Family Portrait: Generational Farming In The Philippines

For photographer Sharif Hamza, who has watched his family work rice farms in the southern Philippines for decades, capturing a rice harvest was as nostalgic as it was cinematic. Here, he documents the personal process—from birth to burn.

WORDS & PHOTOGRAPHS BY SHARIF HAMZA

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I was born and raised in London and currently live in New York. I’m a city dweller through and through. And I have two young children who ask me questions like Where does this food come from? Growing up in major cities, food comes from the supermarket.

 

My mother, their grandmother, has a completely different relationship to food. She grew up at the source of something we eat almost every day: rice. She’s from the Philippines, an archipelago of some 7,107 islands and is divided into three main geographic areas: Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. Rice production in the country is integral to its food supply and economy. The Philippines is the 9th largest rice producer in the world, accounting for 2.8% of global rice production; it was also the world’s largest rice importer in 2010.

 

Much of the country’s irrigated rice is grown in the northern part of the country. Rice production requires a great quantity of water: In the Philippines, almost 70% of the land used for rice farming is irrigated, while the remaining 30% depends on rain.

 

My mother’s family is from Laguilayan, a small farming village on the southern archipelago of Mindanao where rice production is mainly reliant on rainfall. Last summer, I took my daughters and my wife to Laguilayan for the first time. Coming from a city like New York, there is a major adjustment period when arriving off a 21-hour flight and 6-hour bumpy drive through the mountains. The local school only recently had internet installed. Many homes have no running water and use a pump or well. Most of the food my family thrives on is picked from or slaughtered on the grounds of their home.

 

The main trade in Laguilayan is farming. Coconuts, palm oil and rice. Rice is a staple food for most Filipinos across the country. Although rice is the main staple in the country, it is a highly political commodity. The Philippine rice sector has always been the center of the government’s agricultural policies. The focal points of the policies revolve around promoting rice self-sufficiency and providing high income to farmers while making rice prices affordable to consumers.

 

My family owns a few farms in the southern region of the Philippines, passed down over four generations, that my great-grandfather bought and worked on. Later, my grandfather worked on them and bought more; as, too, did my mother and her siblings. Now, my uncles and cousins continue to work on the land with many other villagers. The land and what it gives has cascaded throughout the generations of my family. With no farming skills myself, I’ve taken up the role of documenting the land through photography each time I visit. Documenting my family, the laborers, the land—the way time and technology have barely touched this village—this was my only real way to contribute to a way of life that has nourished every member of my family and benefited the people of this small village.

 

Industrialized farming hasn’t made it all the way down to this small village yet. On larger farms, you would see planes dropping seeds and harvester machines at work. On my family’s farms, everything is still done by hand. It’s painstaking, honest work done in the thick, scorching heat, and it’s a beautiful thing to witness.

 

Before rice can be planted, the soil should be in the best physical condition for crop growth and the soil surface is level. Land preparation involves plowing and harrowing to ‘till’ or dig up, mix, and level the soil with the use of Caribou. The land is then leveled and irrigated, ready for rice seedling transplantation. Seedlings are planted by hand in careful compact rows into the wet field. It is then left to grow and mature in the sun for 3-4 months until the land is dry and ready for harvesting.

The harvest is the point I chose to photograph as I always find it to be the most cinematic.

 

The fields of rice have grown tall and turned a golden color. Harvest is the time when families come together to work the land as many more people are needed to facilitate this complicated, labor-intensive process. Harvesting activities include cutting, stacking, handling, threshing, cleaning, and hauling. Men and women cut the long grass using a karit, which is a type of sickle. The cut grass is arranged into bales that are hauled by other adults to the thresher, a machine that separates the grain from the grass. The grain, which is still in its husk, is collected in sacks and the grass is then piled up to be burned (the grain needs to be dried and milled before it is ready to be bagged and sold). You see many children helping their parents at this time and you can feel a sense of satisfaction and happiness in a full and plentiful harvest.

 

My mother has also told me stories about poor harvests: seasons when the rainfall was too low, resulting in drought, or too high, creating floods—both of which led to insufficient harvests. Rain-fed lowland rice production suffers from uncertain timing of the arrival of rain, when drought and submergence threaten the land. This affects my family, the village—the entire region—both economically and emotionally. In order to understand what it’s like for farmers to suffer a poor harvest, as a city dweller I can only relate it to the period that we are currently in, with COVID-19, such economic uncertainty. Throughout the Philippines, agricultural development is one of the most powerful tools to end extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity.

 

Agriculture-driven growth, poverty reduction, and food security are at risk: Climate change is already impacting crop yields, especially in the world’s most food-insecure regions like the Philippines. Shocks related to climate change, conflict, pests, and emerging infectious diseases are hurting food production, disrupting supply chains, and stressing people’s ability to access nutritious and affordable food. And its location means it bears the brunt of typhoons coming in from the Pacific Ocean.

 

My children are still too young to understand this cycle, but it’s something I want them to grow up to understand and respect: where food truly comes from and how climate change affects that. Lately, my six-year old daughter has been asking loads of questions about where her food comes from and how her interactions with the world around her affects the planet. Anything from Are vegetables alive like animals? to What happens when we throw away trash? I’m grateful that she has a curiosity for the planet.

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Family Portrait: Generational Farming In The Philippines

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