BY PATRICIA BIANCA S. TACULAO

Many religions around the world view life as sacred. This is why people who follow these religions engage in activities that help preserve life such as feeding and livelihood programs. 

Ezekiel Nieto, a pastor, started such activities in low-income communities. Four years ago, he and his partner, Jalyn Malto, began a ministry in an informal settler settlement where they fed and tutored the children of the community. 

After two years, they realized that instead of helping them, they were making the people of the community dependent on their help. This prompted them to look for another holistic approach that can provide the people with a sustainable source of livelihood.

Ezekiel Nieto and his partner Jalyn Malto.

The solution that they’ve come up with is farming. By 2019, they conceptualized and created Zoe Eco Farm as their way of helping less fortunate communities through a more holistic approach. 

“Zoe is a Greek word that means life. That is the reason why we are doing what we are doing,” Nieto said. 

Shifting to mushroom farming 

Nieto and Malto began their partnership back in 2015. They both share an affinity for selling items like supplements and beauty products. Aside from that, they also share an interest in farming, which they put to use in Zoe Eco Farm. 

“We started vegetable farming in Taal but when the Taal Volcano erupted, we had to think of a crop that is sheltered by a house, like mushrooms,” Nieto said.

Workers on Zoe Eco Farm who are members of the community that Nieto and Malto are assisting.

Other aspects that helped Nieto decide on growing mushrooms on their farm instead is because it doesn’t require any specific season to grow and it doesn’t get severely affected by natural disasters provided that it’s kept in a sturdy and secure location. 

The pastor and his partner began attending training from the Department of Agriculture and immersing themselves in the free materials that revolve around mushroom farming. In a short time, they were able to grasp the basics of mushroom farming. 

Nieto and Malto then began teaching members of the community that they’re helping the proper way to culture mushrooms.

“In Zoe Eco Farm, we are giving people work and sharing with them the technology on how to do mushroom farming,” the pastor said. 

Workers on Zoe Eco Farm are also taught the importance of sanitation, which helps them avoid cross-contamination so they can grow quality mushrooms.

The pastor and his partner taught the basics of mushroom farming to the farm workers.

When properly cultured, Nieto shared that they harvest around 300 to 500 grams of mushrooms per fruiting bag. 

Skincare products from mushrooms 

The most common product that farms in the Philippines make from mushrooms are chips or chicharon. Zoe Eco Farm also applied the same value-adding approach to their mushrooms since many people found it to be a healthy way to snack.

Mushroom chicharon made from the mushrooms on Zoe Eco Farm.

Nieto believes value-adding is an ideal way for farmers to earn an extra income without having to waste the produce that didn’t meet initial market demands such as size, weight, or physical appearance.

But since Nieto and Malto share an interest in selling supplements and beauty products, he had the idea of turning the farm’s mushrooms into a key ingredient for skincare products. 

Several studies on mushrooms show that they have anti-inflammatory properties that can be effective against skin problems such as pimples and eczema. And since Filipinos are fond of whitening products, which often cause their skin to peel because of its chemical composition, Nieto wanted to provide an alternative that focuses on improving skin health. 

“We promote healthy skin. Our skin is the largest organ we have so we need to take care of it. Our products are hypoallergenic and mushrooms are a natural source of kojic acid so whitening is a by-product but not its main purpose,” he said.

A skincare line developed by Zoe Eco Farm using the mushrooms grown on the farm.

Aside from being able to reduce irritation and inflammation, mushrooms also have antioxidant properties. One study published in the Archives of Dermatological Research found that phenolic veratric acid, a compound found in mushrooms known to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, helps improve the look of wrinkles.

Using the mushrooms that they grew on the farm, Zoe Eco Farm produced a radiance kit that’s composed of a nourishing soap, brightening toner, hydrating essence, and cream which all harness the potential of mushrooms. 

Zoe Eco Farm also has a product that’s made with mushroom extract and virgin coconut oil to help improve the symptoms of skin disorders by moisturizing and soothing the skin. 

Because of their bid to find a more holistic approach to helping people in low-income communities, Nieto and Malto ventured into mushroom farming. They were able to provide jobs to these individuals and equip them with both knowledge and technology so they can someday pursue their own paths, be it in farming or something else. 

For more information, visit Zoe Eco Farm on Facebook.

Photos courtesy of Ezekiel Nieto