A Glimpse into Iloilo’s Organic Farming Future

By marc belloni

From where I come from, organic agriculture is not something that is heavily supported by our government. Everyone likes to claim they’re “going green” now, but what they’re just doing is endless theorizing inside air-conditioned offices.

If you want to know what real organic farming is all about, then this is the ideal: you basically start a farm from the soil under your feet, and you just do your best to naturally grow vegetables and livestock without the aid of drugs, chemicals, or any other harmful and unethical methods defining the majority of modern farming nowadays.

Amazingly, there is indeed a place like that here in Iloilo. It’s hidden in Barangay Tigum in Pavia, if you’re so inclined to look for it, and its name is Orchard Valley. The most remarkable fact about all of it, though? The man behind this pioneering organic farm is one of the most recognizable businessmen in the city: Johnny Que. Yes, the same person who owns local supermarket giant Iloilo Supermart along with other well-known local restaurants and mass-market shops.

Orchard Valley Organic Farming - Project Iloilo

Que, 57, fits the typical bill of a “foodie”: he’s into French gastronomy (which is why we became such great friends) and, more importantly, a devotee of healthy eating. His interest in organic agriculture started when he made the jump to the family business full-time.

“[I] got involved with organic agriculture; more on answering our supermarket customers’ request for safe fruits and vegetables,” he answered in an email interview.

As luck would have it, his in-laws gave him an uncultivated rice field in Pavia where he was allowed to dabble with his project firsthand. Unfortunately, like many first-time farmers, he discovered that growing produce from scratch is anything but easy. “Being ignorant on farming [then], I thought it would be good for producing vegetables but since it’s mostly clay loam, the soil chocked the shallow vegetable roots,” he recalled.

Undeterred, he still went on with his project. However, he found the Philippine research for natural farming techniques to be lacking. It was also compounded by the rejection he received from the local government when he proposed the idea to them initially. “We did our own research (no thanks to the government) on what’s best to do to condition and make the soil more loose and pliable by using compost and a combination of fresh rice and charcoalized rice hull,” he shared.

Orchard Valley Organic Farming - Project Iloilo

He was indeed the first businessperson to bankroll a project of its kind in Iloilo, and he was keenly aware of the burden to prove that organic farming works. This led him to make this decision: “Being the first [organic farm in Iloilo], initially there were negative talks about our project. But we were able to overcome it by becoming transparent through opening the farm for visits so the customers can see for themselves how we grow the produce.”

If anything, his decision to open the farm to the public allowed Orchard Valley to gain a number of significant supporters for his project; many of whom are, tellingly, student agriculturists regularly visiting the farm for learning expeditions—the same people he was looking towards to carrying the project he started. That is not to say everything has been more manageable since, though.

“We have to plant live fences all throughout the property perimeters with various plants and trees to prevent and minimize contamination from neighboring inorganic farms,” Que narrated of the things they did when they were establishing the farm. “We [also] use deep well water and rain to water our plants,” he continued.

The kind of work his team is doing for the farm is staggering in its complexity. As proof, Que explained the kind of careful logistics they had to observe from the get-go: “We have apiaries to pollinate the flowers, we have intercropped cacao and coffee under the coconut and banana trees. We have raised dairy cows for its manure to feed to the earthworms to make vermicompost to be used to fertilized [sic] the plots.”

He continued, “We have planted a lot [of] bamboo for our future usage to prop and to make sheds.  We have planted acacia or rain tree as perimeter defense against typhoons and as food for our bees. Moringa has been planted at regular intervals not just as sun & wind breaker, but as milk booster for our cows aside from being a good source of calcium for our livestock.” This apparently allows the animals to produce greater quantities of milk with a sweeter taste.

Orchard Valley Organic Farming - Project Iloilo

He then followed it up with a response that was probably meant to drive the whole thing about how organic materials can be beneficial for daily living: “We have planted a lot of indigenous medicinal plants to cure and prevent diseases for our staff & animals and we also use this as a concoction to control pests and enrich the soil.”

In short, he describes Orchard Valley as a “fully integrated farm. With livestock plus fresh produce, our intention is to make it a closed-loop project; meaning almost everything we used would come from the farm if possible.”

This is certainly an ambitious project, which explains why so few businesses are willing to invest fully in organic farming as the norm rather than the alternative; Que even has his own agronomist and chemist working on the farm, and it’s likely that their services do not come cheap at all.

Que could have already applied for a patent if he so wishes, and the thought may have probably crossed his mind. However, he says that if Orchard Valley is going to uplift the local farming industry as a whole, then they might as well do it together with their fellow farmers.

“Our vision is to grow organic produce & livestock free of poisonous synthetic chemical & our advocacy is to help and teach the farmers to produce products safe for themselves, their customers and their families,” he explained. In hindsight, the decision to stick with “local” varieties of crops to ensure the sustenance of the farm seems appropriate when taken in context of Que’s last statement.

Johnny Que certainly seems confident of the way his vision is unfolding so far: “I believe that the Filipino farmer, if guided properly on organic agriculture, would have more productive farms and better income and eventually be freed from being hostages of the loan sharks and chemical and pesticides companies.”

His last pronouncement certainly sounds grand, but as long as I can get my fill of Italian basil with tomatoes and mozzarella and a filet of olive oil from his farm, then I’m good.

Photos courtesy of the author and Orchard Valley

Marc Belloni is a writer for Project Iloilo.