Friday, October 28, 2016

Ato Belen's Farm: Ensuring the Survival of the Next Generation

San Pablo City, Laguna is a beautiful place where you can find many wonderful destinations. It is home to the famous seven lakes as well as farms that practice organic agriculture. Apart from Forest Wood Garden, which I wrote about recently, there's Ato Belen's Farm that's also located in the area.

Ato Belen's greenhouses where they grow various vegetables
Initially launched as a plant nursery and family farm in August 1987, Ato Belen's has since become a fully-integrated and diversified farming operation. Its advocacy is to promote family farming to ensure the survival of the next generation. It is still ran and managed by the Belen family where both parents and their five sons are all involved in decision-making when it comes to farm management.

with Brian and Sir Ato -- my OA Blogger Ako jacket blended in! :D
Brian Belen, one of Sir Ato's sons, is an Agri Business graduate from U.P. Los Baños who left the corporate world to help out with the family business in 2010. He shared with us their journey of selling seedlings and establishing an orchard 29 years ago; procuring and growing livestock (hogs, cows, goats, and ducks for making salted eggs) in 1989; and being devastated by Typhoon Milenyo in 2007, which uprooted majority of their rambutan trees.

fresh rambutan and salad made with organic veggies
Since one big area got cleared of trees, the family decided to make it a vegetable plantation and shifted to organic agriculture by feeding the soil with nutrients from the plants. "We formulated our own inputs like compost and liquid supplements," related Brian. "In agriculture, you don't only produce vegetables. You can also create inputs from them. And we found gold!"

some of Ato Belen's farm inputs
Presently, 50% of the farm's income is derived from the sales of farm inputs such as their bestselling Lactobac (which sanitizes animal units and removes the smell of ammonia), fish emulsion concentrate, compost/vermicast, and more. Brian affirmed that this part of the business is actually low risk, is not vulnerable to typhoons, and has lower management requirement.

He also shared with us one of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) advocacies -- a tea-making project for mothers in a resettlement site in Calauan, Laguna. Named Tsaa Laya (tsaa means tea while laya means freedom) the products were born out of a social enterprise that promotes health, ecology, and fair practices. 

successful container gardening
As we toured around the farm's 1.29 hectare main site/headquarters (they have a second site measuring 8.95 hectares), my companions and I were amazed at the numerous trees planted in different containers that were already bearing fruit at such short heights! I didn't expect to see citrus and tamarinds growing on trees that are only as tall as I am!

(from left) fruit bearing tamarind tree, sugarcane, and pepper vine
We also saw photos of vegetables and other fruit-bearing trees (that are currently not in season) with amazingly abundant produce. These advances in agriculture are a result of clever agricultural techniques such as asexual propagation where seedlings are matched with the top of an already fruit-bearing plant. When grafted, the tree can already produce fruit within five to six years versus the 15 to 20 years of waiting time if you simply planted a seed. Of course, the processed inputs from natural ingredients help in further enhancing growth.

the photos on the wall showed proof of the abundant produce at this farm
As to labor, four of the Belen family work at the farm on a full-time basis plus a total of 17 staff members (considered as 17 families) who are paid based on prevailing wage laws. "Our mission is to promote family-based and sustainable agribusiness enterprises as a vital tool for economic empowerment," illustrated Brian.

organic lettuce in one of the greenhouses
Ato Belen's also accommodate field trips where little kids are taught to do some planting so they would have a renewed appreciation for food. Before leaving, they are given planting kits that their parents could help them with at home and serve as a good bonding project. The farm has also welcomed foreign visitors like agri-technicians from Afghanistan and students from the Tokyo University of Agriculture

healthy seedlings for sale
The farm adheres to three dimensions of sustainable agriculture: environmental, economic, and social development. Thus, their vision is for a Philippines where no Filipino will ever go hungry again. But, as Brian said, we need to help uplift the lives of the farmers because they play a big role in all our lives. They are the ones, after all, who grow our food! 

used my finger to show just how big this pomelo is -- larger than my head!
So go to likewise find a renewed appreciation of how the food on your table came to be. Pay a visit to Ato Belen's Farm or one of the many organic farms we now have in the Philippines. I guarantee that you will leave each place with new learnings and a deeper love for agriculture. I did … every time! :)

For inquiries and other information about organic agriculture, please refer to the Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Training Institute (DA-ATI) website.

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