Ifugao Rice Culture

The following material is taken from:
Barton, R. F.: Ifugao Economics.
In: University of California Publications in American Archeology and Ethnology
Vol. 15, No. 5, pp. 385-446, April 12, 1922.


Rice Culture

The principal agricultural work of the Ifugao, besides camote culture, is rice culture. Camotes grow on hillsides so steep that none but an Ifugao could climb them; the soil need not be even fertile and the crop is not subject to pests. Rice on the other hand requires irrigation, fertility, and constant care. lt is subject to many and various pests. Camotes, requiring little work, are not thought highly of as food, but around the much-prized rice centers, to a great extent, the Ifugao religion. A man's social status is fixed by the amount of rice he harvests; his wealth is in his nee fields.

Rice Fields

Ifugao rice fields are worthy of high rank among the wonders of the world. There are places where they reach from an altitude of 2500 feet to one of 5000 feet, and many places where they extend from an altitude of 1500 feet to one of 4500 feet. Above 5000 feet rice does not grow well. The steeper the mountain the greater the work of constructing the field. This is because the field must be narrow in proportion to the height of the terrace. The terraces are walled wherever the earth is of such character that they would not hold without walls. In the regions inhabited by a pure Ifugao population, the walls are of round hard river stones; in regions inhabited by the Silipanes (a sub-branch of the Ifugao) the walls are frequently of split stone and not nearly so durable. The pitch of the terraces varies throughout Ifugao. Needless to say, if there are to be any fields on a steep mountain, the pitch of the terraces must be great. In Benaue the terraces seem to rise above one almost perpendicularly. Jenks states that there are in Benaue terrace walls seventy feet high. This is an exaggeration. lt is true that the highest terraces in Benaue are about fifty feet high; but in all Ifugao I have never seen a walled terrace much over twenty feet in height. Even behind these high walls the field is often only eleven feet wide. This fact gives some idea of the labor that has been expended in preparing an area to feed or partially feed 125,000 people.

Rice Fields, Dukligan District

An Ifugao will put a rice field wherever there is a water supply - whether it be necessary to append it to a steep cliff or to control a river.

Value of Rice Fields

The value of rice lands varies throughout the subprovince. It depends on several factors:

  1. The amount of unoccupied land in the vicinity it would be possible to irrigate.
  2. The amount of labor necessary to construct rice fields in that vicinity and the cost of labor there.
  3. Location. (The best location is one completely surrounded by other rice fields, at a considerable distance from the margin of the cultivated area. This is because the rats, wild pigs, deer, and monkeys destroy a large part of the yield of marginal fields.)
  4. Water supply. (Springs are the best.)

Fertility is rarely a factor because the Ifugao method of agriculture tends to render a field more fertile year by year.

In Kiangan the value of an acre of rice fields centrally located and well watered would usually be abont P. 500. In Piuong or Amganad, where there is no unoccupied land capable of irrigation, the value would be about P. 800. In Jalíap, Bolog, or other towns recently settled by immigrants, the value would be about P. 250. In Kiangan a field centrally located - that is, in the center of a cultivated area of considerable extent - is worth six to twelve times as much as one locatcd on the margin of a cultivated area.

Transfers of real estate were formerly rare except by inheritance. Sales are becoming more frequent. The Ifugao custom is for the buyer to make a feast to which his own kin and the seller and the seller's kin come. The buyer and his kin then give presents to the kin of the seller. These presents are spear heads or long knives, usually - sometimes, in these latter days, money.[*] Both parties then join in prayers to the deities that the feld lose none of its fruitfulness by transfer, but that instead it gain thereby; that the rats, the mice, and rice pests molest not the crops, and that the deities miraculously increase the crop year by year as it is harvested. The kin of both parties are witnesses to the transfer. The presents to the seller's kin are for the purpose of making them content and making them truthful wituesses in case of future altercation. For there might be a possibility that the descendants of the seller's kin would some day inherit the field, and the presents serve to recompense the loss of this chance however remote it be; and secondly, since Ifugao ethics permit of a careless handling of evidence so as to favor kinfolk, it is well that the seller's kin be under some obligation to the buyer in order that they be straightforward and truthful.

These formalities are gone through with only in the case of the transfer of rice land. Good camote fields are sometimes sold; but in Kiangan district at least, where camote fields are abandoned after two or three years, and where the land reverts after two or three years to the public "commons," it is looked upon that only the camote crop is sold. Camote fields then are not, in the Ifugao's conception, real estate. Houses are also sold, but as a house can be taken apart, transferred, and set up again with the help of one,s kin in a day, and as town lots have no value in an Ifugao village, the house does not fall in the class of real estate. Rice lands are the only real estate, then, that the Ifugao has.

Preparation of the Field for Planting

In September or October the dikes, banong, are built up. Thus, during 1912 they had been worn down a great deal, and possibly broken in places. After repair of the dikes, the field is spaded to a depth of about a foot and the soil heaped up in mounds a foot and a half to two feet high. The water is then turned off. These mounds stand as thick as the surface of the field will permit. In this the Ifugao shows himself a highly skilled agriculturist. Did he know the reason for this practice he would even be a scienced one. All year the fields have been under water. Even after rice harvest the water is not turned off for the fields would then grow up with dense vegetation. There has been little action of the air on the soil; little decomposition of vegetable matters by oxygen. In the mounds the air has an excellent opportunity to decompose and mellow the soil.

Men's Work

The fields ar turned with a wooden spade. The work is heavy and exhausting.



The fields are left in this shape from two to four or five weeks or until ready to be planted. Planting time usually begins in Kiangan about Christmas and continues until the middle of February. In some years, however, as for example, 1912, planting is delayed by drought.

Usually about the first of December seed beds are planted. Heads of rice are laid in the middle of a field - in the middle in order to prevent their being stolen by rats or crows. They are laid close together for it is well that the seed rice plants be too thick to grow rapidly. Time is thus left to wait for rains, if need be, or labor, if need be, without the rice in the seed beds growing too large for transplanting.

When the field is ready for planting, the water is turned on, the little mounds are scattered, and the loose soil worked until the whole paddy is a mud puddle - a "loblolly." The dike, which has dried and in drying cracked, is repaired. The field is then ready to be planted.

The rice plants from the seed bed are transplanted by women. The reason given for allotting this work to them is that the women's fingers are nimbler than the men's. The transplanting is done without the aid of any instrument, such as the sharpened stick used by the Pangasinan people.

Women Transplanting Rice from Seed Bed to Field

The Ifugao division of labor is on the rather natural basis of giving to men the hardest work and to women the most work.

Following the planting there is a period of about two months during which the women clean the fields of the scum that covers the surface of the water and of any weeds that may have grown. They push scum and weeds into the mud where their decaying enriches the already fertile soil. All of the fields are worked thus about three times. When the rice begins to "sucker out," the suckers are removed down to a uniform number. According to the fertility of the particular field, from three to six stalks are left. There follows a period during which the lower blades of the stalks are removed. At the same time the paddy dikes are cleaned of weeds. When I first saw the tremendons amount of time and labor expended in stripping the stalks of their lower leaves, I thought that a tremendous amount of labor was being wasted on a useless piece of work; but when I saw side by side the yield of two fields, one of which had been neglected in this particular, I recognized that for some reason the Ifugao is correct in his cultivation.

All the work in connection with rice culture, from the time the fields he prepared for sowing, except the cleaning of the terraces and dikes, is performed by women.

Treatment of Pests

Rice is subject to a number of pests - insect pests, seales, and rusts. When infected plants are found, all infected parts are picked off and burned or left in the hot sun to dry. In case a field is found to be badly infected, recourse is had to religious ceremonials. Rice pests are thought to have been originated by one of the highest deities, Bangauwan, in order to compel men to give (sacrifice) animals to him.


The rice in the lower altitudes is always the first to be planted, and it is the first to be harvested. The harvesting consists in cutting off each individual stalk about twenty-two centimeters below the head, binding the heads into bundles by a bamboo or gaddang tie, carrying the little bundles so made up to the granary, and stacking them below it. The knives used are: first, and usually, the Ifugao ua or small knife whose blade, rigid in the handle, is set at a greater obtuse angle of about 225° with the handle; second, the knife of the Ilokano and Gaddang, consisting of a blade set across a perpendicular handle and held, the handle in the paim, the blade in front of the palm and passing between the middle and ring fingers. The heads are bound into bundles of such size that, in Kiangan district, five or six, in the Lamot district, two and a half, and in the Benaue district, six or seven, bundles make a ganta of threshed rice (three liters).

After being stacked under the granary, the rice is left about two weeks until it has thoroughly dried, and until fervent religious prayers, ceremonials, and sacrifices have been performed to secure its miraculous increase in quantity.

Harvest time is a highly festive period for all classes. For the old men and women in their capacity as priests and priestesses, it is a continuous round of feasting and drinking with real picnic food and inexhaustible jars of rice wine. For the poor who have lived principally on camotes during the month preceding, it is a time when they gorge themselves on rice and meat - rice and meat every day. For the young people there is singing and there is drinking; there is exchange of gossip, there is good food. And though the sun be hot and shoot down his rays until the heated glaring fields be like furnaces; they enjoy the work nevertheless. In the morning the sexes work separately. But after the heat of the day the two groups of workers gradually and slyly disintegrate and form two new groups. Married men and women work together and exchange witticisms and gossip, occasionally singing in concert. The young men and the unmarried women form a merry group, now singing love songs, now work songs; now screaming and squealing with laughter at the improvisation of one of their number who is singing or chanting extemporaneously - the genius of originality seems to dwell in rice wine! And now coarse (according to our standards) quips fly from one to another, and are quickly picked up and returned with liberal interest. And before the work finishes there is an arrangement of trysting places.

The Termination of the Ceremonies of the Harvest Feast

The pig is enwreathed with rice heads, hagaga grass, and the stick with which the pig was killed in ceremonial fashion. The "dean" of the priests sends the pig's soul to the four deity-inhabited regions, there to advocate for the mortals the miraculous increase of the rice. Its soul is then ordered to return to be reincarnated for the "children".

The foregoing explains, I think, the preference of labor for agricultural work throughout the Philippines; for Ifugaoland is not the only Philippine locality where harvest time takes on a festive character.

Rice is much more highly prized as food than the camote. Why, then, is it not the chief food of these peoples? The reasons are these:

  1. Land in areas of considerable extent suitable for rice culture is scarce, or requires long irrigation ditches and concerted labor for its development; requirements the Ifugao,s social and economic development cannot meet.
  2. Rice land in small tracts is not very productive because of the ravages of rats, wild pigs, monkeys, and deer on the border fields.
  3. Owing to the Ifugao method of agriculture - turning the soil with a wooden spade - rice cannot be raised in quantities sufficient to make it more than fifty per cent of the total food of the people. In Kiangan district, where rice is sixty per cent of the subsistence of the people, fully one-third of the labor is imported from the poorer districts surrounding.
  4. The season in which rice is raised is very uncertain as to rainfall. In 1912 the crop was not over one-fourth the average yield, owing to drought.

    The first difficulty is being overcome by the subprovincial government, which is organizing and managing the irrigation of two large tracts of level land. On this land plows will be used, thus overcoming the third difficulty.

    [*] A full description of ceremony and presents in transfer of fields is to be found in Ifugao Law, present series, xv, pp. 46-50, 1919.

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