By JAMES TABABA
In the world of agriculture, there are individuals who rise above adversity to pursue their passions. One such remarkable individual is Junas Mendegorin, the owner of J&J Hydroponics Backyard Gardening. Despite being a paraplegic, Junas discovered an opportunity for innovation and growth through hydroponics farming. His inspiring journey in hydroponics has not only transformed his own life but has also empowered others in the community.
Junas journey into farming started with his parents, who were farmers themselves. Inspired by their agricultural background, he embraced farming as a way of life. However, his path took an unexpected turn when he encountered a life-altering accident in 2007, which left him paralyzed from the waist down. Determined to find a way to continue pursuing his passion for cultivation, Junas embarked on a new chapter in his life.
Rising above limitations with hydroponics
Unable to engage in traditional farming methods due to his limited range of motion, Junas discovered hydroponics—an innovative technique that relies on water-based cultivation rather than soil. Hydroponics provided Junas with a means to practice farming even with the physical limitations he faced.
Hydroponics, a soil-less farming method that utilizes nutrient-rich water, is particularly well-suited for individuals with difficulty moving. Its accessible design allows for customizable height configurations, eliminating the need for bending or reaching. With no heavy lifting or physically demanding tasks, hydroponics reduces strain and enables individuals with mobility limitations to engage in gardening activities comfortably. Hydroponics promotes independence and active participation for individuals with movement difficulties.
Junas employs the Kratky method, a simple form of passive hydroponics that requires no electricity or water circulation. In this method, plants are grown in containers filled with a nutrient solution, and their roots directly access the solution. The Kratky method is low-cost, easy to set up, and ideal for small-scale growing, making it accessible for beginners and those with limited spaces.
Turning to the internet for guidance and support, he immersed himself in online resources, such as YouTube videos and Facebook groups, to learn more about hydroponic gardening. Armed with newfound knowledge, Junas ventured into hydroponic gardening. Starting with ornamental plants in soil, he soon realized that hydroponics was the perfect fit for his circumstances. With a small space available for cultivation and the inability to lift heavy objects, hydroponics presented an ideal solution. Junas quickly harvested his first crops and experienced the joy of nurturing plants. This success fueled his determination to continue exploring and expanding his hydroponic garden.
High-value crops and sustainable practices
Junas strategically focuses on cultivating high-value crops like lettuce, considering the market demand and profitability. “When it comes to lettuce, the price is high. It costs P250 per kilo or P30 per cup or head. Unlike pechay, which is sold at a lower price,” he said in Tagalog.
While lettuce commands a higher price, Junas recognizes the potential in growing pechay as a viable and easily manageable crop. However, he faces a dilemma as resellers in the market prefer smaller pechay heads for retail purposes, whereas Junas aims for larger and heavier pechays to maximize profits when sold by kilo.
Within his hydroponic garden, Junas meticulously selects lettuce varieties that thrive in the warm climate of Zambales, where his backyard hydroponics setup is located. Heat-resistant lettuce varieties such as Olmetie and Lalique have become his preferred choices, ensuring yields in the given conditions.
Junas encountered a few challenges necessitating adjustments to his crop selection. With an increasing frequency of rainfall in his region, he faced difficulties in growing lettuce. To adapt to the changing climate, Junas experimented with alternative crops such as sili, okra, kangkong, saluyot, and basil. While lettuce remains a staple in his garden, the shift in crop selection reflects Junas’s adaptability and resilience in the face of environmental challenges.
Junas stated that the saluyot does not necessarily have to be planted in hydroponics because it may cost more for the nutrient solution. However, “instead of discarding the excess nutrient solutions from harvested containers, I utilize them to grow saluyot for personal consumption. This way, we no longer need to purchase it,” he said.
Junas observed that kangkong is highly resilient even during rainy weather and can survive when the sun is out. In contrast, Junas noticed that lettuce tends to have leggy growth when it lacks sufficient sunlight. Leggy growth refers to the tall and spindly condition of plants with elongated stems and sparse foliage, caused by insufficient light or overcrowded conditions.
When it comes to growing eggplants, Junas intentionally selected seedlings that are known to grow smaller in size. This choice was made to ensure they would not occupy too much space in the garden. Additionally, Junas experimented with cultivating watermelon, squash, and sigarilyas.
Learning by experimentation
Junas constantly explores new techniques and approaches. “For me, gardening is a major experiment. Even if I come across effective techniques from others, I don’t stop there. I continue to learn and explore new methods in order to further enhance my garden,” he said.
While the Kratky method, a simplified hydroponic technique suitable for beginners, serves as the foundation of his farming, Junas aspires to expand his knowledge by mastering other advanced techniques like the nutrient film technique (NFT).
Empowering others and sharing knowledge
Junas has served as the president of an organization for PWD called “Samahan ng may Kapansanan at Magulang na Aktibo sa Komunidad” for a total of six years. Additionally, Junas held the position of vice president in the PWD organization in their municipality for two years. Presently, Junas is the president of the PWD organization in their barangay.
Recently, Junas and their organization have incorporated the teaching of hydroponics into their community and PWD-focused planning. Junas had the opportunity to share their knowledge and experiences regarding hydroponics with their fellow PWD and the residents of their barangay. Junas considers this accomplishment as a significant achievement, as it allows them to contribute their expertise and empower others with their knowledge.
Despite the perception that hydroponics can be costly to start, Junas has adapted his methods to make hydroponics more accessible for individuals with limited financial resources. By creating DIY nutrient solutions and pesticides, he ensures affordability.
“Based on my experience of sharing hydroponics methods, many people perceive it as costly to start because of the need to purchase materials,” Junas said. “Most of my fellow PWD are home-based and lack a stable source of income to invest in hydroponics. As a result, I have shifted my methods. Previously, I used to buy commercial nutrient solutions, but now I have learned how to create DIY (do-it-yourself) nutrient solutions and pesticides to make hydroponics more affordable.”
Junas emphasizes that sufficient sunlight is a primary requirement for successful hydroponic cultivation. Additionally, they suggest the use of plastic transparent roofing to prevent rainwater from diluting the nutrient solution. Junas also recommends using ordinary cellophane as an alternative material for this purpose. Furthermore, they advise the utilization of net shades, particularly during summer days, to protect crops like lettuce.
Overcoming space constraints
Challenged by a small backyard space of only 15 square meters, Junas employs strategic plant rotation to maximize sunlight exposure for his crops. Initially, he started with PET plastic bottles before acquiring Styrofoam and grape boxes, repurposed as containers for his hydroponic systems.
The styrofoam boxes commonly referred to as tuna boxes can be purchased online. Junas also utilizes grape boxes, which are often found in vegetable and fruit markets. Since grape boxes have holes, Junas lines them with plastic sheets to retain water for hydroponic purposes.
When implementing the Kratky method, Junas mentions that any container capable of holding water can be used to grow plants. Examples include repurposed old pails with covers.
Junas currently has a yield of 300 heads of lettuce along with various other plants. He expresses satisfaction with their harvest and sells their produce exclusively at their sari-sari store. Junas relies on online marketing as the primary method to promote and sell their products.
However, he faces the challenge of introducing their hydroponically grown produce to a wider audience. They aim to reach more people and gain their support. Junas recognizes that there are still many individuals who are unfamiliar with the concept and methods of hydroponics.
Spreading the joy of gardening
For Junas, gardening is not just a means of sustenance; it brings him immense joy and serves as a stress-reliever. “Every morning, when I wake up, I am filled with excitement to check if my plants have sprouted. These moments serve as a wonderful stress reliever,” he said. “Amidst all the adversities and challenges we encounter, gardening brings me a unique kind of happiness. Previously, I had no plans, but now I constantly contemplate what I will plant next.”
As Junas continues his journey, he faces the challenge of introducing his produce to a wider audience unfamiliar with hydroponic farming. Education and awareness become key factors in garnering support for his products. Junas aspires to expand his garden and experiment with advanced hydroponic techniques like the nutrient film technique (NFT) in the pursuit of continuous growth and innovation.
Junas has encountered admiration from others for their ability to grow plants and remain productive. “These heartwarming messages will always stay with me. I feel that I am making a valuable contribution to society,” he said.
Junas firmly believes that there is always a way to produce food. “Even with my own limitations, I can grow food; what more can those with fully-abled bodies do? As a leader, I strive to demonstrate my productivity and make the most of my time,” he said.
In Junas’ opinion, “Unlike a lion’s teeth, our teeth are designed to consume both meat and plants. Based on my personal experience with my nieces and nephews, they tend to be picky eaters and often dislike vegetables, preferring instant meals instead,” he said.
This poses a challenge to educate the youth about the importance of consuming fruits and vegetables. Junas envisions that once fruits and vegetables become more appealing, more consumers will support the farming industry, leading to a flourishing farming economy and the promotion of a healthier diet.
Paving the way for inclusion and inspiration
During the month of July, Junas and others in the community celebrate the National Disability Prevention and Rehabilitation Week, also known as PWD week, in honor of Apolinario Mabini whose birthday falls on July 23. Mabini, a Filipino national hero, serves as an inspiring example, proving that disability is not a limitation when it comes to helping others and serving the country.
“To my fellow PWDs, let us persevere and continue moving forward. If you lack arms, use your feet to remain productive. If you, like me, paralyzed, utilize your hands to contribute in meaningful ways,” Junas said.
Junas’s unwavering spirit and productivity in the face of physical limitations have earned admiration from those around him. As a person with a disability, he sets an example that inspires and encourages others to overcome obstacles. Junas firmly believes that regardless of one’s condition, everyone has the potential to contribute and thrive. His dedication to cultivating nutritious produce and promoting healthy diets also highlights the importance of agriculture in shaping a sustainable and prosperous future.
Photo courtesy of J&J Hydroponics Backyard Gardening