Plant. Survive. Pray.

The survival gardens program turned every available space in the city’s backyards into food-producing gardens.

BAGUIO CITY—It was an afternoon of a heavy downpour as Steve Abanag led me through a stone-paved stairway down to his backyard where he had his aquaponics garden.

The rain pounded on the plastic roofing of his unpretentious greenhouse where the water dripped through a few leaks, but the modest self-made structure has inspired many like projects, and Abanag is known in the agricultural department for his innovative aquaponics design.

It is quite a common story that a gardener would venture into organic farming out of personal health reasons, and for Abanag, it was two instances of food poisoning after eating out that made him decide to raise his own veggies.

When the electronic company he worked with closed some years back, Abanag turned to the Internet for some business ideas, which to date are roasted garlic bits, chili-garlic oil, honey under the brand name Hot Bee because he has both chili and honey products, the honey harvested from an apiary also in his backyard.

It was also the Internet that he turned to to start an organic garden and found the hydroponics method, but an agent told him this required more synthetic fertilizers and advised him to go into aquaponics instead.

“This is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics,” Abanag said. He went on to say that he started with a pail of fish and a box of styrofoam in 2016 and grew the project on a staggered basis, partly from the savings of his aquaponics project. “People who know about my organic produce come to purchase, like the teachers in two nearby schools, one the Lindawan High School.” In fact, these two schools already have aquaponics, which he helped set up at their request. Even happier, Abanag said that his water bed garden provides his family more than 50 percent of their vegetables and some tilapia, too.

Abanag’s aquaponics project started from just a pail of fish and a box of styrofoam on a single water bed.

Growing your own food is right along the alley of the Department of Agriculture. Reading through the writings of Agriculture Secretary William Dar, his heart for small farmers is evident, embracing basic techniques to modernization, giving them access to training, funding and other technical support that can possibly be handed to small-holding farmers.

Dar founded InangLupa to achieve some of his dreams for Philippine agriculture. “Founding InangLupa was also the way forward in sharing the vast experience, knowledge and wisdom I gained from heading Icrisat [International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics] for 15 years, and I knew that much needs to be done for Philippine agriculture so the country can eradicate poverty, and create more jobs and wealth,” he said.

In Dar’s book The Way Forward, under the section Smart Cities, aquaponics and home gardening were highlighted. Growing one’s own food must also be coming from memories of a childhood as he described in his book The Forgotten Poor, where his experience growing up in a farm remains vivid in his heart.

This sentiment finds no better meaningful context as in the Covid-19 issue on food security.  Access to food came to a crisis when travel and border restrictions were imposed, deliveries to markets were scheduled, and people were told to stay home. Farmers suffered, as seen in Facebook postings of their perishable goods thrown on roadsides and prices plummeting below production cost.

Ideas bloom in lockdown crisis

So too did many urban people suffer, and Dar’s vision on food for all came to play by encouraging households to keep backyard gardens during the pandemic. Lockdowns gave birth to Dar’s Plant, Plant, Plant project, which in turn inspired Baguio City to mount its Survival Gardens program—including rooftop, ground, vertical gardens and aquaponics that considered shortage of space in urban settings.

Steve Abanag pulls out an ashitaba plant from his aquaponics garden.

The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources-Cordillera (BFAR-CAR) is keen on promoting aquaponics in the region, giving support to both institutional and individual requests for a setup and for fingerlings. While it is to help food security and to increase incomes, it also supplements the fish protein requirement for the region, which understandably is insufficient given its mountainous terrain as compared to coastal areas. The need is even bigger in this pandemic, and the agency has a proposed budget of P2,750,000 to finance aquaponics for 2021.

At the BFAR-CAR grounds stand models of aquaponics using the nutrient film technique where water from a fish tank is passed through a filtration system then pumped into PVC pipes with holes drilled on top where the plants are grown. It can be set up on walls or hung from ceilings in places without much ground space.

Abanag’s aquaponics reflects how he experimented with the media-based system, where he has tomatoes, gabi, cucumber and even a papaya tree dug into stones a foot deep and submerged in water. But about eight or 10 of his aquaponics beds are of the floating raft or deep-water-culture type with improvised material of styrofoams that were once grape containers with holes cut on top from where he has his plants growing. The foams floating on one-foot-deep water are weighed down with water-filled one-liter plastic soda containers.

Abanag has four fish tanks that accommodate about 300 tilapia fingerlings to grow. He said that the water from the fish tanks passes through a net to filter waste, then goes to the water beds where nutrients from ammonia are converted into nitrates which the plants absorb, and the water is then pumped back into the fish tanks. It is a symbiotic system, Abanag explained, because too much ammonia, if trapped in the tanks, would otherwise result in a fish kill. “It’s pretty much like a home aquarium system,” he said.

It was quite a thrill to see the wide varieties of plants Abanag was growing in his garden. Lettuce, pechay, strawberries, kale, among others. I marveled at the long roots of ashitaba that he pulled out of its styrofoam hole to show me. “A cousin gave me some seedlings and I tried to experiment if it would thrive well in the water,” he said. He added that it may no longer grow on ground if transferred as matured plants. One bed with kangkong (water hyacinth) plants had goldfish that Abanag is propagating as a hobby. “I found that goldfish don’t like eating the kangkong roots, unlike other plants,” he said. There is also a water bed covered with a carpet of emerald colored azolas which he feeds his fish with.

It is the simplicity of his backyard project that has actually served as an inspiration to some of his neighbors and nearby towns, seeing how doable and productive aquaponics can be. Impressed by his endeavor of establishing an aquaponics project starting from just a pail of fish and a single water bed, the Agricultural Training Institute (ATI) under the DA gave him a little funding in 2017 to set up a modest greenhouse.

And this is what the DA-CAR is intensely doing in this time of the pandemic, giving every bit of support to every household to grow their own food.

Survival Gardens

To help solve the problem of access to food, Secretary Dar came up with his Plant, Plant, Plant project. In turn this gave Baguio City the idea of Survival Gardens, where individuals and households are provided with vegetable seeds that they can sow and grow in their own backyards. Survival Gardens was implemented almost a week or two after a lockdown was declared in March with a budget of over P84,750 for seed distribution, which was supplemented with another P151,700 as the program gained popularity.

The project was handled by the City Veterinary and Agriculture Office with significant support from the DA-CAR and the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI). Dr. Brigit Piok, head of the City Veterinary Office, said the project was a success with all 128 barangays in the city participating. They had seeds distributed to 4,000 recipients from March to December 2020.

As envisioned by Dar, the project also became a way to have residents separate their biodegradable kitchen waste for their compost. “This reduces foul smell and pressure on landfills where only residuals should be dumped. There will also be a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions because food scraps are also a source of methane emission from landfills,” he said in The Way Forward. He also noted that surface and ground water are protected because leachates are minimized or eliminated with segregation.

Survival Gardens became a family activity as well, getting many youth involved in planting, an advocacy also close to Dar’s heart. In fact, his Plant, Plant, Plant program embraced many of his basic dreams for agriculture.

Eventually, gardening also proved to be a therapeutic approach in raising the spirits of residents in the city where despondency was slowly creeping in due to loss of income, feelings of isolation and anxiety brought about by the fear of getting infected with Covid-19, for as many have said, there is indeed a feeling of happiness, almost divine, in watching a plant grow from seed to plant.

The sweeping fever to plant may be attributed to Dar’s Plant, Plant, Plant concept, as they were not mere words but had actual support. DA-CAR, according to Regional Director Cameron Odsey, established demo sites and online training for vegetable production and chicken raising, models for aquaponics, provided seeds and fertilizers, among other services, to help households have direct access to food. In the city alone, DA-CAR since March last year, aside from livestock and chickens, has so far distributed 862.7 kg of seeds to 15,491 individuals. No wonder the fever has swept across the city, from executives to housewives, seniors and the young. This eventually gave way to the phenomenon of plantitas and plantitos, now a big business in the city. But that’s another story.

Survival Gardens in 2020 was capped by a contest that selected 93 participants from the barangays. Their scrapbooks paint the happy success story of the program.

Amelia Montes won under the container category of the contest. Her scrapbook showed her harvests of a variety of beans, lettuce, arugula, corn, squash, spinach, kangkong, and colorful ornamental plants and orchids grown in plastic gallon containers and placed on her rooftop or her limited garden space. She also showed pictures of her young granddaughter transferring seedlings to pots. Her produce not only feeds her family, but she also has a little sold and shared with friends.

“Composting and making concoctions are my favorite sustainable gardening practices,” she said. She makes her own fermented plant juice and fish amino acid to give nutrients to her plants. She also keeps catnip and dora plants to keep plant-eating insects away. She has a simple rain-harvesting device and an improvised water purifier using stones. She also entertains herself by painting her hanging plastic pots into scary faces to keep birds away.

Veronica Mat-an and her husband, meanwhile, took the grand prize for ground gardening. Their scrapbook also showed second cropping from seeds taken from plants grown from seeds originally given by the DA-CAR. Their garden continues to produce pechay, a variety of beans, kale, amaranth, onion leeks, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, spinach, bitter gourd, cucumber, strawberries, gabi, bottle gourds, squash, and many others with most of the seeds given by the DA-CAR.

Marcelina Tabilin, agriculturist at the City Veterinary and Agriculture Office, said they are heartened by the success of the Survival Gardens program and will find ways to continue it. She is now monitoring how many of the participants continue to maintain their vegetable gardens.

Agriculture and markets have somewhat returned to normal; but then again, the virus keeps the population wary of yet impending lockdowns that may spell another crisis in food security. Fortunately, Dar’s outlook through his Plant, Plant, Plant program has given confidence that food can just be grown in your own backyard. “My aim is to develop a love for planting in everyone and that growing one’s food is good for the health and the spirit,” he once said in an interview.

And Montes and Mat-an tell us that their stories can easily be the story of one and all.

Image credits: Baguio City vegerinary and Agriculture Office, Marilou Guieb

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