By Yvette Tan

The Philippines used to be largely agricultural, with most couples raising their family in the fields. Nowadays, it’s the opposite, with many families opting to live in towns and cities. The Espitals are backing this trend, however, choosing to live as close to the land as possible, be it in a bahay kubo in Taguig, or in the field of whatever province their work takes them to.

The Espitals are: Gio Paolo Espital, Laila Pornel-Espital, and their son, Seed Nayon. Gio is a farmer and community engagement officer of Good Food Community, an alternative food distribution in the form of community shared agriculture which connects small- holding farmers and consumers. He also runs a service and retail brand called Elements of Tomorrow (ELMTM) which makes and sells bokashi composting kits.

Laila is a co-founder and outdoor teacher of Weekend Wild Child, a nature immersion program for families with children in the early years. She also teaches and holds workshops about healthy food preparation for infants and toddlers through Baby Food Project, an online support group for infant and young child feeding.

Their son Nayon is four years old. The couple practices Waldorf education and unschooling at home and in nature. “We spend a lot of time climbing trees, free play, expressive arts, learning life skills, managing big emotions and a lot of nourishing activities so he could have memories of a happy childhood,” Laila says.

The Espitals currently live in a bahay kubo with an urban garden in Taguig, where they used to stay on and off after Nayon was born and whenever the couple had teaching engagements in the metro. They moved back for good three years ago after working and living with a community in Mt. Banahaw.

Choosing farm life

The Espitals are a young family who have chosen to live their lives according to the rhythms of the farm. This photo was taken a few years ago.

The Espitals decision to live on the farm was borne from their background in community development. “Before becoming parents, our background is in community development, I teach livelihood diversification and biodiversity conservation while Gio teaches sustainable farming and livelihood linked to eco-tourism,” Leila says. “Both of us have seen how small communities changed for the better by protecting their natural resources and starting an organic farm as their livelihood. We wanted to apply the learnings we had from those years of work and see if this lifestyle is doable for our family.”

The many positive experiences in their work led them to decide on an agricultural path for their family, even before their son Nayon was born.

“First, we have a control over our health and healing. Growing our own fruit and vegetables gave us a variety of food each day. It tastes better because we always have them fresh and it is safer to eat because we do not treat them with chemical pesticides, which are linked to numerous diseases.

“Second, we find peace being surrounded by nature. It makes us happy to see the garden grow that soon attracts birds, butterflies, frogs, worms and bugs. Working with the soil sparks the wonder of our child, helps decompress our minds from whatever worries we have and lets us be present in the moment.

“Third, we got to save and earn. Instead of spending the biggest chunk of our budget to buy vegetables, we can allocate them for other utilities at home and add to our travel fund. It is also a joy for us to have a source of income that offers health to other people through farm produce and composting kits.

“But above all of this, we decided to lead this lifestyle because we believe that it is our moral imperative to take good care of our planet and our way of participation is make the soil healthy and grow food without harming nature. It is our duty as parents to model to our son the meaningful work that farmers do for their family and society. And lastly, to spread not just the awareness about food systems but to actually help in closing the loop of sustainable consumption through composting and regenerative practices,” Laila says.

Every day is an adventure

The family believes in “practicing a rhythm at home,” and have been doing so even before the pandemic. This means having a set schedule they rarely deviate from. It’s making sure that the proper activity is done at the corresponding time of day to allow everyone to get to do what they need and want to do, at the same time injecting a sense of fun and wonder into daily living.

“We start our day with health care by doing oil pulling, drinking our tonics and vitamins. It is followed by a circle time to welcome the day, we sing songs and do movements to greet each other and the nature around us. After breakfast, we do a 30 minute gardening in the morning and finish the household chore of the day. In the afternoon, after lunch and quiet or nap time, we do a nourishing activity as a part of Nayon’s education. Then, we do another 30 minute gardening before the sun sets. In the evening, when the dishes are all cleaned and dried, we close the day with yoga and meditation, prayers and bedtime stories, Lelia says.

Chores and activities are spread out during the week to make time for everything that cultivating a farm and raising a family needs to run smoothly. “Mondays are for washing clothes, linens and towels in the morning, and in the afternoon we do a wet on wet painting together. Tuesdays are for dusting all the corners of the house and organising our learning space, it is also the araw ng awit at pagtatanghal (music and theatre day). We practice playing instruments, learn songs and try to act scenes we just invented ourselves. In a way, this is a form of entertainment because we don’t have a television at home and we try our best to stay away from screens and gadgets for most part of the day when Nayon is awake,” she says.

“On Wednesdays, our spotlight for cleaning is the kitchen. It is also our day for baking bread and making and storing food like pickles, ferments and jams. We always look forward to this day because we can get to teach Nayon so many things from simple Math like measuring and knowing the time, to more complex ideas like food systems and resiliency.

Nayon enjoys farm chores, particularly the ones that have to do with harvesting and composting.

“Thursdays’ highlight is about making our personal projects like making natural cleaning agents, homemade shampoo or helping Nayon create toys from cardboard boxes and wood materials. On Fridays, we clean the bed room and home office then we spend the afternoon [doing] crayon and chalkboard drawing. We slowly introduced Baybayin (the ancient writing system of Tagalog) to Nayon as a form of writing, and it is helpful to create images related to the syllables so he could fully grasp the idea of writing as a means to express and communicate. Saturdays are for repairing things, mending clothes, sewing toys and preparing for seasonal celebrations.

“We only spend 30 minutes of gardening in the morning and in the afternoon during weekdays to harvest, water the plants, feed the chickens, cultivate, do mulch or transplant the seedlings. A lot of work is spent on weekends especially on Sundays when we turn our compost pile, bury our bokashi compost, make new beds for the vermi worms, clean the chicken coop, fertiliser and so on.”

Given such a packed schedule, do the couple manage to get any work done? “Gio still goes to work four times a week while I work in the middle of the day or after bed time when Nayon takes a nap or goes to sleep,” Leila says.

Growing food to feed the family

The family grows a variety of vegetables for their daily sustenance. They have “Bahay Kubo” vegetables, the colloquial name for common produce that appear on the Filipino dinner table. These include eggplant, red okra, patola, upo, and tomato.

Gio holds up some uraro, or arrowroot, that they grow on an urban farm in Taguig.

They also grow leafy greens like, pechay, arugula, kale, kangkong, kailan, kamote (which counts both as a leafy green and as a root crop), talinum, and malunggay and herbs such as, basil, lemongrass, cilantro, oregano, and curry. Leila shares that they have chili plants that have been “planted” by birds that drop seeds randomly. They also have root crops like, purple yam, taro, arrowroot, ginger, turmeric, and galangal, as well as edible flowers like blue ternatea and roselle.

Also planted are fruit trees like guava and calamansi, both of which Leila says are very productive. There are also trees planted in pots: kamias, sampaloc, mulberry, papaya and avocado, as well as canistelle (chesa), santol, shoebutton plum (indigenous tree called Tagpo), and mangosteen, which have yet to find permanent places in the roughly 50 Sq.M. garden. Last but not least is a cotton plant, which Leila says is her personal project.

The family grows crops naturally, maintaining bokashi, vermi, and open pit composts to keep the soil healthy and to provide nutrition to their plants.

Planting vegetables allows them to save a lot in food costs. “Since we don’t buy veggies, we save half of [our budget for groceries] or sometimes, it gives us the opportunity to buy very good fish and seafood,” Leila says.

Nayon is active in the farming process. “Nayon’s favorites are the beginning and end of gardening. He likes helping us with composting—doing the bokashi, feeding the vermi and turning the open pit compost so he could collect black soldier flies and worms to feed his chickens,” Leila says. “He also enjoys harvesting the fruits and vegetables, especially if he can’t reach them, so he has the reason to use a ladder.”

Weathering the pandemic as a family

Like any kind of family situation, life on the farm has its ups and downs, but unlike other setups, it’s the perks of farm living that are highlighted during trying times, such as the current pandemic. This is not only because the family does not have to worry about running out of food, but also because they’re used to the isolation that the community quarantine has imposed on the populace.

“It is not new for us to be isolated and stay a long time at home because we have lived in Mt. Banahaw for years and our nearest neighbour was 300 meters away. During the rainy season we would stay at home with no internet connection, mobile signal or even a television for days or weeks until the weather gets better and is safe for us to go outside. On those days, we would preserve food, germinate seeds, read a lot of books about gardening and green businesses. In a way, it has prepared us for this pandemic to cope with loneliness and anxiety. The only difference is that we were surrounded by nature then and that is what we miss living here in the city,” Leila says.

“Today, when the cabin fever hits us, we would climb our guava tree in the garden to compensate for the forest bathing. We would exercise in replacement for the missed nature walk or hiking. And gardening in general helps us to be still connected with nature even when we are here in the city.”

She adds that having a set schedule in place also made it easier for the family to transition into quarantine life—no small feat, as any parent with a toddler will tell you!

“I can also say that having a daily and weekly rhythm at home helps us be better parents during this pandemic. We can’t always have a control of what is going to happen outside and it is our duty as parents to bring a sense of safety and security to our child. Rhythm brings us comfort because they are regular and expected; it guides us throughout the day and makes us excited for tomorrow,” she adds.

The effect of the pandemic on the farm

That said, it doesn’t mean that they haven’t been affected by the societal effects of COVID-19. Like any agricultural endeavor, transportation has become a major problem. And for an educational administrator like Leila, outdoor educational programs, which rely on face-to-face interaction, have come to a halt.

“Since the lockdown started, Gio cannot visit the farms; his work with mushroom production was also put on hold. Many of the products we carry in ELMNTM are coming from different island provinces which up until now cannot travel to NCR. There is a challenge in transporting the goods because we rely on public transportation for deliveries,” she says. “Fortunately, Gio’s team in Good Food Community has found a way of transporting the vegetables coming from their partner community farms in North Luzon so they still have regular deliveries of fruits and vegetables to their subscribers.”

The family has also managed to focus on burgeoning interest in urban farming. “We decided to focus on our product that is doable for us to produce and currently needed by the consumers, and that is Bokashi composting kits. A lot of people nowadays have found joy in urban gardening and we are happy that composting helps them manage their kitchen wastes while making healthy soil and fertiliser for their plants,” she says.

At the same time, Leila and her fellow teachers are looking for ways to bring outdoor education to kids, despite the ongoing precautions against going outside.

“Unfortunately for me, we had to cancel our camps and nature learning sessions with Weekend Wild Child. The downside of being an outdoor program is that we cannot package something and make it online because it defeats the purpose of unplugging the children from screens and taking them on an adventure. We don’t want to contribute to a lot of things that children have to do online these days,” she says.

“We are still on the drawing board of how to connect children with nature even at home without having them to be on the screen for so long. Right now, we just do once to twice a month limited time check in with our community so the kids can see their playmates. Our teachers are also using this time to study and finish their research works. On the other hand, the advantage of it is that our campgrounds are now greener than ever, so nature can take its time to rest and grow. We can patiently wait until it is safe to gather again.”

Spending life on the farm may not be for everyone, but the Espital family has been lucky enough to integrate work and family life almost seamlessly. It’s a lifestyle they wouldn’t trade for the world.

“Farming has many advantages that our family enjoys. It includes having a flexible schedule, healthy food and fresh air, but even at the very beginning what I love about being a farming family is that we can always be together,” Leila says.

“Most families spend their waking hours or more away from each other everyday, so it is really a blessing for us to spend most of those hours together. We get to have quantity and quality of time to get to know each other, our strengths and weaknesses, our challenges, gifts and personalities. We get to experience milestones, setbacks and light bulb moments. And more importantly, we all get to grow up together.”

In Part 2, Leila enumerates the factors a family should consider before switching to a farm-led life.

Photos courtesy of Laila Pornel-Espital.

For information on the bokashi composting kits, visit www.facebook.com/elmntm 

For weekly subscription of organic fruits and vegetables, visit www.goodfoodcommunity.com 

Weekend Wild Child camps and nature learning sessions will resume once the lockdown is lifted. Visit them on Facebook and Instagram: @weekendwildchild 

For healthy baby food preparation, tips and ideas, visit Baby Food Project on Facebook and Instagram: @babyfoodproject