07/18/2012 04:19 pm ET Updated Sep 17, 2012

A Middle Way

Camarines Sur, The Republic of the Philippines -- The monsoons have arrived here in Camarines Sur, a land of lush verdure, dangerous volcanoes, and almost excruciating beauty. On the small farm owned by my wife's family, the paddies are being planted with rice seedlings, each blade stuck into the black, rich muck by a knowing hand working at an almost metronomic pace.

This may seem an ancient and unchanging tableau; and it's true than rice has been planted this way in Asia for thousands of years. But this is not "primitive" agriculture -- not by a long shot. In Asia, the apparent is a veil that often conceals a deeper truth. That is the case here.

Certainly, this isn't agribusiness. There is nothing corporate about this type of farming. But it isn't organic farming either. It is founded neither on the relentless pursuit of efficiencies, nor on a rigorous philosophy of "appropriate" agriculture. It follows a middle way that contains elements of both models, but closely resembles neither.

On my wife's family farm, rice and copra are the primary crops. Maize, peanuts, mangoes, bananas, and a variety of vegetables also are produced. The rice paddies and vegetable plots are cultivated by carabao -- the ubiquitous water buffalo that are a picturesque emblem of rural Asia. Carabao are in every way superior to tractors for the small farms typical of rural Asia. They are relatively cheap, they operate on grass rather than gasoline, they don't break down, and they increase your asset base by producing calves. And when they get old, you can slaughter them and eat or sell the meat.

Rice is harvested by hand, and the grain separated from the chaff by small, portable threshers. The rice kernels are dried in the sun, not in the huge, gas-powered driers typical of rice operations in developed nations. The seed used here is local and non-hybrid. The yields are somewhat less than those typical for expensive hybrid or genetically-modified (GMO) varieties, but the local strains are heartier -- and, people claim, they taste better.

But no one here is an organic jingoist. Typically, one or two applications of pesticides are made to control grubs, weevils, and snails. The paddies generally are weeded by hand, but herbicides are applied if water hyacinths start getting out of hand. Artificial fertilizers are employed.

But both the pesticides and the fertilizers are used sparingly -- and only when monitoring confirms they are indicated. Two reasons for this: first, chemicals are expensive. Second, people are aware of their hazards. They want to minimize their use. The paddies are also used to raise fish, and the wild frogs that abound in them are likewise consumed with gusto. No one wants to endanger these highly esteemed sources of protein.

Nor are genetically-modified (GMO) seeds reflexively spurned for all crops. "Bt" maize -- a GMO variant that contains a natural toxin fatal to corn borers -- has been the salvation of small upland farmers throughout the Philippines. Corn yields have shot up, while pesticide use has decreased dramatically.

In a Panglossian best of all possible worlds, of course, organic agriculture would be the default choice. With the world as it is, this won't happen. Billions must be fed, and in a cost-effective fashion. Highly mechanized, highly subsidized, highly destructive corporate agriculture thus appears secure.

But the Philippines shows it doesn't have to be this way -- not completely. Small farms are the rule here, and these holdings are not so much farmed as gardened. A multitude of crops are grown, so the failure of any one crop seldom is catastrophic. Human labor is cheap, and substitutes for heavy debt, pricey equipment, and expensive electricity and hydrocarbon fuels. The result is an agricultural sector that is both sustainable and resilient. The farmers here pick the technologies best suited to their needs. They avoid bromides and cant, and they have devised a system that works. They are feeding themselves and millions of their fellow citizens.

True, this approach is not exportable to North America or Europe. But it would be hubris to assume that farmers here have much to learn from either gung-ho agribiz cheerleaders or the deeply pious druids of organic agriculture. There are many things that Filipinos need -- but lessons in farming aren't among them.