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Agriculture - 2021-09-01

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Cover Story

BY YVETTE TAN

Teraoka Family Farm is an organic vegetable farm in Pangasinan that supplies households and restaurants with organically certified produce. Dacones, then 27, started the farm in 2014, after working for three years in Japan. “Farming is not looked down upon there,” he says. “And I think there’s so much potential in the Philippines.” He started growing lettuce on a 500 meter plot on a hobby farm his grandfather started in the early 90s, starting small because there would be less chances of failing, especially since he had put up most of the capital. His first crop was lettuce, which he laughingly recalls was a failure because instead of taking root and growing, ants ended up carrying away the seeds instead. “Working in Japan gave me that never give up attitude to always do your best in order for you to progress. I kept on trying, failing every day, learning new things,” he says. Starting a farm wasn’t easy, and convincing people that farming would be a viable livelihood was a challenge in itself. “People didn’t believe it would work for me since farming was thought of as a dirty job,” Dacones says. “I wanted to prove them wrong because for me, it’s a noble thing to do. People have to eat. Who would feed people without farmers? Who would contribute to food security in the Philippines if it weren’t for the farmers? That’s the reason I tried to get into farming.” Undaunted, he continued, this time enlisting the help of his uncle, a member of the Federation of Free Farmers in Tarlac, who taught him the basics of natural farming. “His main thing was it will always start from the soil,” Dacones says. “That’s the main thing we do on the farm—we always condition our soil to make it healthy and give back whatever it gives us. That has always been our practice.” FARMING IS A BUSINESS Soon, his 500 square meter plot became 1,000 square meters, until Dacones was running the whole farm. After successfully growing different salad vegetables, Dacones realized he had a new problem—where to sell his produce. “I tried going to the market and people were offering to buy it from me at P3 per kilo. That changed my life because why give it to someone who doesn’t appreciate what you do? Why not give it to people who actually care about it? That was my task: to prove to the farmers that there’s money in farming—not just relying on local traders but to find a market that actually appreciates your produce.” Dacones tapped his city friends for contacts in the restaurant industry who were looking for a steady supply of organic produce. One of his first customers was a major coffee and tea chain. “We were able to grow fast from that. We started expanding our farm because they needed a big quantity,” he says. There were new challenges as well. “We had to process it to be ready to eat, so when it goes straight to the stores, it’s clean. Whatever profit we earned, we used to expand the farm to show there’s money in farming,” he says. Everything paid off. Soon, “we had more clients or customers approaching us than us approaching them. That’s how we started growing.” CERTIFICATION AND ACCREDITATION For Dacones, getting certified was an integral part of Teraoka Farm’s business strategy. They are an accredited ATI extension service provider for the region, which means they can conduct seminars and training sessions as an extension service for ATI. The farm is a TESDA accredited learning center, conducting the National Competency Program for Level 2 NC2 for Agricultural Farming, among other seminars, and is also a DOT-accredited Farm Tourism site. They are also applying for organic certification and are part of the PGS Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) core group of their region. PGS is an organic certification system under the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) that allows farmer groups to set their own organic certification standards. They also hold seminars for hobbyists or and people who want to start farms. How did they do all this? “My family members started joining in and started helping out. My parents are handling the school and my brother stepped in to help me run the production,” Dacones explains. “I’m happy because I have a lot of the load taken off me.” Dacones has been getting recognition for his endeavors. He represented the Philippines in the ASEAN Young Business Leaders Initiative in New Zealand and was Gawad Saka Organic Farmer of the Year in 2018. He regularly speaks about his farm experience to encourage the youth to go into agriculture. Teraoka Family Farm has also been awarded Best Family Farm by the local government. A VARIETY OF PRODUCE The farm is currently focusing on four high-value crops—leafy greens like romaine and green ice lettuce, fairytale eggplants, kale, and Japanese cucumber. They also have specialty produce like kohlrabi and a lot of indigenous crops such as kamias, sampaloc, santol, sineguelas, balimbing, and duhat. “We like seeing how Filipino cuisine is being more recognized internationally. We want to focus on the ingredients, mostly local, Dacones says. Teraoka also grows heirloom crops—fruit and veg our grandparents used to consume that most people don’t recognize today such as kamias ( Averrhoa bilimbi), sineguelas ( Spondias purpurea), and balimbing ( Averrhoa carambola). Visitors who dine in the farm are treated to Ilocano dishes featuring many vegetables both farmed and foraged in the area. These include nilaga with malunggay fruit, pinakbet with alukon ( Allaeanthus glaber), and wild ampalaya and ensaladang gurgurmot ( Gracilaria verrucosa), a local seaweed. PIVOTING DURING THE PANDEMIC The high quality and vast variety of local and international crops planted on the farm made Teraoka Family Farm a regular supplier to high end restaurants in the metro, with a few household clients on the side. This model changed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the first quarter of 2020, when quarantine measures were put in place to mitigate the spread of the virus. “We’ve been focusing more on the end users since restaurants started ordering smaller quantities due to protocols and everything during the pandemic,” Dacones says. Instead of the expected drop in clientele, Dacones saw an increase in customers as his business reached a new and wider market. He also partnered with an on-demand supermarket operated by the leading rider platform in the country. “...it’s more catering to everyone, making organic produce cheaper... and that’s always been my platform,” he says. Another interesting thing about shifting to mosty home-based clientele is that the demand for specialty produce has increased. “...people have been looking for produce that they only find in... specialty restaurants or that’s not common in the market, so we’ve been focusing on growing specialty produce such as mizuna, wild arugula and stuff like different colored cherry tomatoes which they only can find in fine dining... restaurants,” Dacones relates. The farm continues to grow seasonal indigenous crops, which Dacones has been trying to popularize ever since he began his farming journey, and which has been most popular with chefs, but has been seeing a growing interest from home cooks looking to expand their repertoire as well. “...we focus on the seasons, like alukon ( Alleaenthus luzonicus)… kadios ( Cajanus cajan), stuff like that. It really depends on the season when it’s available because people hardly see it now in the supermarket so that’s something we offer also on our platform,” he adds. Another crop that’s been seeing a boom in consumption is bamboo. “...we sell a lot of our bamboo shoots to the Chinese community. We have good bamboo shoots, or labong.. we give it freshly cut and it’s been a hit lately,” Dacones says. “We’ve been doing a lot of that, giving stuff that they haven’t seen or they haven’t tried yet.” Though, like all businesses, working with necessary quarantine regulations was a struggle at first, Teraoka Family Farm eventually found its footing. “We didn’t have a problem with the whole pandemic because food is essential. It’s a necessity. Everyone needs food so what’s nice is we were able to sustain the farm during the pandemic and don’t have to let go of anyone,” he relates. The farm school had to shut down to adhere to necessary quarantine protocol, but will be opening again as soon as it is safe. Dacones shares that TESDA has given them more slots, which means they can train more people interested in starting their own farming journey. At almost a decade of operations, Dacones remains dedicated in making sure that Teraoka Family Farm continues to provide clients with quality produce while ensuring that its employees are adequately compensated for their dedication and effort. “What keeps me motivated is whenever… I see how happy [customers] are with the produce… it encourages me to grow better stuff, and it pushes me to keep on moving despite… challenges like the weather, logistics, and lack of government support sometimes,” Dacones says. “It’s more seeing how happy people are with their produce that keeps us growing new stuff or just keep on growing.” INDUSTRY WISH LIST While Teraoka Family Farm has managed to do very well, Dacones has a wish list of things he hopes to see in the industry, and a lot of it has to do with data. “I’d love to see a standardized price list for crops, like a structure where farmers can base their crops on the seasons,” he enumerates. “Aside from the seasons, a database to prevent oversupply of products or growing the same crops, which leads to rocket low prices.” Data is an important factor in crop planning and harvest projections, yet this is something sorely lacking in the local industry. “Because we lack the information, there’s no structure. We’re working practically on our own. I want to have a database or framework where we could base or get information to prevent all of these things like oversupply, or standardized prices for crops, so that we won’t always be on the losing side,” Dacones says. “I just want farmers to stop being on the losing side and uplifting the image of a Filipino farmer.” Teraoka Family Farm has been able to thrive despite these setbacks, and Dacones plans to keep on going. “I love seeing things start from something small grow into something beautiful,” he says. “Feeding people, seeing their faces appreciating what you did. It’s more than enough to make me keep on going.” He hopes that more people will consider farming as a viable career choice, reasoning that there is so much need to fulfil that every new farmer is considered an ally, not competition. “Hopefully we could encourage more farmers, especially the younger generation, to try to get into farming—I mean, there’s always room for more people to get into agri,” he says. “Food will never be enough. We always keep on growing, so I would love to see more people get involved in agriculture because I think that’s also the key to a sustainable country.”

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