Well Grounded: Hindy Weber and Melanie Teng Go
A soft breeze carries the scent of wildflowers and growing crops toward the wooden benches under the shade of a huge mango tree. Gentle beams of the late afternoon sun peek through the leaves, dancing across fat bunnies and a pot-bellied pig devouring green vegetables and his favorite tomatoes.
A platter of caramelized bananas and a pitcher of chia seed-infused fresh guyabano juice entices as the laughter of children watering their own garden patches carries over the fence from the school next door.
But reality hits. The bucolic scene is only a small part of every day farm life. There’s a nip in the air… Can it be signaling a looming storm? The golden warmth of the sun has been welcome, without the usual heavy rains that ruin the crops this time of year.
And then there’s the dread of having to collect animal manure, to use as compost for soil, and having to read more and more about biodynamic farming techniques and what else to do to help improve people’s relationship with food because that’s what it takes to make a difference as a modern farmer.
Hindy Weber is one half of the dynamic duo behind Holy Carabao Holistic Farm, which employs natural, organic, and biodynamic farming techniques to produce indigenous vegetables, culinary and medicinal herbs, and livestock. Hindy says they are acutely aware of every little thing, from the wind, the birds chirping, the crawling critters, the soil, the water, their carabao, pigs, goats, bunnies, all the way to the farmers themselves.
She says that at Holy Carabao, they realize that the whole farm is a living organism and there’s a divinity to every aspect. It’s a wonderland that makes them feel so privileged to be a food grower. She says it’s not always easy, but when she’s on the farm, no matter how troubled or stressed she is, she feels like life is still exactly as it should be. And then automatically, she feels nothing but gratitude.
As with most farms that practice “beyond organic” techniques, Holy Carabao is built to have its own ecosystem that thrives without relying on artificial fertilizers, hormones, or chemicals employed by most of today’s commercial farming operations. Melanie Go, who began sustainable farming at her family’s Bukid Batulao in Nasugbu, Batangas, before partnering with Hindy at Holy Carabao three years ago, says they are growing crops while growing the soil on which they thrive. They are trying to mimic how the forest takes care of itself because they believe that when the farm is designed well and the proper techniques are employed, growing food can be effortless and efficient. They begin with caring for the soil and recognizing that each plant, each bird, each insect has a role to play in nature's grand design, says Melanie.
Today, her family’s Bukid Batulao is doing large-scale, diversifiedsustainable farming for Holy Carabao’s specialty produce requirements—growing herbs, salad vegetables, kale, and spinach, among others. Melanie says that as modern farmers, they are tasked to reconnect as many people as they can to the earth. They need to heal the land as they produce as much food as they can.
Hindy and Melanie say the biggest misconception about modern-day farming is that it cannot be done truly organic. It can be done for as long as farmers don’t get too impatient or greedy, says Hindy. At Holy Carabao, they are taking part in a mission. They help mothers who care about what they feed their kids. They want to grow food that Filipino families can trust. They work closely with chefs so they can have a real connection to the ingredients they use. They help simple farmers who have little resources and no market access. They develop real, basic connections with food and people. These two women are willing to take on what their mission entails, whether it is spending long hours under the sun, getting soaked in the rain, drilling newly manicured nails into the soil to check its moisture levels, or always having soiled boots or sneakers in the trunk, because along with the hardships of farming come the immeasurable joys. Like the mornings that start with long walks through the forest, admiring the new sprouts in their beds, or foraging for wild cucumbers and mushrooms. Or the New Moon potluck parties spent with neighbors in the middle of the farm with mats and pillows and acoustic music. Or simply the ordinary days that provide them with the rhythms and routines of their chosen vocation—meeting the farmers and planning their work days, visiting the commissary, checking on their pregnant carabao and the crops in the fields. Ah, beauty.
Home Is Where The Start Is: Paula Aberasturi
Paula Aberasturi’s obsession with wholesome food began after she had children. She began rummaging through markets to buy organic produce and products to give her family a healthier diet, but her pricey purchases eventually aroused the ire of her husband Nicolo, a farmer, who thought it was absurd to be paying for expensive food they could actually grow themselves.
So they moved to the countryside, to Sta. Rosa, Laguna, to a home on a plot of land of just 600 square meters, but which now grows about two tons of produce every year. They fill 10 trays of chicken eggs a week and compost over 10 tons of garbage. Their home is also home to 50 chickens, six rabbits, eight dogs, and countless ladybugs, earthworms, butterflies, birds, all sorts of creepy crawlies, the village owl, and even snakes. Sometimes, even turtles venture into their front yard.
There is a food garden, nurseries,worm bins, a chicken coop and chicken run, compost piles, and a rainwater catchment that is able to harvest and recycle 1,000 liters of rainwater. Their front yard, garage, and garden are planted with crops instead of ornamentals, with edible weeds like amaranth, pansit-pansitan, and tawatawa growing everywhere. Their canopies are of passion fruit, their hedges are turmeric and sambong, their front gate covered with climbing blue ternate flower, heirloom cherry tomatoes, and sitaw. Around the house are fruit teas laden with atis, star apple, banana, papaya, jackfruit, mango, and cacao. The hedge is a myriad of kadios, malunggay, sili, calamansi, and corn, with the nearby beds home to eggplants, okras, tomatoes, string beans, malunggay, kangkong, alugbati, and sili. Under the ground are root crops such as air potato and cassava, while in the nurseries grow the micro greens.
Paula says the beautiful moments are those that catch her outside time and space, where everything comes alive. Like when she’s out there trying to put some semblance of a garden into the tumble of weeds or when she sees their trees bursting with flowers. Or when she watches the pigs wallowing in their mud pools or her rowdy chickens and ducks having breakfast. Or that day when her seven-year-old daughter proudly declared that she will be a cowgirl when she grows up!
Paula finds joy in the small moments put together—waking up to a rooster crow, breathing in fresh air, working the land, and doing exactly what she loves every single day.
It wasn’t easy starting the farm.Before the plants bloomed and the chickens laid eggs, Paula says their garden pretty much looked like a series of burial mounds with nothing but dark soil and dead leaves.
Almost every structure in their homestead is built from recovered or salvaged materials, and Paula says it was hard work putting them together, from the discarded tomato crates used for sprouting seed and growing micro greens to the nesting boxes in their perching areas for the chickens to the hen house that was built using wood and bark sourced from around the village.
Paula says the roosters wake them up at five in the morning every day, an assuring sign of a brand new, beautiful day with fresh vegetables to harvest, eggs to collect, and products to pack for their farm store, but also a reminder that they have to check on their compost bin and gather the grass clippings, weeds, and food scraps, as well as the rabbit and chicken manure from their garden, and the horse dung from the neighboring horse farm to treat their soil and keep the biodynamic cycle of everything going.
Paula says there are days that she misses their old city life: the company and the nights out and the drinks; the convenience store just across the street; her legs smooth without bruises or bites; their windows left open without the fear of weird-looking creatures infesting their bedroom. Now, Paula is skilled at assembling rat traps and memorizing the lifecycles of mosquitoes.
Still, she won’t trade the privilege of having food straight from her own garden for unblemished legs.
Farming is constantly abuzz and fierce, says Paula. There are a billion things thriving, multiplying, and dying: bacteria and microbes, bugs and earthworms, aphids and leaf miners, and amid all these, there’s a tiny sprout that’s trying to break free. Everything is intensified by the mighty elements, the phases of the moon, the unrelenting rain, and the humus that is necessary for soil to stay alive.
Paula says she understands why many farmers choose the easy way, a bunch of sprays or chemical pesticides that will secure the harvest. They don’t have to agonize over what, where, when to plant. They don’t have to dig pits and layer them with humus, or get down on their knees to cover beds with mulch, or wait for ladybugs to visit to eat their aphids, or lose sleep over holes or black spots. There’s no brewing of manure, worm castings, or fish waste for tea compost. And without fail, they get shiny and plump vegetables that look—if not taste—like plastic every time.
But in a year, Paula says, that patch of land will be half-dead, requiring more chemicals to stay alive. The bugs will breed descendants resistant to pesticides, which will be back with a vengeance. The farm will succumb to erosion, losing precious topsoil. The water will be tainted from the chemicals, and as the beds lose their hold on water and minerals, the worms, the bugs, the birds, the bees will take flight. The handful of dirt will no longer teem with life. It will just be a handful of dirt.
And so Paula appreciates the drudgery of growing real food without cure-all sprays and chemical formulas all the more.
At the end of the day, Paula says that farming is all about patience, delayed gratification. It’s a long time between sowing the first seed and the seedlings creeping up. But the seemingly endless dance of nature gives a bounty of delectable gifts.
People And Produce: Bea Misa Crisostomo
Bea Misa Crisostomo
In farming, many are called but few are chosen. Know, however, that you can help sustain the earth and yourself without having to plant the seeds and toil yourself. You can be on the other end, rallying around producing and supporting sustainable food, as a part of the market that is aware of how farmers work with the land.
Like Bea Misa Crisostomo, who runs the eco-friendly lifestyle store Ritual, you can work directly with farmers for sourcing raw and finished materials to sell and helping them sell their produce. Or you can also help in community-based agriculture developments projects, where your knowledge can improve “last mile” conditions for ordinary farmers.
Bea supports the produce of local, organic farmers, who work the land for food first, trade second. She’s immersed herself enough in the trade to know not just the plants or the vegetables that grow but the people who grow them—who they are, what moves them, and why they do it.
Bea has been doing this for many years and realizes how real poverty is for many farmers. They work the land to earn from its bounty. In an ideal world, the modern farmer would sow and reap to feed his family at their own table. The excess produce, he would sell at the market and without having to short sell to the trader at the farm gate.
The reality is that many farmers do not have anything to fall back on. They have no social security or health insurance. One accident or illness and the farmers lose their homes, sell their property, pawn everything. They end up in debt. Sometimes they just disappear. The problem is basic and pervasive.
Bea says people can help by engaging with various farming communities through different groups already helping out farmers in terms of education, techniques, and business savvy. She works with the Youth for Sustainable Development Assembly, an NGO that promotes agriculture among the youth through training courses in ecopreneurship, resource management, ecotourism, community recycling, and sustainable agriculture among many others.
And while she is fortunate that she has her father’s urban farm in the middle of the city as her playground—with more than 50 fruit trees, lots of wild edibles, herbs, medicinals, two dogs, and a sheep—Bea still travels across farms around the country to meet other farmers personally to help fill in their gaps of knowledge.
Bea says she’s amassed a ton of fun life experiences she is saving to tell her son one day—the habal-habal ride that threw her off the road, the allergic reactions and intense itchiness she developed from harvesting crops, or the rotten chicken eggs she collected that exploded in her face.
Every day offers new memories to keep, lessons to learn, people to inspire. All the waiting involved in natural and biodynamic farming and the novel luxury of growing her own food has taught her more about patience than all her years in school. Farming is indeed about patience. But more importantly, it’s about changing lives.