BENGUET – The cold winds bite, like frozen needles pricking the bones. But why did the mountain folk come to Atok, Benguet, and called it their home?
Any day of this balmy season, from noon to late evening, thick fog hugs the environs of Atok’s Barangay Paoay (pop: 3,552), some 50 kilometers north of Baguio City.
Trekking along the winding road from Sitio Sayangan along the Halsema Highway to Paoay’s plateau (7,500 foot above sea level) is like going up a stairway to a cloud-blanketed heaven.
The hardy Kankanaey and Ibaloi folk came to Atok not just because the place was near heaven. Suited to growing tropical vegetables, the once thickly forested area promised abundance.
Ever since a former soldier of the American colonial government at the turn of the 20th century set foot in Atok, Barangay Paoay through the years has been transformed into what it is today--a salad bowl.
Some migrant Chinese, who were among those the Americans recruited to help build Kennon Road from 1902 to 1911, followed suit and introduced intensive vegetable farming.
Once mere hired hands of vegetable plantation owners, the Kankanaey and Ibaloi folk learned to grow vegetables and turned Paoay and the other six neighboring barangays of Atok (pop: 16,000) into a vegetable district.
The vegetable industry soon spread to the neighboring towns of Buguias and Kibungan (particularly Barangay Madaymen), both in Benguet, and some towns of Mt. Province. Now considered a ``vegetable belt,’’ these areas supply 80 percent of the country’s tropical vegetables.
The Cordillera’s multimillion-peso vegetable industry is almost a century old. And in a country, which loves and honors anything American, the upland folk must be historically sentimental toward Paoay as they are toward Camp John Hay and Kennon.
In the early 1900s, a certain Guy Haight came and fell in love with what he saw atop a plateau-–grassland surrounded by mossy and pine forests.
A member of the US Army’s engineering corps, Haight was among the American soldiers and officials who colonized the Philippines after the Filipinos defeated the Spaniards in 1898.
Contracting lung disease (probably an early stage of tuberculosis) after helping supervise the building of Kennon, Manila’s main link to Baguio, Haight was advised by a doctor to look for a place as cold as his Philadelphia hometown.
Unlike other former American soldiers who explored the Cordillera for its fabled gold mines, Haight settled in what is now Paoay and became a farmer. He married an Igorot lass from Suyoc in Mankayan town, also in Benguet, and built a grass-thatched house and log cabins on the grassland, the best part of the dominantly mountain village.
Some photographs of the houses and of Haight’s family now hang at the living room of the house of former Atok Mayor John Haight, now 71, a grandson of Haight.
The elder Haight ordered vegetable seeds from his parents in Philadelphia, and, with the help of Igorot laborers, he grew cabbage, turnip, rhubarb, lettuce, sugar beet, carrot, celery, parsley and potato. He also grew oats and rye, whose stalks and leaves were fed to cows, horses, pigs, carabaos and other livestock.
Haight’s almost 30-hectare farm and house were an ideal organic farm. The soil was virgin and fertile then.
Thus, there was no need for chemical fertilizers. But later, Haight used compost in his farm that consisted of decayed weeds and livestock manure.
Haight’s produce was marketed to Baguio. His clients were fellow Americans, many of them colonial officials on vacation at Camp John Hay, and Filipinos who learned to eat cabbages and other newly introduced tropical vegetables.
With no road link to Atok, Haight had to hire porters and had to mobilize his horses to transport on foot the vegetables to Baguio. Each porter had to carry an average of 30 kilos, says Celo Haight-Tan, now 82, whose late father Selo, a.k.a. Toki Lawangen, was recruited by Haight as ``tent boy.’’
Celo, a native of Kapangan, Benguet, was barely 12 years old when he was hired. The boy was rendering labor during the construction of Kennon as payment for community tax. Celo soon assumed the family name of his American master.
Celo and his family also spoke American English. ``We came to learn our language only when we went to school in Kabayan (a neighboring town),’’ recalls Haight-Tan, the fourth of the late Celo’s 10 children.
The old Haight died in 1926. But planting tropical vegetables, which he introduced, continued.
Enter the Chinese
After the construction of Kennon in 1911 and of the American military barracks and buildings in Baguio, which Chinese migrant workers helped build, the remaining Chinese laborers saw new opportunities.
They surveyed La Trinidad Valley and other areas in Benguet, which included Paoay and other villages in Atok, and found these areas promising for agriculture.
In Paoay, the Chinese introduced intensive farming and new varieties of cabbage, such as pechay and wombok, aside from head cabbage, celery, carrot, broccoli, lettuce and potato.
With intensive farming, the Chinese had to use chicken dung mixed with ashes, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, recalls Paoay barangay chair Dewey Tomas, a former child laborer in a Chinese farm in the 1950s.
But the Chinese were also basically organic farmers, according to Baguio-based Dr. Charles Cheng and Katherine Bersamira in their 1997 book ``The Ethnic Chinese in the Cordillera: The Untold Story of Pioneers.’’
The Chinese also introduced composting, recycling of organic matter, crop rotation, using insect predators to control pests, and some irrigation techniques, say Dr. Cheng and Bersamira.
[ Kennon Road Wiki ]