Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Maligcong and nearby Tala Farms: An Organic Experience and How It's Bringing Pride Back Into the Farming Vocation

Organic bounty from Tala Farms with Suzette's heirloom woven baskets
My foray into the northern highlands was meant to be some sort of a wholistic, cathartic, break -- mental, physical, spiritual, and of course, gustatorial.  It's an opportune time to wean myself from the usual fast and admittedly, junk, food choices.  My longtime vice of java got replaced with real, honest-to-goodness mountain-grown coffee (Suzette Che-es of Suzette's Maligcong Homestay and Coffee Shop buys beans from the village elders as a way to help the community).  In lieu of store-bought tea, I get to sip fresh mint and herbal tea, from tanglad (lemongrass) leaves picked from the front yard garden, steeped simply in hot water and stored in old-fashioned thermos bottles for consumption the whole day (Jerome, Suzette's hubby, called it "cleansing" therapy as I would drink the tanglad tea round the clock).

I left the choices for lunch and dinner to Suzette (having whatever for my meals was the last thing I want to worry about) and I'm happy to note that I ate well and more healthfully.  The food is fresh, not fancy.  Sometimes though, Suzette comes up with pleasant tweaks like one dinner when I had chicken marinated overnight in rice wine then fried to a crisp.  Whether it be chicken or fish, I would always get a hefty side dish of fresh veggies especially after a pleasant trip to Tala Farms in the outskirts of Maligcong.  The trip came up after a conversation with Suzette regarding growing herbs in the garden (she has a lot of growing areas in the front and back yard even if I was quick to notice the clay-ey quality of the soil) as gardening is one of my favorite long-time hobbies.

AN ORGANIC FARM AS A TOURIST DESTINATION.  Tala Farms is about a 10-minute jeepney ride from either Bontoc or Maligcong, somewhat halfway between the two.  It can be a pleasant 45-minute to one hour walk given fair weather.  Save for a small wooden gate, there's still no sign to give the passerby an indication that a farm can be found in the undulating terrain fringed by hills and framed by tall cogon grasses.  The farm is not "as-far-as-your-eyes-can-see" big but what it doesn't have in terms of sheer size, it more than makes up for what I would call "output density".  I'm a big fan of the Dervaes family and their concept of square inch/foot gardening so this gives me some sort of familiarity with what Joel Fagsao, owner of Tala Farms, call "bio-intensive gardening".  In simple terms, it means producing more yield per square inch/foot than conventional farming methods without resorting to artificial means.
Fresh and organic, vibrant and healthful
IMHO, the farm has the potential to be a tourist draw, especially for guests who want to know exactly where their food comes from and how it's grown.  Then, there are also guests who may want to learn firsthand how the organic farm operates for replicating in their own back and front yards.  The location is ideal as tourists bound for Baguio or Manila can pass by the farm on their way home to pick their organic veggies and herbs at the peak of freshness.  They can pick and pay for what they harvest at the gate, have fresh tea for the afternoon, and tour the farm (if you ask me, a great way for city kids to learn how their food is grown).

BRINGING BACK THE PRIDE IN THE FARMING VOCATION.  Joel Fagsao is an accountant by education, an agriculturist by avocation.  He spent his younger years behind the desk, starting out at the Philippine Information Agency before moving to the Department of Trade and Industry.  Prior to that, he was an eager entrepreneur, creating one of the first computer training centers in the Bontoc area which has grown from a technical vocational institute into what is now known as Xijen College.

After resigning from the DTI two years ago, Joel made a 180 degree turn, taking a 'greener' career path, from the office to the land. He now parlays his background as an educator to promoting the merits of organic farming.  His deeper, noble cause is teaching or rather actively demonstrating the fact that farming, for generations who has come to look up to office work and frown on field labor, can indeed be a viable vocation.
Joel, Suzette and our Maligcong guide, Tina talking green
It didn't take overnight to gain success and more importantly, respect from the farming community given a backdrop of traditional practices interwoven with reliance on artificial fertilizers and chemicals-based pest management.  The gardening bug actually hit Joel way back in 2005, commencing his love affair with the land in the then 1,400 square meter property overgrown with stubborn cogon.  He tells me, "While organic gardening was not yet in vogue, I already decided not to use pesticides and synthetic fertilizers...  I took care of the plots with the intention of having the vegetables for home consumption...  The kids are finicky eaters but they would eat the veggies grown on the farm because it tastes sweeter than vegetables cooked in downtown Bontoc."
 
It would be another four years before the farm was yielding enough for Joel to sell to the public through his wife's store.  His mind is always open to newer farming techniques, scouring the Internet for information, joining forums to learn more about best practices, attending seminars and joining visits to model farms to acquire firsthand practical lessons.  After leaving the DTI in 2012, Joel journeyed to Tugbok, Davao, to train under natural farming advocate, Andre Lim, whose training was based on the Natural Farming method of renowned Korean agriculturist, Dr. Cho Han Kyu.   It was there where he learned how to do formulations for IMO (Indigenous Micro-organisms), FPJ (Fermented Plant Juice), as well as natural feed formulations for pigs and chickens.

KONGO, KALINGA PIGS AND A TREASURE TROVE OF LEARNING.  Joel owes the productivity of the farm to the richness of the soil.  As I've personally noticed early on, the area has naturally clay-ey soil known as vertisol which doesn't hold much moisture and turns rock-hard when dry.  It took years of amendments to make the farm productive and Joel's open secret to achieving this was his return to the kongo.  He explains, "the kongo was a repository for everything.  In it was thrown kitchen waste, rice husks and panicles.  For some months, the pig manure and all would decompose naturally... I have brought back the 'kongo' (not used as a toilet, thank you), bought some native pigs from nearby Kalinga.  The 'kongo' is the fastest producer of rich, dark, compost.  I only feed the pigs kitchen waste, greens from the garden.  Leaves, chopped banana trunks, rice hulls are thrown in and the pigs stomped on it, turn it up with their noses...  in 2-3 weeks, we have compost.  It would be easy to just use commercial fertilizer and pesticides but I wanted to have proof that what I am advocating is sustainable, also without the health risks."
Cultivating the minds of  younger generations with the merits of organic farming
The farm also makes use of vermiculture to further produce richer soil amendments.  Personally, I like Joel's employment of low-cost, simple and yet effective technologies to get the most out of the land while sticking to organic practices -- something fellow organic farmers can emulate.  For instance, his drip irrigation system utilize gravity instead of costly electric pumps, inexpensive pliable hoses in lieu of expensive metal or stiff PVC ones.  Contrary to conventional wisdom regarding their excessive acidity, he uses readily-available pine wood shavings as mulch to help retain ground water.  Instead of letting the wild sunflowers growing in the mountainside go to waste, he turns these into nitrogen-rich fertilizer.  If you're a green thumb person like me or even just a curious city slicker, you can learn so much in an afternoon of touring the farm with Joel, who not surprisingly, was awarded 2nd Best Farmer of the province in 2012. And the great thing about it is that he unselfishly shares his knowledge and experience with others.

3,000 SQUARE METERS OF ORGANIC GOODNESS.  At present, Joel grows the most varieties of lettuce in the area.  On 3,000 square meters, he has kale, sugar beets, arugula, Swiss Chard, pepper, leeks, tomato, carrots, herbs (including the intriguing basil-cinammon and lemon-cinammon), curled and flat parsley, Arabica coffee, jackfruit, bananas, avocado, mangoes, cherry tomatoes, mint, and native chili.  I had the pleasure of eating freshly-harvested veggies from the farm at Suzette's Homestay paired with fried galunggong (round scad fish) pan-fried garlic bangus (milkfish) and rice wine-marinated fried chicken.  Whoever said healthy eating isn't all that tasty is in for a surprise here.  A delightful, most pleasant surprise I must say.

Information on farm visits and tour:  Visits and tours to Tala Farms can be arranged in advance; interested parties may get in touch with Joel at joelfagsao@xijen.edu.ph • Anytime of the year except for the monsoon season are good times to drop by and enjoy this wonderful organic experience • To visit his blogsite, The Gardener/Gagardin, please click here.

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