Agriculture

Examining the Traditions and Innovations in Organic Farming

The latest innovations in organic farming come in the form of herb planting and the introduction of indigenous farms to the mainstream market

Photos by Patrick Segovia and Jar Concengco (Down to Earth)

Following the paradigm shift on what we eat follows a shift on what the land provides. It’s safe to say that herbs, the healthy flavor enhancer of dishes, are desired more than ever by both diner and chef. The role of the farmer, then, is to satisfy the desires of these two groups while satisfying the land that provides the harvest. The innovations don’t come in the form of high-tech equipment but in deep reverence to traditional methods and physical labor.

Gourmet Farms introduces herbs as a lifestyle; Malipayon Farms utilizes herbs as a key component in the bigger picture of agriculture; and Down to Earth Farms seeks to introduce indigenous farms to the mainstream market. Herbs benefit well enough from organic farming, and if the herbs from these farms show anything, it is that the soil of the land used for organic farming is in safe hands.

HIGH ON HERBS

Located in Silang, Cavite, Gourmet Farms bills itself as a coffee company and is one of the first organic farms in the country. From the 1980s to the present, Gourmet Farms has been aiming to change perceptions of healthy living by making organic local produce commercially viable. Its coffee blends are exported internationally and other products—spreads, dips, teas, and chips—are available in retail stores all over the country. It’s also been at the forefront of dining concepts that incorporate its organic produce, such as farm-to-table with The Dining Room, fast food with Gourmet Farms Express, and gastrobars with the Al Fresco Gastrobar. It also hosts tours of its farm, where the food concepts are located.

Of its many offerings, Gourmet Farms is most known for growing and selling culinary herbs, 18 to be exact: flat parsley, curly parsley, dill, onion chives, garlic chives, rosemary, tarragon, marjoram, sage, oregano, arugula, thyme, mint, fennel, lemon balm, lemon grass, coriander, and three kinds of basil (sweet, Italian, and purple).

It’s safe to say that herbs, the healthy flavor enhancer of dishes, are desired more than ever by both diner and chef. The role of the farmer, then, is to satisfy the desires of these two groups while satisfying the land that provides the harvest

These herbs are grown inside greenhouses and open fields on around three hectares of land maintained by eight to 10 people at a time. “We don’t use any special facilities and high maintenance farm infrastructure, instead we maintain and improve our cultural farming practices with the use of organic farming techniques and procedure,” says Jaq Telo, events officer of the company. Given the company’s wide distribution and growth over the years, it’s safe to say that Gourmet Farms is one of the bigger farms out there that doesn’t compromise its yield to pesticides.

But the company still has its share of problems. Climate change, pests, and viruses are among them, and Gourmet Farms has properly addressed them with infrastructure, highly resistant seed varieties, and collaboration, the latter with research and development with government agencies, state colleges, and universities.

ORGANIC ON THE RISE

In the same area of Cavite sits Malipayon Farms, founded by former athlete-turned-farmer Gejo Jimenez. It focuses on special fresh produce. “A lot of restaurants were using dried [herbs]. If they were fresh, would they buy it? They did.” Jimenez started in 2007 under the name Kitchen Herbs Farm, but decided later on Malipayon Farms as a catchier alternative. “’Malipayon’ means happy in Ilonggo,” Jimenez mentions, and by the looks of it, he’s happy being both proprietor and delivery man to his clients: Jordy Navarra of Toyo Eatery, Chele Gonzalez of Vask, and Margarita Forés, to name a few.

“When you look at the food and beverage [industry], you can’t not look at agriculture,” Jimenez stresses.

Malipayon Farms practices organic farming methods, but also an alternative procedure known as biodynamic farming, recognized for considering the soil as a single organism affected by many forces at work, as Jimenez points out. “We grow many things to keep this diversity in balance. I can’t remove everything else because we don’t know how it would affect the land.”

Aside from the herbs that they grow, which include five varieties of mint, Italian oregano, dill, cilantro, tarragon, and thyme, Jimenez grows what the chefs request and what he can grow in his land. There are patches of paco he received from a friend all the way in Batanes, as well as adlai stalks he received from another. Some patches of the farmland are covered in compost to retain moisture and kakawate stalks form a natural barricade to the plots of land.

The herbs are sealed and packed in plastic re-sealable bags, and the whole plot is managed by more than two dozen employees at a time. Jimenez himself delivers the produce straight to the kitchens in cold storage twice a week. “Organic farming is more labor intrusive compared to other farming methods, but rewards a fresher, gentler flavor.” Focusing on harmony, Jimenez stresses the need for consumers to be informed on what they pick since it determines what chefs buy, and what farmers grow.

“When you look at the food and beverage [industry], you can’t not look at agriculture,” Jimenez stresses. He shares an example wherein herbs with holes in their leaves are still safe for consumption and have the same flavor but are rejected by kitchens whose customers would complain about them. Jimenez makes use of these unwanted greens by turning them to shredded mulch to feed back into the soil.

MORE THAN A GARNISH
Paula and Niccolo Aberasturi

Another farm that practices biodynamic farming is Down to Earth Farms, which grows produce in Bukidnon but distributes in Metro Manila. It also produces free-range pork and grass-fed beef and dairy, grows specialty produce, cures meats, and preserves vegetables.

Niccolo and Paula Aberasturi are proprietors of what began as a weekend market venture at their children’s school and turned into a full-time business that distributes to Rustan’s Supermarket. Their store in Yakal St., Makati City shows their array of products that they have produced and developed over the years. In the realm of herbs, Down to Earth Farms is showcasing something special: indigenous herbs, used by natives in Bukidnon for medicinal use, which the Aberasturi couple promote for culinary use too.

Niccolo grew up in a family of farmers in Cagayan de Oro and began organic farming in the early  90s. With the help of the locals in his province, he found these herbs and brought them back to the city to grow. “Aside from the usual herbs, like thyme, oregano, and basil, we have these indigenous herbs like gotukola and yahong-yahong,” he says.

You can see the difference from 10 years ago. In biodynamic farming, you see the patterns of the weather. The farmers in Bukidnon are having a hard time figuring out when to plant because of the weird weather.”

Aside from these herbs, Down to Earth Farms explores the diversity in local flora and fauna with baby cucumbers, or “gherkins” as they are called, which are sold as an addictive snack, and purple heirloom corn from Cebu, known as tapul, as a better alternative to Japanese corn because of its anthocyanin content, which has positive health effects on the body.

As business grows steady and the indigenous herbs are slowly introduced in the market, Niccolo expresses concern at the rising climate that affects the plants. “You can see the difference from 10 years ago. In biodynamic farming, you see the patterns of the weather. The farmers in Bukidnon are having a hard time figuring out when to plant because of the weird weather.”

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