Not everyone gets into farming voluntarily at first but there are many who come to realize that it is actually their calling.

Efrenia “Neng” Cantoneros Holt, founder and owner of Atbang Farm in Cabayugan, Calape, Bohol. A graduate of Bachelor of Science in Agriculture majoring in Entomology at Bohol Agricultural College, nowcalled Bohol Island State University (BISU). Holt worked in the finance industry in the UK before moving back to the Philippines in 2004.

“It was a fulfilled wish. My Mama was dying of colon cancer and she asked me to look after the land when she’s gone. She sadly died early 2004. So, my husband and I moved back to live in Bohol from the UK late 2004 and I started farming while my husband volunteered to teach at a local high school in our village,” she said.

Atbang Farm is a permaculture farm and wildlife preserve that also calls itself a food forest. “We follow a simple, easy, scientific and effective way of farming. It regenerates life, both in our lands and within us so it heals us. We follow the path of ecological agriculture and live sustainably as farmers. We enjoy our farm to the fullest with a balanced healthy land vibrant with life and native biodiversity,” Holt says.

Before it became Atbang Farm, the area was used as pasture land for cattle, goats, and carabaos. Now it is a permaculture-inspired farm that produces a variety of crops, not to mention value-added products, all made with a philosophy of caring for oneself and one’s surroundings.

“‘Atbang’ is a Bisaya word for ‘opposite side.’ Our farm is located on a valley of opposite sloping farm fields with a stream at the bottom of the fields. Thus, we call our farm Atbang Farm based on its location and topography,” Holt explains.

Their farmhouse sits on four hectares of land, with 10 hectares nearby devoted to planting various crops. Half of their total land area is dedicated to wildlife preservation.

Cultivating a food forest

When the Holts started Atbang Farm in 2004, turning it into a business was the last thing on their minds. But from the start, Holt knew that she wanted to farm in as sustainable a way as possible.

“At first, all I wanted to do was just plant fruit trees that I love eating! I didn’t plan to make my farm into a business. I did some research about permaculture and, influenced by friends who are advocates in ecological and organic farming, I decided to transform our farm from a pasture land into a forest as a sanctuary for wildlife and grow our food too!” she said.

Atbang Farm gained its nickname as a food forest because of the variety of crops and livestock available on site.

“We mainly grow permanent crops of coconuts, fruit trees, various indigenous plants and forests. We grow vegetables and farm animals on clearings in between permanent forest crops where we sourced our food and fresh farm produce,” Holt said.

Because the farm spans a valley, it contains different types of soil. Some areas had naturally eroded, so the Holts used natural farming techniques to replenish the soil and its nutrients.

“The soil type of our farm varies depending on its location. Being in a valley, the higher portion of the land has less soil depth than the lower portion because of erosion over the year,” Holt explained.

“We constructed terracing and swales where possible to lessen the soil erosion of the land. We planted trees, especially the top and steep portion of the land to hold the land from degrading further.”

Terracing is the technique of cutting succeedingly receding flat areas that resemble steps on a mountainous or hilly slope for farming purposes. In the Philippines, the most popular example of this is the Banawe Rice Terraces. A swale, meanwhile, is a sunken area with sloped sides commonly used in permaculture to contain rainwater runoff by spreading it horizontally instead of vertically across the land.

Much of the farm’s water source comes from a stream that runs through it. “We also have spring water where we tapped into and rain water tanks to supply our farmhouse needs. We did suffer a shortage of water after the Earthquake in 2013 because the spring water source stopped flowing and the stream water flow became less than it used to be. Now, we found another spring water appearing in the land!” Holt shared.

The farm’s main product is cacao, but it also grows jackfruit, bananas, durian, coconut, mangosteen, rambutan, mangoes, various root crops and vegetables as well as native chickens and ducks. It also has a small fishpond for tilapia, as well as a few hives that house native stingless bees. The latter’s honey is harvested only for personal use, though the farm works with local honey gatherers and some of Atbang’s farmers who harvest seasonally from the nearby forest during the honey flow season.

“Our farm puts importance on caring, respecting and learning with nature. We keep our soil healthy because we believe it nurtures our food which in turn nurtures our health. We grow food using natural farming and ultra-low-cost organic agriculture,” Holt said.

“We make our own farm inputs sourced in the vicinity of our farm. Because of this, we don’t depend on the use of expensive and commercially available agricultural chemicals.”

Most of the farm’s harvests are sold to local clients in nearby communities, including the farmers market in Tagbilaran City. Taking the different seasonalities of the varieties of crops they sell, Holt estimates that they make about P350,000 annually.

Farmers cleaning a water swale, one of the methods Atbang Farm uses to keep natural erosion at bay.

Focus on cacao

Inspired by the rising trend in local cacao production and processing, the farm ventured into cacao propagation and production in 2016. They currently grow a variety of cacao, including UF18, Trinitario, and heirloom varieties. “At the moment we are using clone UF18 as our rootstocks and graft the different varieties in it for field growing and production,” Holt shared.

The cacao plants are intercropped with different crops of varying heights, all of them working as support for each other. “Bananas provide shade to young cacao plants and also bananas give us a good return cash crop all year round. We also intercropped other root crops like gabi because they require less maintenance and keep the weeds down, too,” Holt shares.  “We do intercropping plants all over our fields depending on which plant is best suited to a certain location.”

As the farm has just embarked on this enterprise, it’s hard to say yet how much they could earn from it once all the trees have started to bear fruit.

“At the moment, we are only in the beginning of production of cacao and not much harvest. Converting it to the monetary value of our own cacao harvest may be around P10K per season. Our cacao trees are only approaching three years old and the rest are still younger and not fruiting yet,” Holt says, adding that they also work with local cacao farmers to augment their needed supply of cacao beans for value-added  products. “We sourced most of our cacao beans for processing right now into tablea chocolate products from other local cacao farmers in Bohol.”

The tablea, formulated by Holt herself, is sold to clients that include ice cream and confectionery makers, wellness brands, health conscious individuals, and of course, regular tablea drinkers. In 2019, it won second in the Best Tablea Drinks in the Philippines Award at Kakao Konek, the largest cacao expo in the Philippines.

“The award inspired me to venture more in the cacao industry. I just put my heart into producing a product from start to finish and focused on quality over quantity. Never sacrifice quality in any aspects of the process,” Holt shared. “Hopefully when things improve with the pandemic, we will be able to supply or work with a chocolatier in England, where I live now part of the year.”

Holt sleeves cacao pods to prevent pest infestation. Sleeving is the technique of covering a crop with paper or plastic to keep pests from attacking it.

The importance of value-added products

Award-winning tablea isn’t the only value-added product Atbang Farm produces. They have a long list of products made from their harvests which include VCO, coconut cider vinegar, durian jam, durian cacao ice cream, and roasted cacao nibs.

“It is just a natural progression of what we harvest from the farm and utilize whatever possible that we could add value-add to our produce,” Holt says. “Mainly, these [are] products we personally love using and eating too, and if it does not sell, my household and farm workers can eat them! Nothing is wasted in natural farming.”

Holt also makes chocolate bars, which she packages for clients. It’s a big hit and she has many regular customers. “I took time to do some research and was also a recipient of the many training extensions from the DTI Bohol in improving our products and marketing,” she shared.

Value-adding does not only lengthen the shelf life of a crop by processing it into other products, it can also add to the income—and if it’s award-winning, prestige—of a farm.

“Value-added products are important to take advantage of the many possible revenue streams for farmers to engage into and not waste any surplus of produce from the farm. In my case, it can add about 30-40% of the profit,” Holt shared.

But like all consumer products, a successful value-added product involves rigorous research and development.

“We develop a product from careful selection of ingredients, how it is processed, how it is packaged and must of quality. Healthy food sells especially this time where more and more people are aware that food affects our health,” she added.

Many farms produce talea, but not all of them can claim that theirs is award-wining. Atbang Farm’s tablea won second in the Best Tablea Drinks in the Philippines Award at Kakao Konek, the largest cacao expo in the Philippines.

Push for Push for permaculture

There’s a growing number of farmers worldwide who advocate permaculture farming because of its goal of working in harmony with the natural environment, but like all systems, it has pros and cons that need to be considered.

In Holt’s case, natural disasters have been the biggest hindrance in her farming journey, but this can be said for any farmer, no matter what farming system they use. Another hindrance was that she had to learn how to farm the natural way, given that she had been away from the fields for so long. Again, the learning curve is something all farmers face, regardless of the technology they use. “Perseverance, determination to learn lessons and positivity helped me to overcome some obstacles in permaculture farming,” Holt stated.

The benefits Holt have experienced, however, can only be achieved by someone who practices natural farming. “The biggest benefits of permaculture farming is sustainability, healthier to the environment, promoting biodiversity, can be more efficient than a regular farm, allowing you to produce more crops with fewer resources and less maintenance,” she said.

Holt is very passionate about regenerative agriculture. “People are now also learning more on how to better care for the land and the soil so they produce better and safe harvest through regenerative agriculture. Disconnecting themselves from the use of chemicals which gives more harm both to people and the planet than benefits,” she said.

“With regenerative agriculture, we are relearning to restore and nurture our ecological balance and protect our environment from further degradation. Because of this, we will continue to be able to provide wholesome healthy food for our communities and our families.”

Farming is a community activity

Though Holt’s vision and leadership is key to Atbang farm’s success, she would not have been able to accomplish so much without the help of her trusted farmhands. She’s also made it a personal mission to focus on women in agriculture, uplifting their lives so that they are given more opportunities to thrive.

Everyone knows that farmers are some of the most underserved members of society, but not a lot of people understand that women farmers are at an even bigger disadvantage as they have even less access to education and livelihood opportunities because of their gender. Yet studies show that if a woman is given access to education and livelihood, there’s a very, very big chance that the benefits will be passed on to her family and community as well.

Holt’s volunteer work for various communities and organizations in the field of natural agriculture (organic farming, but without the certification) and farm tourism in Central Visayas, including the Bohol Cacao Producers Association, has earned her many accolades, including being one of the recipients of the Great Women Project 2 by the Philippine Commission on Women, among others.

“Women are born with nurturing traits and we need that in agriculture. Agriculture is a nurture culture to plants and livestock,” she said.

Farming isn’t just a business—it’s a lifestyle

Holt has learned a lot since she started farming in 2004. Many of these lessons can be applied to life outside the farm. “Love, patience and resiliency! Without these, farming will be a burden to an individual. These learnings are greatly applicable to our daily life too,” she said.

These lessons have come in handy this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to seeming standstill. Though tablea sales have declined due to the temporary closure of some businesses during the quarantine period aimed at halting the spread of the virus, the demand for fresh produce did not wane. People still need to eat after all, and the pandemic highlighted that, more than ever, people need to eat fresh food to stay healthy.

“[The] COVID-19 pandemic affected our sales in our processed products like tablea because our institutional clients stopped operation. For now, we are selling in small quantities for local demands only,” Holt shared. “Farm fresh produce, on the other hand, is not affected by the pandemic and more work being done at the farm and hired a couple more workers. Farmers markets were created where we can sell our produce on a regular basis and do home deliveries in the area when possible following local quarantine protocol.”

The pandemic has also brought to light the importance of establishing a food secure nation. Holt hopes that more people will see the importance farmers play in everyone’s lives.

“Food is a basic human need. We eat every day, three times a day, sometimes even more. What puts food on our tables is our agriculture sector. Aside from food, we source some of the raw ingredients of things we consume or use on a daily basis from this sector too,” she said.

“Knowing this, we can say no Filipino can live without farmers. Agriculture is the mother of all industries and the backbone of our beloved country the Philippines. Our food security and sufficiency lies in the hardworking hands of our agriculture sector.”

Despite her many achievements and accolades, Holt says that she still has many plans in store for the farm. She wants to upgrade her processing facilities, secure proper certification from pertinent government agencies that identify her products as globally competitive, increase the number of their products’ resellers and distributors nationwide, boost their online presence, sales, and marketing, provide a homestay experience to farm visitors, and sell their cacao products overseas.

But more than this, she also hopes to continue “to provide consistent livelihood for a better quality of life for local farmers and their families.”

When asked what she loves most about farming, Holt answered, “I love seeing plants and animals grow, being in communion in nature, producing foods for the body and soul.”

It’s something that she hopes other people will get to experience as well.

In Part 2, Holt shares five tips on marketing one’s farm products.

Photos courtesy of Efrenia Holt

For more information visit Atbang Farm

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s January to February 2021 issue.