Lettuce be inspired: Couple from Negros Occidental venture into hydroponic farming by selling picked lettuce

By Benjamin Sarondo

Rica Presbitero and Michael Javier, a couple from Barangay San Enrique, Negros Occidental decided to run a hydroponic farm as a source of income aside from handling their family business and working in the BPO industry, respectively. Their farm, Balai Berde Farm, through a ventilated greenhouse, grows and harvests at least 1,014 high-quality lettuces divided into four croppings.

Rice Presbitero and Michael Javier carry newly-picked curly lettuce grown from hydroponic farming. (Danika Cinco)

Javier ventured into agribusiness after he was both inspired and alarmed by an online article he read predicting the decrease in food production that may lead to food insecurity in the Philippines. “The article mentioned that 10 to 15 years from now, the number of farmers will decline, since presently, the majority of the local farmers are aged around 50 to 55 years old,” Javier stated. In addition, what contributes to the crisis is the conversion of farmlands into commercial lands and establishments.

But with the information revolution and modernization of technology, this event may be anticipated and prevented. “We discovered the hydroponic technique as the most convenient farming method since it only requires less manpower and maintenance compared to traditional farming,” Presbitero said, adding that hydroponic farming will help produce products in a short span of time without compromising their quality.

Presbitero and Javier pose outside their 72-square-meter Balai Berde Farm. (Danika Cinco)

Hydroponics farming is a method of farming that utilizes water compared to traditional farming, which uses soil as a means to grow a plant or crop. It has six types that can fit different environments and challenges, which are wick systems, water culture, ebb and flow, drip, nutrient-film technology (NFT), and aeroponic systems.

After careful research, Javier and Presbitero employed the nutrient-film technology in their 72-square-meter and 20-foot-tall ventilated greenhouse farm. And since January 2023, they have produced at least 1,014 lettuce, in different varieties, which are curly lettuce, red butterhead, and romaine. 

Balai Berde Farm, a ventilated greenhouse farm located in Barangay San Enrique, Negros Occidental. (Danika Cinco)

READ: Here are some kinds of lettuce you can plant, grow, and harvest

Trailing the beginning

The couple discovered hydroponic farming during the pandemic while browsing the internet. They instantly became interested since they had become more cautious and conscious of their food intake due to fear of the widespread virus.

“We did our own research about hydroponic farming and became interested in the process of growing plants and crops and how it is different from the traditional method,” Presbitero said. 

But what influenced them the most was the fact that most people who started hydroponic farming did not have any knowledge about the method. “Maybe we can do it as well,” Presbitero shared. 

Presbitero has a background in agriculture, since her family cultivates rice and sugarcane and her father graduated with a degree in Agribusiness. Farming is close to Presibtero’s heart and was instilled in her from a young age because of its importance to people’s lives.

Coco peat soil is used as a growing medium in hydroponics. (Danika Cinco)

Javier, however, confessed that he has very little knowledge, experience, or skills in agriculture. He also shared that lettuce is the first plant he has planted in his life.

The couple started hydroponic farming in front of their house. They considered it a project at first since they were focusing on trial and error. But after successfully growing 50 to 70 heads of lettuce, the project turned into a business and another source of income aside from their present jobs. 

Javier stated, “After a few months of growing lettuce in the front of our house, we then moved into a small greenhouse, and just last January we expanded to a bigger greenhouse and utilized Nutrient-film technology.”

Balai Berde Farm owners pose in their first established greenhouse farm. (Rica Presbitero)

Sustaining quality 

Since Javier works in the BPO industry while Presbitero manages their family businesses, the couple hired a farm assistant manages the farm when both of them are not available.

Presbitero and Javier plant lettuce seeds. (Danika Cinco)

Presbitero stated, “This is also important to the community because it can give opportunities to people, especially those who are seeking a job.”

But the couple always makes time to visit the farm and is very hands-on with checking the status of their plants, ensuring that there are no insects, pests, or fungi to provide excellent-quality lettuce. Aside from this, the work in Balai Berde includes pulling in the shade nets to provide sunlight to the plants since, aside from water, hydroponic farming requires sunlight, as well as checking the level of nutrients in the reservoir every two to three days and cleaning the system. While Presbitero highlighted, “Time management is the key.”

Javier pulls in the shade nets so the lettuce can be exposed to sunlight. (Danika Cinco)

“So far, so good,” Javier said. They are nearing the end of the growing period of their lettuces, and since people have discovered Balai Berde, a lot are buying their products online while others are personally visiting the farm to learn about the products, processes, and hydroponic techniques. They also allow their customers to pick the lettuce for themselves.

Lettuce seeds are planted in a styrofoam cup. (Danika Cinco)

Presbitero mentioned that it is fulfilling when, with every harvest, they provide healthy and quality lettuce, and it is also rewarding when people compliment their products. Javier gets a sense of satisfaction from imparting knowledge to the people.

Curly lettuce, 60% of the total plants at Balai Berde Farm, are ready for harvesting. (Danika Cinco)

“When there are visitations on the farm, we always make time to personally meet them. Our main goal is to educate them about agriculture, particularly about hydroponic farming, including the process of the lettuce they purchase,” Javier explained.

Growing opportunities

Now that more people are attracted to Balai Berde Farm, especially those who belong to their community, the couple plans to expand their business by planting other types of plants such as basil, arugula, and cherry tomatoes to try something fresh and new and, of course, to increase their income. Hydroponics farming also opened conversation in their community by showcasing how plants can also grow and be harvested while their roots are submerged in water. 

Javier converses with a farm visitor about hydroponic farming. (Danika Cinco)

Presbitero said, “A lot became curious with how hydroponic farming was uniquely effective in growing plants by the use of water and not the usual way of planting what they usually eat.” This is an opportunity to entice other people to strive for this farming method, as it can serve as their own source of food and income.

Another opportunity they open is supporting co-farmers in Negros Occidental. Since hydroponic farming requires a medium to support its seedlings, instead of using soil foam and rock wool cubes, they utilize cocopeat, a natural fiber made out of coconut husks, which they purchase from a coconut farmer to help support others’ businesses. Aside from the lettuce they sell, they also use their platform to promote cocopeat generated by coconut farmers in their area.

Presbitero and Javier welcome farm visitors to Balai Berde Farm. (Danika Cinco)

Javier and Presbitero were unfamiliar and unskilled at first when they started their home-based hydroponic farm, and they are highly recommending this farming method since it does not require a lot of investment for starters. “The materials about learning hydroponic farming are available online, and the tutorials can also be accessed freely on the internet, so it will be easy for people to learn and understand this method.” In the financial aspect, the materials are readily available and convenient since they are sold at low prices without the quality being compromised. 

Aside from the positive feedback and income they gain from selling lettuce from Balai Berde Farm, the couple shared that their drive to continue to expand their business is to reach more communities. The couple advocates teaching and encouraging other people that they can also produce food for themselves at home through hydroponic farming.

Photo courtesy of Danika Cinco

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