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Go home and plant camote

If  in grade school  you were repeatedly advised by your teacher  to  “go home and plant camote,” perhaps  it’s time to heed it.

I was in Manila last month and when boiled camote was the merienda served  in a meeting, I asked  the host  how much the root crop which was once the food of the broke and the gastronomic symbol  of   lean times cost.

His answer  almost  floored me. Sixty pesos a kilo.    At that price, camote has clambered up the social rungs, from a  cupboard  pariah to one that’s sporting posh credentials.

Ask any Filipino who  has clawed his way out of poverty, and chances are he’ll confess that  the lowest point in his life was  when  his family subsisted on camote for days.   In this land ,  “salad days”  refers to the time when  viand was steamed camote tops.  

Read  the memoirs   of anyone  who was marooned in Manila during the Japanese occupation , and most probably  he’ll  describe  the day he sank to the abyss  when  he had nothing to eat but  camote.

A  distant aunt,  a self-proclaimed   magna cum laude in kitchenomics,  shares the secret  that she was able to feed her brood of 10 by mixing  diced camote with rice, which , in reality, is a ploy  she shares with millions of homemakers  who, like her, daily battled  large appetites with a small budget.

So go ahead, capitalize on camote’s rising price and upwardly mobile social status, and start planting it, either  in industrial scale for the market, or  in your yard  for your meal.    

Replace that carpet of  inedible bermuda  grass  with a patch of expensive  greens.  To paraphrase a wit, it doesn’t mean that because bermuda grass  looks  more beautiful than camote leaves —it will also  make a better soup

I say expensive because sixty pesos is twice the price of a kilo  of rice, whether locally  grown or smuggled.  Using the legal daily wage metric, a minimum wageworker has to work  two hours to be able to buy a kilo of camote.

Clearly, camote is no longer plebian’s fare, and is beginning to look  more  at home on the patrician’s table. Like the banana, it has overtaken rice in the price index. The tables are now turned. What was once relegated as a rice extender is now a class of its own.

This is probably to the chagrin of the Elliptical Circle farmers of the Department of Agriculture who not so long ago, in a policy paper, crowned camote as the  rice substitute.

In their blueprint,  achieving  rice self-sufficiency  requires a little help from the lowly camote,  by exhorting  the “unli” rice-loving citizens  of the kanin republic  to sub camote for rice.

But economics has  cancelled camote as a cheap replacement staple.  Instead of bucking the trend, the best thing to do for DA now is to shift part of the megabillions it spends for rice  production  to camote growing.

I  asked a  DA official in  Mindanao  if  there’s  money in the DA budget  dedicated for camote growing . He says there is none. There are funds earmarked  for  fibers like cotton but  none for  the mighty camote which led a friend to wonder if  DA watercoolers are spiked with hallucinogenic pesticides.

Aside from price, there are other factors which make camote-growing a profitable proposition.

Foremost of which  is that it’s not inputs-heavy, fertilizer-reliant or labor-intensive.  Unlike rice, camote doesn’t have a drinking problem. It is a scrappy crop that can get by with little water. It is reportedly  one crop  NASA had studied to have the potential to grow on Mars.

You don’t need to build a dam  to grow camote. In contrast, to grow a kilo of rice, you’ll need from 4,000 to 5,000 liters of water.

In fact, it can grow anywhere, even on center islands in the urban jungle, which makes meritorious the suggestion to replace roadside ornamental plants  which government buys as fast as they wilt with camote.

Camote planting is also not back-breaking work compared to rice growing.  For rice, to plow one hectare of land (for city slickers that’s 100 meters by 100 meters), a farmer will have to walk 60 kilometers.  That’s one marathon plus half.

And walk is too facile a term to use in describing trudging through thigh-deep sticky mud with a heavy iron plow on one hand and the reins on a one-ton carabao on the other.

Furthermore, to plant rice on one hectare of land, a farmer has to bend forward 250,000 times to pierce a fistful of seedlings into the soft soil—a punishing routine  absent in camote growing.

A  rice farmer has to do other things which a camote farmer is exempt from like  weeding , fertilizing, watering his plot, and when the grains ripen, guarding them from attacks from the air, from divebombing mayas,  and from the ground, from burrowing rats.

From then on, he has to scythe the palay stalk by stalk; thresh, winnow and bag the grains; carry them to the nearest road where they will be dried while obstructing car traffic before they are milled.

This a drill alien to camote farmers.

And  on the nutritional scale , camote beats rice .  A tale of the tapes  provided by Dr. Philip Chua showed that cup-per-cup,  camote  has about 20 times more calcium than rice, and contains 30 percent more Omega 3 and 6.  It also has about 50 times more potassium.

For one thing, rice has no vitamins A, B-6, C, D, K, and Riboflavin, which sweet potato does, the good doctor says. It also has 5 times more fiber and 7 times more folate, compared to rice.

And here’s the clincher : Best of all, nobody smuggles camote into the country aboard ships as big as shopping malls.

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