In 2005, Ronald and Josephine Costales decided to develop a plot of hilly land encompassing less than a hectare in Barangay Gagalot in the town of Majayjay, Laguna Province as a weekend getaway from their home in Sta. Rosa City, as well as a sustainable source of organic vegetables, fish, and livestock for the family table.

By Tony A. Rodriguez

Successful in attaining their initial objective, the couple ventured into the commercial growing of organic vegetables and fish in 2008, gradually expanding their farm’s area and eventually becoming the country’s biggest single producer of organically-grown high-value vegetables and culinary herbs. Eldest child Reden Mark, a De La Salle University-Dasmariñas, Cavite graduate, became farm manager. The youngest, Angelica, a student at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, served as marketing manager in her free time.

Visitors happily harvest lettuce for their breakfast salad and snacks in a growing area of the farm.

In early 2012, Costales Nature Farms’ total area reached five hectares because of acquisitions of neighboring land, and it was certified as an organic producer by the Negros Island Certification Services Inc. (NICERT), one of the country’s two Department of Agriculture (DA)-accredited organic certification bodies for Internal Control System groups and individual farmers nationwide. An organic certification is a way of assuring that the products consumers buy are safe from harmful chemicals.

The farm then worked for accreditation with the Department of Tourism (DOT) as a full-fledged agri-tourism destination—the very first in the country.

The Agri-Tourism Wave

Businesses, local governments, and national government agencies have begun looking more closely at a segment of the local tourism industry that has high growth potential and excellent prospects for spurring economic development in rural areas. That sector, which shows great promise as a profitable and sustainable enterprise for investors, is agri-tourism. Agri-tourism involves an agricultural operation or activity that draws visitors to a farm, ranch, or any natural site for outdoor recreation, education, shopping, food sampling, or even lodging.

It covers attractions, activities, services, and amenities, as well as other resources of the area, to promote appreciation of the local culture, heritage and traditions. It’s neither difficult nor very expensive to set up because farming is an integral aspect of Filipino culture. Farm or ranch operations can easily be given a new orientation, provisioned, and prepared to become agritourism activities—just look at the example of Costales Nature Farms.

Agri-tourism is becoming popular because many people now look to escape the hustle, bustle, and pollution of city life to get back to and enjoy nature. More and more people now have a growing interest in tasting fresh, naturally grown vegetables, fruits, fish, and meats, and in seeing how farmers produce their crops. Agritourists can enjoy the experience of a harvest and taste the fresh produce prepared using the local cuisine served in a highly refreshing farm ambience.

Region 7 Agricultural Training Institute (ATI) director Carol Daquio (second from right) and
members of her group from Central Visayas show the organic chicken eggs they gathered at a henhouse.

Developing Agri-Tourism in the Philippines

The agri-tourism concept began drawing attention in the Philippines more than two decades ago. In 1991, the DOT and the United Nations Development Program formulated the Philippine Tourism Master Plan, which aimed to develop tourism on an environmentally sustainable basis. In 2002, the DOT and DA issued a joint circular that identified 10 agritourism sites in the country that passed the minimum DOT-prescribed standards for all operations and maintenance activities, and guaranteed satisfactory visits for tourists.

The Philippines is a tropical archipelago of more than 7,100 islands covering an estimated 30 million hectares, about 11 million hectares of which are agricultural lands offering geographically diverse and unique agri-tourism sites. An abundance of natural resources, biological diversity, and a strong cultural heritage makes the country one of the world’s best agri-tourism destinations.

Tourism and agriculture are priorities of the 2011-2016 Philippine Development Plan, which identifies where the most promising investment opportunities are in providing accommodations of all types, transportation, historical and cultural heritage destinations, eco-tourism, and agritourism.

The influx of agri-tourists creates revenue and gives rise to a more ecologically-sustainable environment. This generates employment in rural areas, where jobs are most needed to prevent the excessive migration of people to major urban centers. As most agri-destinations are in the rural areas, the transportation sector also stands to benefit. High tourist arrival rates call for better modes of transportation to bring them to and from their destinations.

Tourists, especially their children, love to feed the organic native pigs with lettuce.

There are two categories of agri-tourist sites: the day farm, and the farm resort. Day farms are those located near national highways and main business areas, and are ideal for day tours and visits. On the other hand, farm resorts offer accommodations and dining services. Both hold interactive on-farm activities and other attractions that can enrich the tourists’ experience of farm life, and must be in a generally safe and peaceful location.

Day farms and farm resorts must also have a reception counter, parking spaces, a dining/multi-purpose area, farm guides, a souvenir shop, and for farm resorts, accommodations and a restaurant. Sanitary and support infrastructure facilities are also required.

Accreditation is through a DOT-issued certification officially recognizing the site as having complied with the minimum standards and requirements prescribed for the operation and maintenance of agri-tourism farms.

Agri-tourism destinations that the DOT accredits figure in all the promotions programs that the department implements in key tourist take-off points worldwide among travel agents, tour operators, and hotels. They also benefit from being brought into the extensive network of local contacts built up by the DOT over the years.

“Our primary aim in being an agri-tourism destination was to educate as many people as possible on the health and wellness benefits of organic farming and the consumption of chemical-free vegetables and herbs, and synthetics-free fish and meat, while enabling them to experience simple farm life and healthy living,” says Josephine Costales, the president and CEO of Costales Nature Farms. “We were not as conscious of the prospects for spurring economic development in Majayjay as being more intent to set up a profitable and sustainable enterprise for investors.”

That aim was recognized and subscribed to by the DA in 2012 when it adjudged Ronald Costales as the country’s Most Outstanding Organic Farmer of the Year in its annual Gawad Saka Awards.

A Model Agri-Toursim Destination

How much did it take, investments-wise, for Costales Nature Farms to make the upgrade to becoming an agri-tourism destination? “Not much because we already had facilities and food services for participants in our organic farming seminars,” says Ronald Costales. “Lodging facilities had already been built with the investments of overseas foreign workers who had chipped in with their earnings. And we added only a little more than 10 percent to our total employee force of over 100, hiring skilled kitchen workers, food servers, and housekeeping staff trained, assessed, and certified by the TESDA (Technical Education and Skills Development Authority). All in all I would say our investment also increased by only a little more than 10 percent.”

Costales Nature Farms Agri-Tourism head Kenneth de Gracia, a
nephew of Ronald Costales, demonstrates do-it-yourself salad
preparation to interested visitors.

As a place for visitors to flock to, the facility is not hard to promote. It’s only about 130 kilometers from Manila via Sta. Cruz, Laguna’s capital; the distance is shorter if one takes off from southern Metro Manila. It’s at 300 meters above sea level, with a climate that remains mild even in summer, providing natural ‘air-conditioning’ for the accommodations.

The diversified integrated farm with its 58 varieties of vegetables and culinary herbs, fish, pigs, and poultry, all grown organically for the visitors to closely observe, pick, and later, to healthfully and enjoyably partake of with family and friends, is more than what any other farm can offer. And visiting and seeing the farm firsthand assures people of where its products come from and that these are really organic and grown only with organic fertilizer produced on the farm itself through vermiculture and composting of plant and animal wastes. The Farms’ popularity took off when the Ms. World Philippines beauty pageant made it the official agri-tourism destination of its 2013 contestants.

Since then, the Costaleses have been hosting 3,000 to 4,000 visitors a month; 95 percent of these are local tourists, and a little more than 10 percent of them are lodgers. The Farms can accommodate 60 persons who want to lodge and stay for more than a day. The lodging facilities range in size from anahaw-roofed and intricately-built bamboo native huts for two persons to dwellings for families with up to 10 members.

Visitors can choose from five modes of stay at Costales Nature Farms. Its “Wellness Tour” is for three days and two nights of full rural relaxation and farm life experience in a healthy and natural environment, while the “Life at the Farm Tour” is a two-days-and-one-night stay. The “Green Living Tour” is a whole day of relaxation with an eco-tour, and the “Green Salad Tour” is a half-day of experiencing farm life. The “Lakbay-Aral Tour” is especially designed for students and farmers to whom the Costaleses dedicate their efforts to impart and spread healthy farming to encourage future generations of progressive and nature-loving food producers.

All the tours involve an orientation on organic farming, a guided farm tour, and vegetable salad snacks. The first three packages include lunch, unlimited salad snacks, and fishing activities. The Wellness and Life at the Farm visitors have personal veggie harvesting for breakfast and lunch, while the same activity is on a pick-and-pay basis for the other tours, with demonstrations on salad preparation.

Costales Nature Farms’ business partners include the country’s largest consolidator of fresh fruits and vegetables that it distributes to supermarket chains. Another is the number one wellness store chain in the country, which exclusively sells organic free-range chicken meat, eggs, pork, and vegetables, which helped supply the Costaleses with top-of-the line postharvest facilities to ensure the highest standards of food hygiene.

And a fairly recent partner is the biggest chain of fine high-end restaurants and dining concepts for the production of high-value vegetables and culinary herbs that it serves with the label “I Love Organic.”

This row of lodging facilities of various types and sizes is at a strategic section of the agritourism
farm.

The Costaleses have also forged tie-ups with the DA’s Agricultural Training Institute and other government agencies and private foundations for promoting organic agriculture. The TESDA will also accredit their facility to train, test, and certify organic farm workers.

The farm is a perfect model of not only certified organic production but also sustainability, income diversification, business partnership, agri-tourism, extension service, creative fund generation, and the management of and intense interaction with people.

“The people that we have met here, who showed their hearty appreciation of our facilities, products, services, and especially our mission , are at the core of our gratification and sense of real accomplishment today,” say Ronald and Josie Costales. “We hope we will continue to meet many, many more of them in thedays ahead, and in our simple way, (we can) affect their outlook towards healthy and safe chemical-free food and an enjoyable farm life.”

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s February 2015 issue.