Sometimes, a farm isn’t just a place where crops grow. Sometimes, it can be a place of conservation and rejuvenation.

Artana Farm & Eco-Sanctuary is one such place. Located in Iba, Zambales, Artana is a family-owned, non-commercial agricultural estate that includes various planted crops,farm animals, a guesthouse for rent, an area dedicated to the preservation of native trees, and various farm tourism activities.

“Artana is a portmanteau of our parents’ names, Arturo and Ana Achacoso,” says Beng Achacoso-Pascua, a freelance voice talent and retired network executive who owns the farm together with her mom and seven siblings.

“All our lives, we had always referred to our farm as ‘Zambales,’” she says. In 2014, after our father passed on, my seven siblings and I came together to vote on an appropriate name for our farm-which we all acknowledged as the retreat we all loved, and our parents’ legacy.”

At that time, the farm had been in a state of neglect as the Achacoso patriarch had been in and out of the hospital since 2008. The siblings decided that reviving the farm would stand as a “collective tribute to our parents, who both instilled in us a profound love for nature, conservation, stewardship and sustainability.”

The farm, which is situated right by the Calauangan river, a tributary that opens out to the West Philippine Sea, has been in the Achacoso family since the early 1900s.

“It started as a small but prolific riverside farm lot developed by my great-grandparents, Pelagio Achacoso and Jesusa Morales,” Achacoso-Pascua says. “The river was well known to the locals as very fertile fishing grounds. In fact, barangay folks, up until the early 2000’s, had no reservations about [unlawfully] entering the property to access the river. This property was bequeathed to my grandfather Exequiel, passed on to an uncle and sold from brother to brother until my father Arturo bought it, along with two adjacent properties that included fish ponds.”

The current combined farm area is about seven hectares. “The farm has been in our family for almost 40 years, but was only in the last eight years that our generation started hands-on agricultural experiments with various crops to determine feasibilities and best fits for our respective spaces’ natural features,” Achacoso-Pascua says.

Zambales mangoes

Artana has been producing mangoes for the past 20 years.

Zambales is known as one of the best mango producing provinces in the country. Artana is known for its mangoes, which have been harvested annually for the past 20 years.

“There are about 200 mango trees, but only about 60% are fruit bearing so far. These are sprayed alternately, yielding about 150-250 crates of Damulag and Pico mangoes once or twice yearly,” Achacoso-Pascua says. “At 24 kilos per crate, that’s 4000-6000 kilos [per harvest].”

Since all the Achacoso siblings are Manila-based, they rely on a third party to handle the mango trees from start to finish—”that is, from the first nutrient spraying, and all the way to the post-harvest cleanup.”

“Because we are Manila-based, having a third party handle our precious harvest has been the most convenient for us, though certainly far from ideal. All expenses for fertilizers and pesticides are shouldered by the chosen partner team, and they receive 70% of the yield. We only receive 30% of our harvest, which is easily distributed to our friends and family who anticipate the Artana mangoes year after year, many of whom have standing reservations and commitments to purchase,” she explains.

“In the near future, when one of us is ready to stay at the farm permanently, then we can consider taking on the mango venture entirely upon us. For now, we are glad to have finally found a trustworthy local team to partner with.”

The family’s share is brought to Manila, where they are segregated according to size and sold for in between P160-200 a kilo. “The Zambales mango season, mid-March to mid-May, coincides with all other provinces’ mango harvests and there is always an abundance of mangoes to choose from, with prices ranging from Php66 to P250/kilo,” Achacoso-Pascua says.

“Luckily, the reputation of Zambales mangoes precedes us, and we are usually able to fetch a premium price for our mango harvest from Artana. The sweetest mangoes in the world, after all, according to the 1995 edition of the Guinness book of world records, are the Carabao mangoes grown in Zambales, beating Guimaras and Ilocos Region mangoes.

“Further, in 2003, a comparative study conducted by the Bureau of Agricultural Research of the Department of Agriculture found that the Sweet Elena variety of Zambales is the sweetest Carabao mango strain. This is one of the varieties of carabao mangoes we have at Artana Farm,” she adds.

She was hoping to involve guests in the mango-picking process, but plans were halted due to the pandemic. “I had planned a Mango-picking-picnic for the 2020 harvest for my Airbnb guests, but of course all plans were aborted due to Covid-19. We had made arrangements for three prolific trees to be excluded from the harvest and these would be reserved for my pick-pay-picnic guests. We’ll have this same time next year,” she says.

One farm, many crops

But mangoes aren’t the only things that are cultivated in Artana. The farm has an extensive list—that runs into the hundreds—of plants and trees that grow on the property.

Crops include malunggay, tanglad, calamansi, and basil; medicinal plants like tawa-tawa aloe vera, and tsaang gubat; fruit trees like papaya, banana, and guava; nut trees like pili and cashew; ornamental plants like rosal, bougainvillea, and gumamela; non-native trees like eucalyptus, mahogany, and acacia; and native trees such as molave, talisay and lipote.

The Achacoso siblings have taken responsibility for different aspects of the farm. Achacoso-Pascua owns and manages the AirBnB property within the farm while her husband manages the animal farm within.

Her sister, Ting Achacoso-Navarro, is propagating various species of bamboo, which include, “giant bamboo (Dendrocalamus asper); kawayang tinik (Bambusa blumeana); bayog (Bambusa merrilliana); Java black bamboo (Gigantochloa atroviolacea); pink bamboo (Schizostachyum brachyladum); kayali (Gigantochloa atter), and kiling (Bambusa vulgaris var. vulgaris).”

Ting, together with brother Artuhur, also manage fields planted to rice. Ronald, another brother, is an artist, UP Fine Arts lecturer, and Philippine native flora expert who “maintains a collection of orchids, palms, ferns and cycads, vines and ornamental plants.”

“He has numerous showcase plants such as Cycas Zambalensis (Pitugo), giant lilies- many are endangered and rare, usually nurtured from seeds picked up from mountaineering escapades,” Achacoso-Pascua adds.

Despite its fertility, running a farm, especially remotely, can be challenging. Planting and harvesting of vegetable crops are dependent on the availability of local farmers and remote management can be prone to miscommunication and mistrust. The quarantine period also affected the farm, as no crops were planted and the family scaled back on crops that required a lot of attention such as tomatoes, eggplant, and okra.

The farm grows many crops, some of which the guests are welcome to pick for themselves.

Achacoso-Pascua has been wanting to implement a pick-and-pay scheme for a while but hasn’t formally introduced it yet, though guests are encouraged to pick herbs and produce as part of the farm experience.

“We’ve taken guests around the farm and seen them happy to pick basil, calamansi, aloe vera, tawa-tawa herbs, cherry tomatoes, and tanglad, but I always end up giving them for free!” Achacoso-Pascua says. “I was, for the most part, just growing them freely for our consumption. And because we were not producing them in commercial quantities yet, I felt that the excitement created by the experience of harvesting and plucking fruit and vegetables was far more precious than the harvest’s monetary equivalent, it has been hard to put a price tag. So for now, it’s just pick n pick! But it still makes me happy!”

In the future, she hopes to be able to encourage activities where guests can donate or pay a minimal fee to engage in various farm activities like fruit picking, basic gardening with the option to take home a cutting, tree planting, and the like. “Donations/fees from these activities will go back to maintaining feeds for the animals, tools and implements (seedling bags, trays, etc) to nurture and propagate more plants,” she says.

A sanctuary for native trees

The entire farm is also a sanctuary for native trees, with at least 75 species on site, so of them more than a century old.

“There is a collective effort at Artana to prioritize nurturing, planting and promoting native trees over exotic species,” Achacoso-Pascua says. The objectives behind this are to attract more species of pollinators, create the opportunity to discuss the importance of ecological balance, and of course, preserve local tree species.

The focus on natve trees is intentional as according to Achacoso-Pascua, the Philippines is home to about 3600 indigenous species, placing it in the Top 10 in the world in terms of species diversity, but the average Filipino can barely recognize more than a dozen, partly because the majority of flora in cities nowadays are species introduced from overseas.

Her brother Ronald’s expertise on Philippine native flora (he runs the Pinto Art Gallery Botanical Garden and Arboretum and was one of contributing writers for the book Philippine Native Trees 101: Up Close and Personal) is a big factor in the cultivation native trees as an advocacy and not just decoration.

“We understand that there are many well-meaning individuals who plunge headlong into tree-planting projects as a means to save the earth. But if you have sustainability and stewardship in mind, you would do your homework and find out that not all trees are created equal, not all trees are meant to thrive just anywhere and everywhere, there are trees that have more significance in certain zones than in others, and that some trees may actually be harmful for certain environments in the long-run,” Achacoso-Pascua explains.

“We have made it our family’s advocacy to support Ronald’s campaign for not just any greening initiative, but a well-informed Philippine greening initiative. Choose your trees well, and only then will you be truly helping in the long run. In the end, it’s all about sustainability.”

The family continues to generate interest in native trees through the different nurseries located in the farm as well as through different activities for guests like tree planting and seedling adoption. They are also developing a tree walk that guests can take with or without a guide.

“Later we hope to be able to provide seedlings and other planting materials to organizations embarking on tree-planting efforts, in the process ask them for an audience to spread our advocacy for the Philippine Greening Initiative,” Achacoso-Pascua says.

A new home for rescued horses

One of the adopted horses next to a mango tree.

The farm houses goats, cows, and chickens that guests can interact with. The space is also dog-friendly, allowing guests to bring their canine friends.

Its latest animal-led venture is the adoption of five horses from Taal after the volcano’s eruption early this year. The horses were used to bring tourists up and down the volcano, and they were abandoned when the island and the areas surrounding was evacuated in the wake of the volcano’s eruption last January 12.

The adoption was facilitated by the Philippine Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), a volunteer-run organization that regularly rescues, and if possible, rehabilitates and rehomes abandoned or abused pets. Though their experience has been mostly with dogs and cats, the organization took it upon themselves to rescue the horses left on the island.

“Lynn Sherman, a friend of ours, had donated burn ointment for the horses. Since she’s been a long time PAWS supporter, they asked her if she’d be interested in adopting one of the 44 horses they rescued,” Achacoso-Pascua says. “She thought how perfect it would be for horses to be living stress-free on a farm. Luckily she thought of Artana. She reached out to our family, told us about their mission, and we decided that we would look into the prospect of adopting one horse.”

PAWS representatives visited the farm, like they do to all potential homes for rescued animals, and declared it more than suitable for the horses. Instead of adopting just one, Artana, with the help of friends who promised to help with the animals’ upkeep, ended up with five.

Needless to say, the horses are enjoying their new home. “The horses are doing well so far and enjoying the wide open space and endless grass. They arrived at 10:40 A.M. on June 13th, Saturday from Lipa, Batangas after almost three months in lockdown and an eight-hour trip via cattle truck to Zambales. The minute their hooves hit Artana grounds, they went on a five-hour grass buffet, stopping only once or twice for a sip of deep well water,” Achacoso-Pascua recounts. “We hope they get to relish their freedom in the open space and become healthy and happy horses.”

In Artnana, the horses have a different life from their old on in Taal. “The horses’ purpose on Taal Island was to ferry tired tourists to the mouth of the Volcano. Now that they’re in Artana, we’d like to give them a different purpose for tired tourists. We’d like our visitors to experience them not as beasts of burden but rather friendly, calm and peaceful animals that can influence them to feel the same,” Achacoso-Pascua says.

“The pony-sized horses will still need to be ridden occasionally to keep them kid friendly. At the moment they are so accustomed to human touch and interaction, so we’d like them to maintain that approachable disposition.”

A B&B and a farm tourism site

Also on the property is the Achacoso’s rest house. Built in 2004, it is a near replica of the original ancestral home, which burned down in 2002. Both houses were designed by Atty. Arturo Achacoso and are designed in traditional Philippine architecture.

Beng Achacoso-Pascua, who co-owns Artana farm with her mom and siblings, envisions the site as a place of relaxation and communion with nature.

In 2018, Achacoso-Pascua signed up the house on the property, affectionately known as The White House, on the popular short-term rental app AirBnB. She got her first booking within three days, and within three months, most weekends were fully booked to the point that she had to block off the remaining weekends so the family members could use the space!

Guests can enjoy different activities on-site, not all of them having to do with the farm. There are so many things to do that guests are supplied with “activity BINGO cards” and are encouraged to punch in the activities they’ve engaged in. There are also nearby beach resorts to explore, as Zambales is also a beach town.

“The White House is indeed a rest-house. The close encounter with nature seems to be what guests truly need in these stressful times. We imagine that when pandemic restrictions are lifted and people are allowed to move about freely, vacation destinations would still be geared towards open spaces and non-crowded places,” Achacoso-Pascua says.

The Achacoso family still has a lot of plans for their beloved Artana farm. This includes registering the farm as a legitimate business entity, which will allow them to shift to commercial endeavors. They’re hoping to partner with agriculture-based business entities to explore community-centric projects as well as become a venue where folks can take classes on farming, among other things.

As Achacoso-Pascua says, “We are stewards, first and foremost, and it is our responsibility to maintain, beautify, enhance and optimize the God-given natural features of the farm.”

For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/Artanafarm/

Photos courtesy of Beng Achacoso-Pascua