Why study traditional agriculture?
October 17,2016

Driving on the so-called loneliest road across Nevada, it is hard to believe that there will be any agricultural land in this area needless to say a city. Buy Fallon is one. On in an early spring afternoon, my friend and I arrived at the Churchill County Museum at Fallon late, only to realize that the museum had just closed. But the staffs, walking to their cars at the parking lot, were still nice enough to stop by and talk to us. Knowing that I am a student from China, one of them asked what I am studying. "Agriculture," I said. "Oh, so you are going to teach the Chinese farmers how to farm?" Flatly I just replied with "I am not sure." 


The reason I am not sure if I can teach Chinese farmers how to farm is because I am not sure if the modern Agricultural sciences I am learning here at UC Davis should be "taught" to those farmers in China. Indeed, economically developing countries like China are transforming their agriculture to be more "scientific" and productive. Just like the agriculture, farmers' life in many of these countries is experiencing dramatic changes. More and more of them are starting to follow the trend of agricultural modernization, using different synthetic chemical and machines. Therefore, the study of traditional agriculture may be called a work against this era. 

My RIFA research in Ifugao, the Philippines may be an example of such work. While a lot of farmers have begun growing the new varieties of rice which ripen in four or even three months, instead of the traditional Ifugao Tinawon rice, some farmers are still struggling to keep their one season per year Tinawon. Those who maintain this rice variety also hold onto the traditional way of growing it. After harvesting, the farmers trample the rice stalk into the soil as fertilizer. Likewise, before planting, they weed the grass around the rice terrace and also put them in the soil. No synthetic fertilizer is added. For hundreds of years, Ifugaos have sustained themselves doing such rice farming and swidden agriculture (for food other than rice), until recently when some started growing two seasons of rice with fertilizers and leaving their swidden fields.


(Storage of Tinawon in an Ifugao native house)

Other than the extensive rice terrace, Ifugao is also known for the "Hudhud", native narrative chants. One occasion for Ifugaos to sing the Hudhud is during rice harvest. A typical Ifugao rice harvest scene is more than a nice picture. It is an exciting movie. Singing the Hudhud while skillfully cutting the heavy rice panicle one by one with a rhythm, an Ifugao farmer bundles the panicles together. As the panicles are being tied tight, a sound was made from this firm full bundle. Zooming out, you will see a team of up to 30 of such farmer working together surrounded by the golden mature rice, in the sea of waves of rice terraces. The chorus of Hudhud echoes from the terraces on the mountain slope up to the sky. When the harvest is finished, the farmers will have a big meal to and share the harvested rice.


(Ifugao farmers harvesting rice)

Along with this develops the tradition of "Baddang", Ifugao version of Bayanihan, the spirit of communal unity. Faced with frequent risks from typhoons, Ifugaos learned to cooperate in smoothing the loss of some members by working voluntarily for the community, from removing or even rebuilding houses, repairing damaged dikes or terraces.

The ideology of modernity under the disguise of "science" is penetrating deep in our world. With such judgment, agriculture development equals to "precision," "resistance," "productivity," "efficiency" and so forth, regardless of how people think of food and how farmers are positioned in the society. In a world of potential threats from nature and social uncertainty, learning to cherish the gifts from nature and to share the joy of harvest and the sorrow of loss is the reason to study traditional agriculture.