Putting passion into motion: How a young man’s childhood interest in agriculture turned into a career in government service

There’s a quote attributed to Mark Twain that says, “Find a job you like doing and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

In Jose Diego Roxas’ case, it was more about finding work within his passion, which is agriculture, and learning to pivot when it best suited him. 

At 26 years old, Roxas has already gone through several ventures, all of them related to his passion for growing things.

He started Hearticulture Hydroponics and Halamans in his family home in Paranaque during the pandemic and managed to take advantage of the plantito and plantita wave, when people, looking for things to do while quarantined at home, turned to cultivating plants. “It had to close down because we got busy with work and I’d rather focus on  nicer things instead of just selling stuff. I’d rather just plant,” he said. “I still do hydroponics, I still plant vegetables, not much on the business side of things.”

Roxas built his own hydroponic setup using PVC pipes, wood, and plastic roofing. (Diego Roxas)

A youthful passion

Roxas, who is the spokesperson of the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI), discovered cultivation around grade five, when his class was assigned to plant munggo as a science project.

Like many grade schoolers, he didn’t think much of the project at first and neglected the plant, but was surprised when despite this, one of the seeds began to flourish, then flower. 

“When I saw it flower, it got my attention… That flower turned into a pod [and{ when the pod dried up, I opened it, there were mung bean seeds. So that’s where the seeds come from. Not manufactured in a factory but…  from the plants themselves. So that gave me a sense of the life cycle of a mung bean. That’s where my interest started.”

His parents, who worked in corporate, encouraged this interest. “…even if I’m not successful, they didn’t mind. They just wanted me to experience planting,” he said. 

His foray into hydroponics began in 2015, just after graduating from high school. This was the year the academic calendar shifted to the K to 12 curriculum, which meant there was six months in between his high school graduation and the beginning of college. 

What a month can do: newly planted lettuce seeds beside lettuce plants ready for harvest. (Diego Roxas)

“I wanted to plant but I felt frustrated because the plants that I would grow are small, even if I applied fertilizer,” he shared in Taglish. Someone suggested hydroponics, which led him to discover Simple Nutrient Addition Program (SNAP) hydroponics, a low-cost hydroponics system developed by Primitivo Jose Santos and Dr. Eureka Teresa Ocampo of the University of the Philippines Los Banos (UPLB) Institute of Plant Breeding with the help of Bureau of Agricultural Research of the Department of Agriculture. He started with lettuce, moving on to cherry tomatoes, then hot peppers and herbs. Engaging in SNAP hydroponics requires using a solution which can be bought at UPLB. “I gained confidence in planting through hydroponics,” he said. 

These experiences led him to taking up agriculture in UPLB, where he graduated with Latin honors.

The idea for a business

In college he joined the UP Genetic Researchers and Agricultural Innovators Society (UP GRAINS), where, because of their outreach programs, he managed to hone his skills in lecturing. It was also here where he realized that he had a skill in encouraging people to give planting a try. 

“[We had an] event [in 2018] where the whole org would go out of town just to host a boot camp in a high school. So we’re talking of 40 members in a rented bus going to a province to lecture to [about] 300, 500 [grade 7-12] students,” he shared. “Then one of the seniors suggested, why don’t you talk about hydroponics? …it was a big hit. The students loved it, even the teachers.”

Roxas uses the hydroponics setup to grow different types of herbs and vegetables. (Diego Roxas)

Encouraged by his talk, the teachers and students wanted to know where to buy the products needed to start using the SNAP hydroponics system. The organization managed to get the SNAP manufacturers to sponsor 10 sets, but they weren’t enough. Soon, Roxas found himself selling SNAP kits and accessories, as well as conducting free training sessions, mostly to public schools. “I would go to the school, bring the product, demonstrate how it works, and they [would] buy it from me. That’s when the small business took off—selling the product and having it shipped. That was during college.”

After he graduated in 2019, he tried going into the business full time. Unfortunately, this coincided with the boom in the popularity of hydroponics, which meant he began to lose to businessmen with more capital and resources. “That’s when I decided that I had to work. I couldn’t keep up with their [small] margins [and deep] pockets.” 

He ended up working for the BPI just before the pandemic hit.

Encouraging others during a time of crisis

The Covid-19 pandemic had the whale world on lockdown for two years. Many face to face activities had to be done remotely. Forced to stay home for everyone’s safety, many people turned to planting as a hobby. There was a renewed interest in hydroponics, and Roxas was in the right place at the right time to make full use of the abilities he had honed in college. 

“Whenever they needed someone to lecture on hydroponics, I was the one asked to conduct it,” he said. 

He continued to sell SNAP kits and solution during lockdown, going as far as to attach Department of Agriculture (DA) memoranda stating that these were agricultural products to the kits so that riders would be allowed to cross borders.  But because there was a huge demand for online seminars on hydroponics, he chose to focus on this instead, especially since he was beginning to realize that he wasn’t really interested in running a retail business. “I wanted to plant, not to pack, so I focused on being a speaker,” he said. “It was more fulfilling to teach.”

He continued to grow vegetables hydroponically and in the soil in a lot next door for the household’s consumption and sometimes to sell. He constructed the hydroponic setup himself using PVC pipes, wood, and plastic roofing.  As of the interview, he was growing rosemary and bok choy because these were the most requested by his customers.  

Roxas also grows herbs such as rosemary in his hydroponics setup. (Diego Roxas)

He also grows ornamental plants like pothos and Caladiums, and is most known for his petunias, which are soil grown indoors but which use the principles of hydroponic plant nutrition. “What I learned from hydroponics, how plants are fed, I applied it in conventional soil growing and it worked for me,” he said. “For example, I grow petunias in soil with specialized lighting. Its blooms are in a compact form and I can sell them at a higher price.” 

Roxas devised a soil irrigation setup that uses hydroponics principles to water crops grown in soil. In this case, the pots are watered from below. (Diego Roxas)

The petunias go for about P150 a piece, though the price can go lower when bought in bulk. During lockdown, he would make around P2000-3000 a month, but now that the world is trying to return to normalcy, this has trickled down to about P500-P1000 a month. “[My plants are] not overpriced… and there are no middlemen costs,” he said. “But I also don’t sell at a low price because my buyer has the assurance that  I know how the plant grew up and I can confidently tell you that the plant is in good condition.”

Some of the petunias Roxas sells are grown indoors. (Diego Roxas)

READ: TLC: 5 tips on caring for petunias

Passion into motion

He’s also managed to use his passion for agriculture and experimentation to help communities. 

When he was in college, he chanced upon a social media post of Ilocos farmers staring at their spoiled rice harvest, which they had laid out on the highway to dry, but instead had gotten soaked in the rain. He asked his girlfriend, who comes from a rice farming community, if this was a problem they encountered, and she said yes. He took this as a challenge and did some research. He found that commercially available flatbed dryers cost around 400,000 pesos, which was way beyond anyone’s budget, even if they were to raise funds for it. “It would be a very uphill battle to raise such an amount,” he said in Taglish.

Roxas sourced funds to build a flatbed dryer for the farmers of his girlfriend’s hometown. (Diego Roxas)

He stumbled on literature from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) that outlined a blueprint for building a flatbed dryer from scratch using low cost, readily available materials. Building it would cost around 20,000 pesos, 30,000 pesos if you include R&D expenses. 

He pitched the project, which he called Project Payo, to friends, relatives, and his girlfriend’s family. They were interested, but didn’t want to invest in anything unless they were sure it would work. Eventually, they decided to split the cost—he would raise funds for the materials and his girlfriend’s family would cover the cost of labor. 

Roxas managed to raise the money through donations, and they had the machine prefabricated, using electricity instead of the recommended LPG to run it. They were worried about its slow drying rate at first, until a friend introduced them to an LPG manufacturer, who offered to sponsor a tank that they could use to experiment on. Because of this, they were able to adjust their specifications, “And that’s when it took off,” Roxas said. “It performed as expected according to our needs.”

The dryer came in handy during the next rainy season, when many farmers lined up to use the dryer. The demand was so big, they weren’t able to service all of them. “We were able to service about a hundred or hundred sixty sacks, but not all,” he shared. 

A dealer expressed regret at not asking to have one built as well. Roxas said he was free to copy the Project Payo dryer. “I don’t own the patent, I don’t own the design, it’s a free design,” he said. Roxas counts the project a success because “the farmers accepted it because it’s low cost and [using it] is not heavy on the pocket for them.”

Find out where your food comes from

At a time when there is a dearth of young people entering the agriculture industry, understanding how our food is grown and distributed has become more important than ever. 

“My immediate plan is to hopefully gat a Masters degree and to continue training people and advocating for them to plant their own food,” Roxas said. “I’m not saying you should plant food to totally replace [what you buy in the] market, what I’m saying is you should learn to plant and grow food for you to have a better appreciation of the hardships involved in producing food.”

He still sells petunias on the side, and continues to find ways to make urban agriculture interesting to the regular Filipino. “What I love most is the end result. The satisfaction that after months of cultivating, of taking care, monitoring, you end up with a finished product that may not always be better than the ones in the market but it’s consumable. It has value to you [and] it also has a benefit to you as a consumer,” he said. “I also enjoy experimenting. There are set ways… to grow plants but I…try to explore… other ways [to] grow a certain plant.”

He hopes more people understand the importance of the agriculture industry. “We cannot live without agri. Let’s not just see agri as mere planting and taking care of animals. There is so much in agri such as policy, technicals, economics,” he said. “I don’t think it’s just for green thumbs or just for those who [like animals or plants]. It’s for everyone in the sense that one’s expertise could be applied in agri one way or another. For example, if you’re a lawyer, you could apply it by helping out farmers… Or if you’re a doctor, you could advocate for plants that have health benefits… Agriculture affects all of us.” 

Photos courtesy of Diego Roxas

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Yvette Tan
Yvette Tan is Agriculture magazine's managing editor Agriculture.com.ph’s web editor. She is an award-winning writer who likes to eat, travel, and listen to stories about the strange and supernatural. She is dedicated to encouraging people to push for sustainable food sources and is an advocate of food security, food sovereignty, and the preservation of community foodways.

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