Special Report: DIY farming for urbanites (Last of two parts)

CEBU City is not an ideal place for agriculture. Agricultural lands are limited to the mountain barangays, a lot of which have steep slopes that are hard to farm on. Then there are the other challenges: the financial aspect, lack of water and the failure to innovate.

This is why the City Government is introducing urban farming. So people don’t have to depend so much on agricultural produce from the mountain barangays.

In 2016, Mayor Tomas Osmeña introduced the newspaper technology to the City Agriculture Department (CAD). The technology, which he said he learned while living in Los Angeles, doesn’t need a large area—a plant box will suffice.

In the plant box, newspaper is placed inside as a foundation.

“The layer of newspaper will serve as a storage tank,” said Osmeña.

Next, a pipe is placed in the middle of the box. The pipe can be anything with two openings—an empty water bottle with both ends cut off will do. Soil is placed on top of the newspaper and around the pipe. Then the seedlings are planted in the box. To water it, one just needs to pour water into the pipe.

“Pour the water into the pipe. It will hit the newspaper, and the newspaper will absorb it. If there’s too much water, it will go to the side,” explained Osmeña, who earned an agriculture degree in 1971 at the Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan.

CAD officer-in-charge Apple Tribunalo said the office named it Tom’s Newspaper Technology and introduced it to the city’s 32 urban barangays.

“After putting water, believe me, it will not dry up for a few days. Your water requirement will be greatly reduced,” said Osmeña.

Osmeña’s “newspaper technology” has also gained the support of the legislative department’s committee on agriculture.

Councilor Joy Augustus Young said water is the biggest agricultural problem in Cebu City.

The mountain barangays don’t have a steady supply of water. So the city sometimes aids the farmers by sending truckloads of water to the area, which can be impractical.

Councilor Alvin Arcilla said one may also add vermin to the soil in the plant box as fertilizer. Or plain old urine mixed with the water, quipped Osmeña.

Even those living in high-rise buildings can have their own little backyard farm with this technology even if they don’t technically have a backyard.

The point is that even if Cebu City cannot be food sufficient because of declining agricultural lands and waning interest in farming, every family has a chance to be food sufficient with this technology.

“It’s really blatant—the way you used to see green but now you see structures,” observed Tribunalo.

Innovation

But CAD is not giving up on encouraging people to farm.

Tom’s Newspaper Technology is now showcased at Cebu City’s Nursery in the North Reclamation Area.

The nursery is only 4,000 square meters, but it is packed with technology.

Aside from the newspaper technology, the nursery shows how urban farming can be undertaken using the vertical gardening method, where one could stack two or more five-gallon water bottles with the top capped off. Soil is placed inside the large water bottle, which one will then slash to make a flap where one could plant the seed or seedling.

There is also the hanging garden. Urban residents could hang their potted plants to conserve space. They could also use old rubber tires as a small garden plot, just enough for their daily vegetable consumption.

Another method is the Magic Square, where one could plant at least four different kinds of vegetables in a one-square-meter plot of land or boxed garden. Nursery in-charge Vicente Alcesto showed SunStar Cebu a sample of the Magic Square at the nursery, which was planted with malunggay (horseradish), camote (sweet potato), alugbati (spinach) and tanglad (lemongrass).

“These are already ingredients for utan Bisaya (boiled vegetables). You just need to add meat,” said Alcesto.

There is also the terrace method where potted plants are layered over a stairwell or a makeshift one.

Lastly, there is the hydroponics, a method of cultivating plants with minimal to zero soil. Alcesto explained that one just needs to mix water with earthworm waste in a Styrofoam crate, then bore holes on the crate cover, just enough to hang some cups—like Styrofoam coffee cups. These cups will have a little bit of soil mixed with earthworm waste and the seedling. The bottom of the cups, with small holes, should touch the mixture in the crate.

All the methods showcased require minimal space.

“Yeah (agricultural area is declining). But you know, if you go intensive farming, you won’t need much space. You can even grow on your roof,” said Osmeña.

Protecting plants

For those with more space, the City Resource Management and Development Center (Cremdec) in Barangay Taptap also has an agriculture information technology center to showcase innovations to help farmers improve agriculture practices. The one-hectare center has a variety of vegetables, flowers and fruits.

Soon, people won’t need to go to Baguio to enjoy strawberries. Through the rain-shelter technology, Cremdec is trying to grow strawberries at the center. The technology aims to protect the plants from the piercing heat of the sun and a possibly unforgiving rain, said assistant CAD head Arlie Gesta.

There were no fruits yet when SunStar Cebu visited the new strawberry showcase, but farmers looking after the nursery were positive about its prospects of surviving and bearing sweet produce.

The center’s vegetable showcase is wrapped in plastic mulch technology, which also protects the plants from direct sunlight, conserves soil moisture and prevents excess moisture. The technology also protects the plants from insects because it reflects light.

Organic livestock

A lone pig is also being raised to showcase organic farming. Everything the Cremdec-owned pig eats is a product of the center.

Gesta said farmers are usually intimidated by the prospect of going into organic farming because it is more expensive and labor intensive. But the payoff is great.

“The meat is safe, and the fat is an inch or less thick compared to the two-and-a-half-inch fat that regular pigs usually have,” explained Gesta.

It’s a market that is still untapped. But as people get more conscious about the food they eat, raising organic animals will eventually pay off. Organic food is generally more expensive than inorganic ones.

At Cebu City’s Nursery, its pig pen is labeled “Happy Boy.” Why? Because the pigs living in the pen are happy baboy (pigs), or so claimed organic farmer Ronilo Montejo.

First off, the pen doesn’t stink, which is unusual. This is because of its bedding, which is first layered with the biodegradable waste from the nursery, covered with charcoal, then covered with saw dust as third layer and topped with rice hulls.

The pigs in the nursery also eat only organic food, which Montejo painstakingly prepares: duckweed and azolla mixed with starter feed that comprises 50 percent carbohydrates, 35 percent protein, eight percent lipids, five percent minerals and two percent vitamins.

Training

CAD admits it would be hard to convince the younger generation to choose farming over a white-collar job where they are sure not to sweat or get their hands dirty.

“It’s difficult, but we continue to give the necessary training, especially in the marketing aspect,” said Gesta.

Young agreed.

“Agriculture is not just about planting—there is the planting side, and then there is the marketing side,” the chairperson of the committee on trade, commerce and entrepreneurship said.

He said that while the Department of Agriculture is taking care of the planting side, it should not be handling the marketing aspect because it doesn’t have the expertise. Marketing should be handled by the Department of Trade and Industry.

Tribunalo said it helps that the Department of Education has integrated agriculture in its K to 12 program. In the case of Cebu City, the Bonbon public school recently tapped CAD to help educate the students on agriculture technology.

And this is exactly the kind of opportunity CAD wants: to inculcate agriculture in the younger generation. Everybody is welcome in the nursery, which Tribunalo fondly calls the “seat of agriculture knowledge.”

Cebu City residents could even take home some plants for their own backyard garden—for free. This way, everybody can start growing his own food.

For the farmers, the city established the farmers’ market to provide a space for farmers to sell their produce. The farmers’ market is open every Thursday and Friday at the Plaza Sugbo, in between Cebu City Hall and Basilica Minore del Sto. Niño.

“We just need to show that farming is not dying… There is money in farming with the right education, adequate training and proper technology,” said Gesta. (With Razel V. Cuizon)
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