By Yvette Tan

A lot of people discover agriculture after retirement. They find that tending to plants keeps them active, and turning what usually starts as a hobby into a business keeps their minds sharp as well.

One such person is Honorio Cervantes, 69, an ex-military and police officer who discovered his passion for square foot gardening after he retired. Though he didn’t become a farmer until he turned 64, he says that the seed for his interest in agriculture was planted a long time ago, when he was still in service. When he was a Captain assigned to Camp Crame, he came across Zac Sarian’s AgriKapihan series in Quezon City Circle. “He was talking about vegetable farming. At that time, I didn’t have any intention (of becoming a farmer) so I forgot about it and focused on my profession in service of the law,” Cervantes recounts in Tagalog. It wasn’t until after retirement that he remembered Sarian’s advocacy and decided to try it out for himself.

Research before business

The first thing Cervantes did was research: he found out all he could about vegetable gardening online and through Agriculture Magazine. “I came across the idea of square foot gardening and thought, ‘This looks simple. I think I can do this.’ That’s how I started.”

Square foot gardening is a simple, orderly gardening system whose principle of dividing a 4×4 growing area into a grid of 1×1 sections and practicing proper management and crop rotation can result in continuous harvests.

Square foot gardening maximizes space, can be fast to set up, and may offer high yield, though it can also require more capital and may need frequent maintenance.

Cervantes says that all the information needed to start square foot gardening can be found online; what will set successful gardeners apart is how they apply these principles. “I’ve been farming since 2014,” Cervantes says. “You can make money, and it’s a good way to pass time.” He adds that another reason he wanted to become a farmer was so he could further serve his country.

Make it big by starting small

Cervantes purchased a 300 sq.m. farm in the middle of Cagayan de Oro City in Misamis Oriental. He devoted 200 sq.m. to planting and turned the rest into classroom and eating areas, as well as a place where he can attend to tasks like formulate his soil mix.

He divided the 200 sq.m. into five plots where he planted kangkong, which he chose for its mass appeal. “I proved that you could harvest kangkong in 19 to 22 days,” Cervantes says. He also formulated his own soil mix based on the principles outlined by Mel Bartholomew, the man who popularized square foot gardening. Cervantes adds that if done right, square foot gardening can “save space, save effort, and save water.”

Promoting natural farming

Cervantes utilized the services of different government agencies to keep his farm running at its optimum without the use of chemicals. He studied the principles of natural farming at the Agricultural Training Institute (ATI), where he learned to use plants like the neem tree (Azadirachta indica) to keep mosquitoes away while enriching the soil, and inputs like oriental Herbal Nutrient (OHN) and other herbal concoctions to help boost plant health. He adds that because square foot gardens grow short crops (vegetables that can be harvested in two months or less), pests can be disarmed right away. “I don’t use chemicals,” Cervantes says

Soil and water quality are also important. The Department of Agriculture (DA) offers soil testing and soil analysis while the Department of Health offers water analysis, both of which Cervantes tapped for his farm. He says soil testing is important because it can help you find out what types of crops are fit to plant in your area. He also continues to practice Good Agricultural Practice (GAP), an ASEAN-promoted farming standard, as well as the Philippine National Standards Specification for Organic Agriculture.

Sharing knowledge with others 

Cervantes says he earned almost P16,000 in one kangkong production because he found a buyer, but he was also disheartened because it took so long for him to get paid. “I got frustrated, so I decided to teach it instead.”

Now, Cervantes is a square foot gardening advocate. Cervantes Farm is an ATI accredited learning site where people can visit to learn how to run their own square foot gardens. “It’s not (about) the money,” Cervantes insists. “Yes, I need money, but I’m happier helping farmers produce crops without chemicals.”

Folks who have attended AgriTalk, the nationwide series of free agribusiness lectures sponsored by this magazine and the ATI might have heard and seen Cervantes’ lecture. He’s hard to forget, as his enthusiasm for square foot gardening is infectious.

At the time of the interview, Cervantes is getting ready to expand to agritourism. He’s developing a second farm on Camiguin island, just a ferry ride away. “I feel like this is the third journey of my life,” he says. “I’m happy, my family is happy, and I can help my fellowmen.” (Interview and photos by Joseph Tesorero)

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s July 2019 issue.