By Yvette Tan
Angelina “Angie” Mead King is a woman with many titles. She’s a hotelier, restaurateur, car shop owner, race car driver, vlogger, TV host, and model. She’s also a farmer.
King is the owner of King Tower Farm, the first vertical aeroponic Tower Farm in Asia. The farm is located in Caliraya, Batangas, on land that also holds the family vacation house. At the time of the interview, the farm contained a hydroponic farm, a fruit orchard, and an apiary.
“My family has always been very health conscious and when my dad used to come here every weekend, he would have a small supply for his own needs. When I inherited the property when he passed away, I decided that I wanted more,” she says. “My main goal was to be able to supply my hotels and restaurants with farm to table food.”
While researching, King stumbled on the importance of bees in a farm. “I fell in love with having an apiary,” she says. “Without pollinators, you don’t have as many crops, you don’t have as vibrant an area for the fruit-bearing trees to flower, and vegetables (to grow, so) we ended up focusing on (stingless) bees.”
The tower farm
After the apiaries were put up, King realized that having more plants around would help the bees multiply faster. This led to the construction of the tower garden farm, different vegetables grown in hydroponic towers on a 700 sq.m. lot. The towers, which come from Spain, has become a business of its own as people inquire about acquiring their own units. At the time of the interview, King was still experimenting with what can be grown in the tower farm. So far, the answer has been ‘almost anything.’ King rattles off a list of 50 fruits, flowers, and vegetables that include romaine lettuce, tomatoes, zinia, anise, basil, bitter gourd, and cabbage. “We actually want to see what the limitations are before we focus on specific crops that we want to produce,” she says. “Some of the crops that we’ve been struggling with were watermelon, cantaloupe, bell pepper, and some of the tomatoes. Those were the ones that some of them come out watery.”
The tower system is a storage space with a catch basin at the bottom and a central pump inside. “The pump is on a timer where it cycles twelve minutes on and three minutes off and it pumps up the nutrient solution to wet the roots of the plant and it drains back into the tank, saving water,” King explains. “It’s a more efficient system than regular farming because the water is recycled until it gets to the point where it’s too concentrated, where we have to drain it, discard the water, and replace it with a fresh supply. Inside the basin is also a float valve, so when the water level is lower, the float valve drops and the automatic drip system replenishes the solution.”
King calls the solution the “secret sauce” and explains it’s why they’re able to grow so many crop varieties. So far, the farm harvests chili peppers, okra, kangkong, and lettuce daily. “You just do cuttings and you leave the sprouts and it’ll grow back,” King says. “We try to leave everything on the tower because… the nutrient solution does give it the extra oomph.”
Setting up the tower system can be quite an investment, but the towers are designed to last a long time. “I don’t have enough long term experience for me to tell you the lifespan on the towers but my partners in Ibiza have been farming with towers for about six years now and they said it’s still the same towers that they’ve set up, so I’m basing it off their experience,” King says. “Right now it’s all experimental. (We grow) whatever we feel like. My friend gave me tobacco seeds because he has a tobacco plant in La Union and he’s like, ‘if this grows in your farm, I’ll buy your towers.’”
This being the Philippines, electricity is something to consider as well. “We noticed a jump in our electricity, about P10,000-P12,000. That’s for 700 sq.m,” King says. We make roughly P15,000 to P18,000 per month in veg sales. It’s not bad, but when you offset with electricity and the labor, I’m not making money yet, but I think if I were to focus on crops that really move and it were high margin, high volume, then I can make money.”
But right now it’s not about making money. “It’s in the experimental stage. Ideally we want to have at least a hundred different varieties that we can successfully grow in the tower before we focus it down to the things that we (want to specialize in),” she says. “My long term goal is to set up a tower farm system in establishments so they can grow their own supply.”
The rest of the farm will total three to four hectares, with a side of touching the Caliraya lake.
Part of it is already being developed into an orchard. Before the development of the farm started two years ago, the property was mostly brush, which had to be cleared out. “We’re careful not to step on the restrictions of DENR. Every tree that we’ve cut, we’ve replaced with another tree. (We don’t cut trees) that are endemic to the birds around the area. So there are some trees that are specifically homes to the local birds. Those trees, definitely do not touch because we want the birds to be in the area,” King says.
Crops planted include upo, durian, pineapples, makopa, avocado, chico, pomelo, lime, calamansi, santol, green mango, guava, carambola, katmon, talisap, mabolo, and lagundi. “My goal is to get rid of the non-protected trees and replace them with all fruit-bearing trees,” King says. “One of my pegs is Sonya’s Garden… I want that same idea where it’s very lush and colorful everywhere I go and it’s abundant in stuff that we can eat.”
More calamansi saplings have just been delivered, waiting to be planted. These will be intercropped with langka and pineapple. The area’s soil has been tested and was found to be highly acidic. “We’re looking for agricultural lie to offset the acidity,” King says. “We’ve also been supplementing with chicken manure and urea just to give the plants a boost.”
King is also experimenting with polyculture. “You’re growing overhanging trees which will help develop the soil for mid-level and low-level shrubs,” she explains. “Basically you have created this forest ecosystem that supports itself.”
They also make their own compost. Because of their location next to Caliraya lake, they are able to take water hyacinths, which are considered weeds, shred them, dry them, and add them to the compost pile. “We do a lot of that to help all the other fruit trees because the soil is mud, so it’s highly acidic and lacks nutrition, but it’s high in nitrogen,” King explains. “(We practice) permaculture. You’re using forestry, the natural leaves that will create mulch for the ground. We’re trying to do all that.
They are also developing a vermiculture area. At the moment, the worms are just being bred, but there are plans to fit old bathtubs and jacuzzis from King’s hotel chain with drain spouts for easier harvesting of vermicompost.
The fruits are sold in town, or to neighbors. Everything is by order. Buyers text the person in charge, and she tells them what’s available. An order will be placed, and the fruit will be packed up and delivered. “Everyone knows already that we’re growing amazing vegetables. It’s become locally popular,” King says.
When asked if they’ve noticed any changes in the growing season that may have to do with climate change, Angie says yes. “We’ve noticed that (we still have) fruits that aren’t (supposed to be) in season… and the fruits that should be in season are not (yet here). They’re delayed. Everything, I feel, has shifted a little.”
King also hopes to develop and sell products from her apiary. The farm started with 200 colonies two years ago, but it dropped down to 50 when the bees didn’t have enough food sources. This is why King started the tower farm and boosted the orchard. Now, they’re up to 300 colonies, with the target of reaching 2,000 colonies in the next two years. “I’m hoping to be one of the bee players of the Philippines,” King says. “Part of the reason we’re here is that we have the freshwater supply from the lake and that the bees love it here because there are no piggeries (and) pesticides in the area, none of the flowers and fruits they visit have any chemicals on it, which means that they can thrive.”
The honey has been tested in a lab and has been deemed medical grade. Medical grade bee products such as honey and propolis are in big demand because of their sterilized antibacterial properties and can command high prices. Also, stingless bee honey is usually a bit sour, but the type produced on the farm is sweet. “According to our scientists, it’s because of the natural fruit trees around,” she adds.
King is usually on the farm once a month, more if she needs to show potential buyers the tower farm. “I love coming here because I get to taste all the fruits, eat all the veg, and I get to bring some home to Manila,” she says. “ I love nature in general. I guess it’s also knowing that the food that I’m growing, where it comes from, what’s in it, and that we don’t use pesticides on anything. So balancing all that is such a great feeling, (and) knowing what I’m doing could eventually help other people grow their farm… My end goal is to help other people get into it. I don’t want to sell stuff to people. I want to give them the idea and have them adventure on their own.”
Future plans include venturing into aquaculture, preferably with an aquaponics component. “I want to develop a pond also where I can grow tilapia, catfish, freshwater shrimp,” King says.
King actually tried setting up an aquaponics system more than a decade ago, and while it was marginally successful, she also realized the problems that came with it, and thinks that she is now better equipped to handle them. “It was hard to balance the cleanliness of the water and the number of crops you have. Because as you harvest the crops, less plants clean the water, which means the fish also need to be lessened. They were saying it gets to a point where if you have a big enough system, the swing of the nitrogen and ammonia is very slow, unlike the smaller system,” she explains. “Using the same idea of aquaponics, we could create a waterfall system where we can extract the water, put it into grow beds, then plug it back into the fishpond. And maybe some koi also, so maybe we can sell some Class A koi because apparently koi is expensive.”
King continues to teach herself the basics of farming through books and internet videos, and with the help of the soil scientists and agriculturists she employs. Of course, she also continues to learn from the greatest teacher of all, experience. “I’m still learning,” she says. “I’m not a farmer by study but a farmer by passion.”
She explains the joy she gets from keeping a farm. “ If you grow your own supply, then you eliminate that part of your carbon footprint. Also, the health side of it is knowing that you don’t have pesticides in your food. Lastly, (there’s) the fulfillment of being able to grow something and (being able to) eat it. It’s like baking your cake and eating it, too.”
For inquiries, visit King Tower Farm on Facebook.