The farmer in the firehouse: A firefighter inspires the next generation through farming

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Eggplant farming can be a profitable business. (Jerry D'Agri Integrated Farm)

Jerry Mar Rafael is a 28-year-old farmer from San Mateo, Isabela. While also serving as a firefighter at the Bureau of Fire Protection, Jerry is also the proud owner of Jerry D'Agri Integrated Farm.

Born and raised in a farming family, Jerry developed a deep-rooted connection with growing crops from an early age. His upbringing led him to pursue a degree in agriculture at Isabela State University. Even during his college years, Jerry's entrepreneurial spirit was evident as he began selling seedlings and vegetables while still a student.

In 2021, Jerry joined the Young Farmer’s Challenge, the competitive grant program of the Department of Agriculture aimed to support young individuals in launching new agri-fishery enterprises. Jerry's proposal is a farming production model that employs zero waste.

Jerry is one of the national awardees who received a grant. He wisely invested the money into farming, diligently working the land until he generated enough income to purchase his own farm land where he currently engages in agricultural activities.

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Vermicasts is an organic fertilizer derived from African Night Crawlers manure.  (Jerry D'Agri Integrated Farm)

“I believe I won the competition due to my efforts to influence youth engagement in agriculture,” Jerry said in Tagalog. “I served as the president of the 4H club, which is a part of the agricultural extension program led by the Department of Agriculture.” This program aims to offer young people opportunities to develop life skills through agriculture.

Seedling and vegetable production

Jerry engages in vegetable seedling production. This idea was inspired by the practice of some farms in Bulacan where they supply seedlings to other nearby farmers. Jerry created his own planting mediums using a mixture of vermicast, carbonized rice hull, and cocopeat. The seedlings were sold to vegetable farmers he had encountered during his time as a field agronomist for a private company.

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Seedlings grown in planting trays. (Jerry D'Agri Integrated Farm)

“I realized that there were no other farmers selling seedlings here, so I decided to resign and become a full-time supplier of seedlings,” Jerry said.

Upon acquiring his own land, Jerry decided to plant various vegetables, including eggplants, chili peppers, bitter gourds, and tomatoes. On his land, a lively mix of native ducks, chickens, and goats also found a home. Alongside this endeavor, he ventured into cultivating oyster mushrooms.

While he initially engaged with traders supplying Manila, the offered market prices fell short of Jerry's expectations. As a solution, he began directly selling his produce to local offices. By doing so, he managed to secure a more satisfactory return for his hard-earned efforts.

While not entirely dedicated to organic farming, Jerry acknowledges the importance of utilizing fertilizers and pesticides in his agricultural practices. He has chosen to maintain his use of hybrid vegetable varieties instead of shifting to native and open-pollinated alternatives. This decision stems from the fact that hybrid varieties demand a substantial amount of nutrients, often sourced from commercial fertilizers, to achieve their maximum yield—nutrients that organic fertilizers might not supply promptly.

From hybrid to open-pollinated varieties

While not fully committed to organic farming, Jerry acknowledges the role of fertilizers and pesticides in his agricultural practices. However, he is currently in the process of transitioning from hybrid to native and open-pollinated vegetable varieties.

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Farmers can buy seedlings instead of seeds to ensure higher success rate in planting. (Jerry D'Agri Integrated Farm)

“This is because utilizing hybrid varieties requires a significant amount of nutrients from commercial fertilizers to achieve the highest possible yield, which organic fertilizers cannot immediately provide,” Jerry said. “If I were to plant hybrids with organic fertilizer, my harvest would not be as abundant.”

Consequently, he has opted to prioritize native and open-pollinated seeds because the seeds Can be harvested and recycled. Unlike hybrids that should be bought every planting season.

Despite the fact that open-pollinated varieties tend to yield less compared to hybrids, Jerry appreciates the significant reduction in production costs. This is because these varieties display greater resilience against pests and diseases, thus lowering the expenses associated with pest management.

Furthermore, Jerry has noticed that open-pollinated varieties often offer a superior taste, allowing him to command higher prices for his produce in the market. Jerry has found vegetable production to be a profitable venture.

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Harvested eggplants with the locals employed by Jerry. (Jerry D'Agri Integrated Farm)

“In eggplant production, for instance, harvesting is carried out every four days,” Jerry said. “The yield from harvesting isn't consistent, but it can range between 300-400 kilos per harvest with 2500 eggplant plants.”

Jerry employs a diversified approach to his farming endeavors. “I practice simultaneous and rotational planting of different crops, including corn, chili, bitter gourd, okra, and tomatoes,” he said. “This strategy helps balance the fluctuating market prices. If the price of one crop is low during a season, the earnings from the other crops can compensate for the financial loss.”

Jerry reflects on a past instance where he planted a half-hectare land solely with eggplants. Unexpectedly, the market price for eggplants plummeted, resulting in an unprofitable outcome. He notes that the input costs, particularly for items such as fertilizers, were considerably high, especially given the use of hybrid varieties. This experience highlights the importance of diversification and strategic planning in farming.

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Mushroom fruiting bags are to be delivered and sold. (Jerry D'Agri Integrated Farm)

Challenges encountered

At first, Jerry faced the challenge of a low seedling survival rate. However, he dedicated time to mastering various techniques and methods for seed propagation, enabling him to enhance the growth of his seedlings.

Living in the northern region, Jerry constantly contends with the threat of typhoons and calamities. When these natural disasters strike, he anticipates a complete loss of harvest. In response, he simply replants after the storm passes.

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Recycling of organic waste products from mushroom production. (Jerry D'Agri Integrated Farm)

The cost of farming inputs has consistently been a significant hurdle. To navigate this challenge, Jerry opted to make his own organic fertilizers, a decision that aligns with his resourceful approach to farming.

The extreme heat in Isabela during the dry season poses yet another obstacle. “During the dry season, my mushroom cultivation suffers,” Jerry said. “Instead of investing in mushrooms during this period, I redirect my funds to other productions.”

Remarkably, marketing his products is not a struggle for Jerry. He has successfully cultivated a base of loyal customers who regularly purchase his products. Winning the Young Farmers Challenge provided a platform to introduce his products to the market and also facilitated the expansion of his customers.

Jerry's vision extends beyond mere agricultural operations. He envisions his land becoming a destination for tourists. His plan involves creating a space where visitors can witness the agricultural processes firsthand and find pleasure in activities like fruit picking.

Changing mindsets and inspiring others

Balancing his current role as a firefighter with his agricultural endeavors is not easy. Jerry, however, manages this juggling act by enlisting the help of a team on his farm. Leveraging his schedule, which grants him seven days off after seven consecutive working days, he invests this time in tending to his agricultural enterprise.

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Jerry Mar Rafel, owner of Jerry D'Agri Integrated Farm, and his eggplants. (Jerry D'Agri Integrated Farm)

His influence extends beyond the younger generation, touching even the parents who are increasingly acknowledging his contributions. It's this impact that fuels his motivation to persist in agricultural pursuits, driven not only by personal aspirations but also by the desire to provide financial support to his family.

Jerry’s mission is to reshape the collective perspective on agriculture, asserting that it is a profession deserving of respect and recognition. “Many people tend to view agriculture as a profession for the economically disadvantaged,” he said. “I am determined to challenge the notion that agricultural engagement is a menial occupation. Through my persistent efforts, I have managed to spark interest in agriculture among some of the local youth.”

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Oyster mushrooms are produced by inoculating the growing bags with mushroom spores. (Jerry D'Agri Integrated Farm)

Observing the rising trend of Filipino youth becoming addicted in online gaming, Jerry contemplates why this time isn't channeled into more productive endeavors, such as cultivating crops for supplementary income. He perceives online gaming as a liability, wherein financial resources are expended. In his eyes, the potential lies in exploring diverse agricultural avenues for income generation.

“Let's shift our perspective on agriculture,” Jerry said. “It's not solely about planting crops  it involves diligent effort and a grasp of business skills, ultimately leading to earnings. Every profession presents its challenges  there's no such thing as an effortless job. Attaining success needs diligence and resourcefulness.”

Photo courtesy of Jerry D'Agri Integrated Farm

Read more about farming and gardening at agriculture.com.ph