A retired crop specialist built an aquaponics system and floating garden as his retirement project

Dr. Joe F. Reaño holding vanilla pods. (Reaño EcoFarm)


Not wanting to have a sedentary lifestyle, Joe F. Reaño works on his dream project of building a farmhouse after retirement. He always wanted to live a simple and humble life and spend his time doing things he wants, which are farming and helping the community.

As a son of a farming household, Reaño shared that he experienced being a farmer at a very young age. He used to wake up early every morning to help his parents in the rice field. The 2500 square meter land in Bay, Laguna, where their farm is located, was inherited from his father. This farm holds many memories of his childhood and family, so he decided to develop it.

Dr. Joe F. Reaño holding vanilla pods. (Reaño EcoFarm)

Reaño finished his studies BS in Agriculture, Master in Agriculture, and Ph. D at the University of the Philippines–Los Baños and conducted his dissertation and post-doctoral fellowship at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. He also served for 13 years as a research specialist on plant physiology and sustainable farming systems in the Philippine government. In 1990, he worked as a research development coordinator at Nestle on varietal improvement, nutrition, propagation, and integrated pest management studies on coffee, cacao, and soybeans. In collaboration with Nestle Research and Development Center in Tours, France, he is one of the research scientists responsible for the accelerated propagation of desirable Robusta coffee selections through somatic embryogenesis. He spearheaded the local development and registration of high-yielding Robusta coffee selections, now accredited and certified by the National Seed Industry Council (NSIC) for commercial planting in the Philippines. At the same time, he is also involved in programs promoting sustainable farming systems among local communities in the Philippines.

The bahay kubo in the middle of the farm serves as a reception area for visitors. (James Tababa)

Maximum utilization of space for food production

The farm in Bay, Laguna was originally a rice field before being converted into a fishpond. Rice was not profitable then, so the fields were turned into fishponds that grew tilapia. Reaño wanted the farm to be more productive and plant high-value crops. Instead of just having the area totally for tilapia production, he gradually converted it into an integrated fish-crop production area.

Red tilapia is raised in the pond with vanilla plants and other orchids planted above. (James Tababa)

Reaño raises red tilapia in a pond using the aquaponic system where both plants and fish are cultivated in a recirculating environment. Greenhouses were constructed above the pond to grow vegetables, resulting in the doubling of the floor space for production.

Tomato plants inside the greenhouse. (James Tababa)

The aquaponics system is a sustainable farming practice since it is operated almost-waste free because fish waste is recycled as fertilizer for the crops. Reaño believes that aquaponics is a better farming system than hydroponics. “In a hydroponics system, it is still dependent on chemical inputs. Where will you dispose of the waste? It may only pollute the rivers. In an aquaponics system, [the nutrient cycle] is more natural,” he said. “Granted that hydroponics uses only a small amount of chemicals, in the long run, it will still accumulate.”

The vegetable garden floats above the pond. (James Tababa)

Aside from red tilapia and lettuce, Reaño produced mushrooms, vegetables, and vermicompost. He decided to grow mushrooms because they are high-value and easy to produce. He also wanted to have a zero-waste farm, so instead of disposing of the used media of the mushroom, it will be fed to the worms together with other organic waste from the farm to create vermicompost, which will be used for the crops. However, their mushroom production was stopped because his doctor told him that the spores from the mushroom might aggravate his asthma.

Dwarf aromatic and orange coconuts can be found planted around the farm. These are certified varieties from the Philippine Coconut Authority, which he propagates and sells as planting materials.

Reaño sells dwarf aromatic and orange coconut seedlings. (James Tababa)

The farm is sometimes visited by clients who buy red tilapia fingerlings. Because of its appealing look, the red tilapia may be mistaken for being only an ornamental fish, but it is also edible. Reaño said that the red tilapia, also called kingfish, is a popular fish served in many restaurants. Similar to koi, looking at them swimming in the pond creates a relaxing and calm environment.

A dwarf coconut tree planted inside the farm. (James Tababa)

Because of the high-humidity environment created by the evaporation of water from the ponds, it is also a suitable environment for planting ornamental orchids and vanilla. That is why these plants are planted alongside the ponds.  Reaño promotes the propagation of vanilla in the Philippines because the country’s climate is very suitable for its production. Vanilla is an essential ingredient in the beverage industry, and the demand is high. However, Philippine vanilla production is still low.

An orange coconut tree planted inside the farm. (James Tababa)

The advocacy for food security, food safety, and sustainable farming

The farm was developed as a model for producing one’s own household food. “You can produce your own vegetables. The current issues are food security and safety. Food should be both secure and safe. Even if food is secured, you might not be sure if it has pesticides in it, especially the leafy vegetables,” Reaño said. “We already learned our lesson from the pandemic. Even though we had the money to buy food, stores were closed. Opting for food deliveries does not guarantee food safety.”

Old chillers are recycled and used as fish fingerling and seedling containers. (James Tababa)

Reaño bought old chiller boxes and turned them into fingerling and seedling containers instead of buying expensive tanks. Used plastic containers were also reused as pots for planting vegetables. He advocates reducing and recycling the waste as much as possible. “Biodegradable domestic wastes can be made into fertilizer. Water waste can be recycled using a filtration system, he said.”

Raised water tank with filters to clean the circulating water in the aquaponics system. (James Tababa)

For those with limited space, Reaño recommends starting by planting vegetables. For those with an area of more than one hectare, planning for planting long-term cropscrops with a lifespan of more than five years, such as coffee, cacao, black pepper, and cacaocan be considered.

Dr. Joe F. Reaño with his wife Marilyn showing off their aquaponically-grown lettuce. (Reaño EcoFarm)

Reaño has undergone multiple heart surgeries because of his heart condition. At the age of 67, he is now fully retired and enjoying his time on his farm and family. At the moment, he does not want to focus entirely on the production of the farm. Instead, he wanted it to be more for recreation and education.

“I will fill the area with orchids or strawberries… something different, like vanilla. I also wanted this to be a source of good planting materials,” Reaño said. “My plan here is to train young people, make it a small farm field school, to show that even with a small area of land, it can still be productive.”

In the next article, Reaño shares his tips for individuals who want to start an agricultural livelihood.

READ: Tips on how to build your agricultural livelihood

For inquiries, visit Reaño EcoFarm

Photo courtesy of James Tababa and Reaño EcoFarm

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