I t's a real-eye catcher, a refreshing contrast to the concrete, glass and steel structures that have taken over the area. Imagine seeing rows upon rows of lettuce and other bright leafy greens right in highly urbanized Bonifacio Global City (BGC). Passersby couldn't help but stop in their tracks, peer over the wooden fence with curious eyes and whip out their smartphones to take one for the ‘gram."It's a happy place," Louie Ocampo Gutierrez, founder of Urban Farmers Philippines, told Lifestyle. "People come here happy. Wala pa akong narinig na complaints," he added with a laugh.
Gutierrez is talking about the 1,500-square meter community farm that sprouted in one corner of BGC. It was lent to the nonprofit organization in early 2022 by Ayala Land Inc (ALI). Less than a year later, the unused grassland is now a thriving city farm, where vegetables such as lettuce (they grow five varieties), eggplant, okra, tomatoes, chilies, Chinese malunggay, Philippine spinach, various herbs and edible flowers are grown.
The BGC farm is open to the public and has become quite an attraction. The gates are open to anyone who wants to buy fresh produce or even to just chill and hang out. A liquor brand even held a party at the greenhouse, using fresh botanicals from the farm for their cocktails.
There's a shop that sells seedlings, pots and other necessities for growing your own edible garden at home. On weekends, there's Farming 101, a workshop that gives a rundown on the basics of growing edible greens. For P650, you can learn about proper soil mixing, cultivation and transplanting, aquaponics and hydroponics and get to meet good-natured, nature-loving fellows.
"People always ask, ‘Mas mura ba yan kaysa sa palengke?'" said Gutierrez, referring to the farm's harvest. "We can honestly say we're not the cheapest but we want to make sure that what we grow here are all pesticide-free and naturally grown."Initially, the group was being offered a space in Glorietta until Anna Maria Gonzales, ALI head of sustainability, thought of the vacant space right beside The Flats BGC and suggested that "farmer in chief" Gutierrez take a look.
"We chose this area because we want to create an impact. And how would you bring in young people kung hindi BGC?" explained Gutierrez. "And, of course, we have to make it nice also. Alam mo naman ang mga kabataan, dapat Instagrammable, dapat may kuwento."
Gutierrez, founder and manager of jewelry store chain Silverworks, had no experience in agriculture prior to putting up Urban Farmers. All he was meaning to do was to help their employees have some source of income as well as food when nonessential shops were ordered shut in the first year of the pandemic.
"It was kind of scary to start a farm because we had zero knowledge," he said. "Our best friend during that time was the internet so I searched on Facebook and YouTube and saw one agriculturist who was doing edible gardens for barangays."
Gutierrez reached out to Earwin Belen, an agriculturist from University of the Philippines Los Baños, to ask for help in setting up the Bel-Air farm.
At present, they have other agriculturist volunteers who they consult on how to grow crops better, pest control and other farming things. The BGC farm has a full-time staff as well to look after the crops and attend to visitors.
"Urban Farmers is a real gem amid the city jungle. Just the experience of harvesting our own veggies is wonderful," said photographer Jun de Leon who picked their own fresh veggies from the farm with wife Abbygale Arenas-De Leon and son Jacob Eli. "Oh, you can eat and taste anything in the farm before you harvest." De Leon is planning to take Farming 101 soon.
Gutierrez is grateful to volunteers, companies who have been joining Farming 101 and partners who have been lending their time and resources for the project. Artist Robert Alejandro, Bench, CW Home Depot, East-West Seed, Ramgo and MKT have been graciously providing them with support.
"These are competitors working together kaya nga nakakatuwa," said Gutierrez, referring to the different seed grower companies. "There's just been so many small miracles happening in this project."
"Noong una iniisip ko I'm a jeweler, paano ko naman iko-connect ‘yun sa agriculture," he said. "But then I realized we do window displays, we do merchandising, we set up our stores really well. So imagine if you set this up well. Clients get attracted to nice merchandise and customer experience. I think that's the thing that I can bring in as a retailer—to make it more interesting and attract the young people. Because that's what we've been doing for the last 33 years in Silverworks. Why not do it here?"
Gutierrez took an online social entrepreneurship course at Copenhagen Business School and used the Urban Farmers initiative as the topic for his thesis. It won first place in the #impaktWISE Social Entrepreneurship Awards, besting other international projects. "There was a little seed money that we won and we used it to start the BGC farm."
His wife, Maye Araneta-Gutierrez, meanwhile, makes vegetable centerpieces. The idea sprung when Gutierrez asked how else they can make the farm's produce more attractive to passersby.
Araneta-Gutierrez tried her hand at presenting the veggies the way flowers would be arranged. A visitor saw the vegetable bouquet and bought it immediately. She sold about 10 more on the same day. Edible Blooms by Maye has since become a part of what Urban Farmers offers.
The veggie bouquet can be displayed for 24 hours before the recipient decides to cook the fresh produce. The herbs that come with the arrangement you can keep on the pot. "All you need to do is water them and they'll grow on their own," she said.
Gutierrez is hoping that Ayala Land and Fort Bonifacio Development Corp. will let Urban Farmers BGC use the space for a much longer period of time. "So that we will be able to continue our advocacy. We are praying that they'll continue to support and lend us the property."
"It's such a great concept," said former news anchor Ces Drilon, who visited the BGC farm with dog Laika. "The challenge is getting more people on board and putting similar gardens all over."
Drilon, who has her own line of handcrafted and all-natural wellness products, Provenciana, was growing her own vegetables and herbs on her condo's deck long before everyone became a plantita and plantito.
"What I like about Louie is that he was able to mount something that people were able to get involved in," said Drilon. She believes that the project needs to expand beyond exclusive and middle-class neighborhoods and to the more modest neighborhoods and urban poor communities.
Gutierrez is wishing for the same as well. The nonprofit has been able to set up nearly 10 edible gardens in various public schools in Makati and Taguig. He said that they are open to working with other organizations with the same advocacy and values as Urban Farmers. They're not here to compete with anybody, the project can be adopted by others.
"I think the more open we are, the more accepting people will be with what we do," said Gutierrez. "This is not for-profit business, why keep it a secret? I guess that's why I'm happy here. Of course, it's really a different vibe."
Urban Farmers PH's BGC Community Farm is at the corner of 34th Street and 5th Ave (right beside S&R), Bonifacio Global City. Follow Urban Farmers PH on Facebook (facebook.com/urbanfarmersph) and @urbanfarmersph and @ediblebloomsbymaye on Instagram.