By Sahlie P. Lacson

What used to be a test farm for a few microgreens proved to be a self-sustaining enterprise for Franz Chung, 32, a Communications Technology Management graduate from Ateneo de Manila University.

Frustrated with having to buy packs of expensive fresh basil, thyme, and other herb essentials just to use a little amount for cooking, Chung turned to the Internet to look for alternatives.

Chancing upon the benefits of aquaponic farming that has become popular especially for those with limited space, Chung first tried out the system in his home’s balcony in Quezon City. Proving its efficiency in growing safe and naturally-grown vegetables in just a short span of time, Chung, in turn, thought of converting his and his partner’s idle lot located in Lumil, Silang, Cavite into an aquaponics farm. Through continuous online readings and with the aid of his family’s workers (the family being into the construction business), Chung started by constructing fish tanks and the necessary implements for an aquaponics farm.

Basilio’s Aquaponics Farm owner, Franz Chung, showing native and
fresh cherry tomato harvests. (Photo by RDM)

How the cycle works 

Aquaponics is a sustainable farming system that combines aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics (soilless plant farming) in one integrated environment. As it is soilless, its produce is free of pesticides and fertilizers. It utilizes fish wastes that are converted into food for the plants, and the plants naturally filter the water for the fish. There is a water and plant component during the process.

“The cycle starts by feeding the fish,” says Chung. Basilio’s maintains three 9-cubic meter tanks with 5,000 to 7,000 red tilapia each. They started with fish fry, which they incubated for three to four months.

“There is a constant water flow [because] when the fish [defecate], the water is automatically brought to the filter. The swirl filter and the mechanical filter break down the tilapia feces, and then from ammonia, it turns into nitrates, as well as into other nutrients such as phosphorus and potassium which are the elements needed for plant growth. Then the water flows into the plant’s growing area or grow beds, thereby utilizing fish wastes as the plant’s fertilizer. After the plants utilize the nutrients, the water that flows from the grow beds comes back to the sub tanks, which are already filtered and is safe to use by the fish for its water requirement afterwards,” explains Chung.

In one corner of Basilio’s Aquaponics Farm is a miniature tank where they grow pangasius and which also repeats the cycle of aquaponic farming.

“There is no need to replace the water constantly, I just refill them from time to time, making the system sustainable,” adds Chung. All in all, an estimated 16,000 gallons of water is being utilized for the whole system.

This is the healthy lettuce harvest which manifests superior characteristics when grown through aquaponics.

“We use about 80 to 90 percent less water than traditional farming since we don’t have to deal with evaporation much – the only water we use is the amount consumed by the plants,” says Chung.

To avoid the chlorine present from the water provided by water concessionaires, Basilio’s has its own pump, which sources water from a river nearby. “We have a constant source of water that is chemical-free,” assures Chung.

“Since our system is soilless, we pay close attention to the quality of water. We specifically check for pH level, water temperature, water level, nitrites and nitrates, and trace minerals. This is to make sure that our plants are getting the optimal amount of nutrients and our fish are swimming around healthy water,” continues Chung.

Prior to the recent Taal Volcano eruption which brought in large amounts of ash to many parts of the Southern Tagalog region, Basilio’s uses the naturally-occurring moss or duck weed and grows azolla as natural feed for tilapia. However, due to the chemicals that might be present in the ash that had accumulated around the farm, Basilio’s chose to source their fish feeds in the meantime from one of their friends who mills food scraps into fish feeds, maintaining a natural feed for the fish.

Right now, Basilio’s is also planning to experiment on freshwater bangus and catfish, that is why they are emptying one of the tanks after their recent tilapia harvest.

A farm-to-table concept

In terms of plant productivity, Basilio’s initially grew 2,500 heads of lettuce in the 150-sq.m. lot two years ago. “Aquaponic farming is more productive than conventional farming because, here, you don’t need bigger spacing between plants; they don’t scramble against one another for nutrients. There is an increased production per square meter used as the plants can grow a lot closer to each other,” says Chung.

Basilio’s supplies their harvests mostly to restaurants and hotels in Alabang owned by friends and family as fresh ingredients for their salad recipes.

Basilio’s fresh salad ingredients ready for delivery to clients in Alabang.

At present, they are into tomato production since, as Chung relates, there came a time when he noticed that they cannot grow the lettuce properly – the vegetables rot even before they were ready for harvest. The problem persisted for almost six months. He thought that their area’s growing condition could have been one of the factors since the farm is close to Tagaytay, which is considered foggy or misty especially at night, causing the soft rot in vegetables. Or, it could be that the chemical fertilizers and pesticides used by traditional farmers in their neighboring farms may have contributed to the harsh environment which affects their crops.

To validate his observations, Chung invited a microbiologist from U.P Los Baños to determine the real cause. They later found out that there are certain bacteria or fungi in the air which eats up the leafy greens, which results in the rotting of vegetables.

So, they experimented planting other crops to determine which ones will thrive. They discovered that tomatoes appear to thrive well in their system and growing condition. They continued propagating tomatoes until they maintained their harvests on a regular basis, then started producing for organic grocers. They grow native and cherry tomatoes which come in red, yellow, and black varieties to add to the aesthetic appeal and variety of tastes when added as salad ingredients.

Weekly, they are able to produce 10 to 30 kilos of tomatoes at full capacity. “Our clients do not pressure us into delivering for them a specific quantity for their salad requirements. We just tell them the amount of produce we have for the week and they will buy almost all of them,” relates Chung. The chefs, who use most of their produce in their restaurant’s menu, work around the available harvests from Basilio’s, practicing a farm-to-table concept.

Basilio’s also grows arugula and basil such as Genovese and Thai varieties, as well as onion chives, which are very fragrant. “The reason why these are more fragrant compared to other similar crops that are planted directly on soil is because growing these crops in an aquaponics system do not require their roots to seek other sources of nutrients; they are readily available in the water which facilitates their early growth and which also makes them more nutritious and aromatic,” says Chung.

Kuya Joey, Basilio’s only farm hand, carefully harvests cherry tomatoes on a regular basis enabling the farm with a steady source of income. (Photo by RDM)

They initially sourced the seeds from commercial seed stores, but after a while, they were able to produce their own seeds by germination.

Basilio’s also grows papaya plants in a gravel grow bed system. Papaya trees are known to easily wilt and die if submerged in too much water. However, in Basilio’s case, the papaya trees that were planted through the aquaponics system throve and bore fruits.

Valuing natural farming

Basilio’s Aquaponics Farm got its name from the late grandfather of Chung’s girlfriend/business partner who was into natural rice farming in Cagayan Valley. According to Chung, it serves as a reminder of their mission that an all-natural, chemical-free method of farming is still possible. Also, they want to give credit to him being the only farmer in either of their families. “We, as a society don’t give enough credit to farmers. There need to be more awareness and support for farmers and the agriculture industry,” says Chung.

Being into aquaponic farming, Chung feels it is easier to embrace the four major principles of organic farming: health, ecology, fairness, and care.

Venturing into agriculture

“I don’t have a background in agriculture, I am into digital marketing – Facebook, Google Ads – that’s what I do on a daily basis. Since I am always online, I see these projects, I see those who plant indoors or hydroponics even in other countries. So I thought, why not try them?,” says Chung.

“I also attended a seminar about food and sustainability. And then one of the topics that was given importance there and caught my attention is food security in the country. As it is, the average age of farmers here is 55-60 years old, so there is no new blood in food production. Maybe these kinds of things, if we could revolutionize and perfect, might encourage people from my generation or even those younger than me to go into agriculture,” continues Chung. “I think the biggest contribution we could have in agriculture in the Philippines is the continuity of local food production.” That is also one of the reasons why Chung started the test farm.

As of now, the farm is under open air. The next step for Basilio’s project is to fully enclose the whole area, except for ventilation, to prevent bacteria and fungi from entering the farm, one that is fully sanitized just like in other countries who are practicing the same system.

“I will also install grow lights or LED lights to facilitate the 24/7 photosynthesis process. Theoretically, that could double the growth rate. I will also test climate-controlled produce like kale… or whatever. And in about a year’s time, after I [have] learned from all the things I have to test, we plan to move out to a bigger space,” shares Chung. They are presently eyeing a five-hectare property in Alfonso, Cavite. “We plan on creating big greenhouses to become a fully commercial producer of aquaponics. It will be a mix of green, leafy vegetables like kale, lettuce, mizuna – all the way to fruiting vegetables like tomatoes which are grown indoors and grown organically – that’s the next step,” continues Chung.

“As I’ve mentioned, we don’t have knowledge in agriculture before so we tested first, and I am really happy. Even though the farm may not be as beautiful as other farms you see on the Internet, it is fully functional – it has produce and it generates income despite being a test farm. Actually, I don’t get to spend any money for this now, it is already self-sustaining in terms of farm expenses and farm hand’s salary; we even have savings intended for any miscellaneous expenses that may incur along the way,” shares Chung.

The farm is low-maintenance. They only have one farm hand charged with the routine of feeding the fish every morning and testing the pH and nitrate level of water from time to time. Add to this the cleaning of the area and harvesting of vegetables on a regular basis. In terms of planting materials, they use disposable cups and rockwool as growing medium.

Chung was formerly based in Quezon City but has transferred to Sta. Rosa, Laguna, where his girlfriend, Melai Geronimo, who is also his partner in establishing the farm, resides. That way, he could have more time to visit the farm, which is usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which are also the schedule of the farm’s harvest and delivery to clients. “Since I am into digital marketing, I can work remotely and anywhere. I combine farm work and day job here,” relays Chung. However, starting this year, he has started visiting the farm more frequently than usual; that is because he has many things in mind right now with regards to farm expansion and scaling up vegetable production.

Chung with his girlfriend/business partner, Melai Geronimo, in front of the aquaponic grow beds.

“Ideally, we want to have an integrated farm complete with fruit-bearing trees, a significantly larger variety of produce and livestock such as cows, pigs, goats, and ducks. We also want to try our hand in beekeeping. Ultimately, we want to be able to sell not only organic vegetables, but also other naturally-processed products like honey, cheese, eggs, soaps, and handicrafts as well,” foresees Chung.

Feeling a sense of fulfillment being engaged in agriculture, Chung declares: “We feel very grateful and fulfilled when we deliver our produce to our clients and get compliments about how our veggies are far more superior in terms of taste, color, size, and even smell. We experienced so many hardships and trials to figure out how to do what we are doing at first, so it is really fulfilling when our clients are happy.”

Aquaponic farming, Chung adds, made them appreciate our farmers more. “It made us appreciate the time and effort it takes to grow food and that we shouldn’t be wasting any of it.” In terms of marketing, Chung also found out that despite selling naturally-grown produce, some chefs didn’t care whether it is natural or not, making products difficult to sell. Luckily for them, they happened to meet a few select clients who appreciate their produce, which enables the farm to maintain its profit.

Farming requirements 

Basilio’s Aquaponics Farm proves that having vast tracts of land isn’t always a requirement to do well in agriculture; with persistence, dedication, and hard work (regardless of age), even a newbie can become successful with a small space.

“There are a lot of resources online to start small. Backyard aquaponics, or even a smaller balcony set up will teach you the majority of what you need to know about the ins and outs of aquaponics. If you are hesitant to make it into a business, start it as a hobby,” advises Chung.

To contact Basilio’s Aquaponics Farm, visit https://www.basiliosfarm.com/.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s April 2020 issue.