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03/04/14 Abe Tolentino of Abe’s Homestead

For Abe Tolentino, true fulfillment sprung from real sustenance. In 2012, he traded a desk job in the pharmaceuticals industry for the soil and toil of organic farming. “It was the idea of doing something I felt more passionately about, which is eating good food and eventually producing my own,” Tolentino says of transforming his family’s old piggery in Bulacan into a chemical-free land of plenty.

Since August last year, Abe’s Homestead has seen quite a harvest, producing salad greens and Italian plum tomatoes, as well as Filipino vegetable staples (pinakbet packs with okra and bitter melon). Besides growing veggies manure-free, honest Abe aims to spread no-bullshit knowledge about organic nutritional gardening. Talking to NOUS, Tolentino got real about farming fuckups, where that supermarket salad comes from, and the deal behind “organic.”


Let’s get it out of the way: what exactly does “organic” mean?  

To simplify things, organic farming is what they now call non-traditional farming. Traditional farming meant the use of chemical fertilizers and enhancers, which are produced by large companies to supposedly make the lives of farmers easier. It lets you plant whatever you like without having to worry so much about pests and disease. The problem with using these chemicals is you actually become dependent on them—sort of like a drug. So the difference with organic farming is we actually go back to the traditional way of farming, which is taking care of the soil. The other definition is that it isn’t hydroponic or aquaponic—it has to be planted in the ground. That said, not all organic vegetables are equal.

What do you mean?

A lot of organic farmers lack a system that allows vegetables to get the minerals they need. I mix a lot of elements into my compost. They’re nutritionally complete. I try to feed them a lot of different things so that, eventually, it transfers to the person eating the vegetables.

Since you got the farm up and running last year, what have been some major challenges? 

I don’t call it farming so much, I like to call it gardening. Farming usually has a negative connotation with the big growers in the U.S. or big pineapple growers in the south of the Philippines, so I like to call it gardening ‘cause what I do really is small-scale. My farm is only 1.5 hectares. The challenge for me is figuring out what grows well and what doesn’t grow well—and choosing the varieties that I can actually grow well without having to amend the soil too much.

Could you talk about a few farming fuckups you’ve had?  

Well, I started planting a lot of plants in an area that wasn’t receiving enough sunlight. I was wondering for a long time why these things weren’t growing as quickly as possible.

Have you tried to push for a vegetable that just wasn’t right for the soil?  

Yeah, I’ve tried with bell peppers. But stupid would be doing something over and over again that isn’t working. I’ve fixed that by not doing it again.

And you’re taking classes, too?

Yeah, but if I’m not taking classes, I’m always researching online, talking to people, talking to Pat Acosta (of Master’s Garden in Benguet), and I’m always trying to visit other gardening operations just to share ideas. Part of what I’m doing is to share everything I know just to tell people they can do this for themselves. That you don’t need to rely on other people for your food. I also try to get people to buy local produce. A lot of organic produce actually comes from other countries, especially in Rustan’s. A lot of people like kale so I’m actually trying to grow kale on my own in the farm. The first batch should be out by March.

What else are you looking to produce?

Marijuana? No, just kidding. I want to do a lot more herbs, actually. I also want to do more research on local plants which are commonly neglected and that actually have health benefits. Oh, also organic cacao.

What are your concerns for the day? 

Just having a system that gives these seeds everything they need, planting everything on a regular basis, and praying for good weather, of course—you know, these are the things that I think about on a daily basis. Mondays to Thursdays, I live on the farm. I wake up early, sleep early—it’s a different pace entirely. I come back to the city and call people up when I have produce. Right now, the challenge is to really differentiate myself from all the organic farmers and to come out with produce that really stands out.

What has this livelihood taught you?

It really teaches you how to be patient and how to be forgiving towards all your fuckups along the way. But also, it’s one of the most rewarding things to actually see these plants grow. It’s like watching a fucking miracle happen, you know? You’re putting a little seed the size of muta in the ground and after 60 days, you’ve got this six-foot-tall plant that’s producing edible leaves—I’m talking about kale. It’s crazy. And it’s almost like printing money. You buy a packet for like 70 bucks and there are over a thousand seeds in there. If you do it well enough, each of those seeds grows into a plant that produces so much more than the value of the entire packet to start. It’s such a privilege to see it happen on a daily basis.

Click here to learn more about Abe’s Homestead.