“What are little girls made of?
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And everything nice,
That’s what little girls are made of”
When I first met Maila Vilela-Toreja, she reminded me of that nursery rhyme. Although she belongs to a new breed of young, modern farmers she still maintains good, old-fashioned common sense she learned from her parents. Like many farmers, Maila is looking for agricultural opportunities to add revenue to her traditional farming operation. As she continued to explore new opportunities like small-scale, local food production and agritourism, she preserved the traditional crops grown on their family farm for decades; sugarcane and spices. But Maila put her own twist on it adding new technologies and a management style that improved profits while still honoring her Filipino cultural heritage.
Farming sugarcane and growing peppercorn in their backyard was normal for Maila and her younger siblings. To keep them away from candy and other sweets sold in Momma Violy’s store, Papa Magdaleno wisely diverted them to play on the family farm. During harvest time a fond memory was getting messy playing in the black ashes from burnt sugarcane fields. Preharvest burning of the fields made harvesting cane easier and more profitable but it also provided memories of black ashes falling like rain. When labor was in short supply, the older children were expected to “pitch in” by driving and operating equipment the rough and rugged way of the farm.
In the Philippines 75 percent of the sugarcane is grown on family farms less than 5 hectares in size; 90 percent less than 10 hectares. Sugarcane production is dominated by small scale farmers. Sugarcane is grown on 422k hectares on land owned by 62k farmers. The sugarcane industry employs around 600k workers. The 25 registered raw sugar mills in the Philippines produce about 185k metric tons/daily average.
Maila was 11 years old when her father passed away. Being the eldest and typical of Filipino culture, she assumed her father’s farming responsibilities as soon as she was old enough. While conducting the affairs of the family farm, Maila obtained an Ag business degree from the University of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB) combining University business theory with real world applications. She saw the value in economies of scale and technological advancements from around the world and applied her new sense of entrepreneurship in running their family farm. She uses social media and social networking in marketing their farm products. She also recognizes the value of agritourism in diversifying farm revenue streams; their family farm is now one of the primary agritourism providers in Batangas.
If her father was alive today he would be smiling sweetly on Maila, evolving from the little girl playing in sugarcane fields to a big mover in the provincial sugarcane industry. She has been a Director on the Batangas Integrated Sugar Planters (BISP) Multipurpose Cooperative since 2001, the youngest ever elected and the first female member of the Board. The BISP Cooperative has 300 members who farm almost 4,500 hectares of sugarcane in the Provinces of Batangas, Cavite and Quezon producing 300k tons of sugarcane and eight million kilos of molasses per cropping year. Her education, ingenuity and boldness commanded the respect of Board Members who were her Father’s contemporaries. Arnel Toreja and Lito Sandoval, national players in sugarcane industry of the Philippines, recognized Maila’s leadership potential and entrusted her with important responsibilities in leading their provincial cooperative. Listening to Maila’s advice the Cooperative provided tractor services, introduced higher yielding varieties, conducted educational seminars and much more making it the most progressive and aggressive cooperative in the province. Her involvement in cooperative management is not just limited to the provincial level but she participates at the national level in programs related to the sugar industry.
Her father was a visionary and entrepreneur. Maila watched him intercrop peppercorn and other spices between their rows of coffee. He knew that black peppercorn was a crop that maintained a stable market price. When her father passed away, her Mother followed her husband’s vision planting a wide variety of fruit trees that yielded high quality fruits.
Maila continued in her Father’s visionary footsteps. Together with other local family farmers she now offers agri-culinary tours showcasing local food, native delicacies combined with opportunities for urban dwellers to experience life on the farm. It is common for visitors to see and experience heirloom black and brown rice varieties, sugarcane juices from different varieties of sugarcane, a world of spices such as green, red and black peppercorn, turmeric, fresh and dried chilies and pickled products. In addition she markets her farm and farm products at trade shows and other venues that help her explore new, profitable markets.
Growing up in a family farming environment not only taught Maila the value of hard work but the value of family and family responsibility. Family extends beyond filial blood lines. Like her parents, Maila understood that farm workers were an extension of the family; they make life and work easier on the farm. Their care and well-being is a family responsibility as well. Their mother, who raised them single-handedly, after their father passed away, taught them the value of hard work that goes hand-in-hand with earning money. This lesson influenced her and her siblings spending habits. You think twice about purchasing a luxurious meal at a fancy restaurant when that money would feed a worker’s family for whole week. Family farming not only taught Maila about social justice but provided her life’s partner. Nurvind, her husband, who also belongs to a generation of family farmers, is someone whom she regularly met during sugarcane harvest when she was younger. I guess the charm and sweetness of sugar brought them together! To honor the industry that bound them together, their pre-nuptial photos were taken in their sugarcane field! Together they continue to create more sugar and spice and everything nice on their family farm.
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