The Riz – Sharing the Dream
The Riz: Harvesting the soil’s riches.
The Riz: Anihin ang kayamanan ng lupa.
Sharing the Dream.
I could write a 1,000-page book about this – hard bound, post-consumer paper, the works. If you recorded me during one of my long-winded, hyperactive soliloquys about the future of rice in the Philippines, about what steps I need to take to achieve every single detail about this dream, about what kind of management style and the working conditions my employees will be under (which will be exceptionally good and more than what’s considered ‘fair’ in fair trade, of course!) like my significant other has had to several times on the telephone minutes before I slip into sleep, you would quickly realize I tend to overshare the dream.
Yet here I am again, hoping to validate my dream to a virtual audience that more likely than not will dismiss it as an ideal 20 year old’s lofty fantasy. I’m okay with that, but hear me out.
Along the National Highway of Bataan, Philippines, you stand between the doors of a heavy, wooden gate with the word “The Riz”, sans serif, embedded in metal. A long stretch of unpaved, flat dirt road beckons you inside. Grass grows around the tracks of vehicles, footprints, and bicycles. The door remains open, you walk along the side, and admire the towering mango and avocado trees that line either side of the road. You note that only one or two overripe fruits ever touched the ground; all the ones still cradled in the branches have yet to ripen.
In the distance, four farmers are crouched over quadrants of watery field. They manually plant rice seedlings. They wear uniforms: dark green overalls over t-shirts and long-sleeved shirts paired with forest green rain boots with laces that tightly circle their knees to keep water and soil away from their skin; olive gloves; straw hats.
A boy of fifteen sprints down one of the pilapils, the mounds of dirt that form the boundaries of rice paddy, to the farmers. He holds a jug of water and a stack of reusable, hard plastic cups. The farmers crowd him for a drink. The boy spends his one-hour school lunch break helping around the farm: he delivers water to the farmers in the field, he helps the part-time cooks in the farmhouse set the table, and he delivers the good news to the farmers when lunch is ready. In return, the boy receives free lunch and a basket of organically grown vegetables, mangoes, avocadoes and, when harvest time comes, rice. In fact, anyone who has identified a real need for assistance – so long as he or she has permission from a guardian or is the guardian, the work does not conflict with the person’s other occupation(s) (such as school), and the farm can afford it – they’re welcome to help in the farm as “floaters” for a small compensation.
You return your eyes up front and find that the dirt road has opened to an island of one half unpaved driveway and one half grassy yard. In one side, arched trellises stand tall where vines of bittermelon grow. The vines will crawl up and cover the trellis, the small yellow flowers will bloom to decorate the structure, and you can walk inside the trellis where bitter melon will hang from the curved ceiling. Next to the bitter melon are towers of tomato cages. A house stands at the center of the island.
Vines crawl up one side of the building. A dark, wooden deck wraps around the front of the house’s second floor, accessible from the upstairs sliding doors and a glass room protruding from the side.
The first floor resembles a traditional wooden Filipino farmhouse with modern elements. It houses farm equipment, as well as the farmers’ uniform changing station. Divided from the larger equipment by a bamboo-woven wall is room for a car. A small porch juts out of the front: a space for workers to rest in.
An elegant wooden staircase is set at the side of the building; the entrance to the main floor.
A deck wraps around the second floor, accessible through the sliding doors facing the front of the house, and through a glass office room peeking from the back right corner of the second floor.
You climb the varnished staircase and find yourself in a high-ceilinged, hardwood floored foyer leading to a giant harvest table and an open concept kitchen. Floor-to-ceiling windows stretch across the walls, allowing you to easily see behind the house where the attached greenhouse sits. The back right corner of the building, as seen outside, is an office made with glass walls populated by two mahogany desks, tall chests of drawers, and a sitting room. The business enterprise manager waves at you from behind the oversized desk. Paperwork pile on the desk: direct contracts with schools and grocery stores, sales sheets from distributors, invoices from partner organizations.
You turn your back to the office after a quick hello, breathing in the welcome scent of beef stew. Two elderly women laugh and chat while they busily chop, stew, and bake. They work part-time at the farmhouse, cooking lunch for the farmers and preparing value-added products, like rice cakes, to be sold at the market. Like the teenager outside, these women identified a genuine need for assistance as well as valuable skills that can be employed for the farm’s value-added enterprises: they cook, they bake, they preserve, they help sell the products in the weekends and mornings at the farm stand, and they receive monetary compensation as well as vegetable take aways.
The teenaged boy runs past you from downstairs, finds a spot at the table, and perches beside the ladies to wolf down his lunch. He only has a quarter of an hour left before the nearby high school bell rings to signal the start of afternoon classes.
A glimpse outside shows you that there are shelves and shelves of potted carrots, green onions, peppers, and mung beans in the wraparound deck.
You notice a farmer in overalls tending to the shelved crops; he’d just finished his shift from the greenhouse. The farmers are on rotation: not one person will ever stay in the harsh outdoor climate all day. Each takes some time per day to tend to the expansive green house and the rest of the organic vegetables around the farm house.
The boy finishes his food, thanks the cooks, and runs outside. You watch him disappear down the stairs, reappear exiting the farmhouse with a backup slung on one shoulder. He runs to announce that lunch is ready to the farmers, who then shed their soiled uniforms downstairs before coming to the second floor.
You watch the boy wave good afternoon before running back to school. The farmers come up and station themselves around the table. You listen to their conservations: woes with friends and families, the upcoming staff meeting, and challenges in the field.
A staff meeting is held monthly in the very table where the workers come together for lunch. The owner, residing away from the country 9 out of 12 months per year, leads the conversation with the employees via video, initiating an amiable chat about what’s going on in her life and in theirs. The farmers raise their concerns and celebrate their victories in vegetable and crop growing. The operations manager reinforces or balances the points put forth, and forwards his own challenges and victories with farm equipment, the crop and vegetable growth, the conditions of the infrastructure around the farm, and overall observations.
The business enterprise manager summarizes the situation with sales and marketing initiatives. The CEO shares struggles and strategies for the growth and problem solving of The Riz. She announces when she will next come to the country, the internship program that enables a foreign or Philippine student to stay and learn in the farm (she typically coordinates her stay with that of the intern’s). She also announces upcoming programs, workshops, and courses, which the employees may choose (and can be subsidized for) to attend. She visits the country twice a year, staying for one and a half month at a time, and hosts community gathering events where she grows her network of business alliances (meaning neighbouring farmers and local manufacturers) and, more importantly, the community in which The Riz operates.
A big part of the dream is to make The Riz a platform for education – education on agriculture, on business, on food literacy. It isn’t just a place that offers employment when people are in dire need; it would be a place for schools to tour to learn about natural habitats, ecosystems, soil science. It would be a place for other community groups, governmental agencies, and smaller businesses to visit to understand business models and practices. It would be a place where community members come to learn about the same things schoolgoers can learn on their tours through community events, farm-to-table eatery and more.
Farmers of The Riz are oriented to environmental responsibility as equal to the business’s economic viability. They understand that the farm’s success relies on its use of environmentally sustainable practices – like using invasive banana tree leaves as plates, handing over banana tree fibre to manufacturers who can turn them into branded bags, and, well, making use of the bananas! They receive salaries and complete benefits as well as surpluse fruits, vegetables, and crops; in return, they must be thirsty for knowledge and professional development, loyal to the company, and work diligently to produce high quality results. They work long, though standardized, hours with an unpaid, free lunch to break up their day.
Eventually, The Riz will expand to include educational programs that it offers to its own farmers and others, and help employees develop their own business enterprises (on the condition that they never compete with The Riz). The Riz can grow into a network of experts in agrarian fields. The educational limbs can extend all the way to the remotest areas of the Philippines, where poverty-stricken adults can learn from travelling Riz experts how they can maximize their properties and their surrounding lands without compromising their local ecosystems. Depending on the situation of the village and The Riz’s capability, there may also be an opportunity to employ teachers to be sent to deliver basic lessons to the children.
Who knows if I will ever reach these goals? Who knows if it’s possible for me to learn everything I need to learn about running a farm as a business now or if it’s too late? And who knows if everything I’ve laid out in this make believe story will pan out the way I want. Maybe paying above average compensation to farmers is too high a goal, maybe organic vegetable and crop growing will be too difficult to make money out of. Maybe this will all be too difficult for me to implement. I’m taking it one step at a time to discover the answers to these questions and more.
What motivates me to strive toward this dream is imagining the positive impact I can have on the local economy, the professional development of the farmers, interns, and part-time workers I hire, and the discussion on food literacy, appreciation for the environment, and acceptance of farming as a respectable, honorable career path that people should aspire to that The Riz can inspire.
I recognize that this is a big, lofty dream, but even if I eventually fail – even if reality never takes the form of my imagined future, I will know that I have done everything in service of this big, lofty dream, and I will have achieved good things along the way.
For anyone who might have any advice, tips, experiences to share about agricultural business, agricultural science, environmental education, or maybe some moolah that’s burning in your pocket and for some strange reason you want to give it to a complete stranger – please leave a comment below!