By Randy V. Urlanda

The lush Forest Wood Garden at the foot of Mount San Cristobal, a dormant volcano rising 4,820 feet beside the mystical Mount Banahaw, at the southern fringes of San Pablo City in Laguna blossomed from a simple garden of colorful ornamental plants in mid-2000 into a full working farm today.

From fruit-bearing trees, to assorted crops and amazing bamboo species whose color ranges from yellow, pink and black, it has hundreds of wide-canopied forest trees and stands of coconut trees that literally cover the sky above the entire five-hectare farm.

In 2013, owners Joel Frago, a former OFW who worked as an inspector in an international oil tanker in Europe, and his wife Myrna, an artist and landscape designer, thought that the time was ripe to open the sprawling farm to the public, even before R.A. No. 10816, also known as the “Farm Tourism Development Act of 2016,” was signed by Pres. Benigno Aquino III into law.

Experience farm to table dining in our al fresco and uniquely Filipino kubo made of kawayan and other wood materials found in the farm.

As ill-luck would have it, on July 13, 2014, Super typhoon “Glenda,” a Category 5 hurricane with a sustained wind speed of 252 kilometers per hour, hit Luzon, barreling its way from the east through the Frago farm, its strong winds uprooting small trees and cutting down big ones like matchsticks. “Glenda” ran a wide swath of destruction along its path that upended the Fragos’ dream farm.

Rising from the storm

But Joel and Myrna, both devout Christians, considered the devastation of their farm more of a salvation. They could easily plant new trees and straighten the felled bamboo; but the good thing was that “Glenda” did was blow away and kill all the cocolisap, or coconut scale insects, pests that feed on coconut cells until it kills the entire tree. Since then, all the coconuts in the area have become cocolisap-free, bearing young coconuts that visitors claim to be the sweetest buko they have ever tasted.

Forest Wood Garden is three kilometers south of the city proper in Brgy. Santa Elena, and fifteen minutes from the highway through a narrow winding dirt road. The entrance looks unimpressive but once the guests enter the farm, its natural charm gets the better of everyone. It’s a farm theme park where guests can learn what the organic food they are eating looks like before cooking, or the type of fruit the refreshing juice they are drinking looks like before squeezing. Forest Wood is an accredited Learning Site of the Agricultural Training Institute (ATI), whose aim is to educate and inspire people about how vital farming is to the community.

Popularizing farm tourism

Recognizing the importance of agriculture in sustaining and enhancing human life, not just in terms of food production, but also in providing livelihood to a major portion of the population, then Pres. Benigno Aquino III signed into law R.A. No. 10816, also known as the “Farm Tourism Development Act, on May 23, 2016.

Farm tourism, as defined by law, is the practice of attracting visitors and tourists to farm areas for production, educational, and recreational purposes which involves any agricultural or fishery-based operation or activity and may also provide a venue for outdoor recreation and accessible family outings.

Harvesting fresh eggs from the poultry section is one of the activities guest may do on their tour, allowing them to have hands-on farm life experience.

With the incoming thrust to develop the countryside, it will be interesting to see the revival of mothballed “green thumb” practices and its transformation through modern technology. By reintroducing traditional farming knowledge to a fast-paced society, urban dwellers may learn to appreciate a change of lifestyle that embraces a “back to basics” philosophy.

By developing farm tourism, we dream that the Philippines will be able to sustain its own agricultural needs, enhance human life by providing livelihood, and pursue once again a “clean and green revolution” program. Philippine farm tourism destinations have opened up from North to South, with destinations ranging from a tiny 20-square-meter mushroom production venture to a sprawling vegetable farm devoted to different varieties of eggplants, to orchards and vineyards where people can pick fresh fruits for a fee.

“During the rambutan season, visitors pluck them from our more than twenty trees for a fee to eat them here or bring them home,” says the mother of three. “Other seasonal fruits here are durian, lanzones, passion fruit, African star apple, and 20 varieties of bananas, from the small and aromatic senorita, to red-skinned morado, inabaniko, which resembles a closed human fist with its clusters of tightly packed fingers, to the huge and long tindok with pointy, nipple-like ends. Other activities for guests include vegetable harvesting, organic farming lessons, touring, and seminars.

“Our root crops, on the other hand, are ube (yellow and purple), yellow yam, tugui, a cylindrical and rounded tuber of the drought-resistant tugui plant, and gabi, commonly known as taro, which has 30 percent less fat and has more fibers than potato, and we have a mushroom farm, too” says Arch. Myrna Frago, who designed the award winning bahay na bunot (coconut husk hut), which won the “AniLag” (Aning Laguna) in 2009 whic features life-like fiberglass farm animals and a giant fish made of coconut husks, bamboo, and coconut spathe that are now landmarks within the farm where guests take their selfies. “We also raise a variety of free range organic chicken, native black pigs, goats, carabaos, cows, geese, horse, and the exotic guinea fowl.”

Award-winning example

In 2015, Forest Wood Garden became a recipient of the Laguna Green Award, the first ever Green Award for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) in the Philippines given by the Region 4-A Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) for its practice of Integrated Diversified Organic/Natural Farming System and Resource-based Management by introducing “Mr. Pig Tractor, your Friendly Kapitbahay.

To remove foul smell of pigs’ wastes that is a bane of residents of a neighborhood close to a piggery, Forest Wood uses their pigs to help fertilize plants by using them as “animal tractors,” where the pigs use their snouts to harrow the soil. The good thing about it is that the odorous pig manure is also the food of their African Night Crawler worms, which in turn produces good waste called vermicast or worm feces, which is a very powerful and beneficial nutrient fertilizer for the plants.

What separates Forest Wood from the rest of farm tourism destinations in the region is that they pioneered the green, eco-friendly and unique “farm-to-plate” concept where their farm produce, fruits, and organic meats are cooked into exquisite and one-of-a-kind menu items with somewhat funny names that have been featured several times in early morning national TV programs. Forest City is the first Department of Tourism (DOT) accredited Agri-Tourism restaurant in San Pablo City.

“Our farm-to-table concept has caught the world’s attention and impressed foreign and local guests to eat an extraordinary Filipino cuisine prepared and cooked in a very unique way,” explains Myrna over a refreshing pitcher of cold passion fruit juice. “Food in a bamboo (using the narrow tube-like Sunburst bamboo that is also used as a substitute for plastic soda straw) is totally awesome,” she continues.

“Our signature dish, “Kabutido,” was derived from kabute (mushroom) and embutido, a type of meatloaf prepared Filipino style with a twist, and Tinaktak na Longganisa in a bamboo tube is ground pork mixed with vinegar, soy sauce, paprika, garlic, salt, pepper, sugar, and rosemary. They are mixed and inserted inside the bamboo. After steaming it for 15 minutes, its end is knocked on the plate to spill out the soft longganisa (native sausage).

“Another one is Pansit Kalabuko, made with butter, garlic, onion, chicken liver, kaldo (pork broth), noodles, mushroom, sotanghon, papaya, kalabasa, talbos ng kamote, kangkong, Chinese malunggay, and grated young coconut, while Plantsado Lamang Lupa is made of tugui, buko, sugar, a pinch of salt, it is then spread on a young banana leaf, with spread butter on it before folding the leaf over and flattening it with a hot, old-fashioned iron.

Bringing farming back

Farm tourism not only helps increase farmers’ income, but also draws back many young people who have turned their backs on their families’ traditional means of livelihood. Now, more farmers are becoming interested in developing their farm into tourist destinations to supplement their income from crop production.

“[The] farm becomes a huge classroom where we could use our five senses and become the best tool for family bonding and relationship developed anchored on nature,” says Myrna. “As we go on a journey in life, we can contribute in preserving our environment, maintain good health, and develop life skills like learning primitive cooking method using twigs and sticks,” concludes the amiable farm owner. “Our vision for San Pablo is to create an identity that Basta San Pabloeño, World Class!”

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s July 2019 issue. 

For more information, visit Forest Wood Garden on Facebook