Celebrating the life of Tita Nelia

(Originally published in https://mb.com.ph/2018/02/24/celebrating-the-life-of-tita-nelia/. With permission to repost from National Scientist Emil Q. Javier.)

There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why… I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?’

– Robert Kennedy

Last week, I attended the birthday celebration of a truly outstanding Filipino who has given so much of herself for our country, particularly in agriculture and rural development.

I am referring to Nelia Teodoro-Gonzalez, fondly called Tita Nelia by many who was a pioneering agribusiness and social entrepreneur; an outstanding civil servant, exponent of cooperative and small farmer development; a stalwart of the University of the Philippines Alumni Association (UPAA); and an indefatigable fund raiser for worthy social causes. All of these she accomplished while raising six accomplished children and a still growing brood of grandchildren and great grandchildren. She has led a remarkably productive, challenging and multifaceted life. In her 94 years, she managed to cram in the equivalent of several careers. As former President Fidel Ramos pointed out in the preface of a book about her: Nelia T. Gonzalez — An Entrepreneur’s Journey “Writing about Nelia is an arduous task. It would be difficult to assess whether one has already said enough.”

A pioneering agribusiness and social entrepreneur

After earning a degree in plant pathology from the University of the Philippines College of Agriculture (UPCA) in Los Baños in 1944, she briefly served as agronomist at the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI). She was soon engaged by the late industrialist Salvador Araneta to help in managing the Araneta Institute of Agriculture (now the De Salle Araneta University) and the Republic Flour Mills (RFM).

As General Manager and Vice President of RFM, together with a team including notable engineer Ralph Villanueva, poultry nutritionist Mario Lababan, and veterinarian Meliton Novilla, she chalked up a number of achievements and firsts. The consequences of these initiaves had lasting impacts on the animal industry. Among them were: 1) pioneered in the importation of the first White Leghorn chicks from the US to boost local egg production, 2) established the Araneta Feed Mills and served for several years as President of the Philippines Association of Feed Millers (PAFMI), 3) opened the export trade for wheat by-products (bran and pollard) to Southeast Asia and Japan, 4) established the first biological laboratory producing feed supplements, medicines and vaccines for the local animal industry, 5) managed the first soybean oil extraction plant in the country which gave impetus to the local production of soybean meal as animal feed, 6) pioneered in the production of yeast from molasses, and 7) established the Better Poultry and Livestock Magazine, which for five decades served as primary source of information for aspiring small and medium scale poultry and livestock raisers.

But easily the most notable contribution of Tita Nelia and her team was the introduction of broiler poultry contract growing. RFM was the first integrator, providing day-old chicks, feeds, veterinary supplies and growing technology to contract growers and buying back the birds at competitive prices. The scheme proved to be very successful and the rest of the industry followed suit. To date the broiler industry is one of our most productive and regionally competitive sectors in agriculture.

But much later on she realized that poultry integrators for obvious business reasons gravitated toward the bigger, better-endowed growers. With the Punla sa Tao Foundation (PSTFI) which she headed, Mrs. Gonzalez helped organize the backyard poultry raisers into a cooperative, mobilized support from the Local Government Units (LGUs), linked them with a microfinance entity (Sikap Bidani), and enrolled them with an integrator, Bounty Corporation. All these players were brought together by her PSTFI into a model small farmers contract growing scheme called Manok Mabuhay Program.

Pioneering hybrid corn seed producer

Next to broiler among the high performers in agriculture is the yellow corn feed industry. With the entry of multinationals and the introduction of genetically modified (GM) yellow corn hybrids in the late 1990s, our hectarage and feed corn production grew by leaps and bounds.

Not widely known but acknowledged by Filipino plant breeders was the pioneering venture of Mrs. Gonzalez in the local production of corn and soybean hybrid seeds with the establishment of Phil Hi-Bred, Inc. in the early 1970s. Sourcing the original seed parent materials from Pioneer Hi-Bred Seed Company in Iowa and mobilizing local expertise, she established hybrid seed production operations in South Cotabato, in a 40-hectare farm in Naujan Oriental Mindoro and a 1,000-hectare farm in Bansud, also in Oriental Mindoro.

After a very successful start, she was bought out by her Japanese and Filipino partners and she had to move on.

Outstanding civil servant and exponent of cooperatives  and small farmer development

After working for the RFM group, she went into business on her own and ventured into real estate development, commercial fishing and corn hybrid seed production. The two latter experiences proved to be very valuable in the next career move she was thrust into when President Ferdinand Marcos appointed her in 1980 as Assistant Minister of Agriculture upon the recommendation of then Secretary Arturo Tanco Jr.

Thus Mrs. Gonzalez had a ringside seat so to speak in the heydays of the banner programs of agriculture during the Marcos years — Masagana 99; Masaganang Maisan, Pagkain Bayan at Gulayan sa Kalusugan and Bakahang Barangay. As the key aide of DA Agriculture Secretary Tanco she was witness, and played a key supporting role in all of them.

But in addition, Mrs. Gonzalez was given the concurrent assignment as Director of the Bureau of Cooperative Development. As such she was responsible for strengthening the organization of the Samahang Nayons as a first step. But as a practicing businesswoman herself, she knew the Samahang Nayons will not go far without supporting marketing and financing arms. She therefore assiduously supported as well the establishment of Area Marketing Cooperatives and Cooperative Rural Banks.

Worth mentioning because of its continuing relevance was a special project for which Mrs. Gonzalez was directly responsible for — the World Bank KABSAKA project in Iloilo. The then dominant programs, Masagana 99 and Masaganang Maisan, were monocrop farming systems. KABSAKA took a different tack and emphasized relay cropping (multiple cropping) to raise cropping intensity and hence increase the income of farmers substantially. Included in the menu was the introduction of small reservoirs to enable the farmers to control the availability of water in the amounts and times the crops need water.

The KABSAKA multiple cropping approach proved to be very successful. Unfortunately, the Department of Agriculture (DA) seemed to have forgotten and has not followed through.

Stalwart of the UP alumni association

Her commitment to her Alma Mater, the University of the Philippines, is legendary. She is probably one of the alumni who have served the longest with the UP Board of Regents having been appointed (and renewed) for extended periods during the Fidel Ramos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administrations.

She was the moving spirit that brought together the different (8) college alumni associations into the UP Los Baños alumni association. In the early 1980s she led the campaign to build the UPLB Alumni Center. She led the campaign to solicit professorial chairs for outstanding faculty. She was instrumental in the construction of the imposing Carillon Tower in the Los Baños campus which Los Baños alumni claim with pride as taller than the original carillon tower in UP Diliman and with more and bigger bells.

She delivered as well for the main campus in UP Diliman. She is credited for leading the initiative to build the Bahay ng Alumni at a cost of P85 million in 1995.

Indefatigable fund raiser for social causes

Apart from her agribusiness involvements, her forays in real estate development and eco-tourism ventures, Mrs. Gonzalez found time to be actively involved with at least 18 organizations and entities. She was a much sought-after officer, director, treasurer and fund raiser of many social, civic, religious, political and educational organizations. Her engagements in social causes and philanthropy are not only very numerous and long-running, they are so varied, reflecting her broad and comprehensive interests and life commitments.Among the organizations/causes she championed are: 1) The Philippine Tuberculosis Society, 2) ERDA Tech Foundation, 3) Foundation for Carmelite Scholastics, 4) Zonta Club of Quezon City, 5) Manila Overseas Press Club, 6) Philippine Constitution Association (PhilConsa), 7) Punla sa Tao Foundation, 8) UP SERDEF (small and medium scale industries), 9) UP Pahinungod (volunteers) Foundation, 10) Sons and Daughters of the Philippine General Hospital, 11) UP Center for Women Studies, 12) Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society Foundation, 13) Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP), 14) Pambansang Kilusan Para sa Batayang Sektor, 15) National Council of Women, 16) UP System Alumni Association, 17) UP Los Baños Alumni Association and 18) Federation of Business and Professional Women.

A forever grateful alumna

Mrs. Gonzalez’s love for the College of Agriculture and Food Science (CAFS) cannot be quantified. Aside from fund-raising activities, she personally and continuously sponsors various awards for faculty and staff not only to recognize their contributions to the College and to their respected fields but also to motivate them to work harder.

The Nelia T. Gonzalez Award for CAFS Outstanding Researcher and Outstanding Extension Personnel and the Nelia Teodoro-Gonzalez Professorial Chair are indications of her never-ending “pay back” to the College.

Truly a woman of substance

Not all heroes are dead. There are many living with us. Tita Nelia is certainly one of them. To the many generations of alumni from UPLB, to the many institutions and countless beneficiaries of the social causes she championed she is a hero, an icon and an inspiration.

Selfless, indefatigable, enterprising, excellent manager of ideas, resources and people, champion of the poor, incurable optimist and grand matriarch, all rolled into one — truly a woman of substance. (Dr. Emil Q. Javier)

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