Berna Romulo Puyat Makes Farming Sexy
The buzz of happy chatter envelops us as we enter the makeshift tent next to the sea. It is smack in the middle of summer and the sun is merciless, but no one seems to notice. Dozens of women are seated on the sand, surrounded by piles of seaweed. They are sorting, pruning, bundling.
A burst of applause and smiles all around as the women of Marabut, Samar, warmly welcome back Bernadette Romulo Puyat, undersecretary for special concerns of the Department of Agriculture. Look at what we have done with what you have given us, they say proudly. Look at what we have grown.
A Woman of Solutions
With the region hit hard by Typhoon Yolanda in 2014, Berna looked for ways that would help provide its residents with food and work as quickly and as easily as possible. Since her last visit, the women tell Berna, their seaweed production has already quadrupled.
Aside from being a source of food, the seaweed is sold to factories for use in the production of gelatin, toothpaste, and other products.
As the women enthusiastically show Berna the process of cultivating the sea plants, one of them stands up and spontaneously bursts into song. Thank you, Ma’am, she says to Berna afterward, all in smiles. Thank you for giving us hope.
The scene is a stark contrast to the photographs Berna had shown us before, images of the same women with crumpled faces and blank stares, ghosts of their former selves, people who had lost family members, their homes, practically everything.
“When Typhoon Yolanda happened, everyone just wanted to help. I looked for ways for the Department of Agriculture to help by going directly to the people,” says Berna, who has been Agriculture Undersecretary since 2006, as we step into a paddleboat donated by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and head to a seaweed patch a few meters from the shore.
Getting the Crowd Ready
Berna had been in charge of credit for the department, dealing with private banks and other government agencies, and also involved in bringing in investments and grants from other countries.
“I was comfortable with my previous assignments because I felt they suited me more. I never really spent much time with our farmers because I had been worried that they would not be able to relate to me because of the way I looked, the way I spoke,” says Berna, she with the auburn hair and peaches and cream skin.
She couldn’t have been more wrong. The women in the barangays we visit are tickled to have her visit, as they show off the
With farmers in Basey, Samar
She feels a connection with the people of Leyte, she says, as a microphone is handed to her. When General Douglas MacArthur returned to Leyte in 1944, her great-uncle, Carlos P. Romulo, accompanied him.
“You know the statue that fell over during the typhoon, the shortest man? That was my
When there is not much reaction from the crowd, she takes a different tack.
“Do you know Shalani Soledad?” she asks the audience, which is suddenly more alert upon hearing the name of a former TV host of a favorite game show. “She is married to my brother, Roman. Isn’t she pretty?”
Applause and laughter. She has won them over.
How are your husbands? she asks next. Are they good to you? Do they treat you well? Make sure they don’t cheat on you. You are Waray! You are strong women! We love working with women farmers because women are hardworking. We know we can count on you.
Your government is here for you, she tells them. We want to help you. We will not leave you. Your strength has inspired the Filipino people, has moved the rest of the world.
With husband Dave at the Colosseum in Rome and San Sebastian
On Losing a Husband
She knows what it is like to lose a loved one.
“I’m a widow too,” she says simply to a woman dressed in black.
Berna lost her husband, Dave, a lawyer who ran his own firm, one summer Saturday in 2010.
That afternoon, Dave went off to play football with friends after making lunch—kielbasa pasta, she recalls—for Berna and their children, Maia, then 14, and Vito, 13. Not long afterward came the fateful call from Dave’s brother Raymund that Dave had collapsed on the field in the middle of the game—a heart attack. Berna remembers rushing to the hospital, where she saw doctors trying to revive her unconscious husband. She doesn’t recall much after
Berna had known Dave since she was in seventh grade at Assumption College. He was the best friend of her older brother Roman, who was in Southridge. Years later, when they started dating in college, Dave told Berna that he had had a crush on her way back then, and used to hitch rides to school with Roman, just to spend some time with her.
They were married for 16 years.
“It was so sudden, he was there, and then he wasn’t,” says Berna. “It took a while for the depression to sink in. It took two years for me to even start grieving. I couldn’t accept it.”
Berna says she was fortunate that her boss at the time pretty much let her do what she wanted to do. She cut down on her international travel as much as possible, and when she had to fly locally, she made sure the trips were just for the
The family at Lake Tahoe months before Dave died. It was the first time Dave had ever seen snow.
“It was so hard to leave them, I didn’t want them to feel that there was no one there for them,” she says. When Dave was alive, he had been Mr. Mom, staying home with Maia and Vito while Berna traveled for work.
It takes a special kind of man to remain secure and confident when his partner is constantly in the spotlight, says Berna, and Dave was that kind of man.
“He was so supportive in everything that I did,” she says. “He was very proud of me.”
Two years later, when the grief finally came, it hit her hard.
“I started getting nightmares, anxiety attacks. It was such a heavy feeling when I would wake up in the mornings. Everything was so dark. I didn’t eat for days. I didn’t want to go out of the house, I didn’t want to do anything. I cried every day for months,” Berna says. “I felt I kept myself alive just for my kids. I started going to a support group for widows, and a woman there reached out to me. She said I should just go through the motions day by day, even if I felt like a robot. ‘One day, I promise you, everything will disappear. Things will be better.’ And she was right. One morning it suddenly became lighter and lighter and lighter. After six months of darkness.”
Berna has emerged from her cocoon of grief stronger than ever. She bubbles over with ideas, and her enthusiasm
A New Woman
And when the grieving was over, a much stronger Berna emerged. She immersed herself in work with a vengeance, one of her big projects being the planning of the grand opening parties for the exhibit “Philippines, an Archipelago of Exchange” at Musée du Quai Branly in Paris in April 2013. The show, which featured over 300 works of art, was the first major exhibition of Philippine art in France in 20 years. Ten Manila chefs led by Cibo’s Margarita Forés prepared a lunch feast for 70 media personalities, and later, a cocktail reception for 500 of the who’s who in Parisian society, highlighting Philippine food and agricultural products. Both events were a smashing success.
“Margarita was fantastic, and everyone was raving about the food and her presentation,” says Berna. “The French loved it. It was the perfect way to show off the best of the Philippines.”
The giddiness after the Quai Branly event had barely subsided when Berna met up with Olivia Limpe-Aw of Destileria Limtuaco. Olivia was looking for farmers who could provide
with the Mangyan tribesmen of Oriental Mindoro, who now provide the rinds for Manille Liqueur de Calamansi, an all-natural vodka-based product in a beautifully designed bottle that became the talk of the town immediately after its launch.
Congratulations Undersecretary of Agricuture Berna Romulo Puyat @bernsrp on Madrid Fusion @madridfusionmanila ???????? The DA booths in the three-day congress will be exhibiting champion produce from different regions of the country such as mango, coconut, pineapple and tuna. In addition, products that reflect Philippine traditions and culture such as heirloom rice, adlai, siling labuyo, batuan, tabob-tabon, kamias, kapeng barako, and criollo cacao and innovative consumer products like Destileria Limtuaco’s Manille Liqueur that use tropical fruits such as calamansi and dalandan, coco sugar and coco honey from Coco Natura, organic rice and coffee from Fresh Start Organic will, honey from Milea Bee Farm, fresh and chilled tuna from Frabelle will also be featured. Thank you for promoting our very own - ??2?? will support you all the way in this endeavor #MadridFusionManila #departmentofagriculture
And then Typhoon Yolanda hit. Everyone wanted to do something, and Berna realized her department could help out by going directly to the farmers and giving them livelihood opportunities in agriculture. And not just for Leyte and Samar, but for the rest of the Philippines as well.
Agriculture for the Future
Berna has been working on linking farmers and their products directly to manufacturers and entrepreneurs. She’s been meeting up with farmers across the country to learn more about their products, their processes, and their agricultural techniques. She’s connected with cacao farmers in Cebu and Davao, coffee bean planters in Bukidnon, honeybee raisers in Batangas. She’s brought top chefs and handsome young café owners to meet growers of organic vegetables to see for themselves how the
Berna is making farming sexy. Quite sexy.
“Many farmers out there are getting older and don’t want their children to get into agriculture. Why not?” asks Berna, who is in charge of a scholarship program for
Berna talks a mile a minute, constantly bubbling over with so many ideas. Her enthusiasm is catching, and already we commit to accompanying her on yet another trip two weeks away, to meet a Manobo tribe of coffee growers in Mindanao, and perhaps some fabric makers we say we will link to a fashion designer who is currently making waves in the international scene (the nation’s fiber industry development authority falls under the agriculture department).
“I love working with government, there’s so much we can do to help,” says Berna, who makes it clear that she’s a government servant, not a politician nor an elected official.
“It’s so different when you’re a politician, doing everything for the votes, making sure that people know who you are whenever you do anything, making sure people remember your name so they will vote for you, because if you don’t, what’s the point?”
Berna enjoys working with women farmers because they are strong, industrious, and can be relied upon to get things done.
Berna is no stranger to politics, having grown up in a very political family. When she was nine, she remembers handing out leaflets for the 1978 Batasang Pambansa campaign of her greatuncle Carlos P. Romulo. In 1984, when her father, Alberto Romulo, lost his voice while campaigning for a position in the national assembly, Berna was forced to step in.
“There was no one to give speeches at his rallies, so I took his place. I had no choice,” she says. “When my dad ran for senator in 1987, my friends would be at the beach, and I would be in public markets all over the country giving speeches till 2 a.m. I hated every minute of it. I don’t want to be a politician.”
“Now, when I go out to meet farmers, they really have no idea who I am. I tell them my name is Berna which they probably won’t remember. They know I’m from Manila, that I’m with the government, and I want to help them, but that’s it,” she says. “No politics. No shaking hands with local officials as photographers snap away. I really love what I’m doing now. I’m happy where I am. Dave would have loved seeing me like this. I’m in a very good place.”
This story was originally published in the July 2014 issue of Town & Country Philippines.