Beyond beans and farm beds
Text and photo by Gina Mission

Chris and Clarissa Meek and their wards: Training for life

It all started with a simple "gotta-have-something-to-spend-my-free-time-on" thought . Nine months later, Cris and Clarissa Meek found themselves employing six full-time young farm workers who, after months of argument, brilliant back talk, petty quarrels and making up, finally realized the value of farming, patience and hardwork.

___As Reynaldo Pilarion, 21, the leader of the Meek ‘wards’ admitted: "When I work now, I don’t think about how much more work there is to do, or that I’m tired already. I just go on working. It makes things easier."

___How the Meeks, British-Filipino couple from Manila who settled in Sta. Cruz, Davao del Norte, managed to change the outlook of their workers, however, was not easy.

"They were so used to the slow pace of rural life," blurted Clarissa, a former marketing executive, and the more vocal of the couple. "Things like regular schedules and timing were greek to them," she added. "And they hated to work. To them it was just another paid job. We had to train them to like what they’re doing," she said.

___The feeling, however, was mutual. The workers admitted having a hard time working with the couple.

___"It was hard adopting to their style," admitted Pilarion. Born in a fishing village, Pilarion didn’t know anything about farm work before joining the Meeks. "I had to learn everything here. In addition, they wanted us to work fast, and to follow orders. One mistake and you’re headed for a 24-hour sermon and questioning," he added.

___The other workers have their own stories to tell, too. For Edwin Acedilla, 13, and Juanito Torres, 15, it was just a case of getting what they deserved. "If I work the way Ma’am instructed me to, she’d be happy. If I don’t follow her instructions, she would be really mad," revealed Acedilla. "It was even good for me because I usually don’t follow my parents’ orders at home. Here I learned to discipline myself. I know my parents wouldn’t be able to do that," he added.

___For his part, Torres is happy about the money he is making. "I give half of my earnings here to my mother. She uses the money to buy school supplies for my two sisters. Sometimes she uses the money for food. I feel happy that I am able to help my family while learning all these things at the same time."

___Being employed for the first time meant having to learn to do work assigned to them. Clarissa and Cris had to teach the boys farming methods ranging from planning the activities for the following day, to making farmbeds, planting vegetables the "proper way," and waking up as early as five o’clock in the morning, to apply organic fertilizers on the field.

___"It was for their own good that we did that, though they obviously didn’t realize it at first," explained Cris, an agricultural engineer. "It was a personal mission to me. Through the years, I have accumulated all these farming techniques from my work in different countries and I wanted to introduce these to my workers. I want to train them. I don’t have much money to share with them, but I can show them how to make money out of farming," he said.

___In addition to the resistance the young workers put up at first, the Meeks had to deal with the usual "I’m-a-farmer-I-know-better-than-you-are" attitude of their neighbors who tried to persuade their workers to do things the "usual" way. After all, Clarissa, who manages the farm, has never done farming before. And while Cris is a farmer by profession, it still struck the workers as odd that a white man should be a farmer, and his city-bred wife to be running the farm.

___"I think they thought at the start that we were crazy to be doing this thing. Or that we didn’t really know what we were doing," Clarissa explained.

___When the Meeks decided to move to Sta. Cruz, Davao del Norte last year, Clarissa found herself alone most of the time. Her husband, Cris, a British national, was mostly in Manila where he works as an agricultural consultant at the International Rice Research Institute. As soon as they settled in, Cris thought of practicing what he has been teaching people in the 47 countries that he has worked in through the years. Consequently, he rented a farm in one of Sta. Cruz’s mountainous areas. The decision to go into farming, and even to continue it, admitted the couple, has not been an easy one to make.

___"We were short of money and we’re spending so much on the farm, with no visible return for our investment," said Clarissa. "It was always expenses and expenses, never income," she added. Their first crop, bell peppers, got washed away by heavy rains a week before harvest. The second crop, radish. sold at P2 per kilo when the average market price is P35.

___"Cris wanted to close the farm after that. He said that we could no longer afford to maintain it. But I begged for him to just hang on. I thought then that if we’d close it, our workers would be unemployed again. And they’d go back to their usual rural ways," Clarissa said.

___"So we didn’t. Because deep inside, we know we couldn’t. Because we were already teaching them for life," said Cris. "Rains and storms may damage our crop but the values they’re learning in the farm will remain forever," he added.

CyberDyaryo | 1999.08.19