By Vina Medenilla

Nikka Veronni Factolerin Espinili-Restovic, 32, a native of Batangas, spent several years overseas working in different jobs, from being a hotelier to being a seafarer. 

In 2015, Espinili-Restovic decided to stop sailing and settle with her Serbian national husband. 

She admitted that living in her spouse’s homeland was initially tough, especially with the adjustments she had to deal with in terms of language, climate, and food. But those factors did not hinder this Filipina from loving her newfound home. 

Espinili-Restovic shares her journey as a mom, traveler, and Filipina gardener abroad through a YouTube channel. 

“I started living the life I wanted and [doing] what I love to do the most such as gardening, cooking, traveling, and being a wife and a mom,” Espinili-Restovic wrote in the caption of one of her vlogs. 

Espinili-Restovic believes that her roots are the main factors that contribute to her fascination with plants and nature. Today, she learns more about farming through her husband, farmer in-laws, and modern technology. 

Thriving with nature

In the Philippines, Espinili-Restovic can easily visit the nearest market to buy her favorite local veggies. However, this is not the same case after she migrated to Serbia.

“When I arrived and stayed here in Serbia long enough, I realized that purchasing or producing Asian vegetables is not easy.” From their place, it will take about an hour and a half to two hours to get to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia where there’s access to a wider variety of food. 

She adds, “Sinigang, for me, is not sinigang without kangkong, sitao, talong, labanos, and okra. Pinakbet is not complete without ampalaya. These are the vegetables that, even in the frozen section of our local supermarkets, could not be found.”

Because of this, she began growing Philippine vegetables like kangkong, pechay, sitaw, eggplant, and okra at home.

Most of her alugbati harvests are for sharing.

Growing Asian veggies in Europe

Espinili-Restovic’s garden is located in the backyard (24sqm) and the front yard (12sqm) of their residence in Gornji Milanovac, Serbia. She also tends to an indoor garden where she keeps some crops warm, especially during winter. Her husband’s family also owns a separate five-hectare hazelnut plantation. 

She calls her garden Sinsay do Mene. “Sinsay” is a word in Batangas that means “pass by” or “visit”, while “do Mene” is a Serbian term that means “to me.” The garden represents her love for her hometown and the country where she now resides.

Freshly-harvested multicolored tabasco peppers.

This Filipina farmer grows crops such as pechay, alugbati, upland kangkong, sitao, napa cabbage, malunggay, purple sweet potato, ampalaya, sayote, eggplant, green peas, tabasco pepper, patani, radish, okra, squash, garlic, onion, taro, patola, corn, tomato, lemongrass, dragon fruit, and calamansi. There are more crops on their family farm, some of which belong to the family of berries. 

Espinili-Restovic grows food both in the ground and in containers. She waters the plants at seven in the evening due to intense heat during spring and fall that lasts until six in the evening. 

“To ensure that my plants will grow healthy and produce abundant fruits, I feed them with organic fertilizers coming from my mother-in-law’s farm. She has a sheep yard, and saves lots of sheep manure for our vegetable gardens and other farms.”

Homegrown sweet potato harvest.

Espinili-Restovic also creates concoctions such as fish amino acid (FAA) and stinging nettle tea fertilizer. In addition to this, she uses kitchen scraps for compost and keeps the rice water for her plants daily.

“We save wood ashes over the winter season from burnt woods that we use [to keep] our house [warm]. The wood ashes are used to protect the soil from pests, especially for the slugs. My husband also provides some chicken manure, which we also use for our hazelnut farm,” Espinili-Restovic added.

Two varieties of pechay that this Serbia-based Filipina grows.

Sudden frost and hailstorms are issues that this gardener often encounters during springtime. She monitors the weather from time to time and prepares plastic covers made from upcycled gallon bottles to protect the crops. Plants in containers are also set in a shed that’s opposite to the direction of rain and hail. 

Selling and adding value to crops

Pechay, kangkong, camote tops, and alugbati are vegetables that she mostly shares with others. While she also makes other crops available for sale, namely ampalaya, sayote, eggplant, okra, patani, and sitao. Ampalaya costs RSD 500 or P250/kilo, sayote and eggplants are sold at RSD 200 or P100/kilo, patani is at RSD 100 or P50/bundle, while okra and sitaw are available for RSD 50 or P25/bundle.

She markets her vegetables by visiting Asian department stores in town and handing them leaflets that contain her information and the vegetables she produces. This way, the community is aware of her business, plus potential buyers can easily contact her for orders. 

This Filipina agripreneur also offers products like chili garlic oil, kimchi, and longganisa using some of her homegrown crops.

Packed orders containing pechay, longganisa, peanut butter, and chili oil.

“This year, I am expecting more harvest as I tried growing more varieties of chilis that I can use for the products that I sell. Lastly, for our hazelnuts, we are forming the right concoction on creating products out of it such as hazelnut-flavored polvoron, choco-hazelnut candy, and hazelnut butter.”

Nikka Espinili-Restovic driving around their five-hectare hazelnut farm.

From the initial goal of producing Asian vegetables for household consumption, producing food has turned into an avenue that connects this Filipina to her foreign family and allows her to earn extra income from home. 

Read part 2 of this article here.

Photos from Nikka Veronni Factolerin Espinili-Restovic.

For more information visit Sinsay do Mene’s Facebook or YouTube channel.