Starweek Magazine

Let’s get Down to Earth

Ida Anita Q. del Mundo - The Philippine Star
Let�s get Down to Earth
Whether it's acres of land or just a bucket, you canm have a garden to grow food.

No garden? No problem. Social enterprise Down to Earth has been teaching more and more likeminded individuals about backyard and urban farming, turning unused spaces into productive gardens. “I grew up in a farming family, so I’m kind of used to the complexity of a farm business,” says Down to Earth’s Nicolo Aberasturi.

The family farm is located in Dahilayan, Bukidnon, where they grow biodynamic vegetables and raise local grass-fed cattle, heritage free-range pork, lamb and native poultry. “We are always mindful of the living forces of nature. We aim to have a farm that upholds the sources of life, is sustainable and wastes little or nothing. We recognize ecological balance and do not feel the need to rely on chemicals, synthetics or pesticides, relying instead on nature itself to do its healing work for us.”

Those who want to enjoy Down to Earth’s fresh produce can find it at supermarkets and the Down to Earth Farm Café in Yakal street, San Antonio Village, Makati.

“This is an extension of our farm,” says Aberasturi. “We package a lot of the salads here that we deliver to restaurants, supermarkets and hotels.”

What was supposed to be their office space was converted into a small café when people in the area started asking for the grass-fed beef burgers that Down to Earth sells at weekend markets.

“We call ourselves a farm store,” says Aberasturi, noting the rustic vibe. The small café offers the freshest salads with edible flowers, burgers, falafels and more, all from the farm in Bukidnon.

More importantly, Down to Earth hosts workshops on farming. “When we moved here, we decided to finally grow a lot in a small area,” says Aberasturi.

“It has always been our advocacy to really grow our own food,” he says. As entrepreneurs in the organic movement, he shares, it is inevitable to receive comments about how expensive organic produce is.

Aberasturi and his family decided to try growing their own food in their 600-square meter backyard. “If I can do it, I can convince others,” he says.

It was also important for them to develop a way to grow produce that also helps clean the environment. “50 to 70 percent of our trash can be composted,” says Aberasturi.

“Just rice alone that we throw away can feed the whole Batangas and Laguna – about 4 million people. That’s how much rice we throw away everyday in the whole Philippines,” he says.

Tending to their garden, the Aberasturis were eventually able to produce some 50 to 70 kilos of food a week. “If we had to, we could live on that already,” he says.

Soon after, they started giving workshops for friends and family, inviting them to their house. “Parang laru-laro lang (It was just fun and games),” says Aberasturi.

After showing the guests their thriving backyard farm, they would end with a meal made of ingredients from their backyard.

Aberasturi says the workshops grew from there with more people coming. They started holding them every quarter, then even more regularly. This year, they are giving workshops twice a month at the Down to Earth Farm Café, open to the general public.

“More and more people wanted to do this, more like a lifestyle change,” says Aberasturi on what he realized from the popularity of the workshops.

Eventually they saw themselves helping not only with kitchen gardens, but also making farm plans for people they met who had more space.

But not everyone has hectares of land to spare. In fact, Aberasturi says, “Along the way, we noticed that about 60 percent of those who joined the workshops didn’t have land. Most of them were living in condominiums and apartments. But they still wanted to grow and compost.”

So, Down to Earth shifted their focus to come up with something to cater to their needs, resulting in their flagship Urban Gardening workshop.

“This workshop is especially for those interested in starting their own urban kitchen garden in a patio, veranda or even indoors, while practicing sustainable, organic and biodynamic methods. We are combining the wisdom and hands-on expertise of real farmers and homesteader. For would-be and aspiring farmers, this is a rare and powerful learning opportunity.”

Their system starts with a compost bucket, says Aberasturi. “We designed it in such a way that they can already use them for ornamental plants.”

Then, the participants wanted more – so Aberasturi came up with a DIY sprouter. “Eventually it gave birth to our Tower Garden,” he says.

Aberasturi had several considerations when developing the Tower Garden for today’s busy but environmentally conscious city dweller.

“It had to be a compact system that can be fed easily by anybody and that can survive for at least a week,” he says, noting that most people nowadays travel often and would have to leave their Tower Gardens unattended for weeks at a time.

“This Tower Garden got us into homes and rooftops, places where we couldn’t go before,” he says, noting that there were already existing technologies and systems used in countries with colder climates, but they adapted it to suit the Philippines’ humid climate.

With the Tower Garden, worms feed the plants and process the compost materials.

Considering the high price of water in condominiums, a basin collects excess water and users just have to pour it back into the unit. The unit already comes with 50 sprouted plants to ensure a successful harvest. “All you have to do is water from the top,” says Aberasturi.

“We carved it in a way that the flow will easily trickle down and water each plant – drip irrigation without the pipes and the plastic.”

In many ways, Aberasturi has been able to use his experience in farming and scale it down for the urban setting.

Down to Earth also partners with the Girl Scouts of the Philippines as well as several orphanages and foundations, teaching the young children to grow their own food. “They inspired us so much,” says Aberasturi.

They also taught the students to collect seeds and complete the cycle, making them completely self-sustainable. “Hopefully we can turn those orphans into future farmers, even in urban areas,” Aberasturi says.

Recently, Down to Earth was recognized by BPI Foundation in the BPI Sinag Awards. Together with nine other local startups, Down to Earth won cash grants, mentorship and more in the foundation’s flagship program championing Filipino social enterprises.

Now on its fifth year, BPI Sinag Accelerate aims to discover, equip and empower social entrepreneurs with innovative business ideas towards uplifting Filipino communities.

This year’s ten winners will be entering a six-month mentorship program under BAYAN Academy for Social Entrepreneurship and Human Resource Development, as well as cash grants to help further grow their businesses.

“BPI helped us a lot,” says Aberasturi. “We started as just a passion. BPI put our foot on the ground. We have to run this as a business. It has to survive, not only because of passion. We’ll have more impact if we are able to make it really work and earn. Those are the things that really got us on our feet. It really got us down to earth.”

For more information, call (02) 8814-0854 or visit www.downtoearth.ph


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