By JAMES TABABA
Cristina Torreda, the owner of Cristina’s Strawberry Farm in San Andres, Catanduanes, has been farming for 25 years. Starting with just a few strawberry plants, she slowly propagated her farm, which has now been operating for five years.
Torreda’s passion for teaching and promoting agriculture extends beyond her farm. In fact, she was recognized as a regional and national winner for the Outstanding Rural Women 2021 award in the agriculture category. Even before her farm was fully established, Torreda was already committed to educating the youth about farming. She is eager to share her knowledge and ideas with everyone, inspiring others to take up sustainable and organic farming practices.
From small beginnings to a flourishing strawberry farm
After graduating from Hotel and Restaurant Services, Torreda worked in the hotel and restaurant industry for some time. However, her interest in agriculture was piqued when she came across someone selling strawberries online, despite the warm climate in Catanduanes. Intrigued, she purchased some seedlings and began experimenting with strawberry cultivation, eventually succeeding in propagating them on her farm.
After six months of propagating, the strawberry farm started to gain attention from curious locals who were amazed that strawberries can be grown in their area. As interest in the farm grew, more and more people started dropping by to see Torreda’s strawberries. This led Torreda to develop the farm as a tourist destination. Today, in addition to strawberries, the farm also grows other crops such as vegetables, mulberries, and blackberries through intercropping.
Torreda’s passion for farming was nurtured by her parents, who were both vegetable farmers. Today, she is a full-time farmer and actively manages her farm.
One of the reasons why Torreda chose to focus on planting strawberries among other crops is that in Catanduanes, it is unheard of to grow strawberries. Strawberries are known to only grow in high altitude areas where the temperature is lower since most strawberries are sensitive to heat. The ideal temperature for growing strawberries is between 15°C and 27°C. High temperatures can negatively affect the growth and development of strawberry plants and reduce their yield. Heat stress can cause flower abortion, reduce the size and quality of fruit, and decrease the overall growth of the plant.
Even though the average temperature in Catanduanes ranges from around 24°C to 30°C throughout the year, Torreda has successfully managed to grow and produce strawberry fruits. She is one of the only farmers who grow strawberries in the area, so local tourists took an interest in visiting and buying strawberries from her farm.
Torreda practices organic agriculture approach and partakes in the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS). The Participatory Guarantee System (PGS) is a key feature of the Republic Act (RA) No. 11511, which amends the Organic Agriculture Act of 2010 or RA 10068 in the Philippines. The PGS is a locally focused quality assurance system that allows small-scale organic farmers to certify their produce as organic through a participatory and transparent process that involves the farmers, consumers, and other stakeholders. It is a way for small-scale farmers to have their organic products certified without incurring the high costs of third-party certification.
Products and services
Torreda’s commitment to promoting sustainable farming practices and educating others about agriculture has been recognized by the Department of Agriculture, which has certified her farm as a learning site for agriculture.
As a certified learning site for agriculture, Torreda’s farm serves as a venue for agricultural learning and training, providing farmers with access to information, technologies, and best practices in agriculture to enhance their skills and knowledge. She teaches various topics such as banana chip making, hydroponics production, and organic concoction making to students who visit her farm. Torreda is also occasionally invited by TESDA and other educational institutions to share her expertise.
Most of the visitors to the farm are local tourists and students on educational tours. The farm charges an entrance fee of P30 for adults and P20 for students and children. During the regular strawberry season, which lasts from December to May, the farm sells strawberries at prices ranging from P350-400. Strawberry seedlings are also available for purchase at a starting price of P50, depending on the variety. Seedlings can be ordered online for those who want to buy outside Catanduanes. Some of the strawberry varieties available at the farm include Shoga, Sweet Charlie, Honeyoye, and Kingberry.
While Torreda’s farm is known for its strawberries, other crops are also grown on the farm, such as vegetables. During the rainy season from June to November, Torreda focuses on propagating strawberries since letting them fruit is very difficult during this time. The farm also intercrops strawberries with vegetables, mulberry, and blackberries.
Apart from selling fresh strawberries, Torreda also sells value-added farm produce such as banana chips and berry jams made from strawberries and mulberries at P150 for 300 grams. Hydroponically grown lettuce can also be purchased at the farm for P20 per cup.
Challenging location for farming
Torreda’s farm is indeed an impressive feat, especially considering the challenges posed by its location and the climate of Catanduanes. Contour farming, which is the practice of plowing across the slope of the land rather than up and down, is an effective way to minimize soil erosion caused by heavy rains. By following the natural contour lines of the land, the water can be slowed down and absorbed more effectively, preventing soil erosion and preserving the nutrients in the soil.
To further maximize the use of the sloping land, Torreda also encloses her garden beds in hollow blocks or utilizes pots and containers for planting. This method helps retain soil moisture, minimize erosion, and provides a controlled environment for growing the crops.
In addition to the challenges posed by the location, Catanduanes is also known for being frequently hit by typhoons. To address this, Torreda has made all of her greenhouses collapsible so that they can be quickly disassembled and stored away when strong winds hit. This practical solution ensures that the farm infrastructure can withstand the harsh weather conditions and can be easily reconstructed after the storm has passed.
Agriculture for the youth
Despite financial constraints, Torreda has managed to develop a portion of the 1.5-hectare farm, with only 2000 square meters fully utilized. Her future plans include adding more greenhouses to increase strawberry production and expanding the facilities to accommodate more students for the TESDA NC II organic agriculture production demonstration area. Torreda also aims to add a fishpond to provide visitors with more activities, such as fish and pay, and to generate employment opportunities for the locals.
“This new generation where most focus on technology, the interest for agriculture is declining. When the aging farmers are gone, who will feed the country? So, the youth must learn how to plant and produce their own food. They must value the importance of producing food since we need to eat three times a day,” Torreda said in Tagalog.
Photo courtesy of Cristina’s Strawberry Farm