By JAMES TABABA
Paolo Nicomedes is a 23 years old student currently studying BS Agriculture at UP Los Baños. He established Manna Farm in Sucat, Muntinlupa, an agricultural venture that specializes in the cultivation of microgreens. Through Manna Farm, He aims to promote sustainable urban farming practices and encourage the younger generation to actively participate in agriculture.
Early exposure to agriculture
Paolo recalls his first encounter with agriculture during family visits to his father’s farm in Bataan. He reminisces, “I remember my mother taking pictures of us in the farmland.” Captured in those photographs, those moments sparked Paolo’s curiosity and laid the foundation for his agricultural journey. Although his family wasn’t initially fully engaged in agriculture, they later ventured into farming on idle plots of land, cultivating kangkong, okra, and kalabasa. It was also during this time that his father established a cacao farm. Nicomedes recalls how he and his brother helped in planting the cacao seedling in the farm. However, their farm met an unfortunate setback: a forest fire devastated their cacao seedlings, forcing them to halt their farming activities.
After that, his interest in agriculture waned during his high school years as he enrolled in senior high school STEM, with civil engineering as his desired path. Fate, however, had a different plan for him. Despite his intentions, Paolo found himself admitted into the agriculture program, which he considers a “blessing in disguise.”
Paolo’s perception of agriculture became broader during his first semester. He realized that agriculture encompassed not only farming and animal care but also diverse disciplines such as biology, chemistry, economics, and even politics. Reflecting on this realization, Nicomedes shares, “That’s when I appreciated the intricacies of agriculture, how it encompasses multidisciplinary fields.” The intricacies and multidisciplinary nature of the field fascinated him, leading to a newfound appreciation for farming.
The Manna Farm
Drawing inspiration from his mother’s religious beliefs, Nicomedes named his startup “Manna Farm,” with “Manna” meaning “blessing from heaven.” The journey of Mana Farm began in 2021 when Paolo, seeking a way to earn money from his agricultural knowledge, started exploring agribusiness opportunities. After experimenting with arugula using a hydroponics system, Paolo discovered that microgreens held a lot of promise. With a single tray in his room, he began his microgreens venture, gradually expanding to 12 trays.
Paolo’s breakthrough came when the Department of Agriculture announced the Young Farmers Challenge, offering grants to young farmers with innovative agricultural ideas. Luckily, Nicomedes and his business idea was one of the chosen winners in the NCR. “It was a blessing that I got selected because that grant became the seed money for Mana Farm,” he said. With the grant of P50,000, Paolo used it to build a greenhouse with seven racks for growing more microgreens.
The value of microgreens
Microgreens are young vegetable greens that are harvested at an early stage of growth. They are known for their vibrant colors, tender textures, and concentrated flavors. They come in a wide variety of plant types, including vegetables and herbs. Microgreens are often used as a garnish or added to salads, sandwiches, smoothies, and other dishes to enhance their visual appeal, texture, and nutritional value.
Nicomedes passionately discusses the nutritional value of microgreens, stating, “Microgreens are nutrient-dense and healthy as they are freshly delivered to customers’ tables.” He further emphasizes their advantages, noting that microgreens travel fewer miles compared to crops harvested in the provinces and transported to the city. He explains that microgreens retain their nutrients from the time they are planted until they reach customers’ tables. This freshness and nutrient density make microgreens highly sought after.
Microgreens offer the advantage of requiring minimal space for cultivation. For instance, Mana Farm’s initial greenhouse measured just 4 feet by 6 feet. Surprisingly, within this compact area, they were able to yield an impressive 15 kilograms of microgreens in a single growing season. The harvesting period typically spans between 7 to 10 days, allowing for a swift and efficient production cycle. This space-saving characteristic of microgreens makes them an ideal choice for urban farming and enables individuals with limited space.
Overcoming challenges and educating the market
One of the main hurdles faced by Nicomedes was the lack of awareness and understanding of microgreens in the Philippines. Nicomedes shares his journey, saying, “When we started, people had no idea what microgreens were.” Through information campaigns, he and his team aimed to raise awareness about microgreens, their significance, and the benefits they offer.
Nicomedes acknowledges the challenges, stating, “Until now, we are still educating our customers because there are still only a few who know about microgreens.” However, he remains hopeful that the awareness will continue to grow.
Running a business comes with its fair share of challenges. Nicomedes said that profitability hasn’t always been consistent, and there have been moments when the farm faced obstacles. However, he believes in the values that guided their journey from the start. He recognizes the significance of having a reliable team and the support of his mother, who plays a pivotal role in managing the farm during his absence.
Nicomedes emphasizes the importance of collaboration and teamwork in overcoming challenges and achieving success. “Personally, I can’t do it alone. If it were just me, Mana Farm probably wouldn’t exist anymore,” he said. “I’m also thankful for the members of the Mana Farm, my team.”
Marketing strategies and target Audience
Nicomedes primarily utilizes social media platforms to reach its target audience. “My business model initially targeted moms,” he said. “Our microgreens are healthy, so I think it will appeal to them.”
However, they realized that microgreens were more popular among chefs, restaurants, and hotels. “We recently shifted our main target market to chefs, restaurants, and cafes, to businesses,” Nicomedes said. This strategic adjustment allowed Manna Farm to align their products with the demand and preferences of their customers.
Beyond microgreens, Nicomedes also offers seeds and growing kits, encouraging others to embark on their microgreen farming journeys. “Our advocacy there is to encourage more people to get into farming, to start small,” he said.
Nicomedes’ dedication and innovation have led to some other achievements. Despite being a small farm, they have participated in significant events such as the World Food Expo and the Philippine Food Expo.
“The exposure for our business was significant,” he said. “Many people approached us and inquired about microgreens and expressed their interest in partnering.”
Vision and goals for the urban farm
Nicomedes’ long-term vision for Manna Farm extends beyond microgreens. He aims to expand the business into warehouses and rooftops of large buildings, creating a modular system that can be replicated not just in Metro Manila but throughout the Philippines. By integrating urban farming practices, he envisions a sustainable and replicable model that addresses the challenges of food production and distribution. With a focus on staple crops and innovative farming techniques, Nicomedes strives to contribute to a more resilient and self-sufficient food system.
Advocacy for youth in agriculture
Driven by his passion for agriculture and the future of farming, Nicomedes advocates for youth engagement in the field. He said, “I want to inspire young people to enter farming. We know that the average age of Filipino farmers is 57 years old.”
Paolo recognizes the urgency of this situation as he said, ” I hope I can inspire many people or that the youth can inspire many people to take the lead in food systems because the population is growing, but the number of farmers who feed us is decreasing. In the next few years, agriculture needs more innovators. We can’t afford to remain stagnant. We have to innovate, take the lead, and make Philippine agriculture future-proof.”
In the upcoming article, Nicomedes will provide his recommendations on the various sought-after microgreens for individuals interested in trying to grow their own.
Photo courtesy of The Manna Farm