(STAR) RENDEZVOUS By Christine S. Dayrit - It was as if all the fertile agricultural lands of the Philippines were transplanted to one place replete with nature’s freshest fruits and vegetables. The richest marina of the seas also converged at this place. But it was no blessed event, no miraculous multiplication — rather, the farmers and fishermen who proudly grow and catch their bounty brought it to the World Trade Center in Pasay City recently.

“The Philippines is truly a produce paradise,” said Agriculture Secretary Arthur Yap at Agrilink 2007, in which the Department of Agriculture was an active participant.

“We have searched far and wide from Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao for outstanding produce and fisheries. Now we have our prized winners,” enthused the dynamic Secretary. In this nationwide search for the PINAKA-Best Agricultural Harvest, Sec. Yap proudly presented the country’s healthiest produce — including mango, squash, pineapple, cabbage and eggplant — and finest catches — such as bangus, tilapia and prawns — at the trade fair.

I looked around the jam-packed hall at hundreds of bright-eyed high school students and teachers from the National Capital Region, as well as at all the excited farmers and fishermen whose extraordinary produce had been selected in competition finals. I was deeply honored to be present at such an event.

The recent agricultural trade fair brought back beautiful memories. In retrospect, while studying in Boston, Massachusetts, my friends and I from the Filipino Club, who hailed from Harvard, Boston College and Boston University, would travel far from campus on weekends. The pressure of our studies encouraged us to take short trips, especially during the fall when the stifling heat and humidity of summer had passed and the bone-chilling cold of winter had yet to arrive. As agri-tourism advocates, our thoughts in New England turned to country fairs and fall festivals like the Agricultural Fall Festival in rural Vermont where maple syrup was king; the Applefest in the western hills of Massachusetts; the Harvestfest in Maine; the Bowens Wharf Seafood Festival where mouthwatering seafood was served; and my favorite, the Topsfield Fair, where a staggering world record 1,337.6-pound pumpkin bested all the jack-o-lanterns at the fair! I remember all of us in unison agreeing: “We ought to hold best produce events like this back home.”

So when I received an invitation from the gracious Sec. Yap and my good friend Lyndon Tan (president of the Vegetable Council of the Philippines) to judge in the “O! May Gulay” cooking contest, I gamely agreed. Our co-judges included US Agriculture Attaché Dennis Voboril and respected food critic Judy Lao.

At the “O! May Gulay” cooking fest (hosted by “sexy chef” Rachel Alejandro and hilarious duo Wally and Jose of Eat Bulaga fame) students from six schools in the NCR showed off their culinary prowess with entries such as Vegetable Cannelloni from Bonifacio Javier National High School; Puto de Malundanis and Malunggay Tea from Muntinlipa Science High School; Pancit Butong from Dalandanan National High School; Malunggay Combo and Malunggay and Carrot Juice from Florentino Torres High School; Vegetable Jardinera from Pasay South High School; and Malunggay California Maki made by Holy Spirit High School.

The students from Florentino Torres High School in Manila, Nieva Josefina Marcelino and Jonnah Laine Toy, were unanimously judged first-place winners for their malunggay masterpieces. Malunggay, known as the “poor man’s veggie,” is making a golden comeback and promises to be the next best thing in Philippine agriculture. Judged second-prize winners were Joanne Camille De Luna and Ma. Vanilyn Bilbao for their vegetable jardiniera. Third-place winners were Rowena Anislagon and Edgelyn Garcia for their Malunggay California Maki. It was heartwarming to witness the cheering and hear the vegetable themed-tunes reverberate in the air. Students and teachers happily sang the song Bahay Kubo and even guessed how many vegetables were menti-oned in the popular folk song.

The first-place winners were awarded P20,000, plus a trip to Baguio for the entire class of 50 with the school principal and head teacher. Most of these precocious kids had never been to the summer capital of the country and it was great to see them beaming with delight. They will stay at the historic Teachers Camp and will visit several fruit and vegetable farms in Benguet like Master’s Garden, Edwin’s Farm, La Trinidad Vegetable Trading Post and Brookpoint Farms, an endeavor of the DA’s Agricultural Competitiveness Enhancement Fund. ACEF helps small farmers move beyond primary agriculture into value-added, higher-earning enterprises. The second-prize winners received P15,000 in cash and a trip for the entire class of 50 to Tagaytay, hailed as the “Napa Valley of the East.” In Tagaytay, they will visit top produce farms including the high-tech Basic Necessity.

The participating students were also the first to hear about Veg Time, an animated television campaign to entice everyone to eat more vegetables. The Veg Time ad will be launched during the morning shows of ABS-CBN and GMA-7 tomorrow. Directed by award-winning director Mark Meily with a theme song composed by Vincent de Jesus, the Vegetable Council of the Philippines and the DA are confident that the infectious plug to eat vegetables will become a trail-blazing advocacy across the land.

I realized how proud we should be of our history, but agriculture fairs should also be a historical look at our old traditions. While organizers must remain true to their farming roots, they must also offer something fresh, interesting and entertaining to attract today’s consumers. Truly, the DA’s participation in Agrilink 2007 epitomizes the refreshing new approach in portraying agriculture as fresh, vibrant and relevant. True to its commitment to make food abundant, affordable and accessible to all Filipinos, the DA, through the initiative of Sec. Yap, ingeniously created these innovative events. I even overheard the indefatigable Secretary, who loves to cook, saying he plans to hold an Iron Chef-type cooking contest for students utilizing our local produce as well.

People today are most interested in what affects them directly. More people are interested in knowing where and how their food is produced. Farm tours — almost pilgrimages to vegetable, fruit and fisheries sources — as well as trade fairs are great venues for everyone to learn about local food production. These are also good avenues to meet the dedicated farmers who grow their food and the fishermen who raise or catch the freshest treasures from the sea. Education regarding agriculture is even more important. Fairs are among the few places where farmers and non-farmers can come together, offering a golden opportunity to make the consumer-farmer connection. Agricultural fairs continue to be a forum where the farmers who raise livestock and produce from all over the country can learn through competition and camaraderie and are encouraged to pursue agriculture for a lifetime. Locally grown produce really is the best; this is what the DA successfully inculcated in all of us.

So go for those greens. Indeed, it’s veg time!

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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