By JAMES TABABA
Reimond Silvestre is the general manager of the South Bend farm in Lipa City, Batangas, which belongs to the SEC-registered company, Ielements Group Inc.
Prior to his career in farming, Silvestre earned a Bachelor of Science in Accounting from San Beda College and successfully passed the board exam. He gained experience working as a business consultant and auditor at an accounting firm, as well as a technology consultant for system application products, and eventually became a business seaport manager.
Despite his diverse professional background, Silvestre believes that the business-oriented mindset required for successful farming is similar to his previous roles. However, he opted for a unique approach and established a farm from a corporation, distinguishing himself from traditional farmers.
Inspiration for developing a farm
Silvestre’s inspiration for developing his farm stems from his family’s love of exploring plantations and agricultural landscapes during their travels around the Philippines and abroad. As avid wine drinkers, they also sought out vineyards to appreciate not only the wine, but also the care and harvesting of grapes. Silvestre was particularly inspired by the beautiful settings of vineyards, which enhanced the wine-tasting experience.
In 2018, Silvestre had the opportunity to purchase the land where their farm now stands. They immediately recognized the potential for developing a farm on the property and embarked on the journey of building an agricultural business.
In June 2021, when the farm began commercial operations, it was initially open to the Lipa City community due to Covid restrictions imposed by the local government. The residents of Lipa City showed a great deal of interest and support in visiting and purchasing from the farm. In the first six months of operation, the farm was exclusively visited by Lipa City residents, who appreciated the convenience of having a farm within reach.
As both local and national governments gradually lifted Covid restrictions, more visitors began to come from other nearby areas, including Laguna and Cavite. The farm also started to receive visitors from other farms, schools, and industrial buyers. In mid-2022, the farm began conducting one-day training and tour programs for students from Batangas State University, Los Banos Polytechnic University, and TESDA in Lipa City, covering topics such as hydroponics, aquaponics, germinations, and farm life. These programs were attended by buyers, personal consumers, students, and those seeking educational and training opportunities.
The farm is situated on a former horse ranch, benefiting from an average of 13.5 hours of sunlight per day, clean air quality, and a cool climate. At an elevation of 300 meters above sea level, Lipa City is the third highest location in Luzon, which provides a favorable climate for farming.
Advantages of having modern farming techniques
Back in 2021, the farm began with the construction of a 240 square meter greenhouse dedicated to hydroponic farming of green leafy vegetables such as romaine, green ice, red ice, and black rose lettuce, as well as arugula, basil, thyme, and wansoy.
As the farm continued to expand, in March 2022, Silvestre built another greenhouse featuring an innovative aquaponics system that integrated both aquaculture and plant culture. The closed-loop system recirculates water, with the fish waste being converted into nutrient-rich water for the plants.
Silvestre recognizes the potential of modern farming technologies and their benefits. According to him, “traditional farming needs more space, manpower, and resources, especially for water, fertilizers, and pesticides. The idea of having a greenhouse and having the hydroponics and aquaponics system is to have a controlled environment, to utilize space, increase productivity, be more efficient and sustainable.”
Having a controlled environment inside the greenhouse means, “we take away all other environmental conditions by putting a net around it and a plastic roof on top. We still have sunlight coming in, fresh air still circulates inside the greenhouse, but at the same time, it takes away most of the pests that traditional farming has in an open field,” Silvestre said.
Space is also a significant factor in hydroponic and aquaponic farming. Silvestre explains that traditional farming requires large amounts of space to produce a certain amount of crops, whereas hydroponic and aquaponic systems only require a fraction of the space to achieve the same yield.
“I think space is a key ingredient in hydroponics and aquaponic system because for example, you need, let’s say, a hectare to produce a certain kilo [using traditional methods of farming], in hydroponics and aquaponic system, I only need 10% of that space to produce the same amount,” he added.
Moreover, because the environment is controlled, less manpower and resources are needed. Silvestre explains that the recirculating system employed at the farm minimizes water usage while also providing the necessary nutrients for the crops. This closed-loop system means that the same water is reused, and fewer resources are required for watering and fertilizing. As a result, the farm can operate more sustainably while also maximizing efficiency and productivity.
When comparing traditional soil-based farming methods used by farmers in Lipa City to the hydroponics and aquaponics system used inside the greenhouse, according to Silvestre, it is apparent that there is a significant difference in the quality of produce. Unlike soil-based farming, hydroponics and aquaponics do not require the use of pesticides, resulting in a cleaner and healthier product. Furthermore, hydroponics and aquaponics produce higher yields within a shorter period of time, as seen in the example of their lettuce production.
Silvestre optimized his lettuce production process so that he can harvest it just 35 days after germination. He implemented a scheduled growing approach where he has separate sections for growing and harvesting. This allows him to do weekly harvests instead of bulk growing, which is typically done in large-scale farming operations over an area of 10,000 square meters or more. Additionally, he grows viny fruits like tomatoes, cucumbers, and capsicum, as well as kale.
In terms of aquaponics, Silvestre uses Tilapia, which is easily obtainable locally from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR). He is grateful to the personnel and staff at BFAR Region IV in Los Banos, Laguna, for their invaluable guidance and expertise in the entire process of raising and nurturing the fingerlings.
Aquaculture serves primarily as a source of nutrients for the hydroponic plants as fish waste is used as fertilizer. However, since the fish cannot grow indefinitely inside the tanks, Silvestre needs to be harvested at the appropriate time and replaced with fingerlings. He emphasized that the secondary objective of aquaculture is to sell fish in the market.
Customers are welcome to visit
Despite being only two years in operation, the farm is open to everyone who wants to learn about the farming practices and the high-quality produce Silvestre grows inside his farm. However, visitors must follow farm protocols to minimize any potential biological degradation to the system.
To ensure the safety and well-being of the crops, visitors are kindly asked not to smoke while in the farm due to the presence of plastic and nets. Additionally, before entering the greenhouses, visitors are required to clean their hands and use foot baths with hydrogen peroxide solution. These protocols are in place to prevent any unwanted substances or contaminants from being brought into the greenhouses that could potentially harm the plants.
Silvestre offers his products at affordable prices, starting at P30 pesos per cup of lettuce, with prices varying based on the variety. Those who want to purchase the lettuce with the cup, roots, and cocopeat included can add an additional P5 to the price. Romaine lettuce is sold for P45 pesos per cup, while tomatoes and cucumbers are sold by kilo. He believes that their product is a healthy option for consumers at an affordable price point.
For a pleasant farming experience on-site, visitors are encouraged to send a message and schedule a visit in advance. This helps avoid any inconvenience caused by ongoing harvesting activities that may prevent catering to visitors.
Future plans for the farm
When the farm was first conceptualized, Silvestre’s plan was to focus primarily on hydroponic and aquaponic farming techniques. However, with a spacious three-hectare property, there is room for further development. He shared that the farm will expand beyond hydroponics and aquaponics to include livestock breeding, such as goats, rabbits for meat, and free-range chickens for organic eggs. The farm’s diverse offerings will cater to a wider range of customers and help promote sustainable agriculture practices.
Currently, the main production challenge faced by the farm is meeting the demand for their produce, as they have a scheduled weekly harvest and are not producing enough to meet market demand. Silvestre is striving to balance production to avoid both overproduction and underproduction.
Silvestre believes in the importance of promoting healthy eating habits and making it accessible to everyone in the community. “Right now, we do not have any contract linkages for commercial production. This is because we want our farm to remain an open space for direct buyers and consumers to have access to organic food at reasonable prices,” he said.
Silvestre has a vision to become an eco-farm and a premier training center. As part of this vision, he aims to become a TESDA-accredited training center and to achieve the Good Agriculture Practices (GAP) certification from the Department of Agriculture. His ultimate goal is to become a leading producer of healthy and affordable green leafy vegetables and fruits, serving both local and wider communities.
“Right now, we want to become a part of the solution of the Philippines with regard to food security and sustainability. We are micro-entrepreneurs, and in our small own way, we want to try to be part of the solution for agriculture, the environment, and the overall health and well-being, not only of Lipa City and Batangas province people but for the greater area around us as well,” Silvestre said.
Photo courtesy of Southbend Farm