By Yvette Tan
Erl Orenza has always wanted to retire on a farm. Three years ago, when he turned 41, he decided to turn that dream into reality. “I asked myself what I wanted to be doing when I got older, and I thought why not start doing that now?” he says in Taglish.
At the time of his realization and during the time of the interview, Orenza was Head of Integrated Events and Partnerships for a broadcast network where he’d been working for 16 years. He’d always been in the marketing industry, with more than 20+ years of experience. He didn’t have a background in agriculture. “I didn’t have any idea how to do it. There was no farmer in my family,” he says.
Pursuing the Filipino dream
Orenza’s farm is located in his father’s hometown of Malasiqui, Pangasinan, with almost one hectare planted to TaiwanF1 hybrid chili.
Even though he had a corporate job, Orenza was inspired by other executives who were also farmers. He knew he could run a successful farm while keeping his job in the city. His first idea was to go into poultry farming, but his father dissuaded him, saying that it was work intensive and needed a lot of requirements like land located away from a residential area.
Orenza was advised to start on land they already had. A colleague who had a chili farm in Tanay encouraged him to plant the same crop, as it was a staple that could also provide a good source of income. “It’s a high-value crop. It can be more expensive than rice and the plant can be productive for eight to nine months. And, compared to say garlic, where I won’t be able to see or enjoy anything because everything is underground, I wanted something I could see and pick,” he says.
Orenza, who at that time was undecided about what to plant, took his friend’s advice. His friend became his mentor. Orenza spent his weekends on his friend’s farm learning how to plant the crop. “I got my hands dirty. I tried everything they did (so I would know what it felt like),” he says. “I enjoyed it a lot.”
When he told his dad that he wanted to plant chili, his dad was happy, but warned him about a problem with the land: since it had gone unused for so long, people had illegally settled on it. This wasn’t a problem for Orenza. In fact, he had a plan.
Involving the community
Orenza asked his dad to introduce him to the settlers. Three generations had settled on the land, where they had set up makeshift structures and made a living doing odd jobs for nearby residents, or as tricycle drivers and laundry women. The unspoken fear was that they were going to be asked to leave. This was the opposite of what Orenza had in mind.
“I saw their faces and they looked surprised, as expected,” Orenza shares. “I said I wasn’t going to ask them to leave. In fact, we would be able to help each other.”
He sought the help of the family’s representative, then a tricycle driver, and asked if he would work for Orenza as a farm manager. He explained that while a tricycle driver’s earnings are dependent on how many customers he has, as a farm employee, he would be getting a regular salary. The representative agreed. Orenza would later gain the support of the other members of the family.
Orenza further explains that he came to this decision because he saw the kids in the area and he didn’t think it would be right for their lives to be disrupted on his account. He also thought it would be more practical if he worked with people who were part of the local community, especially since he didn’t really know anyone in the area. “It’s better to work with people who’ve lived there long because they know and respect each other,” he says.
Starting from scratch
But Orenza had another challenge: he lacked capital. “I needed to fence the area to keep animals and outsiders away.” He tried looking for investors and after it didn’t work out, he decided to fund the farm himself. He did so by selling his SUV for about P100k. Part of the money was used to prepare the farm and part was used as down payment for a pickup truck.
Like Orenza, no one in the community had no background in farming. “They thought I knew what I was doing!” Orenza says with a laugh. “You know what I did? I’d [learn in] my friend’s farm. I’d also [learn from] Google and YouTube until I thought I was ready.”
Orenza would spend his weekends at the farm, sometimes even staying overnight. Contrary to popular belief, It doesn’t take a long time to get from Manila to Pangasinan, especially if one leaves at the right time. “Because of NLEX, SCTEX TPLEX, when you exit Carmona, it takes me 30 minutes [to get there] early [in the] morning,” he says.
The community was similarly enthusiastic about the venture. Aside from the full-time farm manager, seven of them decided to work part time on the farm. “I was surprised. I’d be there at 5:30am and they’d be ready,” he says.
The soil on the farm is a mix of mostly sand and clay. They prepared for farming by incorporating ipot, or chicken dung, as well as pre-mixed natural fertilizers from a foreign brand.
He bought chili seedlings, plating about 5000 trees. He also bought natural farm input. The farm doesn’t germinate its own seeds or make its own input. “I don’t have time [to make my own input] but the products [I use] are nice. It’s not organic but it’s all natural. So that’s good enough for me,” he says, adding that he decided to go the natural farming route because of his mentor, who didn’t like using artificial chemicals on his crops. “It’s very hard [to grow] chili [that way] but I try.”
Whatever he learned from his mentor and online, he would apply in his farm the next week. Since everyone was learning to farm from scratch, there were many opportunities for misunderstanding. To keep mistakes to a minimum, a farm worker was assigned to write all the processes down so the community members could refer to it when needed.
To everyone’s delight, they were able to reap their first harvest in September 2017, just three months after they started in June. “It was great because first of all, nothing was planted there before,” Orenza says. “Who knew the land was so fertile?”
That first harvest encouraged him so much he found himself driving to the farm as often as he could, even when he wasn’t feeling well. He just loved the feeling of being in the field, and it always felt good to work on his crops.
Finding a market
Farming doesn’t end with the harvest. To make money, Orenza needed to find a market for his chili. They found a trader who brought their harvest to a bagsakan, or trading post in Urdaneta, Pangasinan.
Orenza explains that it’s common for traders to roam agricultural areas so they can get an idea of who plants what. He also says that his first harvest was relatively small, and that he only started experiencing bumper crops around the fifth harvest onwards.
If planted properly, chili can be harvested year-round, and up to twice a week during peak season. The reason its prices go up towards the first and latter part of the year, usually from November to January, Orenza explains, is because consecutive days of rain can destroy the plants. “It’s hard but that’s where you can make a lot of money,” he says. “A lot of people plant during May-June to hit this mark.”
He adds that he never experienced the seasonal rise in chili prices, where a kilo can go as high as a thousand pesos, because he had shifted focus by then.
From fresh produce to value-added product
Orenza didn’t expect to be anything but a chili farmer. Though being a marketer at heart, he’s always open for opportunity. In the farm, what was to become his business model first started as a minor nuisance.
After their first harvest, Orenza found out that due to miscommunication, there were about 30 kilos of chili that hadn’t been picked up by the trader. Orenza was told, “Pakiusap mo nalang na bilhin” (plead with the trader to buy it). He didn’t like the idea of “pakiusap,” so he took the 30 kilos to the trading post himself, knowing full well that there’s an unspoken rule that not anyone can just sell there because they might be impinging on someone else’s territory. Along the same lines, most people will not buy from someone they don’t know.
Because the crop was scarce at that time, Orenza luckily sold all 30 kilos. “I didn’t want to have this problem every time,” he says. “And maybe because of my profession [as a marketer], I thought there must be a solution to this problem that will also help the people [on my farm].”
Orenza says he prayed about the situation, and while on vacation in Bolinao, a beach town in Pangasinan, he got it. He received a text from a godchild who worked on the farm asking if they could use some of the rejected harvest to make chili oil. Orenza knew a good idea when he heard one. He told his godchild to use the best chilies harvested and to save some of the oil so that he could taste it. “It was delicious,” he says. “I just tweaked it a bit and I told them, ‘This is the solution to our problem.’”
From then on, all of the chili harvest went into the production of chili oil. “The farmers [don’t just] pick, they manufacture, so they have steady work,” Orenza explains. “They sanitize the jars, they cook, they seal.”
He adds that he had to try everything himself at the start so that he would be able to teach his employees how to do things properly. He even has burn marks from learning how to seal jars to prove it.
Next, they needed a name. Orenza chose Salbahe, which means ‘naughty.’ The name is linked to Orenza’s other passion, motorcycling. “It had a bad boy feel,” he explains.
Excellent product + strategic marketing = sales, sales, sales
Everything happened in a span of a few days: he contacted a jar supplier in Manila, where he made the last few tweaks to the chili oil before producing it in a large quantity. He then opened social media accounts and began posting about the product. “It didn’t have a label yet,” Orenza says. “I posted that it was coming soon.” This was in November.
There were a lot of orders because Christmas season was around the corner. Part of what made it easy to sell was its introductory price of P99. “It’s easy to get P100 pesos from your wallet,” Orenza explains.
He asked a designer friend to develop a logo for him. It’s a Mexican-style skull with a beard and a mustache wearing a red cowboy hat whose tips end in green stems reminiscent of chili peppers. Orenza, who can be hard to please, thought it was great, but lacked oomph. His friend took a look at the artwork, added a mole on the left side that mirrored Orenza’s own and declared, “That’s it. That’s you.” And just like that, the brand had a logo that was both personal to Orenza and descriptive of the products to be sold.
The first batch of chili oil sold out. The same thing happened the week after. Orenza applied his marketing knowhow to his own products. The tone of his social media posts fit the brand’s cheeky logo. He started by posting classic action movie heroes like and villains juxtaposed with his products, meme-style. But he knew he could do better.
“The reception was great but I didn’t want to stop there,” he says. He began to develop other products. He partnered with local bagoong makers from nearby Lingayen, a place famous for its bagoong, and came up with a chili bagoong alamang (krill bagoong). He had two products by November-December of that year. “People thought I planned it all,” Orenza says. “I said no, I’d just run into problems and find solutions for them.”
These were quickly followed by other products such as Chili & Crunchy Garlic (made with local garlic from Urdaneta), and Bruhilda Chili Nuts. The chili oil retails for P129, the crunchy garlic for P139, the chili bagoong alamang for P149, and the nuts for P69. The price of the nuts always garners a laugh. “The way I communicate is funny, so people are amused,” Orenza says. There were plans for vinegar and hot sauce as well. At the time of the interview, sales averaged a total of between 10,000 to 15,000 units a month.
Because of the combination of delicious products and a brand that many could easily identify with, it didn’t take long for the brand to find a local following. He formalized the business, registering it as a company with the long term plan to appear on local grocery shelves and eventually export in the future. He found two business partners, one who specializes in manufacturing and distribution and one who also has a chili farm. He also began selling merchandise like trucker caps, mugs, stickers, t-shirts, and most recently, face masks, all of which have been popular.
Salbahe Chili Products are sold online through its Instagram and Facebook accounts as well as in retail portals. It’s also currently looking for distributors and has recently partnered with an inasal restaurant and is available as a condiment.
Investing in the farm and its employees
Throughout it all, he never stopped working on the farm. “I’m happy with the work there,” he says. He often posts about the farm on social media. Aside from chronicling his flourishing business, it also lets customers see where the ingredients of the chili oil come from, who grows them, and how they are cultivated.
Orenza also made good on his statement that he and the community would help each other. What customers don’t know is that for every jar of product sold, an amount is placed in a community fund that the members can access when they need extra help for tuition, health needs, and so on. This has motivated everyone to do their best on the farm and in the production line.
“You asked me a while ago how big my farm was. It’s small, but I expanded through the products,” Orenza says. “So even if I have small land, it’s fully utilized.” It’s gotten to the point that sometimes, his harvests can’t keep up with the demand of Salbahe products so he’s had to buy chilis from nearby farms as well.
Working on the farm and with the brand has had a good effect on his employees. According to them, they’ve been able to find a sense of ease that comes with having a stable income. Some of them have stopped being laundrywomen and some have sold their tricycles in order to work on the farm full time. “They’re not at the point where they’re completely stable, but we’ll get there,” Orenza says. “In my dreams, we’re in this together.”
When Orenza first broke ground on his chili farm, he didn’t expect to be running a chili product line just a few months after. “What happened was I’d keep raising my expectations,” he says. “An opportunity would appear and that’s how we’d grow.”
For more information visit Salbahe Chili Products.
Photos courtesy of Erl Orenza.
This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s September to October 2020 issue.