By Vina Medenilla
A lot of people become farmers in retirement. One of them is Thelma Murillo, a retiree who is now a full-time farmer after working in the corporate world for more than 30 years.
Murillo shares that her fondness for farming arose from childhood. “I was exposed to planting at an early age when our father used to take us to the province and tell us to plant coconuts and cashews.” Murillo’s father, in turn, was influenced by her grandfather, who was a tobacco trader in La Union then.
This upbringing has led her to develop their property in the south. The said land was acquired by her father whose goal is to turn it into a subdivision. But before this could happen, Murillo persuaded him to allow her to turn the lot into a farm instead. She explains, “He gave me three years to make it productive. Otherwise, he will just sell it with no sweat, unlike what I am doing.” Two years later, she was able to establish the farm and named it Gorgeous Farm because of the beautiful overlooking view of Taal Lake and Volcano that can be seen from the farm. Now, the farm is a certified agri-tourism farm, a learning site for agriculture (LSA), and a training center of TESDA for Organic Agriculture Production NC II.
Gorgeous Farm is a nine-hectare farm nestled in Tagaytay Ridge that organizes farm visits, seminars, and offers accommodations, and other farm activities such as pick and pay. It opened its doors to the public in 2017.
Since Murillo’s educational background is a bit far from agriculture, one of her early challenges was having no idea how to run a farm. She joined agriculture-related associations, attended seminars and training, and reached out to different government agencies, which all contributed to the success of her farm today. She says, “I was able to achieve a lot for the farm not only in being recognized as a legitimate farm, but also as a learning institution that supports other start-ups into farming. I now have a national certification for Organic Agriculture Production and Event Management Services NC III.”
Cash and food crops
The farm’s main crops are lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Other than these, they also grow Japanese cucumbers, Roma tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum), chili peppers, bananas, papayas, and several fruit trees like jackfruit, avocado, cacao, coffee, rambutan, and cashew.
These crops have a quick turnover and can be easily processed, which is why they opted to grow them. In preparing these crops, the farmer expounds, “For instance, papaya can be pickled for atchara or made into a jam, tomatoes can be sun-dried or added into pesto, while cashews can be turned into flour or milk aside from the usual roasted nuts.”
Harvest time for lettuce occurs every 45 days from sowing. Tomatoes and calamansi, on the other hand, can fruit year-round once they start bearing fruits. Every week, the farm yields about 20 kilos of cucumbers.
When it comes to crop production, they practice natural farming methods and do not use any pesticides. For soil conditioner and fertilizer, Gorgeous Farm uses vermicast combined with carbonized rice hulls and animal manure. They also apply plastic mulch to control moisture in plots and have installed drip irrigation to save water.
The farm also houses five sows, two boars, and nine piglets, which they mainly use for show or demo for the time being.
A food and income provider
Gorgeous Farm was initially built to supply the family’s needs. But since it produces more than their personal consumption, they started selling the surplus to others. For food expenses, the family saves roughly P10,000 a month due to the stock of vegetables and fruits that the farm provides.
In excess of their needs, they sell the produce in the local market and to restaurants and traders. Currently, they’re finding contract-based clients where they can regularly sell their harvests depending on the buyers’ demands. This way, there’s a sure market and income that, as per Murillo, will be allotted for the farm’s expansion and development.
“There has been a greater demand for fresh produce,” Murillo stressed, “I guess people are into healthier stuff nowadays, which is brought about by the pandemic.” With this, she admits, “The thing is that the prices have not increased and we cannot increase it either because we might price ourselves out of the market, especially now that many have lost their jobs.”
Gorgeous Farm has also expanded its services by opening a restaurant on-site and making use of the farm’s crops, as well as by building a bed and breakfast that can accommodate up to 30 persons.
As an addition to the farm’s profit, they, too, have value-added goods such as fruit jams, butter, sauces, and dressings that they offer on the farm’s pasalubong or souvenir center. “Our processed food is halal-certified like fruit jams, chips, roasted nuts, and cashew butter,” said Murillo. However, because of the low number of farm visitors, they do not process much goods to avoid waste.
To date, they are venturing into online selling to help them recover from the loss caused by the Taal Volcano eruption and COVID-19 situation. Through the platform, they can continuously support the income of their staff and still be able to pay for their utility bills.
The farm, as Murillo describes it, is a work in progress where many good things await. Murillo plans to add more greenhouses and nurseries where they can propagate plants for selling, to plant more Philippine native trees, and to shift to medicinal herbs like aloe vera.
The farm laborers amid crisis
In the nine-hectare farmland, they started from having 10 farmhands that consist of two sowers, two assigned for transplanting, four persons for maintenance, cultivation, planting, and harvesting, and another two for processing the value-added goods. Unfortunately, due to the current situation, they had to lay off employees, which brings the number of workers down to three. Most of these workers are residents around the area and the majority came from another farm that pays less compared to what Gorgeous Farm offers. Apart from getting weekly income, the farmhands also benefit from the farm’s produce, events, and seminars. The farmers were also able to avail of a scholarship from the farm and now have National Certification for Organic Agriculture Production.
The effect of a double whammy: Taal eruption and COVID-19
After the two crises that both took place this year, the farm has not yet fully recovered from the loss it brought. Despite that, Murillo takes courage and is still grateful that the farm was not heavily devastated from the volcano eruption. She shared that when it occurred, the wind direction was going towards the east, contrary to their direction which is in the west.
Today, they are doing online marketing to maximize their resources and to reduce face-to-face interaction. Although they do not allow walk-ins due to the pandemic, the farm is open for advance reservations. “We are slowly opening up [the farm], but we are scared,” says Murillo. She added that they strictly follow safety protocols for everyone and ask guests who visit them to show health certificates and to sign a form for contact tracing. “We just opened our accommodations for now and we only entertain advance bookings. The farm still does not accommodate farm tours for big groups. And the restaurant is not yet back to its full operation, but accepts advance orders for takeout or delivery.”
Lessons from her farm experiences
Being a farmer for over four years, Murillo shares some things that might help others with their farming practices.
One of these is to record things that are necessary to track your farm activities; this includes the crops that were sowed, the sowing and transplanting dates, the expected date of harvest, and the volume of the gathered crops.
It is also necessary for you to know if the yield was way lower than expected. This way, you would trace not only your accomplishments, but also the cause of any diseases or problems on your farm.
Above all these, check your farm resources including the two farm essentials: soil and seeds. “The life of your farm depends on your soil. No matter what plant, if your soil is poor it will not be productive.” Get quality seeds from reliable suppliers as seeds determine your future yields as well.
Murillo expresses, “Farming is not easy. But it can be gratifying for the soul and income-generating if you do it well and treat it as a business.” As a farmer, Murillo says that it is vital to get your hands dirty: “You cannot rely on your farm workers to do all the job according to your level of expectation. You must involve yourself from sowing the seeds, transplanting, to land cultivation.” She added, “But what is important is to have a farm bible which includes your production planning guide so that at any time, you know what you can offer to your buyer.”
Photos courtesy of Thelma Murillo
For more information, visit Gorgeous Farm.