It’s easy to go green
“I think in three years’ time, puwede nang maging fully digital ang farming systems. Ngayon, sobrang dami nang interesado, ang problema lang financing. But then, maraming gustong mag-finance sa agriculture projects.”
In one of his field visits, former Agriculture secretary William Dar was attracted to an unlikely destination in Tagaytay City.
Not quite on the radar, the farm of Turbulent Drip Sales Inc. was not intended to become an agri-tourism site.
The visit of the Agriculture secretary would be the farm’s first famous stamp of approval, but for more technical reasons.
Established in 2012 by agricultural engineer Emie Siojo, the company behind the farm was meant to aid his ongoing greenhouse projects for the government and for developmental institutions such as the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), a grantee of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Since then, Siojo has welcomed curious onlookers into his integrated demo farm which features greenhouses, a quail and chicken coop, fishponds, an odorless piggery, and a flowering of vibrant and plump bell peppers which surround his residence that doubles as his office.
The demo farm is a photogenic curiosity, reviving the arduous catch-up game of the Philippines with the rest of Southeast Asia in agricultural technology, greenhouse and smart farming systems.
Siojo runs the farm as a multiple demo site for hydroponics, aquaponics and irrigation technologies.
The demo output is stunning.
Tendrils of cherry tomatoes and varieties of lettuce fanning out from vertical farming systems in the greenhouses are eye-catching optics against the current vegetable crisis in the country, presently demoralized by the unbelievable prices and scarcity of red onions and other commodities.
The plumpness and varied palette of the bell peppers paint a rosier potential for the Philippines’ yet lofty aspiration to food self-sufficiency.
Siojo trained as an agricultural engineer at Central Philippines University in Iloilo City. He had wanted to be a mechanical engineer, but he pounced on a scholarship opportunity in agricultural engineering.
Straight from graduation, he was hired in Planters Products Inc., a producer of agrochemical inputs, for 14 months.
He subsequently worked for Netafim, an Israeli firm specializing in irrigation solutions.
Siojo established his own firm after Netafim was forced to shut down in 2009 due to the global recession.
Siojo recently co-organized a seminar on smart greenhouse farming solutions powered by the Internet of Things, with no less than the Ambassador of Israel to the Philippines Ilan Fluss in attendance.
Greenhouse farming in the Philippines is yet a far cry from what they have in Vietnam and Thailand, which ironically managed to revolutionize their agriculture after sending their technicians and scholars to IRRI in Laguna.
Siojo had traveled far and wide and had marveled at the extent hydroponics systems are utilized in Thailand and the vast indoor farms he saw in Taiwan.
Vietnam’s agri-tourism boasts of hectares of greenhouses.
“We have been doing greenhouses nationwide, for mostly private sector and government clients,” he shared.
From flowers to food
Turbulent’s farm was growing flowers until the Covid pandemic hit in 2020.
Demand for flowers drastically declined due to the lockdown and strict quarantine rules that included the prohibition of holding funerals and wakes.
“We had to convert our demo farm into vegetable production with different systems such as hydroponic, soilless and soil-based.”
Seed companies also sought partnerships with Turbulent.
The Plant, Plant, Plant program under Secretary Dar and the former Cabinet member’s visit to his farm brought in more visitors to Siojo’s farm.
“That was when our investor base increased,” he recalled. “They were willing to invest, until naging commercial farming. So nung pandemic, lumakas pa ang [company] namin. We had clients from North Luzon, Mindanao and Visayas. Our operations became nationwide. Nakatulong din kasi our clients dito nagte-training sa amin.”
“When we sell greenhouses to the clients, hindi siya partial. We give them the total package,” he said, as if the following tasks were easy as pie: land development, securing the necessary permits, building the structure, planting, and assistance from Turbulent’s in-house agriculturists for three months.
“Hanggang sa pagbenta (including sales),” he topped off. Clients are treated to unlimited online consultations after the three-month handholding.
“Right now, consistent na ‘yung importation natin ng greenhouse materials. So kung may problema ang mga kliyente, makakapag-repair agad tayo, lalo na ‘pag may typhoon.”
Greenhouses do bear the wrath of typhoons, but they are not destroyed in one sweep the way vegetables and other crops planted in open fields are.
Hence, greenhouse farming is seen as a climate-adaptive technique and has already been normalized in countries to maximize agricultural land area.
“Dire-diretso ‘yung tulong sa farmers kapag, halimbawa, napupunit ‘yung plastics kapag may super typhoons. Consistent ang stocks [of the material],” the engineer said, probably the most unruffled man in the face of the destructive typhoons wreaking billions of pesos in damage to the Philippine agriculture sector yearly.
Contrary to initial perception, the four “walls” of greenhouses do not limit production volume. With crops safehoused during extreme weather events, greenhouses could be scaled commercially to enhance local productivity.
The space inside each one is maximized through the combination of drip irrigation systems and vertical farming configurations, such as lettuce towers.
Siojo is not one to think small.
“With our biggest client, East-West seeds, which sells seeds for research, we are developing hectares and hectares of greenhouses.
“On the side of government naman, there is demand for systems to support organic farming. ‘Pag naka-greenhouse ka kasi, less ‘yung pests.”
The hydroponics systems he adopted could transform farming practices and move along urban agriculture. These are suitable for year-round indoor farming and totally resist severe weather conditions.
“Medyo huli na tayo dito [sa indoor vertical farming systems],” he said.
But the forward-looking Turbulent had broken in on the scale of opportunity, helping Victoria Court owner Angie Mead King build their Tower Farm in Caliraya, Quezon.
Turbulent installed the same systems in rooftops of wet markets in Cabuyao. One of the largest indoor farms it constructed was from a 40-footer container powered by solar energy.
Siojo remains calm amid the logistical challenges of securing the technologies.
The world economy exerts direct constraints on cost-effectivity, especially as the dollar appreciates.
“Recently, those are challenges to our supplies. Delivery costs are higher; it now takes longer because there are fewer shipments from Israel.
Shipments tend to stop in Singapore or Malaysia. So now, from the usual 60 days, supply shipments take around 75 days,” he said.
“When I visited Vietnam, I saw thousands of hectares of greenhouses,” he recalled. “Tayo, hundreds pa lang.”
Greenhouses would have allowed consistent, year-round production. And this would have encouraged stability in matching market demand with supply.
“Dito, parang guerrilla [ang farming]. Minsan meron, minsan wala,” he remarked.
It’s an uphill battle toward recreating the scale of greenhouse plantations of melons in Thailand, which run along 30 hectares in a single farm alone. Such level of production has powered the seductive food and beverage industry along the streets of Bangkok, havens of affordable, refreshing fruit shakes, which welcomed the most number of tourists in the world in 2021.
These comparisons do not discount local potential. Siojo pointed out government support in this growth area, with financing support programs from the Agricultural Credit and Policy Council (ACPC) of the Department of Agriculture, and another program, the Agricultural Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (ACEF).
With the right momentum, greenhouse technologies could also prevent the exodus of human resource from agriculture.
Siojo said luring the youth to farming requires cutting out the most taxing labor.
“Through the Internet of Things, farming can be at our fingertips,” he said. He then saw to it that his greenhouses and vertical farming systems are moving toward scaled digitalization, through technology partners from Israel and India.
“I think in three years’ time, puwede nang maging fully digital ang farming systems,” he predicted.
“Ngayon, sobrang dami nang interesado, ang problema lang financing. But then, maraming gustong mag-finance sa agriculture projects.”
Investors and big-name businesses have approached Turbulent, and the engineer puts stock in local potential in vegetable growing and high-value crops production.
The high-tech agricultural practice is one of those sexy ideas that demand focus and relentless follow-through. The engineer then clued in greenhouse and indoor farming novices on what it takes.
“Ang tanong … gusto n’yo ba talaga? Start small. Kung pang healthy living lang ang objective, OK ‘yan. Kung pang-business, determine the market, and how you can value-add, then go. Stick to commercial growing.”
Words to consider from an engineer’s mind clicking into gear.
The late President Ramon Magsaysay
From Planters Products: P3,500 in December 1992
A simple prayer and a cup of hot lemon
A charm to talk to my team, especially on the downline
To help Filipino farmers elevate their lives and social status
Life is too short, enjoy every bit of it.