By Chit U. Juan
After two failures in mushroom culture and supplying pechay to a fast food chain, and coming out of the experience still alive, Michael Melendres was meant to go the organic way in vegetables instead.
Having a B.S. Agriculture diploma under his belt from the University of the Philippines Los Baños(UPLB), Michael was the typical idealist who (according to him now) was too stubborn to listen to his father’s advice to get a job. Instead of applying for what his father considered a stable job, he instead went into mushrooms driven by the money it promised. Alas, he failed. Proud to show his father that he still made the right decision, he then took a loan and got a contract to supply vegetables to a well-known fast food chain. He went deep in debt but also had to give up that contract. Lesson number two.
By some stroke of fate, he met a “nutty professor” or “mad scientist” in James Tomell at an Agrilink show 8 years ago. Tomell and Melendres worked on composting, natural soil conditioning and soon after he landed a contract to have his own concession space at a supermarket chain. “Yes, consignment term, “he says proudly. But James right away supports his statement by saying “they got the nicest consignment terms.”
It must be working because Michael and company , now called Organic Options Inc.supplies about 35 stores in the NCR area with organic vegetables from leafy lettuce to eggplants and tomatoes. All organic. The Agriculturist knows of what he talks about. He took us around the 3-hectare farm in nearby Antipolo, 200 meters above sea level, and surrounded by old trees and a lot of coffee spent grounds. Yes, a coffee company “dumps” this waste and Michael uses it for soil conditioning. You see mountains of coffee grounds, a pigpen on the side and lots of culinary herbs, leafy lettuce and even Kaffir lime, oregano and more.
I was green with envy as he tells me he only needs three to four people for this operation. And producing all these, he says its really science and new old techniques worked on by James and him. They use carbonized rice hull, coffee grounds and vermicompost, among other organic fertilizers and soil conditioners.
“Now, what we need is a building to house students who wish to learn organic farming ,” he says. Michael , his partners and siblings want to share their bounty by training more people to become organic farmers. “Farming is not sexy” he says. “That’s why kids today do not want to go into it,” the now seasoned agri-preneur declares. But if Michael shows you how to earn millions from organic farming you may just give it another look or another chance. Demand for organic vegetables is rising and what is beautiful about his system is he gets to keep all his discards and they go back to compost. “Nothing wasted,” he says.
Meanwhile, another business section is growing in the mad scientist department. Jim Tomell offers the services of Earthman and Co. for advisory, consultancy and in other words “how to make an idle land productive.” They know there are thousands of idle private property which landowners can put to good use, to produce one’s own food supply or for Earthman and Organic Options Inc. to cultivate and partner with owners. “Now that’s a solution for those landed business people who would rather just give their land to experts to make use of” I tell them. I myself may just hire their services to make sure our farm is doing well for its size. Call it “doctor’s consultation for better health” even if we have been farming for already five years now.
There is nothing like personal attention, and this is the advantage of Melendres Farms. Michael is there to see to it that everything is working—from compost to seedlings to harvest. How do you replicate Michael then? They will train students and even professionals who wish to make more farms productive.
Now, if everyone who had even one hectare of land or even half a hectare to begin with can at least grow their own food supply, we have then assured food security. If every town had a Michael, there would be no need for vegetables to travel far and wide. Just buy locally from your own town. And with Michael’s group thinking of sharing best practice (for a fee of course), it is but a small enrollment or tuition to securing one’s own food supply.
As we talked over freshly-steeped tarragon tea amidst all the natural trees and vegetable plots, you feel the entrepreneurial spirit of Mike Melendres as he talks about past failures and his recent successes. Nothing kept this man down. Like a phoenix he rose from the initial failures and luckily was able to show his father what he meant by entrepreneurship before the old man passed a few months ago.
There truly is money in farming and not just large scale farming as many are wont to believe.It is not about scale all the time. Michael supplies a few kilos here and there, but has a sustainable business that is replicable and sustainable. And at the end of the day be able to eat well with what you grow right in your own urban farm.
As I take another nip of the Pancit-pancitan Jim hands me and the arugula I find while walking the farm, I think of all the people who could follow his example or better yet, have him teach others how to take careers and even retirement businesses in organic farming. Soon Michael will be supplying the needs of our ECHOmarket in Antipolo, and hopefully also put up farms where we will soon set up shop.
Michael, Jim, Nonong and Michael’s siblings must be on to something good. They are not just hiring a few men efficiently, they are feeding people with good food in over 35 locations of where they sell their organic products. And here’s hoping they do more.