For Cherrie D. Atilano, 32, farming has always been a part of her life. Her passion first took root during her years growing up in—and working on—a sugarcane farm in Negros Occidental.
A scholar and working student, Cherrie went on to graduate with a degree in agriculture from the Visayas State University—and Magna Cum Laude at that. She would later give up a Fulbright scholarship to study in the US, opting to stay in the country to help farmers in the Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm instead.
Today, Cherrie is the founder and CEO of AGREA, a Marinduque-based social enterprise which aims to help eradicate poverty for farming and fishing families, alleviate the effects of climate change, and help establish food security in the Philippines. Both Cherrie and AGREA have gained recognition here and abroad for the work they do in creating sustainable programs that improve people’s lives.
Now, Cherrie is encouraging more young people—women in particular—to get involved, get their hands dirty, and get into farming like she has. In her own words, “Let’s make farming sexy!”
How she got her start in farming:
“My dad, whom I lost at the age of three, was my hero in terms of helping farmers. When he died, we lost everything as he had been the breadwinner of the family. I was brought up by an amazing single mother who was forced to create a living for her five children in a sugarcane farm in Silay City, Negros Occidental.
“Every day, I woke up witnessing life on the farm and the struggles of the farmers. The children on the farm who were my age, eight to 10 years old then, were already working on the sugarcane fields to help their parents. I ended up joining them, too, so that I could play with them while planting sugarcane or doing other farm activities. We’d play in the shower of the pressurized irrigation system or end up in the rivers after a whole day of getting dirty working in the fields.
“It was the most memorable childhood, a childhood that led me to love the land and be passionate about farming. This childhood led me to start teaching farmers at the age of 12, after having read a book about backyard farming that could help low-income farmers and immigrant farm workers save money by planting vegetables around their house.”
Her education and early career:
“I left home at 15 to study at Visayas State University in Leyte, a prestigious agricultural university in the country, as a scholar of the Negros Occidental Scholarship Program (NOSP – PAGKAON). Since the scholarship allowance was not enough, I became a working student, holding tutorial classes every night. After all the struggles, I graduated at the top of my class. I was also the first woman Leadership Awardee in the university and the first from Region 8 to be included in the Ten Outstanding Students of the Philippines (TOSP).
“I immediately got a high-paying job at a land development company in Makati, but after a year, I resigned to help Gawad Kalinga build their food sufficiency program called Bayan-Anihan, and eventually the Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm. I was the first agriculturist and female social entrepreneur to live in that farm when there was no electricity, no water, and no roads in a village made up of 60 families from slums in Manila and Bulacan. I went through a lot of hardships, especially giving up my principal scholarship grant in Fulbright to take on my responsibility to help build the GK Enchanted Farm.
“The most fascinating experience during that time was meeting Pope Francis in the Vatican for a special occasion for which I was selected to be in the small audience. He inspired me to dream bigger and to serve more, which led me to the creation of AGREA.”
Her social enterprise:
“It was serendipitous and providential when I started AGREA in Marinduque. I am not from Marinduque; I was brought there the day I got back from the Vatican by Yong Nieva and Ivy Almario, whom I considered my adoptive parents, and who later became my partners. I got stranded in the middle of the sea and in the middle of the night while making the eight-hour land and ferry journey to Marinduque because the transportation system was not efficient and the roro would get broken. But once I had immersed myself in Marinduque’s farming and fishing communities, I fell in love with the province and the people.
“AGREA is a personal dream brought to life by a team committed to creating the first One Island Economy Model. We chose Marinduque as our home, as it is one of the poorest and hungriest provinces in the country. We thought, why not take on the challenge of turning it around to be an island of bounty by creating a circular economy through sustainable agriculture and inclusive agribusiness? It is like a mini-Philippines, but more manageable with 250,000 people, almost 100,000 hectares of land that is more than 60% agricultural, and a dynamic political landscape.
“Our goal is to make the island a model for agricultural abundance, focusing on Zero Hunger (social goal), Zero Waste (environmental goal) and Zero Insufficiency (economic goal; we aim to lessen imports and increase value-added exports of agricultural goods).”
“Aside from it being a male-dominated industry, agriculture is also very capitalistic in nature. The struggle was real in starting an agribusiness that ensures the triple bottomline: people, planet, and profit. Balancing the three is hard, especially when you have no financial support. Most farmers that we work with have very limited educational attainment and access to technology, market, and finances. We always started from ground zero, starting from what the farmers have and what their dreams are for themselves and their families.
“Challenges brought about by nature is one big factor, considering that the Philippines has an average of 21 typhoons every year and from time to time experiences El Niño.
“Despite those challenges, we survived and became stronger with every little milestone we accomplished. I always believe that when your heart is set to doing good, the universe will conspire to help you.
“Marinduque has been visited by so many international organizations, including people who have chartered a plane to see our work. Channel News Asia in Singapore stayed in the island for eight days to document it; Japan’s NHK World News did the same. Local television and media teams have also visited to feature the work; ambassadors and diplomats from Sweden and New Zealand stayed at the AGREA farm to experience the work and meet the farmers. AGREA also received the Global Responsible Business Leadership Award from the United Nations Global Compact in Malaysia in 2017 and the ASEAN Social Impact Award in Singapore in 2018.”
The challenges of being a woman in agriculture:
“Agriculture is a male-dominated industry, and dominated by older people. Several times, I would enter a room for an agribusiness conference that was full of male and almost retiring-age rich businessmen. There is just a huge generational gap. My language and their language don’t coincide, especially since their businesses are founded with a strong agenda of making money. It always seemed like I was pushing a huge mountain full of people who were not hearing my loud cry.
“I just kept the faith, made my business as the model, and continued pushing that mountain until it was willing to be moved. However, there is still a lot to be done. So I strengthened my focus and reminded myself to be a role model for the young agripreneurs, advocates, and more importantly, for a lot of women out there.”
Why she wants to empower more women to take up farming:
“Based on a Philippine Rice Research Institute study on cross-country hired farm labor and wage differences, despite equal work, women-farmers earn less than men by around P108 a day. There’s still a lot of to be done to have equality in the male-dominated agriculture industry, from fair wages to contribution on agricultural production.
“Our new project in Siargao to make it the first women-led agriculture island in the country is a bold step that we are working on together with the provincial government to make the island food-secure and sufficient. In Siargao’s case, men are leaving their farmlands to become service providers for the booming tourism industry: habal-habal drivers, construction workers at hotels, and surfing instructors, among others. This impairs the island’s agricultural production and is causing a big problem now due to the high cost of food, with almost 100 percent of agricultural goods imported from neighboring provinces.
“I am also a staunch believer of women empowerment especially since in poor families, the mothers have the critical role of budgeting their meager income. When we empower mothers to be farmers and eventually become farmer-entrepreneurs, every penny from their farm business will help.”
What she wants to tell women about farming as a career option:
“Women have this kind of charm and nurturing attitude that is needed in the agriculture sector, a sector that deals with all living things—from plants, to animals, to consumers. It demands a lot of nurturing spirit to change the narrative of agriculture and turn it into a sector that will make our country progressive.
“We need more women who are not conscious about getting darker skin and not afraid to touch the soil.”