Sunday, February 23, 2014

Deconstructing and Unpacking Rice and Rice Growing
Nagpapa-kiskis ng palay (Having rice milled)

Sometime January or February of 2007

Written in: Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Composition: Recalling an event from 7 years ago which happened in the Philippines
Previous Post: White Privilege in the Philippines, Part II

Here in Canada, where rice is not a staple food, rice is just called "rice" no matter its state. People might be able to tell apart and attach proper prefixes to different states of rice - unhusked rice, unpolished brown rice, and white rice - but they haven't got specific names for them. And why should there be? Here in the prairies, before the oil economy, wheat, flour and bread were their... well, bread and butter! But in the Philippines, where rice is everything, you have to know your rice.

That said, here is a brief lesson in Tagalog and Rice growing  (source: my Dad, who grew up in a farming family):

Bukid is a "ricefield", and it too is the root word for many things describing ricefields. I've heard it used for other crops, but unless you specify, a bukid is usually understood as a ricefield. Bukiran and kabukiran are plural, or used to describe "farming areas",  while kabukiran can also be used to describe anything "relating to the ricefileds".

Punla is the young, freshly germinated rice plant which results from seeding. More often than not, these are often uprooted and replanted to put distance between rice plants. This is one of the reasons why rice cultivation is so labour intensive.

Tanim is "plant", both verb and noun, as well as the root word for other things. Pananim is solely used for "plant" as a noun, or "crop". While magtanim is "to plant" or "planting" - verb in present tense.

Now, this is where it becomes important, so pay attention:


 Palay is either the fully grown plant or the rice seeds with the husk still on.

Ipa is is the husk or hull - but you only get to call it that once palay has been separated into the grain and husk constituents! Palay is palay, or the complete rice seed itself. Ipa is ipa, or the husk after, and only after you've removed it from the grain. There is no way of saying "Separate ipa from the palay" because simply naming the process of de-hulling and polishing rice, it is understood that, that is what you are doing. 

The rice mill where you can get your palay de-hulled and polished is called kiskisan. Comically, the same word can also mean "rubbing" or "grinding", as per the dance move.

Brown rice is unpolished rice. It is what you get once you only remove the husk. Apparently, it is called pinawa in Tagalog, but I must confess I only learned that from googling. You will rarely encounter brown rice in the Philippines because it is seen as less desirable. A shame because it is apparently healthier, akin to eating whole-wheat bread. The difference between us "westerners"1 and them is that there is no movement to eat "whole-grain" rice because it is seen as less luxurious, or maybe the food of the poor, perhaps even animal feed, because...

Darak is the "rice bran" - the powder that results from polishing off the bran which makes brown rice brown. In the Philippines, it is often used as animal feed, mostly for swine.

Bigas is the actual endosperm, which I have been referring to as the grain. It is what you use to say "uncooked rice".

Finally, Kanin, is cooked rice.

Because the household was almost out of bigas, Uncle Tito and I took two sacks of palay to be milled in a nearby Barangay, still in the Town of Santa Maria. We took the farm Jeep, which, with its ultra low gearing and low rpm Diesel engine, actually rides and drives better when it's carrying or pulling a bit of load. I find it to be such a weird quirky thing to drive when empty, it almost feels like you're shifting every five feet just to stay ahead of the revs.

I have since forgotten whether we went to Tabing Bakod* or Mahabang Parang**... Whatever the case and whichever Barangay we visited, it had one of the few local rice mills or kiskisan still in existence in my hometown where you can bring your own sacks of rice to get milled - in the same way a photolab of "ye olden film days" can take your roll, process it, and give you your printed photos and developed film back.

Really, it's the only analogy I can think of! Nothing in the developed world has an equivalent in terms of this small scale of food production and food processing. If you wish to go homesteading and beat and grind your wheat to make flour, then you are certainly free to do so. But it is not common practice.

To pass the time while we waited for our palay to get milled, we decided to have lugaw or congee or rice porridge at a nearby karinderya. (wiki)

I was about to mentally celebrate how I was participating in a grassroots, traditional Philippine agricultural method, when Uncle Tito jokingly asked, "Wala nito sa Canada, ano?" (This kind of thing does not exist in Canada, does it?)  But more than anything, he was actually asking when was the last time I have seen a kiskisan, let alone brought sacks of palay to be milled.

He was right. That was the first time I was seeing their "way of doing things" in a decade. He should know. Uncle Tito has been to Canada after all.

During his time here in Canada, Uncle Tito was "Kagawad acting as Kapitan" of Tumana. Even though he was tending to a family emergency here in Calgary and was certainly excused from his duties - what with being 10,000 kilometers away from his office - he did not stop with thinking as a public servant2. During that time, his mind was still at work, unpacking and taking apart Canada's well-functioning democracy3, instead of merely seeing it through the eyes of someone just passing through. More than a chance to experience the novelty or perhaps even the adventure of being abroad, we were - to him -  a case study of a people, a way of governance, and a way of life.

As much as bringing occasional sacks of palay to the kiskisan is part of the rural to semi-rural Filipino way of life, he knows how wheat is grown in Canada. The endless fields of wheat may have been covered with snow when he visited, but it's not hard to imagine how in the summer they would have been an endless sea of golden crops. Besides, I'm sure he had seen photos of wheatfields extending to the horizon before and after that visit of his during the early 2000's - he certainly knows of the combine harvesters, the giant tractors, and how everything is mechanized and done large scale.
Photo I took in Saskatchewan
It also doesn't take much research to know that land devoted to agriculture in Canada far exceeds all of the Philippines' land area twofold (676,000sqkm of farmland for Canada, vs 300,000sqkm of total land area for them). Along with Tito Nato, who was with him here in Canada, Uncle Tito more than once remarked on how he witnessed impossibly long freight trains hauling grain from the prairies to the Pacific Coast, ready for export. Given our efficiency and the scale of how we do things here in "the west", Uncle Tito knows, more than anyone, that industrial level farming is the way to go, and that his way of life is soon to be extinct.

If not, then it probably should be, if the Philippines is be competitive at all. Once sentimentality and romanticism are removed, the conclusion is inevitable: Bigger is better. Bigger is where it's at.

In fact, this has been known to them for decades now. This is the same realization that my grandfather probably experienced during the 1960's and 70's, when my parents' generation was growing up. They were all encouraged to pursue higher education, since small scale agriculture as a livelihood in the Philippines was fast becoming uncertain.

The place where we brought to have our palay to be milled, the neighbourhood kiskisan, is a rarer and rarer sight. In fact, we used to have one in the family, but now it's all but this:
It's the "ruins" on screen left. Yup! That's all that's left; its crumbling foundation in the middle of a mango orchard. Dad, during the late 80's and mid 90's, worked in Saudi Arabia, not for its well known industry of oil but, for farming! More like, terraforming, really. Even though it was merely engineered, by my Dad's estimates when he was there, the "terraformed" arable land the company he worked for possessed, already exceeded Santa Maria's available agricultural areas by a huge margin.

Of course Canada, Saudi, and many other Northern Countries, even though used as mere examples, do not grow the Asian staple of rice. Nonetheless, this comparison of farming methods and output is humbling to a family which once prided itself as landowners and as practitioners of agri-business. In fact, even if you focus solely on rice cultivation alone, China is now the biggest producer, with Thailand the biggest exporter, while the Philippines, home to the International Rice Research Institute and a former exporter of rice, is now a mere importer.

And before even all this became known to my Dad's side of the family, there were issues such as Land Reform and urbanization. Being only 30km or so from the national capital, it did not take long for the math to work out against keeping certain properties for farming, while instead favouring cashing in on the development boom and selling.

Consequently, while everyone in my Dad's generation, especially the men, participated in farming the family's lands and other agribusiness exploits as children, most of them went off to different careers.

With my generation, we never really did anything relating to farming. I may have more than once bragged about how I grew up in a "farming area", or a "semi rural area", or that I may have even handled cattle and swine as a kid, or how I have childhood memories of riding my grandfather's suyod or Carabao-drawn tiller as ballast while he was doing "Tumana" style farming (cultivating the river's floodplain, which is owned by no one - it is where our humble Barangay got its name from) but all these were really all just a hobby more than anything. It's what my Grandfather did to keep from getting too bored during the 80's, before he moved to Canada. The Carabaos and Cattle were pets, more than anything, it now seems.

I believe only Uncle Tito ever really earned revenue from his own swine and duck raising enterprises.

We finished our lugaw and picked up our rice. They were in three separate sacks containing the components of darak, ipa, and bigas. Usually, ipa was for the kiskisan to keep. By the truckload, they are worth something as fuel, insulation for the ice plants, and even bedding for livestock. The darak will be fed by Uncle Tito to his patabaing baboy or fattening pigs.

It was late afternoon when we got back at the family place.

Looking back now, I can't help but recall numerous conversations I had with cousin Marco: That the childhood we spent 'pretending' to work in a farm was actually already on the tail-end of our grandparents' way of life. Today and back then, Uncle Tito still has a few Carabaos (here, here, and here). Again, they're pets more than anything, but he can sell them and make some money - though it is not the main source of livelihood.

Unfortunately, the younger kids of our generation - the ones born a decade after Cousin Marco and me - don't really appreciate the fact that they could still tend to the Carabao and put it out to suga, or pasture ("out to pasture": not the common English Idiom; literally, to suga a Kalabaw is to put it out in the pasture so it can eat grass). In an ironic twist, here I am pining for the pastoral and farming way of life of my ancestors, and there they are, almost "ashamed" for being potentially seen as practicing such a "dirty" livelihood.

Indeed, for Cousin Marco and I, we feel as though we were very lucky to have experienced it at all.

Related Posts: My Uncle, the Kapitan
                            The Godfather's Party
                            A Feeling of Community
                            Where Meat Comes From

* Tabing Bakod = name of a Barangay. But translated, it means "Next to a fencing/walled-in place"

** Mahabang Parang = name of a Barangay. But translated, it means "Long Meadows"

1 Westerner = As I've used them in other posts, it's kind of a loaded term in the Philippines. 

2 public service =  Uncle Tito would be the first to admit that in the grand scheme of things, being Kapitan is one of the humblest of public offices. But it's no barrier to making that little bit of difference in the world. If anything, it is the first step to making a difference - should you subscribe to a bottom up approach.

3 Canada's well functioning democracy = Better than developing countries, at least!

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