Dr. Milagros How was moved to helping farmers reach self-sustainability and even organized a film festival to raise awareness for the agriculture sector in the Philippines
On a rainy Saturday afternoon, the wind was lashing against the building of Universal Harvester Inc and its CEO, Dr. Milagros How, was stuck in traffic. The farming and agriculture advocate was coming from a morning meeting, to be followed by one in the afternoon, but was no match for the adverse weather conditions. Nonetheless, she was determined to keep appointments, storm or traffic, not withstanding.
Dr. How sent apologetic texts, ensuring her staff sent food for everyone waiting in her office. By the time she arrived, nary a hair out of place and a smile on her face, she was ready to speak of her work, her advocacies, and what it means to work in a male-dominated field like farming.
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Dr. How first started in the fertilizer business. Holding a degree in Biology from the University of the Philippines, Diliman. The President and CEO of Universal Harvister, is involved in indirect manufacturing, distribution and exportation of fertilizers. It was here that she started to take an interest in where the the fertilizers go. “I dealt first with businessmen, traders, in the business of fertilizers but not the actual farmers,” she shares. “In my third year of doing business, that’s when I started meeting actual farmers.”
The experience showed her how much farmers in the Philippines were in need of help, be it in the realm of learning best practices, or in something as simple as new equipment or clothing, like boots, to make farming in the rain easier. “When I met them, I was very touched at how much they needed help. I felt that I could help them,” she says. She put in measures to stabilize the price of fertilizer. “The price used to be very high until I came in, so I lowered the prices so everybody had to follow. It helped the farmers.”
To further her reach, she put up TOFARM, an award-giving body dedicated to helping “The Outstanding Farmers of the Philippine,” in collaboration with the Junior Chamber International Philippines (JCIP). The awards are in recognition of the resiliency, ingenuity and strength of Filipino farmers. It is open to all Filipino farmers, fisherfolk, animal raisers, cooperatives, farm communities, organizations, educational programs, agricultural scientists, LGU and public employees and business entities in the rural and urban areas.
“As I visit new places, I always like adding more awards. For example, when I went to the Mountain Province, the women there said “Why are your outstanding farmers usually men? In the Mountain Province, most of the farmers are female. You should have women farmers.” So we developed an award for women farmers,” says Dr. How.
A Woman in a Male Dominated World
The Agriculture industry is that it is still very much a male domain, but as in the Mountain Province, women in farming are very much present. For Dr. How, her gender was never a deterrent to working in the agriculture industry. “I never think of my gender as an obstacle. In fact it was easier for me, because the farmers love me. Because I interact with them and help them with their problems,” she says.
“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime,” is a maxim that Dr. How lives by. She believes in going beyond just merely giving money to those in need. “I teach the farmers how to make more money, how to become entrepreneurs, how to sell and be sufficient and make money,” she says. “Teach them know-how, bring them abroad, every few years in places like China, Indonesia and Korea and show them how the rest of the region is doing farmwork.”
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Farming and Film
The philanthropic woman established TOFARM Film Festival was a resounding success. Recognizing movies with farming themes, TOFARM Film Festival is the only advocacy-driven film festival in the Philippines today. Dr. How put up this new venture because she saw the importance of media in being able to help and reach out to farmers.
She was working on the film festival with a committee while managing the fertilizer business, conducting farm site visits and meeting with local government units. “The film festival is all about farming,” she says. “The stories are about farmers, agriculture, fishing, poultry. There are so many stories to tell.”
In a country where farming can still be developed, Dr. How notes the importance of people helping out. “We have to make people realize the plight of the farmers. They are our heroes in the country because they work and they have difficulty,” she says. “It’s their life. We have to encourage urban dwellers to care about our farmers.”
Dr. How says that helping out can be as simple as changing our everyday habits. “First, we can start by eating our vegetables, and by supporting our local industry.” From a wellness standpoint, this point of view is very helpful. “It’s healthy also, to eat what we reap from the earth.”
A self-confessed workaholic, Dr. How admits she doesn’t really have time to do anything else. Her ultimate goal is to raise awareness and helping the lives of farmers.