By Sahlie Lacson

With the influx of ready-to-eat foods, wouldn’t it be more satisfying to know where our food comes from? And where nutritional value is concerned, any homemaker would love that the members of their family, especially the younger generation who have been used to junk food, to at least change their preference, giving value to health benefits over taste and ease of preparation.

Food and nutrition are two analogous terms that should go alongside agriculture. In their truest sense, they are correlational. It is because of the necessity for food that we need to have a sustainable agriculture, and it is in agriculture that we could provide food, much so looking beyond just calories to ensure feeding people well. And this is where the importance of the term ‘organic,’ or natural, evolved in as far as crop production and farm set up were concerned.

Nowadays, there are more and more organizations, companies, and social enterprises willing to help and do their part in working for what needs to be achieved in terms of sustainability in food production by turning to natural farming. “By safe and natural, we mean we do not use pesticides, or any harmful chemicals to the soil, plants, beneficial insects, and us, the consumers,” defines Carlomagno Aguilar who manages Organic Growth.

Carlomagno Aguilar, 33, gives the credit to his work experience from several insurance companies for the past 10 years because that’s where he learned sales and marketing, product development, costing, and the people management part of the business. On the other hand, he developed the operations side of the business through his six years of farming experience. He was able to learn what worked best and what does not.

Organic Growth is one of the social enterprises (SE) whom we were privileged to know of during a roundtable interview initiated by BPI Sinag Awards recently where they were cited as among this year’s awardees. Aguilar has come to love agriculture at an early age and used this to help sustain food production. Though a Bachelor of Arts major in Asian Studies graduate from a reputable school, and who is supposed to follow a career path in Foreign Affairs, Aguilar pursued his passion for farming at the age of 25.

“I started farming when I was 25 years old. I was just growing tomatoes and hot peppers back then which I deliver to a Kapampangan restaurant. Sometimes, I directly sell them in the public market,” shared Aguilar. “I’ve been farming for several years already but I never tried to understand where my produce goes.”

However, when Aguilar started working with Chef Kenneth Cacho, president of International School for Culinary Arts and Hotel Management (ISCAHM) Pampanga, he started to understand the gap between farmers and chefs; that there is a need to produce crops right at the doorfront of every kitchen in order to preserve their flavor and freshness, besides being sustainable.

But why choose natural farming? From the name itself, up to the foods which are being produced through the crops they grow, everything is naturally produced. Why is that so? First, it is sustainable. “If we abuse the soil with chemicals, time will come that you have to add more chemicals to feed the plants. But if you do it organically and feed the soil with natural fertilizers like manure, concoctions, or humus, time will come that you don’t have to feed the soil with organic matter because the soil is very alive already with good bacteria and good insects,” explains Aguilar.

Second, it can be cheaper. “I agree that it’s very labor-intensive because farmers have to collect manure, prepare organic concoctions or feed organic matter to worms (vermiculture). But even if the process takes a while, the effect is long term. That makes it cheaper because it cuts the cost of farmers in producing vegetables,” continues Aguilar.

Third, it is safe and clean. “Everyone wants to live longer and healthier, and one way of doing it is eating clean and safe food,” Aguilar further said.

How did it start?

It started when Chef Cacho approached him and asked him if he can grow herbs. Although Aguilar had no idea then what these herbs even looked like, Cacho gave him some seeds of cilantro for him to test plant in his small garden, which then became successful. So Cacho offered a partnership for him to plant the same instead on their campus so their culinary students can have readily-available microgreens, as well as the necessary herbs and specialty produce whenever they needed them during their class. Aguilar, meanwhile, was also taught the basic cooking methods to inculcate in him the value of planting those herbs and spices. And through the aid also of Atty. Angelo Valencia, the managing director of Community Sustainability Ventures, Inc. and the person behind the Klasrum ng Pag-asa of Mt. Pulag Primary School who guided Aguilar every step of the way on how to design the business model of growing a garden or a farm close to restaurants, it was there when Organic Growth was born – that was six years after finally coming up with farming skills and a farm model which he then applied to different farms.

The farm-to-table concept 

The name Organic Growth came from the idea of growing naturally-farmed food ‘in-house’ by developing and managing farms or gardens so they would not need to buy ingredients from the market; they could harvest them by themselves fresh – just right outside their kitchen. This could also lead to increased profit because it will lessen the cost of food.

With the aim of bringing food closer to consumers through “farm-to-table,” Organic Growth started growing and producing quality and cost-efficient vegetables, herbs, and edible flowers that could be readily available for kitchen use anytime. “Our aim is to develop a new breed of farmers, and to make food sustainable by growing the food closer to consumers,” said Aguilar.

Aguilar considers himself “The Chef’s Farmer” since they grow almost all of the chef’s needs for their kitchen. “Imagine a farm or a vegetable garden right at the door front of your kitchen where you can harvest fresh herbs and spices that you can readily use to cook and you can make salad out of the freshly-picked lettuce with edible flowers on top… so that is the business model of Organic Growth, we grow your food,” continued Aguilar. Chefs need to ensure the quality and freshness of their raw materials in coming up with their every recipe, so these is one of the problems that Organic Growth addresses – that is, ensuring the quality and freshness of the fruits and vegetables by bringing the source closer to them and whenever they need them.

“The vision of Organic Growth is to make every region of our country become self-reliant to their food through farm-to-table. This concept, if applied to each of our country’s region, will make food sustainable. Each region won’t have to rely to distant provinces’ produce, rather, (they) will be producing their own,” Aguilar enthused.

How the process works

Organic Growth partners with hotels, resorts, restaurants, and culinary schools that have vacant or idle lands where fruits and vegetables can be grown. They identify the in-demand crops which contribute to almost 80% of their food cost, analyze the data, and find ways on how to bring these costs down. Their clients will then hire the farmers, usually five per hectare. They will be trained and managed by Organic Growth in growing the priority crops that will be supplied to their clients.

Clients are manned by Organic Growth associate consultants who are also trained by Agriculture graduates. As the owner, Aguilar supervises the associate consultants by giving them targets to produce which they will cascade to the farmers they handle. He also regularly visits the farms to make sure that all instructions given to them are properly implemented and checks on their clients whether they are satisfied with their company’s services. In exchange for their services, they get paid with a monthly consultancy fee. Presently, Organic growth manages The Farm at San Benito in Batangas, ISCAHM Pampanga, Bamboo Private Islands in Coron, Palawan, and Aquino Farm in San Fernando, Pampanga. They have a coming up project though, the Le Petite Ferme, wherein they will grow salad and pinakbet vegetables, herbs, and spices for their direct household customers.

But what makes Organic growth different from other companies providing the same service among farmers or communities? “We have met different farm consultants, but most of them are just focused on the operations side of the farm,” relayed Aguilar. With Organic Growth, aside from the operations, they also managed the farmers and matched the crops being grown to the needs of their every client. They train farmers how to grow vegetables without artificial chemicals, show them modern ways of growing them, and introduce new and prolific variety of seeds. Moreover, they also teach new ways to do agribusiness so farmers can earn a living by growing herbs and vegetables the company introduced. They source their seeds, by the way, from Ramgo, East-West, and Allied Botanical Corporation.

Transforming the lives of farmers

In terms of the help extended among farmers whom they were able to help or work with, Organic Growth provides training to farmers, specifically on organic farming, multi-cropping, crop rotation, companion planting, and proper spacing. As mentioned by Aguilar, most of the farmers they have met are used to monocropping and selling their produce in volume. With Organic Growth, they teach the farmers how to grow a variety of crops and schedule them to have a sustainable and continuous harvest.

Moreover, Organic Growth brings value to what the farmers do. They make sure that farmers get recognized by the management they work with when they accomplish the tasks given to them. That way, it boosts their self-esteem and erases the notion that they are only “mere farmers”.

Significant contribution done for agriculture

“We are shortening the carbon footprint of food,” answered Aguilar when asked about the significant contribution they have done so far for agriculture. Since many of our food comes from the different and far-flung provinces, such as most of our salad vegetables which come from Baguio, we even have tomatoes in Pampanga market that come all the way from Ilocos Norte, Organic Growth continues to fulfill its goal of bringing the food closer to the consumers through a farm-to-table concept. They also develop a new breed of farmers who are younger and open to new ways of farming. Moreover, they also teach farmers Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) to make sure that they keep the soil healthy and produce good, clean, and safe crops.

With today’s fast-paced lifestyle, many resort to fast food restaurants or processed food, which is usually unhealthy. This lifestyle leads to a lot of illnesses like obesity, heart attack, cancer, and other sorts of health problems. People are now starting to realize that they should go back to slow food and start eating fresh and clean food. People are also starting to appreciate the importance of agriculture and its contribution in bringing fresh food to their tables. Somehow, this answers the correlation between food and agriculture.

In five years time, Organic Growth is aiming to expand its clientele in South Luzon since the direction of development is along CALABARZON. They also aim to expand their reach to Visayas and Mindanao, specifically in tourist islands like Palawan and Boracay to solve the high food consumption of tourists there since they are geographically challenged. “It is difficult for them to have easy access on fresh farm produce. It we set up farms close to the tourist spots of Palawan and Boracay, it will be a good business opportunity for farmers and a big help to the restaurants within those islands,” concluded Aguilar.

With the passion for farming and the proper implementation of good farm practices such as one that is farm-to-table, Organic Growth proves that it’s always possible to grow your own food – especially one that is organic.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s November 2019 issue.