AGRIBUSINESSCOMMUNITYCROPSFEATURED FARMER

Former teacher becomes her area’s first hydroponic lettuce farmer

Emie Estialbo is a former teacher who found joy and profit as a hydroponic farmer after she lost her job during the pandemic.

Many industry insiders rightfully lament the need for young people to engage in agriculture. As this lady proves, farming can be attractive to the younger generation as long as they see that they can earn a good living from it.

Emie Estialbo, 25, is the proud owner of Hydroponically-Grown Lettuce (HGL) farm, a 120 sqm farm in Capiz that, like its name says, grows hydroponic lettuce.

Before becoming a farmer, Estialbo was a licensed teacher who taught kindergarten and high school. After losing her job during the pandemic, she began helping her parents on their family farm. “They grow and sell corn, rice, and a variety of vegetables,” she says in Tagalog.

Even though she was raised by two farmers, Estialbo admits that she never thought she’d end up in the same industry. “My father wanted me to have a stable job in the government,” she shares. “I never thought I’d return to agriculture.”

Emie Estialbo is a former teacher who found joy and profit as a hydroponic farmer after she lost her job during the pandemic.

The family farm is located on land whose main problem is its unstable climate, particularly during the rainy season, when it becomes flood prone. “I noticed that when it floods, our crops die and we’re back to zero,” Estialbo says.

She consulted with Muneer Hinay of Kids Who Farm, a non-profit organization that teaches urban farming to women and youth, for ideas on how to solve this problem. Estialbo had met Hinay a few years before when the latter was in the area for a project. “Sir Monci introduced me to hydroponic farming where, because it’s [above ground], it can’t be reached by the floodwaters,” she shares.

READ: Father and daughter put up an organization to teach Mindanao youth the basics of urban gardening

Hinay also encouraged the budding farmer to join the Department of Agriculture’s Kabataang Agribiz Competitive Grant, where Estialbo was chosen as one of the winners. She was given P50,000 as capital to start her farm. Estialbo used the prize money to buy materials for her hydroponic farm, which is located in a separate area on the family farm. “It was hard at first because it was difficult sourcing the materials [to build the hydroponic setup] because it’s not common in Capiz,” Estialbo shares.

One of the benefits of starting a hydroponic farm is that it is safe from flood waters during the rainy season.

HGL is the first hydroponics farm in the area. “We’ve started harvesting [last November 2021] and making money,” Estialbo says. “For now, [we just grow] lettuce but we also plan [to grow] other high value crops.”

Orders for Estialbo’s hydroponically grown lettuce have been increasing ever since she started harvesting. A secret to her success: the strategic use of social media. “The internet is super powerful,” she says. “I have a Facebook Page that I utilize for marketing.”

For now, almost everything is sold online. But Estialbo’s strategy is different. She doesn’t just tell followers what she was selling; she included her followers in her farming journey even before she harvested her first head of lettuce. “I posted about everything from the beginning,” she says. “It’s a small community, but they got to see how I established the farm and it got them interested [in my produce].”

Folks who followed her farming journey online found themselves invested in her story. They knew her struggles, and also knew how her lettuce was farmed. Knowing who the farmer was and how the crops were cultivated got them interested in buying her produce. “I’m very grateful because I have customers every day,” Estialbo says.

READ: Three tips on marketing your farm products on social media

Aside from annual flooding, another challenge Estialbo, like all vegetable farmers, faces is pests. But like all successful vegetable farmers, this is something she knows she has to live with. Another challenge is her farm’s proximity to supplies and customers. The nearest city is Roxas City, which is about 35-40km away. The nearest municipal market is 7-8km away. “We find solutions,” Estialbo says. At the moment, she personally delivers all the orders to her customers.

She is equally hands-on on the farm, though she does get a little bit of help from her parents. She remembers her first sale fondly. “Because of all the hardship you encounter in the beginning, the uncertainty of not knowing what’s going to happen, at the end of the day, after you’ve harvested and you have [so many] customers [that] run out of supplies, it’s a good feeling,” she says.

Estialbo uses banana leaves as pretty and sustainable packaging for her produce.

Estialbo has plans to expand her farm. “I want to cultivate more produce,” she says. “I want to collaborate with the private sector, NGOs, and the DA and sell my produce in a physical store.”  She’s on her way to fulfilling her dreams. Her hydroponically grown lettuce can now be bought at the Dao Public Market.

A lot of young people are deterred from going into agriculture because they think it is difficult and that they won’t be able to earn from it. Estialbo says that while farming can be difficult, especially at first, her experience is proof that it is possible to earn as a farmer, even a young one. “I’ve held my profits in my hands. I have a lot of orders, so it’s not true that there’s no money in it,” she says.

Her advice for people of any age who are considering giving farming a try is to try gardening in their own backyards first. “Try producing for their own dinner tables at first. Just from that, they’ll see that they’ll have saved money [and it can be easier to see] how they can make money as well.”

Before the pandemic, Estialbo never thought she’d voluntarily end up farming, or be happy and successful at it. But sometimes, life has a funny way of showing people where they can thrive. “I’ve learned a lot here,” Estialbo says. “It’s hard, but it’s also fulfilling during harvest season.”

One of the best parts of her farming experience: having discovered a way to circumvent the annual floods. “It flooded here one time but the waters didn’t reach my crops. It was a good feeling.”

Photos courtesy of Emie Estialbo

Find out more about Hydroponically Grown Lettuce Farm at https://www.facebook.com/hydroponicallygrownlettuce/

 

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Yvette Tan
Yvette Tan is Agriculture magazine's managing editor Agriculture.com.ph’s web editor. She is an award-winning writer who likes to eat, travel, and listen to stories about the strange and supernatural. She is dedicated to encouraging people to push for sustainable food sources and is an advocate of food security, food sovereignty, and the preservation of community foodways.

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