There’s a greenhouse on the third floor of an unassuming office building at the end of a road in a technopark in Rizal. This is Harbest Agribusiness Corporation’s research and development farm located on the rooftop of their Taytay headquarters. Measuring around 400 sqm, it’s currently planted to Ilocano Gold variety of honeydew that, at the time of the interview, is ready to be harvested.
“[This is] where we test out different growing methods, different growing techniques, [and] technologies,” says Julius Barcelona, Harbest’s Chief Operating Officer. In this case, “irrigation systems, biostimulation, [and] different plant nutrition techniques.”
The current crop is the 14th planting, and is expected to produce an average of 100 fruit (the most they’ve harvested is 150, the least, 70+). The fruit reaches about 14-16 Brix, and is noted for its balanced sweetness laced with a distinct sour tang.
The farm was established in 2018, after the headquarters was built, with the melon project starting the same year, but it took two years of testing before they were able to grow them successfully. “…we tested out several different varieties, we were trying to [see] which one was most adaptable to our conditions,” Barcelona explains.
The honeydew farm is part of the company’s attempts to produce Japan-quality melons. “Japan has an interesting gifting culture where they believe that fruit is one of the best gifts that you can give to people,” Barcelona explains. Because of this, extremely high quality fruits can fetch extremely high prices in auctions, with melons sometimes going for a thousand dollars a piece or a small box of strawberries going for 500 USD, for example.
Barcelona clarifies that while he is trying to grow Japan-quality melons, he isn’t interested in selling them at Japanese prices. His goal is actually the opposite: to show people that food doesn’t have to be expensive.
“Ultimately, is it possible for us to grow Japan-level food without being Japan-level expensive? That’s something I think we’d like to achieve because in the Philippines, it seems you only get really good quality stuff only if it’s really expensive,” he says. “I’d like to show people that yes, what we’re doing here is very high tech, but this is sort of like trying to achieve an ideal. But along the way of trying to achieve that ideal, what are the experiences that we can get that we can share with people, and that allows them to produce good quality stuff without breaking the bank or making things too expensive for them.”
Drip irrigation setup
The lab’s hydroponic setup uses a drip irrigation technique. This is different from nutrient film technique (NFT) which most people think of when hydroponics is mentioned. Instead of cycling nutrient-fortified liquid through rows of plants that use very little growing medium, the plants in the greenhouse are planted in huge pots with a drip irrigation system running through each one so that the plants get a steady supply of water as needed. Barcelona estimates that each plant uses around 16 liters of water a day, quite a minimal amount. It doesn’t use much electricity as well.
“My materials cost is actually super minimal. We only apply as much fertilizer as we need and as needed compared to huge amounts of fertilizer that needs to be applied in an open field,” he explained. “We have no pesticide or fungicide expenses because we’re in a greenhouse. We do get pest penetration but usually towards the end of the season. We cook our greenhouse between seasons, so that brings down pest populations down to almost zero between seasons… and if we do detect pests earlier on, we don’t have to use pesticides because the population isn’t so well-established yet, so… we can use oils to control them, so barely any expenses in that regard.”
The greenhouse doesn’t use grow lights and uses netting to shield the plants from excessive sunlight, which can be especially harsh in the summertime. “…we’ve gotten readings as high as 13,000 lux… Right now, the share net runs around 7,000 lux.., so that helps the plants stay comfortable,” Barcelona says, adding that the netting also helps keep the inside of the greenhouse cool despite sweltering temperatures. “I don’t know if you believe it [but] it’s currently 42 degrees in the greenhouse… It doesn’t feel like it’s 42 degrees, but it is according to our sensors… You don’t feel that here because we’ve got the shade net and there’s good wind that comes in because we’re on the rooftop.”
He says that after the cost of setup, his biggest expense is actually labor. “…there’s a certain degree of technical ability that you need to do to grow plants in such a manner… two thirds of my expense is in labor, so I have to figure out, are there other ways for me to automate this further.”
That said, he admits that setting up a farm laboratory like this can be expensive. “The Philippines doesn’t have subsidies for this compared to other countries. Other countries subsidize these types of technologies to make it easier for people to access,” he said. “We also have to make sure that the greenhouse structure itself could withstand up to 200 kph winds because we’re on the rooftop of a building so obviously if a typhoon hits us and the structure is not strong enough to withstand it, we’re going to be in huge trouble.” So far the investment has been paying off, as the greenhouse and everything inside it has withstood several typhoons. “…we have nets as wind barriers there. Sometimes we’ll plant beans as a way to break the wind up further inside the greenhouse,” he shares.
At the time of the interview, sensors were being installed to further monitor greenhouse activity. “We’re trying to see if sensors will help us understand better what conditions the plants are growing in, so that allows us to understand how the plants react under certain conditions,” Barcelona said.
The importance of R&D
There’s the concept of farmer-scientist—that anyone who grows things for a living, be they plants, animals, or seafood—needs to have a bit of a scientific spirit in them, at the very least to troubleshoot and improve on the crops or livestock they care for.
“R&D is very important because you’re dealing with living things, so what you do won’t necessarily apply to everyone,” Barcelona says. “You do need to test out different things to see [what will or won’t work] under different conditions… so it gives you a pool of experience to draw from… that you can share with people who are trying to learn from you.”
Research and development is also important for agribusinesses like Harbest, which sells agricultural supplies, because it helps them determine how specific products they carry can best help their clientele. “…we want to make sure that all of our products actually do what they’re supposed to, so we don’t want to sell anything unless we’ve tested it thoroughly and made sure that it says what it does [and] what it says and won’t hurt the farmer,” Barcelona says. “We want to test all our products thoroughly and make sure that these products do what they say they do… that way, we can make sure that we’re bringing the best quality and services to our customers.”
The rooftop farm has been instrumental in testing several products, including biostimulants, which are still relatively unknown in the Philippine market. “ Biostimulants are specific forms of micronutrients. They also have nutrient-adjacent materials like hormones or amino acids or certain types of naturally occurring substances that help the plant achieve certain potentials when it comes to their growth,” Barcelona explained. “We’ve found, for example, one of the products that we’re already offering… helps massively reduce the incidence of flower abortion, which many farmers don’t have a solution for currently… The bad thing about this is that more fruit equals smaller fruit… so our second round of tests after that is to test it with fruit bulkers… which helps solve that problem. So now we’re… trying to help farmers see how we can use this to help solve the problem of abortion… and so far it’s worked out really well for them.”
A market for melons
While the melons grown in this particular greenhouse aren’t for commercial sale, they are an in-demand commodity and growing them can be profitable for an enterprising farmer. “…you can grow melons in half a hectare and usually the price in the market is high enough that it would be profitable… so I think for somebody who’s trying to get the profitability as quickly as possible, it’s not a bad choice.” Barcelona says. “So for a budding farmer, like one who doesn’t have a lot of access to resources, it’s actually a pretty good crop to try if you want to try for profitability as early as possible compared to say a commodity crop where the price is a lot more unstable and fluctuates quite a bit.”
That said, melons can be challenging to crow and so might not be the right crop for a first-time farmer. Barcelona also adds that what he means by “easy to sell” also implies that the farmer has put the right sales and marketing framework in place beforehand. “…you have to already have some advance marketing in place where you’ve gotten somebody who’s willing to buy your melons at a specific price,” he clarifies.
So when will he know that he’s grown the perfect crop? “I honestly don’t know. I’m never satisfied with the way my fruits turn out even though a lot of people tell me they’re really sweet,” Barcelona says. “I don’t know how I would be able to tell when I’ve actually reached that goal of actually getting Japanese quality fruit. I hope I will, but I don’t know yet.”
Photos by Yvette Tan