepreneur Development Workshop facilitated by Kalinga Apayao State College and Organic Fertilizer Production training conducted by Isabela State University in 2008.

The trainings helped him understand vermicomposting, which is the breakdown of organic matter by earthworms. Rolly said of his SHG, "We concentrated more on crop production. Nobody appreciated what worms could give us. We were content using chemical fertilizers. It was available and convenient. But, I made a vow to protect the environment-vermicomposting is the way to go."

The Abes family immediately established their first vermibed. The 107-foot bed yielded 28 bags of produce, each weighing about 110 pounds. The bags were sold within their community for 200 pesos each, or about $5. The next harvest supplied 35 bags, which were sold to farmers outside the municipality.

The quality of his vermicompost (organic fertilizer) was noticed by the Local Government Units of Mallig, Quezon, San Mateo, San Manuel, Burgos and Roxas in Isabela Province, the Department of Agriculture in Municipal, Provincial and Regional (Region 2) levels, the Malaya Development Cooperative in Mallig, the local NGO Parents and Youth of Gamu (PAYOGA) and the Community of Christ.

The increase in demand prompted the Abes family to build more vermibeds with the income generated from the first harvest. The now 2,691-foot vermibed area produces 100 to 500 bags per month. Rolly was able to employ 25 SHG members with a daily part-time wage of 200 pesos, or about $5.

Rolly said when managed properly, a family could earn a monthly income as high as 140,000 to 200,000 pesos, or $3,500 to $5,000. He also plans to purchase additional land for production. And, repurpose the current vermibed area into a storage warehouse.

Their success enabled the Abes family to renovate their home. They purchased new concrete floors, metal roofing, a washing machine, gas stove and a computer. And, two motorcycles that help them with company business.

The purchase of a 16-foot Isuzu Elf truck, worth 325,000 pesos, about $8,125, is used to haul animal manure and deliver orders of vermicast to buyers. Rolly also earns extra income hauling crop harvests for neighbors and friends.

Helping His Neighbors
However, Rolly could not sit comfortably while fellow SHG members and neighbors were still struggling. He gave at least two pounds of earthworms to each neighbor-unconditionally sharing his knowledge and expertise on vermicomposting. He assisted in the preparation and establishment of vermibeds, led hands-on training and constantly monitored their progress.

Presently, 45 families have established their own vermicomposting areas. They work hard to produce the organic fertilizer-their main source of income. All the families are earning around 10,000 pesos, about $250, a month.

"This venture is a promising enterprise and very environment-friendly," one group member said. "[Vermicompost] is safe to both the producer, the user and to the environment. And, it encourages full participation of the whole family."

The SHG members said they are thankful for what Rolly has given to the community. "He shared not only the blessing of having a regular income, but also that protecting our environment should not be compromised in our quest for a better life," the group agreed. "And, above all he shared that if a family believes together and works together, everything is possible."

"It is a joy for me and my family that my neighbors are producers, too, because I could not meet the market demand," Rolly said. "The farming trend is going organic and the demand is increasing. The Department of Agriculture of Isabela Province alone has an order of 2,000 bags every four months on top of the regular monthly orders."

Marketing Strategy
Rolly organized producers to address market strategies and demands. He proposed that all vermicast produced would be pooled and sold to his established buyers and contacts, which ensures and monitors harvest quality. He wants to maintain the quality of their produce to protect the group and their industry. The Bureau of Soils tested his vermicast and graded it as exceptional quality.

CORD and Isabela State University assisted Rolly and his group to improve their marketing strategies and promote the growing organic market. Recently, the Department of Agriculture (DA) recognized and committed their support in the group's vermicomposting project. The DA has also provided a vermitea brewer set and shredder for the growing group to use under Rolly's management.

The DA also plans to give the SHG a warehouse this year. The agency believes Rolly could become a model organic fertilizer manufacturer and promoter, not only for the province of Isabela but in the entire Region II.

Recognized for His Skills and Generosity
Rolly's skills and generosity were recognized by his community and at the municipal and provincial levels. He has served as a trainer and resource person in trainings on organic fertilizer production.

The Malaya Development Cooperative (MDC), a recipient of the National Development Authority programs doing organic fertilizer production, invited him to speak on the technology and vermicomposting enterprise.

"I will never get tired of sharing my newfound knowledge," he said. "If it is the only way to pass on the blessing, I will gladly commit myself to do it."

In 2012, Rolly was nominated as one of the most outstanding farmers in the province of Isabela for 2012. "Being recognized as one of the best farmers in the province is humbling. Our group will be happier if we can influence other farmers to use organic fertilizer." The Provincial Agriculturist Office also accepted Rolly's nomination for Regional Outstanding Farmer of the Year.

Dreaming Big
Rolly's dream for the group is to become the Regional Center of Organic Producers. He believes this will happen soon since concerned line agencies and institutions are extending assistance.

When Rolly's father needed chemotherapy, the vermicomposting income of around 200,000 pesos ($5,000), paid for the treatment. "We are thankful that we had something in our pocket when we needed it most," Rolly's wife Adelina said tearfully. "We have heartfelt gratitude to the project that we were able to save our beloved father."

Adelina said, "I think the best blessing the project gave us is the gift of life."

Rolly said the Cornerstones helped him prove poverty can be solved. "The income we have in my family and the other members of the SHGs is just one of the rewards we gained from Heifer Philippines and CORD. The project returned our dignity. It taught us to trust in ourselves and to put dreams into action. What we have right now is not merely a group enterprise, but families who believe they can rise above poverty through sharing and caring."

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Heifer International

Heifer International is a nonprofit, non-governmental organization working with communities to end hunger and poverty while caring for the Earth.