By Yvette Tan

Farming is really the Filipino dream. Most people will tell you that they want to retire to a farm in the province where they can enjoy living off the land. This is exactly what Arthur Fernando, 68, and his wife Gloria Sescon-Fernando, 66, have done.

The couple are behind Balay sa Hardin, which their Facebook Page describes as “an integrated garden and a learning site for natural/organic farming systems” in Iligan City, Lanao del Norte.

Just a few minutes from the city center, walking into Balay sa Hardin is like entering a different, enchanted world. Visitors are greeted by a pathway lined with greenery that leads to a similarly lush, green-lined tunnel. The Balay sa Hardin sign, blue words on a wooden board, stands like a sentinel amidst different plants both ornamental and edible, signaling welcome and respite. When Arturo and Gloria are there, they personally welcome visitors into their second home.

The couple have always had a heart for agriculture. Arthur used to manage a piggery and prawn hatchery while Gloria worked in government. Both graduated from Mindanao State University. They have been married since 1980 and have three children: Budji, a veterinarian; Kakay, a landscape architect based in Dubai; and Jikoy, a chef, who is also a licensed horticulture graduate from the University of the Philippines, Los Baños. They have been engaged in floriculture since 1992, moving on to landscaping and fruit tree seedlings in the year 2000. “We used to sell outdoor plants like San Francisco (Codiaeum variegatum) and Bougainvillea,” Arthur says, “And indoor plants like Aglaonema, Bakya (Dieffenbachia amoena), and Spotty Phylum,” Gloria finishes.

Edible and ornamental plants are strategically planted to make guests feel like they are entering a secret garden.

The 3,000 sq.m. farm used to be called Balay sa Kusina until it was changed to Balay sa Hardin in 2015, a year after Arthur attended an organic farming workshop in Costales Nature Farm and had put the lessons he learned there such as waste segregation and composting into practice. “(We changed its name because) it sounded like a restaurant. We wanted to put up a small farm where we can grow our food, our own vegetables, raise our own chickens. So the Balay sa Hardin concept is much more fitting,” Gloria says.

From farm to garden

Balay sa Hardin is beautifully landscaped with plants seemingly growing at random, their organized chaos apparent only to the trained eye.

“At first, we tried to grow lettuce,” Arthur says, “But there wasn’t much of a market for it, so we shifted to different plants. We concentrated on herbs and want to practice permaculture with our vegetables. We also want to bring back the old varieties of vegetables.” He adds that many of the indigenous vegetables they grow make their way into the dishes that Chef Koy prepares for Balay sa Hardin’s guests.

Crops like amaranth (Amaranthus spinosus; kulitis in Tagalog), eggplant, chilies, patani (Phaseolus lunatus), and kamote tops as well as herbs like tarragon, are arranged in such a way that is more garden than farm. They also cultivate native fruit trees like balimbing (Averrhoa carambola), makopa (Syzygium samarangense), sampaloc (Tamarindus indica), and kalumpit (Terminalis microcarpa), as well as edible flowers like begonias. “They’re a bit sour and make a nice contrast to sweet dessert like chocolate cake,” Gloria says.

There’s a main hut where guests can rest and enjoy meals. A raised pond sits in between that and a smaller hut, this one suited for siesta. There’s a small herb garden off to the side, as well as a place for seedlings and livestock. The farm raises goats, geese, rabbits, and free range chickens.

The main hut is decorated with touches of Philippine farm life, such as this basket filled with straw hats. Balay sa Hardin has a collection of hats that guests can use when they visit.

A creek cuts through the farm, marking its boundary. “We have about 15 species of bamboo planted nearby so the soil doesn’t erode,” she adds.

The layout is beautiful and quite frankly, genius; an aesthetically pleasing way to have your garden and eat it, too. “I didn’t want it too bare or too arranged,” Gloria explains. “For me, biodiversity has a role in everything. We don’t even try to pull weeds, if we can help it.”

She expounds: “Some plants have a role in protecting other plants from pests and diseases. For example, we don’t clear the sides and underneath the eggplants (of weeds) so the insects feed on them instead of the crops. Aside from these benefits, I love that it doesn’t look bare.”

“The advantage of a setup like this is this is where we get most of our vegetables,” Arthur says. “We seldom have to go to the market. We also have eggs and chickens, and we get to teach other people (about the way we farm).”

Balay sa Hardin is a favorite spot for groups to unwind, and is also popular with school field trips because students are able to learn about farming. “Many schools send their students here for exposure,” Arthur adds. “They harvest eggs, interact with the chickens and rabbits; there are many things to do here.”

Using farming to help uplift others 

Part of the allure of running a farm comes from their status as retirees. “We need a steady supply of herbs and vegetables so we can eat healthy,” Gloria says in Tagalog. “As retirees, we also get the chance to exercise and at the same time, teach. Our real mission in putting up Balay sa Hardin is to be able to teach.”

“Our advocacy is to teach, especially Indigenous people (IP), and those in need,” Arthur says. They’ve trained people in organic farming and vegetable production in Ditsaan-Ramain and Marawi, both in Lanao del Sur, as volunteers, the latter in cooperation with the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos. IPs they have trained include Higaonon, Lumad, and Maranao.

“They ask how they can move on without help from the government, and we tell them that they’ve already been raising chickens before, so they can start by doing that again. They can start with a pair and who knows? Maybe the government might see their efforts and add to it,” Arthur says. “But we’ve been wanting to help more, so we said that Balay sa Hardin would give them a pair to start with.”

“A lot of them are interested, but it’s not a way of life,” Gloria clarifies. “They have a culture where engagement in agriculture and farming isn’t celebrated, which is probably why a lot of them are suddenly waking up to the opportunities in the industry.” The couple adds that in addition to production training, marketing training is also needed, so that the communities know where to sell their produce after harvest, and this is something that needs to be integrated into agricultural training modules.

Balay sa Hardin has been a source of joy for the Fernandos and their guests, and they want to make sure that people are able to keep coming here for a long time. “We’ll put up a small greenhouse so we can grow sensitive crops like tomatoes,” Gloria says. They also want to construct a tank to solve their erratic water supply problem, as well as set up solar panels to save on electricity. Dormitories for trainees are currently being built on-site.

For the Fernandos, farming and teaching is a relaxing way to keep active during their golden years. It’s also, in a way, a dream come true. “Ever since I was a little girl, I always imagined myself living in a small house surrounded by greenery,” Gloria says. “Gardening is a form of relaxation and meditation. It’s rewarding to see your plants grow.”

“I’m from a farming family from Central Luzon. I got my love of animals and plants from my grandfather,” Arthur says. “I wake up excited every day. I love what I do and as much as possible, I don’t want to buy from the market. It’s what my grandfather taught me: you produce and you share.”

This is exactly what the Fernandos, through Balay sa Hardin, are doing.

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s December 2019 issue. 

Read more about Balay sa Hardin here

For more information, visit Balay sa Hardin on Facebook