BACUNGAN, Philippines (BP)–Nestor Balantucas’ field climbs the same slope as the little Baptist church he helped build.
His four acres produce a healthy crop these days, and he has goats, horses and a cow. But prospects weren’t always so bright. A few years ago, the soil of his hillside on the Philippine island of Mindanao “was always washing away, so my harvest was always low,” he recalls. “We didn’t have enough to eat, and our children were not healthy.”
One day Noel Elmundo, a young extension worker from the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center, came to the area. He listened to the farmer’s troubles, then showed him how to plant lines of hedgerows to stop soil erosion — a simple method called SALT (Sloping Agricultural Land Technology). It took determination and extra work, but Balantucas wasn’t alone.
“Noel was here every day to help me if I ran into problems,” he says. “We’re still poor, but we eat three times a day.”
Elmundo and James Bayron, another Rural Life Center worker who serves as pastor of the little church, also led Balantucas and his wife to faith in Christ.
After talking about better agricultural methods with farmers, “we sit down and talk about the Word of God,” Elmundo explains. “We are extensionists not only for the soil but the soul. We plant life. Our mission is that the people will have a good life and a spiritual life.”
Strolling around Balantucas’ place, Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board missionary Harold Watson notices the farmer’s family now has something else they once lacked: an outhouse. That may be a sign of poverty in rural America, but in rural Mindanao it’s “an indication of progress,” says Watson, founder of the Rural Life Center. Other telltale signs of prosperity he looks for when visiting a family: a metal roof, a sewing machine or radio, a flower bed, a plump dog.
Watson sees things like that. Little things that might have great significance. Or big things other folks sometimes don’t want to see.
Years ago, before soil erosion and deforestation in the Philippines became so critical they could no longer be ignored, some people laughed at Watson. “They said, ‘We’re never going to run out of trees!'” one missionary colleague remembers. That was before several Philippine presidents, a number of Asian governments, the United Nations — and countless struggling farmers — recognized the value of his insights.
Born into a Mississippi farm family 63 years ago, Watson was working in the cotton fields by age 9. Many children of the Great Depression did that of necessity. Harold “just loved agriculture,” his mother once recalled. “He loved the earth; he loved it all.”
But they couldn’t keep him down on the farm. He sensed a call from God to foreign missions, and after earning several agriculture degrees, was appointed with his wife, Joyce, as an agricultural missionary to the Philippines in 1964.
They spent their first term in M’Lang, where he was an agriculture extension worker and consultant at Southern Baptist College. But he longed to get out into the country, closer to the poorest of the rural poor, who lived in the mountains. He persuaded Southern Baptist missionaries to buy some barren land to develop a research and demonstration farm. Named the Mindanao Baptist Rural Life Center, it opened in 1971.
“When I got here, I had no idea what the problems were up in the hills,” Watson admits. “Farming looked pretty good on the surface.”
Soon he discovered the problem was the surface itself: It was washing away. Loggers hauled trees out of the once-lush mountains, leaving behind naked hillsides. Tribal people and migrants used “slash and burn” methods to clear and farm the uplands. Topsoil was disappearing. The result: low production, hunger and hopelessness.
“Most of these farmers don’t have a vision to see five or 10 years down the line,” Watson says. “Most live for one more day and don’t lift their head up. They’re not thinking about erosion. It’s, ‘What can I get out of the land today, right now?'”
Crops didn’t grow on the denuded land at the Baptist demonstration farm much better than they did in the surrounding hills. But Watson and his small staff of Filipinos kept experimenting, searching for something simple and practical that could stem the tide of topsoil washing down the mountainsides. That’s how they developed SALT, which guards and nourishes soil and crops with double lines of shrubs or trees.
The simple SALT method, tailor-made for the uplands, energized other Rural Life Center programs and provided the momentum for creating a host of new ones. Each method had to fulfill four criteria: Is it simple? Does it meet people’s needs? Does it protect the environment? Does it help win souls to God’s kingdom?
SALT began to change thousands of lives and attract national notice after its introduction in 1978. In 1985 it brought Watson the Ramon Magsaysay Award for International Understanding, often called the “Nobel Prize of Asia.” Other prizes followed, including a citation from then-Philippine President Corazon Aquino in 1989 and a World Food Day Silver Medal from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in 1991. Suddenly, major organizations that had never heard of the tiny Rural Life Center expressed interest in SALT.
Today, this former “mom and pop” operation counts 86 workers at the main Rural Life Center and its multiple extensions. They can’t meet all the invitations they receive to present SALT and related programs abroad. They can barely handle the visitors and trainees — now averaging 17,000 a year — who stream into the center. “You never know who’s going to show up,” Watson says.
Despite its growing international reputation, the center still doesn’t look like much. No fancy buildings or large land tracts — just 50 acres or so of fields and barns, offices, bunkhouses for extension workers, dormitories for guests and trainees and a few houses for missionaries and staff.
“We don’t want it to look like a big American institution,” Watson explains. “We want farmers to see what goes on here as something they can do.”