Many young Filipinos nowadays do not often view farming as a viable and economically sustainable career path; an oversight that could threaten the future of food production. However, the pandemic made many realize the importance of growing their own food, just like a young teacher in Benguet.
Nick Loque from Tuba, Benguet was born to parents who are farmers. The influence of his parents inspired him to make backyard planting a hobby as early as his elementary days, though, like many of the youth in his generation, he eventually pursued a life outside agriculture.
In 2013, he graduated with a degree in BS Secondary Education, majoring in Physical Science from Benguet State University (BSU), and practiced teaching until 2021. Despite his teaching load, he continued his planting hobby until it became his primary activity when the pandemic happened.
Honeoye Strawberries grown in a hydroponic setup inside Dontog Technofarms’ greenhouse. (Dontog Technofarms)
A vertical farm built upon curiosity and passion for farming
To alleviate boredom during the height of the lockdowns, Loque turned to watch YouTube videos, not realizing that this would eventually change his life. "I realized that we need food; we have a scarcity of it," Loque shared. He first got curious about how hydroponics systems work. After watching a series of youtube videos showing the success stories and how-to's, he eventually decided to try it in his mini garden.
He initially planted lettuce and herbs in his 200-square-meter greenhouse in Saddle Poblacion, Tuba, Benguet in April 2021. This marked the establishment of Dontog Hydroponics. "Dontog'' means mountain in Kankaney. Despite not having a background in engineering and electronics, Loque built his hydroponics farm with the help of other local hydroponics enthusiasts and members of online communities. The hydroponics farm also garnered support from his cousins who are into agriculture.
Lettuce and some basil in an A Type system. (Dontog Technofarms)
If viewed from a traditional perspective, doing hydroponics in a province known for its rich and fertile environment and communities with long-held farming techniques may be a little off. Such was also the case with Loque's parents when he first introduced the method to the family. According to Loque, his family is quite doubtful about the effectiveness of hydroponics setup in growing crops. He shared that while growing lettuce using the hydroponics setup turned out to be good, growing strawberries was very challenging at the start. However, his later success in growing strawberries using the hydroponics setup eventually encouraged his family to try it out and eventually take care of some of the operations. Loque explained that for his parents, the setup has been proven to be less work intensive.
Bok Choy is grown in one of Dontog Technofarms’ hydroponic systems. (Dontog Technofarms)
Dontog hydroponics mainly grows lettuce and herbs for salads, and eventually developed appropriate methods to grow strawberries. According to Loque, the strawberries grown from hydroponics setup are comparable to those produced from traditional methods. However, in a controlled setup, farmers can control the crops' sweetness and pH level. Loque also shared that farming with a controlled environment also helped him manage problems with pests and diseases with very minimal use of pesticides, which he said are all-natural and safe.
Strawberries harvested from Dontog Technofarms’ hydroponic setup. (Dontog Technofarms)
What started as an out-of-curiosity project in April 2021 has turned into a multi-green house technology-aided farm named Dontog Technofarms. Loque’s approach integrates technology into agriculture for sustainability. They also started integrating drip irrigation into their vertical hydroponics setup, in which 20 heads can be planted per tower. In just about six square meters of space, they were able to put 62 towers, and plant 1,240 heads of bok choy, amounting to at least 40 kilograms at harvest. At present, they are growing strawberries, lettuce, bok choy, kale, chives, basil, arugula, chili and flat parsley. According to Loque, they can already harvest and sell up to 10 kilograms of strawberries a week, up to 40 kilograms of leafy vegetables per month (one cropping cycle), and up to 40 kilograms of kale a month.
Nick Loque holding his newly harvested strawberries grown from his hydroponics setup. (Dontog Technofarms)
A young farmer's challenges turned into opportunities
Similar to any disruptive innovation, many are still hesitant to try hydroponics, according to Loque. From technicalities to costs, there are several factors hindering many from trying this farming method. However, Loque shared that anyone interested in hydroponics need not to build complicated and costly systems at first. There are already readily-available local starter kits worth around 500 to 1,000 pesos that can house 8-12 small plants. Aside from the increasing availability of materials, hydroponics communities are already booming in different parts of the country and often share best practices online.
San Andreas Strawberry in one of Nick Loque’s customized vertical towers. (Dontog Technofarms)
Arugula placed in an elevated raised bed inside one of Dontog Technofarms’ greenhouses. (Dontog Technofarms)
Having a hydroponics farm also requires just a minimal amount of space and because of its controlled environment, it also requires less labor than traditional farming. While there is still a need for water and power sources, Loque shared that their hydroponics setup requires less water because of its efficient irrigation system and requires only a minimal amount of power because of its hybrid energy setup.Genovese Basil grows in a Kratky hydroponic method. (Dontog Technofarms)
Garnering consumer and government support is also a challenging task faced by hydroponics communities in the Philippines. However, Loque shared that the Department of Agriculture (DA) has already been supportive of these kinds of innovations, spreading the message through caravans, fora, and workshops. One of those activities is DA's Young Farmers’ Challenge, where Loque's Dontog Technofarms eventually made it to the Top 3 in the Benguet Provincial level of the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR). However, there is still a need to help farmers gain a better perspective of the whole value chain so that they can grow crops efficiently with readily-targeted consumers.
Dontog Technofarms participates in Kabataang Agribiz Enterprises event by the Department of Agriculture (DA). (Dontog Technofarms)
Agriculture will eventually need to further integrate technology to ensure food security amidst the worsening effects of climate change. The likes of Nick Loque and several more young farmers may inspire the younger generations to appreciate agriculture's importance in society. As Loque said, "It would be best for them if even if they don't venture into agriculture, they do something for agriculture. They create programs that can help the agriculture sector. You don't have to be a farmer to help the agriculture sector."
Photos courtesy of Nick Loque of Dontog Technofarms