By Yvette Tan

Photos by Raffy Dacones

Teraoka Family Farm is an organic vegetable farm in Pangasinan that supplies households and major restaurants with farm-fresh produce. Now a major player in the field of organic agriculture, the four-hectare farm had humble beginnings as a 500 meter plot.

“My first crop was lettuce,” says Chief Farming Officer Raffy Teraoka Dacones. “I bought seeds from a seed company and I tried planting. I thought it would be easy. Nothing grew. Apparently, ants carried away the seeds. It was actually pretty hard, and that made me keep on trying.”

His grandfather started the farm in 1992 as a hobby farm. Dacones took over in late 2014, after working for three years in Japan. “Farming is not looked down upon there,” he says. “And I think there’s so much potential in the Philippines.”

He looked to Costales Nature Farm, one of the first organic tourism farms in the country, as an inspiration. “I wanted to get into the industry since we had the farmland to use,” he says. “I did a little research to see what we could do to replicate what Costales has been doing in the industry.”

At first, there were doubts as to whether he was serious about his agricultural endeavor. “People didn’t believe it would work for me since farming was thought of as a dirty job,” Dacones relates. “I wanted to prove them wrong because for me, it’s a noble thing to do. People have to eat. Who would feed people without farmers? Who would contribute to food security in the Philippines if it weren’t for the farmers? That’s the reason I tried to get into farming.”

A plot of Tuscan Kale, one of the many vegetables grown on the farm.

Growing Pains

Dacones’ first attempt at growing lettuce didn’t faze him. “Working in Japan gave me that never give up attitude to always do your best in order for you to progress. I kept on trying, failing every day, learning new things,” he says.

He enlisted the help of his uncle, a practicing organic farmer, a member of the Federation of Free Farmers in Tarlac. “I learned the basics from him from composting to organic foliar fertilizer production,” Dacones says. “His main thing was it will always start from the soil. He keeps telling me ‘Don’t forget, it always starts from the soil because without the soil, you can’t have good produce.’ That’s the main thing we do in the farm—we always condition our soil to make it healthy and give back whatever it gives us. That has always been our practice.”

Soon, his 500 square meter plot became 1,000 square meters. “I managed to plant lettuce. I started planting cherry tomatoes. It was a success. I was like, ‘Yay! I have a few kilos to give to family!’” Dacones explains that he started small because there would be less chances of failing, especially since he had put up most of the capital.

Plastic sheeting protects seedlings from the elements.

To Market, To Market

After successfully growing different salad vegetables, Dacones realized he had a new problem—where to sell his produce. “I tried going to the market and people were offering to buy it from me at P3 per kilo. That changed my life because why give it to someone who doesn’t appreciate what you do? Why not give it to people who actually care about it? That was my task: to prove to the farmers that there’s money in farming—not just relying on local traders but to find a market that actually appreciates your produce.”

Dacones tapped his city friends for contacts in the restaurant industry who were looking for a steady supply of organic produce. One of his first customers was a major coffee and tea chain. “We were able to grow fast from that. We started expanding our farm because they needed a big quantity,” he says.

There were new challenges as well. “We had to process it to be ready to eat, so when it goes straight to the stores, it’s clean. Whatever profit we earned, we used to expand the farm to show there’s money in farming,” he says.

Everything paid off. Soon, “we had more clients or customers approaching us than us approaching them. That’s how we started growing.” They put up an outlet in Alphaland Makati that mostly caters to the residents in the area. “Even though we’re beside a big supermarket, people prefer going to our little outlet. They like how they know the farmer. They like to know where the produce comes from instead of picking it up from the supermarket not knowing where it came from, not knowing what pesticide or fertilizer has been used to grow them.”

The plot that started it all. It was from this first plot that Teraoka Family Farm became what it is today. Photo from Facebook.

More than just growing food, part of Dacones’ advocacy is educating everyone on the importance of farmers in society—this includes the farmers themselves. “We just have to find the right market to help these farmers,” he says. “I’m sure you guys know that the average age of Filipino farmers is 58 years old. What will happen in a few years’ time when people prefer going to the metro and finding jobs instead of developing the area?”

He adds, “I think we need that to be more self-sufficient with food in the country. We should respect the farmers. I hate how we always feel inferior, especially regular farmers. They always feel inferior. ‘Simpleng magsasaka lang ako.’ I don’t want that. I want them to be, ‘We’re proud farmers. You guys need us.’”

Dacones hopes to inspire young people to cultivate an interest in agriculture. “Since you have land, you might as well use it to farm. That’s what me and a couple of my friends want to do to help make farming cool again and to encourage people that there’s actually money in farming,” he says.

Click to read Part 2.