10 December 2017

The State of Agriculture in San Juan, Batangas in 1919

Image credit:  Luther Parker Collection at the National Library of the Philippines Digital Collections.
A 1919 paper written by one Beato M. Bukid1 provides a rare glimpse at the state of agriculture in the eastern Batangas town of San Juan back in 1919. This was just roughly two decades since the start of the American regime in the Philippines. Not just San Juan but most other towns of the Province of Batangas were still very much agrarian in nature. Thus, a lot of the information Bukid provided would have been true as well in many other towns of the province.

San Juan’s Coconut and Rice Divide
Bukid wrote that San Juan’s “chief industry” was agriculture, which was “carried on extensively,” the town’s farmers taking advantage of “the coolness of the climate, the fertility of the soil and the rich flood plains of its (San Juan’s) rivers.”

San Juan had two agricultural sectors, Bukid wrote. The eastern section was where the coconuts, which were planted twelve years before the writing of Bukid’s paper, grew and thrived in neat groves. There were initial fears when the coconuts were planted because of the threat posed by beetles, monkeys and wild boars.

Therefore, following local superstition, puppies were buried alongside the first few seedlings that were planted in the belief that “the plants would bear many fruits and would not be destroyed by the wild boars.” Grow, the coconuts did until most of the town’s eastern section was filled with groves.

Bukid noted that the coconuts harvested in San Juan were “among the best” and that these were larger than those from Tayabas (presently the Province of Quezon). He also wrote that San Juan was the only town in “Batangas where coconuts are produced in large numbers.” In fact, income from these was larger than those from other crops grown in the town.

Meanwhile, the town’s western section was where the “vast rice fields” were located. Bukid noted that the soil in this section was rich loam, perfect for rice cultivation. Upland cultivation was done by “punching holes in the ground into which seeds were dropped.” This planting method, called broadcasting2, did not require irrigation.

In the lowlands, rice was first grown in seed beds then later transplanted into the irrigated fields. Bukid noted that fewer seeds were needed for this method and that this also brought higher yields. Moreover, with this method it was possible to grow more than one crop in a year since the rice was already growing in seed beds “while the fields are being prepared.”

The Need for Improvements
While the soil was rich and the climate perfect for cultivation, agriculture itself, or so Bukid wrote, could benefit from improvements in technology. He noted that farmers in the lowland fields used their feet in “working the soil into a mud,” presumably to soften it for planting.

These same farmers still used wooden and bamboo tools for plowing and harrowing3, and Bukid noted that “much progress” could be achieved “in the use or adopting those (tools) made of iron and steel. While San Juan grew sufficient rice to feed the inhabitants of the town, he suggested that rice could actually be exported if “government would only take steps in improving the irrigation system by the construction of canals and ditches which are too expensive for private individuals to undertake.”

The Decline of Sugarcane
Like rice, sugarcane was among the earliest crops planted in San Juan. In fact, during the Spanish era, or so Bukid wrote, it was the town’s chief crop. By 1924, however, sugarcane was being planted only in the town’s western section; compared to just two decades before when it was planted in every barrio of the San Juan.

Bukid attributed the decline of sugarcane planting to the “continuous increase in the price of labor” and the rinderpest4 plague that swept Batangas twelve years earlier. The plague resulted in an acute shortage in the town of beasts of burden for use in the fields. Because of these, San Juan’s sugarcane production was not even sufficient to meet the town’s sugar needs.

Corn Production
Bukid wrote that while corn production was considered important in San Juan, it was more for animal rather than human consumption. Corn was raised twice a year; but in much smaller fields. This was something that Bukid lamented inasmuch as locals did not seem to realize corn’s value as a “substitute for rice.” He made mention of “a universal failure in rice production5” and how corn production – presumably not just in San Juan – could “alleviate the suffering of the Visayans.”

Farmers in San Juan grew sweet and popcorn; and in various colors – white, yellow, red and purple.

Minor Agricultural Products
Bukid concluded his paper by enumerating minor crops being grown by San Juan’s farmers in 1919. Ilang-ilang6 (or ylang-ylang, cananga odorata) was grown because its flower was in demand in Manila. However, the trees planted were attacked by worms and the farmers made no effort to rid the trees of them.

Farmers also grew castor bean, from which castor oil was extracted7. Although hundreds of hectares were planted to castor beans, finding buyers was, however, problematic. Rubber trees were also grown, even more than ilang-ilang according to Bukid. A severe storm in 1908, however, destroyed most of the trees, however; and farmers started to neglect them.

Farmers also tried to grow abaca and pineapple, with little success.

Notes and references:
1Agriculture in San Juan, Batangas,” by Beato M. Bukid, 1919, online at the Otley-Beyer Collection of the National Library of the Philippines Digital Collections.
2Broadcasting” seeds was a method of scattering them onto the soil. Wikipedia.
3Harrowing” was the tool or the process of breaking up and smoothing soil. Wikipedia.
4Rinderpest” was a cattle plague or disease, Wikipedia.
5 From 1870 onwards, the Philippines would become an importer of rice whereas the country exported the staple before. This would continue onto the American era. “Rice in the Filipino Diet and Culture,” by Filomeno V. Aguilar, Jr., online at EABER.
6Ilang-ilang,” online at Philippine Medicinal Plants.
7Ricinus,” Wikipedia.

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