By Vina Medenilla

Giving back to the community and to the environment is what Bogs Castro, organic practitioner of Bukid ni Bogs (BnB), had in mind when he was planting his first shoots in Mindanao.

Bukid ni Bogs is a permaculture farm and social enterprise in Dumingag, Zamboanga del Sur that empowers women and organic farmers who are behind the production and processing of multipurpose ‘vegan soaps.’

An immersion to the max

Prior to farming, Castro worked as a member of a service crew in Tagaytay. Later on, he set up his first business venture, a tapa store in Cavite that is now owned and managed by his mom. When he was still based in Manila, he pursued his passion for music and arts; he was a performer and a mentor back then. In 2017, he utilized his skills in mentoring by providing psychosocial care for kids in Marawi affected by the conflict in the area. From there, he packed his bags and with only R20,000 in his wallet, settled in Mindanao with the belief that he could put his skills into a greater purpose. He conducted stress debriefing projects in Marawi in collaboration with an NGO and those experiences led him to be a farmer.

Bogs Castro, a former musician who is now a farmer.

Castro’s first encounter with natural farming began in 2018, after a year in Marawi and Surigao. Castro went to Dumingag, Zamboanga del Sur for a month-long community and farming immersion with the purpose of getting to know the people and their culture. He fell in love with the place and the people he had worked with. “Dumingag has that magic,” he said.

Castro intentionally prolonged his stay, with a mind to help the people who he says helped change him for the better. Dumingag is a landlocked municipality in Zamboanga where locals heavily rely on agriculture. During his immersion, he got a chance to exchange ideas and inspirations with locals that attracted him to their culture, particularly their natural farming practices. With the help of his mentor and business partner, Girlyn Pacalioga of Umaleng Farm, he acquired in-depth knowledge of natural farming and permaculture. Pacalioga let Castro cultivate crops in one of her properties to apply his ideas and knowledge in farming and as a result, BnB was established.

His interest in agriculture stems mostly from the influence of the people he had encountered. “I never planned, nor have I ever dreamed of becoming a farmer,” he said. But for him, being a farmer has been one of the most transformative decisions in his life so far. “I’ve never felt more connected to other people, to nature, and to myself since I started farming” he added.

There is more to being a farmer than just cultivating crops; it was when he realized the effect one’s eating habits had on the world that made him work towards creating a positive impact on the environment through natural farming. The Dumingagnons showed him a new sense of purpose through their exchange of ideas and crops. “Their stories need to be shared far and wide,” Castro said.

A permaculture farm

Bukid ni Bogs also produces handmade multipurpose bath bars which can be used for washing needs, whether as a shampoo, facial and body wash, dish-washing and laundry soap, and even as a pet soap. The land where BnB was established is owned by Pacalioga.

The seeds that BnB plant in their farm comes from fellow natural farms in Dumingag like Umaleng Farm. It is a common practice in their town to share seeds as a gift from nature. Hence, they usually get their seeds for free. In BnB, the main crop is adlai, a grain that is locally grown in their region. Castro decided to cultivate this crop upon knowing its health benefits; it provides protein, dietary fiber, minerals, and it is gluten-free. He refers to this as a resilient plant that does not require much tending. With this, adlai is used as one of the soap variants of BnB.

BnB advocates natural farming practices through their vegan soaps and by providing free training and immersion for the locals. Since 2018, BnB consistently conducts soap making workshops to inspire women farmers in Dumingag who would like to make their own organic soaps as well.

In fact, some women who joined BnB’s workshops create their own soap variants and sell them at the local organic trade post. Castro said other women who did not start a soap business still apply the knowledge they acquired in their homes. Most of the households in Dumingag do not use commercials soaps and cleaning products due to their knowledge in soap making. This helps them save money and contribute to the environment by producing less trash and using products with no harmful chemicals hence, making the farms continue to prosper, he added.

The production of the vegan soaps.

Vegan soap bars

The soaps that BnB produce are hand-crafted and packed by local women farmers. To promote a zero-waste lifestyle, the soap’s packages are made with local, recycled, or upcycled materials. Each soap is wrapped with dried banana leaves and tied with hand woven abaca string by local weavers. Tags that can be found along the bars are made from recycled paper and inside it are plantable spinach seeds. Every purchase of the soap does not just help the farmers but also enables buyers to grow edible greens at home.

A soap of many uses: aside from its pleasant smell, it fights body odor and makes skin firmer.

The soaps are called ‘vegan bars’ due to their naturally-grown ingredients that do not contain any animal products. Most of the ingredients are from the farm itself and other ingredients like fruits and grains are sourced from neighboring natural farms in the area. They use rainwater, raw organic coconut oil from a coconut plantation in a neighboring town, moringa essential oil from Davao, and rock salt and lye from the local market. Sourcing the products nearby is convenient for BnB’s workers, as well as for the women farmers who want to make their own soaps.

The price of the soaps range from P5 (hotel size), P30 (small), P60 (medium), to P80 (large). There are soapvariants like cucumber, adlai, papaya, coffee, and they also have mixed variants like charcoal, papaya, and moringa soap called CharPaMor and mixed cucumber and pineapple called CuPin. According to Castro, these soaps remain to be the most affordable organic soaps in the market since they were first released in 2018.

In terms of marketing the soaps, BnB did not execute any expensive marketing strategies to increase brand awareness. Most of the transactions are made through Facebook and Instagram. Through word of mouth and online marketing, people started reaching out and supporting the soaps and the women farmers. In its first year, BnB earned a million and the next year, it multiplied. The money is being distributed to the farmers who take part in making the advocacy of natural farming successful. The acceptance of the online community helps in getting BnB’s soaps, farmers, and advocacy recognized. BnB has also tapped other municipalities in joining the advocacy towards a sustainable lifestyle through the use and production of organic soaps.

BnB started with three workers and now it has grown to ten women farmers from the partner farm. In partnership with Umaleng Farm, they were able to provide sustainable livelihood for local growers. The two farms were able to provide jobs and scholarship grants to some of their staff with the help of LGU.

As a new addition to the advocacy, BnB has started to plant a tree for every bulk order from customers. Through this, they encourage the people to be environmentally conscious.

BnB currently supplies soap to various hotels and resorts all over the country and continues to distribute to 67 resellers nationwide. BnB continues to grow and is currently in the process of securing the necessary permit and export certifications to extend its services globally.

Each soap comes with plantable seeds on the paper tags. Tear the paper, plant the seeds, water them, then watch them grow.

For beginners and farmers who are interested in soap making and organic farming, Castro encourages them to go organic even if it means starting in small pots or in the backyard, to focus on making organic compost as fertilizer, to choose the vegetables or herbs that are commonly bought in their household, to learn through watching farming videos online, and lastly, to do small things with love whether by improving other’s quality of life or the environment.

For more info, email Bukid ni Bogs at bukidnibogs@gmail.com.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s April 2020 issue.