The choice of Pitak Project as one of my destinations is more personal than logical. They don’t exactly fit in with what I focus on. The place is nowhere near water nor fish. And, statistically, the subject isn’t as popular with my Facebook followers as, say, any post set in a marine location.
But they fit. In the grand scheme of things, the Pitak Project represents an ideal when it comes to our relationship with nature; and, on a personal level, how I want to go about TDC.
You see, what draws me the most to Pitak is not its mud houses. It’s not the fresh clean veggies I get to eat when I visit. It’s not the no-signal getaway it promises. I love all of these about the farm but what’s up there is their story. It’s a story about believing.
The Guts to Believe
I first knew the people behind the Pitak Project as activists in Baguio — true-blue ones who work for their cause and live simply.
This was why I was a bit confused when I heard about the farm: how could they afford it? And I was right, they couldn’t. It took their life savings to buy the land and all that’s necessary to get started. It took research and innovation to plan the elaborate natural development of this land. It took moxie to transport their lives from Baguio to La Union so they can make a dream come true.
This resonated with me. While my goals are not as grand, I saw in them what I wanted for myself: the guts to believe in my dreams, and to put my money and time where my mouth is.
I’d visited thrice since the Pitak Project began; twice last year before planting season and this recent trip. Things changed within that period.
There are now a lot of animals at the farm. Last year, they just had a dog. Now, they have ducks, chickens, pigs and a goat… and more dogs. The new dogs (retriever half-breeds) have assigned themselves the task of accompanying residents to the no-water bathroom. They check for reptiles and bugs. They bark at reptiles and eat the bugs. I appreciate this, especially at night.
Last year, I helped put up a wall for the first mud cabin. Now, all four walls are complete. These have been covered in decorative clay. There’s even a cob bench out front.
Everything else is pretty much the same. Granted that I missed planting season and the framework of the main house is now up, it’s still same… which is nice.
I asked Cye during this recent visit about how they plan out tasks. She said that they just did what felt urgent. They take days off too. They let life happen. The small steps that they make each day, those count for something.
And so far, these yapaks have led to TV and newspaper features, cooperation from the municipal government, and high esteem from the rest of the community. From ‘the odd farm out’ in Pideg, now they have most everyone wanting to adopt their practices.
Trial, Error, Success
Perhaps the secret of the Pitak Project is its fondness for learning new things and experimentation.
I don’t remember being at the farm and there wasn’t some comparison going on. Between plot A and plot B, naturally fertilized differently. Between this and that mud batches, formulated for durability differently. Between this and that cob blocks. Between this and that fertilizer mix.
What comes out of this is a practice in natural building and permaculture farming that is not reliant solely on books, manuals and how-to’s. These women have actually begun to put together organic farming and natural building guidelines that work in our typhoon-battered country.
System of Rice Intensification
What impressed me the most was their recent experimentation where they adopted the System of Rice Intensification (SRI); of course, side by side a few plots using conventional rice planting for comparison.
SRI is a low-water higher-yield alternative method to conventional rice farming. It makes use of less seedlings and costs cheaper. SRI rice plants grow taller, with longer roots that dig deep into the earth. This makes it resilient against storms. It can yield twice as much rice, as it did for The Pitak Project last harvest time.
And, of course, there are the mud houses. Natural building was the first thing that brought me to the farm. I wanted to try it out and get all muddy. It is also what brought media attention to the Pitak Project. Jay Taruc’s Motorcycle Diaries has driven by; so with a number of print media outlets.
A Pitak Project mud house is made of mud, sand, straw and water. For good measure, add cow or carabao dung whenever available. You can mix all this by hand but it’s better when you do it with your feet. You get your whole body weight in there for a better mix.
The house’s framework would be up. This is made from locally sourced bamboo, wood and rocks. Depending on how the house is designed, you can either fill in the frame’s gaps with mud, making sure to pack them tight and smooth out the visible sides. Or, you can make cob blocks and build walls with them.
Water is the worst enemy of mud houses and this was considered in the Pitak Project’s plans. Mud house location is carefully selected. Water redistribution is planned out for the typhoon season. The mud house roof is made from nipa, and covers beyond the framework to shield the walls from moist.
So far, there’s just one house up. The main house is next in line. Visitors are welcome to learn and help in natural building. Of course, they need to come at the right time. Work on the houses is seasonal.
Dreams Under Your Feet
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
— W.B. Yeats (1865–1939)
Rannie is a new addition to the family. He is the youngest son of a Baguio local. Over summer, his mom sent him to vacation with his Pitak Project aunts. He liked it so much that he extended into this school year’s first term. (It is convenient that there is a public school right across the farm.)
At the Pitak Project, his immediate duty is to care for the animals — his ducks and chickens. He is able to provide for his adoptive family with regular rations of eggs. He does odd jobs too, tasks that a young man can do.
When I was around, he helped water plants and harvest string beans. He chopped food for the vermiculture worms with his Aunt Carol. He hunkered down with Aunt Cye to work on a bamboo cabinet for his clothes and toys. And he seemed always eager to learn new things.
Their next farm project brings a big smile on his face. His aunts have allotted a piece of land for him, where they will build his mud house. His mom has been invited too. She is set to retire soon and has an option to stay at the Pitak Project.
And for all this, he is hopeful. From a boy who only knew urban Baguio, Rannie now latches his dreams onto the land. He wants to bring his mother to the farm so she could be with him. He wants to study agriculture. He wants to be a big help at the farm, and maybe even own his own.
One of the lessons at the Pitak Project — for me and maybe for Rannie too — is that the land can sustain you. You work; you harvest. You take care of the land; you reap its abundance.
You will survive too — no matter how little land or capital you have. SRI can increase your yield. Natural building is an alternative housing option that you can do with materials sourced from your land and your community.
And, against many odds, the Pitak Project has proven that you can live a good life on the farm. You will be fed well. You will have friends and a community. You will be making a difference in the lives of people who reach out to you — all because you had the guts to try to make your dream come true.