There are facts that are hard to disregard.
For example, in September 2022, food inflation was pegged at 7.7 percent, a considerable increase compared to the year before. Another is that Filipinos eat the least amount of vegetables compared to our Southeast Asian neighbors. Of the minimum 400 grams of fruits and vegetables the World Health Organization recommends daily, Filipinos only consume 160 grams based on 2015 data. Add this to the fact that farmers who aren’t getting any younger—with the median age of 53— single-handedly deal with agricultural competitiveness, self-sufficiency concerns, and food security risks.
If you’ve driven around Bonifacio Global City (BGC) and noticed an unexpected plot of land with a small farm, you’re looking at the work of one NGO that hopes to plant the seed of passion in agriculture.
Yes, right in the middle of a Metro Manila financial business district. And by someone who has never even farmed in his life until the pandemic happened.
“One day I was walking in our street and I saw this empty lot in Bel-Air full of overgrown weeds. As an entrepreneur, I kept on thinking, what can I do with this? Out of the blue, farming came into my head,” laughs Louie Gutierrez, Urban Farmers PH founder.
“I only got into farming during the pandemic,” admits Louie Gutierrez, farmer in chief and founder of Urban Farmers Sustainability Concepts Inc. “Back in March 2020, when everything closed, all my stores closed.” Gutierrez is the founder and managing partner of sterling silver jewelry store Silverworks.
“We have 70 stores across the country, and everything closed. I have 500 employees and I need to support them. I didn’t have any income so I was looking for ways to give them jobs and share food,” Gutierrez says. “One day I was walking in our street and I saw this empty lot in Bel-Air full of overgrown weeds. As an entrepreneur, I kept on thinking, what can I do with this? Out of the blue, farming came into my head,” he laughs.
Out of a desire to support his staff, he asked the owner of the lot if he could use the land to farm. “I have never farmed in my life but the owner said, ‘I’m not going to build anything there now so you can use it.’”
After establishing his farm in Bel-Air, Gutierrez was offered an empty 1,500-square meter lot behind St. Luke’s Hospital in BGC to replicate it. “Initially, Fort Bonifacio Development Corporation (FBDC) was really skeptical if we could do this. You really need to show them that it can be done. So we were able to show them the farm on a 500-square meter property in Bel-Air. So they visited and the rest is… not history but still happening.”
The urban farm in BGC grows seven different varieties of lettuce, heirloom tomatoes, and vibrant patches of pechay. They also grow herbs such as basil, mint, tarragon, and rosemary, which proved delightfully useful at a gin party held at the farm. “We want to highlight that the reason why FBDC lent this land to us is to create engagement with the community. The income we get from what we do here supports the organization and the farmers.”
Fortunately, the community is thrilled at the idea of a farm growing in the city. Francesco Lucas who handles volunteer operations for the organization says, “We have a very diverse group and everyone wants to help. One of our volunteers brought her sourdough bread here, and we all just gathered in the farm. Another shared recipes for cultured foods— yogurt, kombucha, and kefir. It’s a mix of these types of events that piques people’s interest. And we center it here at the farm. Let’s share it at the farm, let’s eat it here at the farm. So it really engages the volunteers.”
If more and more people understood the importance of growing our own food as a country, we would protect the systems that support our farmers. Food prices can be more stable if we don’t have to rely on importation. “Pandemic or not, we need food to eat. This is just a small way to help out. We’re not out here to save the world but just to do our part and maybe inspire more people to get into farming,” says Gutierrez.
One of the goals of Urban Farmers is to spark interest among the youth and dispel notions that farming can’t be fun. The fact that the farm is in BGC gives curious individuals the opportunity to volunteer and try their hand at growing vegetables for themselves (which is to be clear only just one aspect of volunteer work).
“What’s great about the diversity in the volunteer group is everyone shares different perspectives. Some people are more social media savvy, some are more artsy, some have experience in agriculture and planting,” business development officer Marian Pacunana explains.
Urban Farmers business development officer Marian Pacunana encourages those interested to volunteer. “We usually invite them to our Farming 101 session as an attendee. After that they can approach us and tell us that they want to volunteer. We discuss what they’d like to contribute, how much time they’re willing to spend with us, and if there is an area of growth they’re interested in.”
You don’t even need to have a background in farming or fit a specific type to be able to contribute to the green growth. “What’s great about the diversity in the volunteer group is everyone shares different perspectives. Some people are more social media savvy, some are more artsy, some have experience in agriculture and planting,” Pacunana explains.
“It’s really a great dynamic. We all have our own passions. We get mentored by more experienced members. We give them fresh ideas and they give us what’s realistic and time-tested. That’s a really great dynamic, which you won’t get if your group is full of the same age,” Lucas adds.
In addition, the farm serves as an alternative source of vegetables for the community as some of the varieties here aren’t available at what can be found in supermarkets. By being able to pick your own vegetables from the ground, you ensure you’re getting the freshest produce possible.
Just like growing food, solutions take time and care. Urban Farmers is just one step in the right direction and if we continue to water and tend to it, it may bear fruit to combat the problems that have been hounding the homeland for so long. Food will be more accessible. People will consume more vegetables if it’s offered on the table more often. And hopefully we get a new, passionate generation of farmers to continue the good work of growing food.
“If we’re able to inspire anyone to start their own farm, whether in the city or in their own province, then that’s a win for us already,” Pacunana says.