The Cordillera Heirloom Rice Project offered a new economic development strategy—one that required a new perception of indigenous resources and drew on the existing culture and agricultural knowledge of the people as the source for economic development, community revitalization and environmental preservation. The Project focused on making traditional rice varieties—the crop that nearly every high-elevation farmer grows—a source of economic opportunity.

The Idea

When I first came to the Cordillera region in 1976 as a Peace Corps volunteer, I found a place where landscape and culture were woven seamlessly together. For generations, the planting, cultivating, and harvesting of rice have been the foundation of local culture and the central focus for its communities. For nearly thirty years I fondly remembered the generosity of the people, spectacular rice terraces and the wonderful smell of rice cooking.

Hiking terraces between Upper and Lower Uma 1977
Hiking terraces between Upper and Lower Uma 1977
Lower Uma, Lubuagan, Kalinga 1977
Lower Uma, Lubuagan, Kalinga 1977
Eating rice with Isabel Assugay, local midwife, in the home of her brother Bete
Eating rice with Isabel Assugay, local midwife, in the home of her brother Bete

2001 – 2004

Nearly three decades passed before I returned to my village of Uma, Lubuagan, in Kalinga province with an idea for a business partnership.  Much had changed. Both the terraces and indigenous culture were slowly and steadily losing their structural integrity. Young people were leaving the mountains, abandoning strenuous subsistence farming to seek opportunity elsewhere. The elders anxiously wondered who would preserve their heirloom seeds and terraces, the living connection to their ancestors.

In 2001 I entered graduate school at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, VT to learn the skills necessary to build a project which could make traditional rice varieties a source of economic opportunity for the farmers.  In my classes I learned about NGO and business structures, conducted a feasibility study for the sale of rice in a high-end market. When the results showed it could be successful, I wrote a business and marketing  plan. My masters thesis became the road map for the project. During this time, I also became friends with classmate Vicky Garcia, who would join me on this journey and to whom credit for the project’s success is given.

Project diagram from capstone thesis 2004
Vicky Garcia and Mary Hensley at SIT graduation 2004
Vicky Garcia and Mary Hensley at SIT graduation 2004

Project diagram from thesis. Vicky Garcia and Mary Hensley at SIT graduation 2004

Related material : Hensley Capstone, Article of women who moved mountains

February 2013

The Provincial Government of Ifugao through its Project on the Certification of Ifugao Products awarded a Certificate of Recognition to the Rice Terraces Farmers Cooperative (RTFC) as a producer of an Ifugao certified product.

The RTFC was recognized for its processing and marketing of traditional heirloom rice that is grown by its members in the mountain terraces of Ifugao.

The Provincial Government of Ifugao launched the Ifugao Certified Products Seal of Excellence initiative as a way to identify and promote outstanding provincial products that can be globally competitive and also represent the identity of the province. Products designated as such will be allowed carry the Ifugao Seal of Excellence.

RTFC awarded Ifugao Seal of Excellence

August 2013

A test run of a new air screen processing machine is taking place at PhilRice this weekend. The Rice Terrace Farmers Cooperative (RTFC) processed samples of newly harvested rice and sent them to PhilRice for testing the prototype. The air screen machine was custom designed and built for the Cordillera Heirloom Rice Project. The machine has different sized screens, which will screen off the broken grains; and a fan, which will blow the last bits of chafe and bran dust off the rice. This process will replace the labor-intensive hand winnowing that the farmers have been doing after the dehulling and partial milling.

Replacing the labor intensive winnowing with an air screen machine.

As the volume of sales increase, we are working hard to make the processing stage less labor intensive. With appropriate technology machines, the rice processing will be more efficient and the quality of the finished product will improve.

The design and building of this machine was made possible, in part, by a grant from the Social Action Committee of the Kamloops United Church in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada.  For two years, the Kamloops United Church has helped fund the Quality Control Trainings for the Cordillera Heirloom Rice Project. Because of this new processing machine, the rice shipped from the cooperative should  need no additional processing. The first rice to pass through this additional processing will be shipped directly to a Fair Trade distributor in Canada for packaging and sale in Canada. Our heartfelt thanks to the Kamloops United Church for making this distribution expansion into Canada possible!

A new air screen machine is coming!