A SMALL group in a village at the southern side of Bacolod City, Negros Occidental has started planting seeds of hope amid the prevailing coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic.
It has begun to grow a movement aimed at enabling people to be self-sufficient specifically on providing for their basic needs, mainly food, during these trying times.
It now looks forward to further sharing with other groups across urban communities in the country the right mindset towards integrated farming as a way to cope with the crisis.
"Plant. Grow. Share." is its battle cry.
Repair shop to farm
Fourteen years ago, Bacoleño Ian Fred Solas was already into urban farming. In fact, he already had a farming system called aquaponics in their backyard in Barangay Pahanocoy during that time.
His family grew high-value crops like lettuce and broccoli, among other vegetables for their consumption.
The 39-year old electrical engineer recalled, though, that his interest in urban farming was not that huge yet. "Ara lang da siya ya eh, pero wala matutukan [the system was just there, but I was not really focusing into it]," he shared.
But, not anymore in 2018 when he started putting more concentration on integrated urban farming. This, after he has perfected the technology through self-study and research.
"We really worked hard to perfect the aquaponics system. We have watched out for gray areas,” he said, adding that "from there, we started changing the plan from just a hobby to a potential business venture."
A year after, Solas founded the startup company IF Green Technologies with the help of the Technological University of the Philippines-Visayas (TUPV) and Department of Science and Technology (DOST) through its Hub for Innovation and Value Engineering (HIVE) project.
IF stands for integrated farming.
The TUPV and DOST have recognized Solas' potential of realizing a company that can bring positive change to the community.
They assisted Solas especially on how to further improve the technology and in looking for the market. Also, he was guided and taught the right mindset.
Maximizing a huge portion of his almost a hectare automobile repair shop, Solas converted the area into an organic backyard farm.
The 700-square meter area, which used to be a place for under repair cars, is now where integrated urban farming flourishes.
Solas' group recognized that a highly-urbanized city like Bacolod where the horizontal and high-rise developments are increasing, land devoted to agriculture is limited.
Also, the soil here is not fertile compared to rural areas thus, maximizing the area to still plant within the city is a challenge, Solas said.
But, they found a way to address it. They banked on aquaponics technology.
Aquaponics is a soilless farming system where hydroponics and aquaculture are merged. It mimics the natural symbiotic relationship between fish and plants.
The system has actually been existing a long time ago but has never gained popularity yet in the province especially in its capital Bacolod City.
For IF Green Technologies, they are using fish wastes as fertilizer and used foam for cocopeat as a base instead of soil.
The plants are grown inside the net pots placed in each hole of the pipes. The water from the pond where tilapias are also grown flows in these pipes and nourishes the plants.
"Simply, the crops grow through the toxic or ammonia of the fish that turns into nitrates serving as plant nutrients," Solas explained.
Currently, the startup company produces at least 2,000 pieces of naturally-grown high-value crops like cabbage, tyrol lettuce, radish, tomato, and lady’s finger, among others harvestable in 30 to 45 days, and 2,000 red and butterball tilapias harvestable every four months.
"Aquaponics does not require extensive farm work. Once you planted the seeds, you just have to feed the fish and wait for the harvest," he added.
Another salient feature of the farm is the practice of "container gardening" which forms part of its urban farming program.
IF Green Technologies utilizes any kind of containers like PET bottles and cans, which are normally thrown as garbage.
These non-biodegradable wastes, if not managed properly, may cause flooding in the community so why not make use of it in farming, the founder said.
For the plastic bottles, for instance, they are using the half top part as net pots and the other part as containers. In an attempt to involve the community, they were buying these containers from the residents at P1 per piece.
"We wanted to stir curiosity among our neighbors about what we are doing here," Solas said.
As some residents showed an overwhelming interest, the group, later on, encouraged them to have the containers planted in their own backyard instead of just selling them.
IF Green Technologies offered these residents to buy their products if they grow vegetables.
The latter, however, realized the potential of backyard farming in attaining food security, especially amid this pandemic.
So, they opted to plant mainly for their family's consumption. Residents were able to produce for their own needs.
'Seeds of Hope'
In the bid to sustain the effort of engaging the surrounding households within the barangay, the "Seeds of Hope" project was created.
Taking advantage of the growing interest towards farming among residents who were put under strict quarantine measures due to Covid-19, IF Green Technologies kicked off its free seeds distribution initiative in March.
These imported vegetable seeds, some were bought and stocked by Sola several years ago, were repacked and made available to the residents.
Solas’ partner Pickles Yee de la Cruz said along with seed distribution, they are educating their neighbors on how to start farming, particularly maximizing available spaces in their backyard and utilizing recycled materials.
“To be able to share to the community is really the core of the project,” de la Cruz said, adding that the importance of planting, growing, and sharing is being inculcated to the residents.
Recognizing the bigger need for food during the lockdown, the group really pushed their neighbors to go into farming. “We should not wait for a lockdown to happen again to move,” she added.
Since the start of the quarantine, about 200 surrounding households were already engaged in urban farming, they already have their own backyard farms.
Aside from free seeds, residents were also taught the basics of the aquaponics system. Once they start producing, they are also encouraged to share the practice with their other neighbors.
“These seeds are literally giving hope to the community. That, once you plant a seed and grow a plant now, you have something to harvest and eat the next day,” de la Cruz shared.
About a hundred meters away from Solas’ integrated farm grows a smaller farm in the backyard of the Gregrory family.
The mother of the family, 64-year old Hannah Gregory, was among the recipients of its “Seeds of Hope” project.
Through the help of Solas, the family was able to jump-start their own “container gardening” of crops like lettuce, carrots, garlic, onion, and chili pepper.
“During the lockdown, when we were not allowed to go out, especially seniors like me, our family had more time to develop our own backyard farm,” the mother said.
Aside from serving as goods for family consumption, Gregory was also able to sell some of their produce like lettuce to her relatives. Also, she was able to start her small “sinamakan” (spiced vinegar) business.
They sell their home-made “sinamakan” using the chili pepper locally known as “katumbal” at P100 to P150 per bottle depending on size.
“It’s an added income,” she said, adding that “in times when quarantine measures are tight, we don’t need to go to the market to buy these vegetables. Rather, we will just handpick it from our backyard.”
The family also received an aquaponics system technology from Solas’ group, which is now up for operation this month. With this, they will be more capable of producing more crops.
Income potential, employment
There’s a huge income potential in urban farming, it’s economically viable. With unemployment rising as major industries experienced a slump due to the pandemic, farming is regarded as a sustainable source of livelihood.
In an integrated farming system like that of IF Green Technologies, it is capable of producing at least P1 million worth of crops and fish annually if utilizing only a 500-square meter area.
On an average, Solas said, they are now selling 450 kilograms of mixed vegetables a month. For tilapia, they are about to harvest some 1,000 heads this week.
The demand, he said, especially for vegetables has tremendously increased during the implementation of quarantine measures in the city.
Their customers are actually households, who were buying through online orders, as most restaurants have also ceased operations. For the tilapia, their clients are local resellers.
“Social media has greatly helped us in connecting with the market,” Solas said, adding that “we have seen that there’s really a room for growth in this business despite the challenges.”
Solas pointed out that what’s good with urban farming, the market is also within the city which means lesser transport cost.
“During the lockdown, most industries have slept except for agriculture as people need to eat. Thus, there is money in urban farming, we just have to invest time and effort,” he stressed.
The one-year-old company founded in a vision to contribute to the development of the community and its people has also provided direct employment opportunities to eight of their neighbors.
They are actually jobless-residents of the barangay, some were even engaged in vices before. Aside from being their source of living, the farm has also helped them in their reformation.
“Sang una tambay lang ko. Damu ko di natun-an. Nakabulig pa ko subong sa amon pamilya, [I was jobless before. I learned a lot here. I was able to help my family now],” 21-year old and high school graduate Carlito Valderama, one of the workers, told SunStar Bacolod.
Spending less, producing moreM
Moreover, integrated farming is a system with simultaneous activities involving crops and animals. In this system, farming components support one another hence, reducing external inputs.
For the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a specialized agency of the United Nations that leads international efforts to defeat hunger, the term integrated farming has been used for integrated resource management.
Affirming to this, Solas said the integration of available resources is what makes farming more sustainable.
In their farm, the aquaponics technology enables them to produce a good volume of high-value crops and fish in an easy and non-costly process.
In a ladder-type aquaponics system, for instance, they can plant 348 seeds within a small area of five feet by 10 feet.
The plants are naturally-grown as they are not using chemical fertilizers in aquaponics and “container gardening.” They also grow their own kangkong pellets and azolla or duckweeds, which are used as feeds for tilapia so they don’t need to spend for additional inputs.
The group also established its own greenhouse to naturally protect the plants from pests aside from controlling direct exposure to sunlight.
“A family can never go hungry if at least one of their members knows how to plant,” he said, stressing that one can really reap a bountiful harvest here given the right technology and proper mindset.
Reaching more communities
Certainly, this urban farming initiative has been gaining ground as it started creating a ripple of effects not only in the barangay but also to other communities outside Bacolod City.
Through partnerships with various groups, Solas said they are currently assisting communities in cities of Talisay and Silay in Negros Occidental, and even in Iloilo, Cebu, and Mindanao, that are also developing their own urban farms.
“We are providing free trainings and seminars to them,” he said.
Solas group is currently involved in the community empowerment program initiated by the Bayanihan Mission, an organization that pushes for sustainability through urban gardening, at Sitio Marna in Mandaue City, Cebu.
Aside from providing seeds, he also shares their integrated urban farming practices to the organization through virtual video conferences and discussions.
As interest in integrated urban farming from both private and public sectors continues to grow, IF Green Technologies plans to establish a learning center within the farm that will host more trainings and seminars.
It already crafted a module on urban farming to be given for free to interested individuals and groups.
Also, it has forged partnerships with some groups including schools for the replication of its integrated urban farming technology in their respective communities.
“Many are in need during these difficult times so let us not hesitate to share,” the urban farming advocate said.
The IF Green Technologies recognizes that government support is of huge importance in realizing advocacies and projects geared towards community development like its urban farming program.
In fact, they mentioned that aside from the assistance provided by the DOST, the farm has also been a recipient of tilapia fingerlings from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).
Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture (DA), for its part, has been intensifying its efforts to push for urban farming especially during this Covid-19 pandemic believing that this will enable Filipinos to ensure food security even at the household level.
In Western Visayas, the agency has already established community gardens in three pilot sites in Iloilo City last May.
As of June 30, it has distributed 1,196.7 vegetable seeds and 5,341 vegetable seedlings in the region including Negros Occidental since the start of the quarantine through the program dubbed “Plant, Plant, Plant.”
The push for urban farming development has also gained boost as House Bill 3412 or the “Integrated Urban Agriculture Act” authored by Negros Occidental Third District Congressman Jose Francisco Benitez hurdled the House Committee on Agriculture on June 17.
The Negrense neophyte lawmaker said to address the increasing number of Filipinos experiencing hunger, it is imperative to introduce “game-changing” solutions, increasing food production by maximizing available spaces, and utilizing emerging agricultural technologies and methods particularly in urban areas where hunger incidence is prevalent.
“The promotion of household, community and school-based urban agriculture will contribute to food security and poverty reduction, strengthen community-building, support the national greening program, and instill environmental consciousness among the citizens especially the youth,” he added.
A group of researchers from his office earlier visited Solas’ farm to ask for additional inputs about integrated urban farming, which is now being aggressively promoted in the province’s third district.
The barangay council, meanwhile, has already started working with Solas’ group for the development of an integrated urban farming area that will serve as a learning center for the Pahanocoy residents and even those from other barangays.
Village chairman Yolanda Noble said Solas has already presented the plan to the council, and that they already identified an area at the back of the barangay hall to be planted with organic high-value crops using the technology of IF Green Technologies.
Noble said that the project, which is targeted to be realized this month, will provide livelihood opportunities to the residents especially those who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
“As we position our barangay as the urban farming capital of Bacolod City, we want all 4,805 households here to have their own backyard farm,” she said, expressing optimism that this will enable about 17,000 residents to become self-sufficient.
The growing attention given by the government to urban farming development is motivating the startup company to continue the cause they have started.
For the group, there’s now a bigger chance of attaining a greener future for urban farming in the country.
“This is what we aspire for, this is the kind of harvest that we dreamt of,” the urban farming advocate said.*