A Sense of Humus

We just capped a weekend workshop of backyard farming. There we were, mostly urban dwellers raised on store-bought vegetables and Chippy. We were out in the sun for practical work. I had warned them about hats and garden boots but the urban dwellers fancied sneakers or sandals, an umbrella and Rayban sunglasses. We gawked at the farmers with their shovels of earth. They layered the compost pit with dried-up leaves and horse poop like lasagna. A flabby milk-white worm wriggled out of the compost that was supposedly every farmer’s manna from heaven.

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Someone blurts out: “What’s that? Someone replies: “A snake?”

They were probably wondering how on earth they were going to build the same biodynamic compost in their backyard. It entails hours of stirring a pail of water to the infinity sign, months of watching the lasagna turn to mush, and keeping the pit moist until it smells like the earth after a rain. And that’s merely the compost.

A couple tried their hand at breaking and turning soil. “Use your left foot! Not too deep! Not there!” the spectators gave counsel, their arms defiantly folded over the chest. A volunteer protests: “But it looked so easy when you (the farmer) were doing it!”

When you grow up in the city, you tend to have an idealized notion of farming. It’s the man with a cowboy hat and, in our tropical world, wearing slippers. It’s a life of rolling plains, of sowing, of having nature take its course, and of one day harvesting a row of lettuce heads and rosemary. It is pastoral and slow paced. You read a book with a cup of coffee until your seeds germinate and the flowers wake up.

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Now you have a weekend of theory and an hour or so under the sun and you see it is neither pastoral nor slow. You’re not just reading a book with coffee, you’re trying to grasp every plant and why peppers won’t thrive where you live. You’re sensing the woolly bug and keeping up with his life story. Farming is abuzz and fierce. You have a trillion things thriving, multiplying and dying: bacteria and microbes, bugs and earthworms, aphids and leaf miners, and in the midst all these- a tiny sprout that’s trying to break free. And then intensify that with the mighty elements, the phases of the moon, the unrelenting rain, and humus that you need to keep alive.

You now understand why some farmers will snap up a magic pill. It gives them twice or thrice the yield with a flick of the wrist. They wouldn’t have to dig pits and layer it up to their waists. There’s no getting down on their knees to cover beds with mulch, or to line it with canals. They don’t have to wait for ladybugs to visit and eat aphids. They don’t have to lose sleep over holes or black spots, as they can pellet disease with pesticide spray. They don’t have to agonize over what to plant, where, or when. 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 (and taste) like plastic every time. IMG_5598

(Except that a year hence, the patch of ground that bequeathed the bumper crop is half-dead and needs a cocktail of chemicals to keep alive. And the bugs have borne bugs resistant to poison, which are back with a vengeance. The farm goes bald losing precious topsoil. The water is tainted. And, as the beds lose its hold on water and minerals, all manner of life- the microbes, the worm, the bugs, the birds, the bees, take exodus. The handful of dirt is no longer teeming with life. It’s just a handful of dirt.)

And so you begin to appreciate the drudgery and toil of growing food, and doing it without magical formulas and cure-all sprays. You catch sight of farming, and how, from compost to a first crop, it is a way of life. The devoted farmer is far more than a man with a cowboy hat. Farming seeks out those who delight in humus, the smell of dung or rotten peels, and invisible things that may one day poke their heads from down below. It seeks out those who can be intimate with the intangible, with the forces that sprout seeds and make flowers bloom. The select few who get down on their knees digging, weeding, picking grubs, praying for sun and fearing too much rain. The handful that choose backbreaking labor over a magic pill, just so they can keep the earth alive. Especially, you see how all these hours end at the farm gate dependent on a market that does not fully appreciate working with the land. On a market that insists on temperate crops in a tropical country. On consumers who pressure farmers to grow the most difficult vegetable, and then frown at its commensurate variable in price.

I do not know much about the work at our farm. I often just behold the fruits of the harvest, in crates, each tomato wrapped in banana leaves. Except that a weekend of backyard farming has given me a glimpse of how the crate gets to my farm store, and the toil needed so I could earn a living from working with the land.

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I see you now. And this girl who grew up buying vegetables at the supermarket will now pause and give grace before every meal. Especially because you opted for backbreaking labor over a magic pill, and still managed to keep your sense of humus.

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Backyard Farming Workshop

Backyard Farming Workshop

Backyard Farming Workshop

Building a Raised Bed with Pallets

We have been harvesting tomatoes, peppers and eggplant from our front yard. We grow these crops in raised beds.

If you have a some soil where you live, the best way to grow food is to plant using a raised bed.

What is a raised bed? It is nothing but a bottomless construction with soil like a sandbox.  Raised beds give you the following advantages:

  • Provide you with rich soil allowing your vegetables to grow healthier
  • Easier to weed
  • Fewer pests
  • Drains quickly
  • Plants are protected from pets (and kids)
Pallets

Pallets

How do you make a raised bed?

1. Find the space for it. You should have plenty of soil and sunlight (6 hours of sun.) It should be narrow enough so you can reach all of it from all sides. If you have enough space, you can have multiple beds. If you do, leave some room in between for a pathway.

2. The height of your bed should be from 1 to 2 feet. We use 4×8 rectangles.

3. Use anything for the walls that will stand up to water. We use pallets. These are discarded tomato crates, which we have in abundance.

You can use slates, scrap wood, or sustainably harvested wood. Now build a box. Any kind of construction of a walled enclosure will suit your purpose for a vegetable bed. The box will have four posts for the corners and you affix the wooden boards to the post.

If you are building using pallets, break the pallets and reassemble them with 4 planks side by side.  Affix the 4 planks to make the sides of your bed. You do this by placing 4 planks side by side and then using another plank as a base at the back. We used No. 2 nails to nail the plank to the base.  Leave an inch or so of the base board protruding so you can use this to bury the assembled planks (fence) to the soil.  We kept the fence steady by burying it a little deep and by supporting it with a cement brick on the outer side.

This might help if you’re buying lumber:

Planks assembled together

Planks assembled together

6 pcs. 2”x8” boards, eight feet long. Leave four as is for the sides, and cut two in half for the ends

1 pc. 4”x4”, six feet long. Cut into 4 equal parts.

4. Make sure to poke or break the soil where your bed goes a little.

5. Fill the bed with good soil. We combine the soil from our with biodynamic compost we have saved. If you do not have your own compost, buy the best soil you can afford. It is crucial that your beds have good soil. This will determine the health of everything you will grow in it. Fill the bed all the way up to the top.

4. We cover our beds with aviary netting to keep out our native hens and dogs. We just used long sticks on four corners of the bed to hold the netting in place.

Raised beds using pallets

Raised beds using pallets

5. You are then ready to plant. We start our seeds indoors in a nursery until they sprout. We then keep them in the nursery until the true leaves appear and are looking sturdy.

Seed Bank

“Seeds are more valuable than guns and bullets. –Lucinda Bailey a.k.a. The Seed Lady”

She might be right. Whether it be war or a disaster, seeds may be more valuable than guns and bullets. You can feed your family with seeds you have sown, or with a small patch of vegetables nearby. I still remember the last calamity. Entire communities were going hungry, cut off from the rest of the world. What if they had a homestead, or a community garden nearby?

We ought to start saving seeds. Call it survival packets.

Cherry TomatoSeed saving is an age-old practice. Traditionally, farmers would select the most robust and disease-resistant plants and then save the seeds during a season. With the advent of hybrid seeds however, farmers have stopped the practice of saving their own seeds. This is because seeds harvested from hybrid plants produce seedlings that are unlike and inferior to the parent seed. Also, most of the seeds you purchase are treated with fungicides.

Our small farm has started a seed bank. (Biodynamic practices require the use of untreated seed. One way to ensure that seeds are not treated is by saving the seeds yourself.) We bank on heirloom seeds that are open pollinated. These are seeds that have been handed down and successfully cultivated for generations. A vegetable variety can be considered an heirloom once it has been cultivated for over fifty years. Heirlooms have a different flavor. We have heirloom seeds for tomatoes, eggplant, and some varieties of corn. We even have seeds for purple corn, a locally adapted variety that we got from individual farmers. Heirloom seeds reward us with better tasting produce. Unlike the hybrid varieties, heirlooms can be saved and replanted every year. (Hybrid varieties require planting new seeds every year.) Additionally, heirloom seeds adapt to the location over time and what you have are resilient seeds that will grow abundantly where you are. They are more resistant to disease or to harsh weather.

Heirlooms

We’re looking to save more and more varieties of heirloom vegetables, flowers and herbs. We’re trying to find and collect heirloom varieties and then grow these on site. And then we collect seeds when they are fully ripe and dry.  Easy seeds to collect are from tomatoes and beans. As our climate becomes more erratic, seeds that have been passed down, adapted to our soil, and grown resilient over time, will thrive and produce better crops.

Saving seeds gives us the means to grow our own food. It is the key to food sovereignty because you know how to get food and exactly where it comes from.  A huge chunk of the seed market is already controlled by big companies like Monsanto and Bayer.  These seeds are treated with pesticides, herbicides or are even genetically-modified. If you are able to save your own heirloom, local, open pollinated variety seeds, you are able to replant and regrow them every year, without being dependent on the big companies that patent and control hybrid varieties.

To Everything There is a Season

What happens now, when farmers have lost the rhythm of the seasons? When there is no longer a time for everything: to plant; and to pluck what has been planted? And what happens when farmers give up on the land?

Every year for the last 20 years, we had sown seeds on December and then harvested a predictable volume on February.  It was perfectly orchestrated. The plants would shoot up, bud, and then burst forth in blossom for Valentine’s Day.  There was a season for everything: a time to plant; a time to pluck up what is planted.

Except this year. Up until February, our farmers were still waiting for the flowers to bloom.  By then, we had lost half of our harvest to the unusual cold.  The dependable season of wet and dry had gone awry. For the first time in 20 years, clouds blanketed the sun for days. And the cold lingered.  Before that, farms had to take on the epic winds of Pablo and Yolanda, or the torrential rains of Sendong.

The changing climate.  You hear about melting ice caps and rising sea levels and yet there’s very little said about agriculture.  You trust nature will find a way.  And perhaps, if there was a threat to agriculture, it wasn’t going to put farmers at risk soon.

Except that climate change doomsday for farmers is already here.

Extreme weather. And not only that, extreme AND unpredictable as well.  Mindanao, the country’s breadbasket, the fortunate south that used to be spared from storms, that is where our farm is. With the shifting weather patterns, we now have to bear the full brunt of storms.  You give all you’ve got for one planting cycle, extreme weather visits, and it’s pfft to 3 months of farming.  Toss in the changing rhythm of seasons and we could no longer foresee warmth or rain.  We previously timed sowing and harvesting to nature’s cycle of wet and dry. Except that the only predictable thing these last few years is that of torrential rains and violent winds. Everything is just up in the air!

DSC_7754What about small family farms everywhere?  The farmers plant for weeks. Wait for weeks. Weed, water, and reap. They are cash strapped and fall prey to usurious financiers who lend at high interest rates.  They enter into contracts with onerous traders who snatch up their crops at rock bottom prices.  They are beholden to landlords, financiers, and traders, working on land that’s quite often not theirs.  Except now they also have to weather the likes of Pablo, Yolanda and Sendong, and bank on a temperamental Mother Nature.  It is no wonder we have aging farmers.  Who wants serfdom, muscle and sweat, with almost nothing at the farm gate? They would rather go to the city and sit on a desk.

Drought and rain.  At the wrong time. Crops that wither or wash out. And famine or food prices that soar to record highs.

Perhaps it is none of your affair.  The poor vulnerable farmer, at the mercy of an extremely erratic Mother Nature. Who cares? You can enjoy the unusual cold with a cup of cocoa, or the hot day with a summer salad.

Except. It is this poor vulnerable farmer who actually supplies you the cacao that makes you hot chocolate. It is the poor vulnerable farmer who tends to the lettuces and carrots that make your salad. And when your farmer is not secure, the food on your table is not secure either.  You can only reap what they sow.

Salad Leaves

 

Far removed from the seed, the sprout, the produce that magically settles on our plate, we take farming for granted. We cannot appreciate the daily grind of the farmer who works the land.  We cannot grasp the medley of earth, nature, seasons and the farmer that bestows us fruit, flower, vegetable and grain. And because we can buy the fruit, the salad, and the rice at ease, in nice packages at the supermarket, we forget that it takes at least three months of industry to get anything from seed to plant.

“This magical, marvelous food on our plate, this sustenance we absorb, has a story to tell. It has a journey. It leaves a footprint. It leaves a legacy. To eat with reckless abandon, without conscience, without knowledge; folks, this ain’t normal.” –Joel Salatin

What happens now, when farmers have lost the rhythm of the seasons?  When there is no longer a time for everything: to plant; and to pluck what has been planted? And what happens when farmers give up on the land? 

Multiple Cropping, a Mitigation Strategy

The doomsday scenario for agriculture and food security has arrived. The climate is already changing. Along with mitigation strategies that would take the edge off doomsday, farmers will now have adapt to the changing seasons and the shifting weather that is already here.

More than these, we have to recognize that the unusual cold and the impending hot summer means more than just buying a scarf or air conditioning.  Extreme and unpredictable weather will hit us at the dinner table. Aside from our annual saga of waist-water floods and relief packs, climate change will threaten the food on our table. We all have a responsibility towards the land, the people who grow our food, and what we consume. This vulnerable country, our poor farmers, and our insecure food system will be hit the hardest. It is hard hit already. And we are running out of time.

“The average person is still under the aberrant delusion that food should be somebody else’s responsibility until I’m ready to eat it.” –Joel Salatin

Backyard Farming Workshop this August

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BackyardSeriesSchedule

VENUE
The workshop will be held at the beautifully rustic Pavilion located beside a family farm at Fun Farm Pavilion, Sta. Elena Golf and Country Estate, Barrio Malitlit, Sta. Rosa, Laguna

FROM SLEX / SOUTHBOUND: Exit Cabuyao / Sta Elena. After tollgate, make a right. About 500 meters is the Sta. Elena Village Gate. Enter there and follow the sign to the Fun Farm.

FROM TAGAYTAY/STA ROSA ROAD: Make a left into Sta. Elena City (it is before Nuvali). You will pass Fontamara homes, Mesa Homes, Augusta, then you will reach Georgia Club Rotonda. Make right at the Rotonda. It is a long road. You will see walled communities such as Belle Reve on the right. At the end of the road is another Rotonda, make a left. Follow the long road until you see the Sta. Elena gate on your right. Enter and follow the sign to the Fun Farm.

PUBLIC TRANSPORT: Take the bus to Balibago, then take a tricycle ride from Sta. Rosa exit (tricycle terminal) to Sta. Elena City.

MEALS: All meals are included in the workshop fee. Healthy yet scrumptious meals made of local, organic or sustainable ingredients will be served by Pizza Morena by Jenny Burns. Please bring your own water bottles, plates and utensils. If you have any food allergies or preferences, please inform us so that we can discuss how your food needs can be met.

PAYMENT OPTIONS
Workshop Fees
Daily Basis: P2400 per day
P1800 Students/Seniors
Complete Entire Series (3 days)
Discounted Rate P7,000
Students/Seniors P5600

*Scholarships are available.  We have installment options too.

Fee includes
• Professional lecturers and experts in their field
• All course materials
• Healthy and delicious lunch, tea, coffee and water

Backyard Farming Workshop Series

Backyard Farming Series

Backyard Farming Series