Photographer and graphic designer transforms garage into an urban hydroponics garden

Since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out early in 2020, people had to find different avenues to cope with current circumstances. Among these efforts are from people who are concerned about the availability of food since quarantines limited access to known food sources. 

Urban gardening became prevalent in cities and provinces because consumers saw this as a productive way to spend their time in quarantine. Not only did they find a way to pass the time, but they also had the means to keep themselves healthy and fed while cutting costs. 

Jorem Catilo, a photographer and graphic designer by profession, is among the many urban gardeners who decided to grow food during the pandemic. But like the many city folks, he didn’t have the proper conditions to start gardening.

Jorem Catilo posing with his daughters in their urban hydroponics farm. (Photo from The Garage Farmer on Facebook)

It wasn’t until he started browsing through YouTube that he got the idea of using hydroponics to make his urban gardening dream possible. After seeing a video on aeroponics, he sought another way to replicate this agricultural method, leading him to hydroponics. 

Finding the right variables 

After seeing that several farms in the Philippines practice hydroponics, Catilo began researching how he can do the same at home, specifically, in his garage. 

His research included watching videos on the topic and joining local hydroponics groups. One group was led by people from the University of the Philippines Los Baños who developed a locally-made nutrient solution called SNAP. 

(Read about SNAP hydroponics here

Catilo found the group to be helpful because they also provided online workshops where he learned the basics to create a hydroponics setup at home. 

“It was established last year, around May to June, and the inspiration came from challenging myself to see if I can grow greens using this method. I’ve never had a green thumb and this is my first time growing something from seeds,” Catilo said. 

He started the setup using the basic materials from the workshop which are styrofoam boxes and cups. From there, he started germinating seedlings and exploring areas around his house where he could locate his hydroponics setup. 

The first location was at the front of their house. Unfortunately, it didn’t bear good results since the greens grew small and only weighed a few grams. Catilo decided to intensify his efforts and switch to a more advanced setup that uses pumps. 

Around this time, major hardware stores were reopening, allowing Catilo to buy the materials he needed.

Once major hardware stores reopened, Catilo bought the materials he needed to create an advanced hydroponics setup.

Catilo also relocated his setup to their garage which measures around 16 to 17 square meters. Unlike his first attempt, growing greens in the garage using the new hydroponics setup bore great results.

After experimenting on the system and location, Catilo decided to move his advanced hydroponics setup to their garage,

Presently, his hydroponics farm produces 1,000 to 1,200 heads of greens every month. 

Focusing on greens

According to Catilo, his farm is focused on producing different varieties of greens. This includes lettuce, arugula, as well as local greens like pechay and mustasa. But because the pechay and mustasa had a lower selling price compared to lettuce and arugula, he decided to focus more on the higher-value crops.

Catilo focuses on growing greens like lettuce because of several reasons such as turnaround time and market demand.

He also tried growing mizuna, a Japanese green, but it didn’t have a high demand from consumers. 

Catilo shared that his reason for focusing on greens was driven by market demand. Unlike fruiting vegetables, greens have a faster turnaround time which is more profitable and sustainable. 

Another reason is that growing greens require less maintenance. Hydroponics systems used for growing greens can be refreshed and restarted every three weeks, thus eliminating pest problems. 

Besides constantly cleaning the hydroponics system after harvesting, Catilo also enclosed his farm with insect nets to prevent pests from getting close to the produce. He also uses an unorthodox pest control method of situating carnivorous plants around the growing area to catch any insects as naturally as possible. 

“We also make sure we’re clean and use the right PPE before we approach the farm and harvest the greens,” Catilo added. 

As Catilo continued to sell his farm’s products, he eventually thought of taking things to the next level. Instead of selling his farm’s produce as is, he created a salad mix option that uses all of the varieties of greens available. 

This way, he has better control of how much of a variety goes into one pack of salad mix so that all of the produce in the week will be used instead of going to waste. 

Some marketing tips 

Identifying market demands is one of the reasons behind the success of Catilo’s garage farm. And despite the pandemic, he earns a good profit from selling his fresh produce. He offers some tips on how other urban farmers can do the same. 

First, he advises urban gardeners to start small when it comes to their marketing efforts. This means tapping into their close networks such as family, friends, and neighbors. 

He shares that selling within proximity has several benefits such as providing clients with fresh produce, minimizing costs in transporting produce, and it promotes sustainability. 

Once the closest networks have been exhausted, Catilo said that urban farmers can then consider expanding their efforts and tap into a different yet still profitable market. 

Next, he said that farmers should use the internet to their advantage by establishing an online presence. This means creating a social media page about their farm to inform consumers about their products and other unique selling points.

Posting flattering pictures of fresh produce can help boost a farm's sales.

Catilo practices direct selling but he also maintains an online presence. Not only does this enable him to attract more buyers, but it also gives him the chance to pre-sell his produce before the harvest date. 

Social media is a good platform where urban farmers who want to become agripreneurs can update their customers about the availability of their products and when they can receive them. This also allows them to plan their farm’s products to make sure that all will be sold to prevent them from going to waste.

Catilo created a Facebook account called The Garage Farmer where he markets his farm's fresh produce.

“If you have regular customers who you know will order from you every week or so, offer them subscription services,” Catilo said. 

A subscription can relieve customers of having to consistently schedule their orders and they can sometimes be given special rates to entice them to keep their subscriptions for a longer time. 

Urban gardening using hydroponics may have started as a personal challenge for Catilo, but because he was determined to see it through and ability to adapt to the market, he found a sustainable avenue to earn money while providing his community with fresh, healthy greens. 

For more information, visit The Garage Farmer on Facebook.

Photos courtesy of Jorem Catilo

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