IT was an afternoon of a heavy downpour as Steve Abanag led me through a stone-paved stairway down to his backyard where he had his aquaponics garden
The rain pounded on the plastic roofing of his unpretentious greenhouse where the water dripped through a few leaks, but the modest self-made structure has inspired many like projects, and Abanag is known in the agricultural department for his innovative aquaponics design.
It is quite a common story that a gardener would venture into organic farming out of personal health reasons, and for Abanag, it was two instances of food poisoning after eating out that made him decide to raise his own veggies.
When the electronic company he worked with closed some years back, Abanag turned to the Internet for some business ideas, which to date are roasted garlic bits, chili-garlic oil, honey under the brand name Hot Bee because he has both chili and honey products, the honey harvested from an apiary also in his backyard.
It was also the Internet that he turned to to start an organic garden and found the hydroponics method, but an agent told him this required more synthetic fertilizers and advised him to go into aquaponics instead.
“This is a combination of aquaculture and hydroponics,” Abanag said. He went on to say that he started with some fish in a pail and a box of styrofoam in 2016 and grew the project on a staggered basis, partly from the savings of his aquaponics project. “People who know about my organic produce come to purchase, like the teachers in two nearby schools, one the Lindawan High School,” he said.
In fact, these two schools already have aquaponics, which he helped set up at their request. Even happier, Abanag said that his water bed garden provides his family more than 50 percent of their vegetables and some tilapia, too.
Growing your own food is right along the alley of the Department of Agriculture. Reading through the writings of Agriculture Secretary William Dar, his heart for small farmers is evident, embracing basic techniques to modernization, giving them access to training, funding and other technical support that can possibly be handed to small-holding farmers.
Dar founded InangLupa to achieve some of his dreams for Philippine agriculture. “Founding InangLupa was also the way forward in sharing the vast experience, knowledge and wisdom I gained from heading Icrisat [International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics] for 15 years, and I knew that much needs to be done for Philippine agriculture so the country can eradicate poverty, and create more jobs and wealth,” he said.
In Dar’s book The Way Forward, under the section Smart Cities, aquaponics and home gardening were highlighted. Growing one’s own food must also be coming from memories of a childhood as he described in his book The Forgotten Poor, where his experience growing up in a farm remains vivid in his heart.
This sentiment finds no better meaningful context as in the Covid-19 issue on food security. Access to food came to a crisis when travel and border restrictions were imposed, deliveries to markets were scheduled, and people were told to stay home. Farmers suffered, as seen in Facebook postings of their perishable goods thrown on roadsides and prices plummeting below production cost.
Ideas bloom in lockdown crisis
So too did many urban people suffer, and Dar’s vision on food for all came to play by encouraging households to keep backyard gardens during the pandemic. Lockdowns gave birth to Dar’s Plant, Plant, Plant project, which in turn inspired Baguio City to mount its Survival Gardens program—including rooftop, ground, vertical gardens and aquaponics that considered shortage of space in urban settings.
The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources-Cordillera (BFAR-CAR) is keen on promoting aquaponics in the region, giving support to both institutional and individual requests for a setup and for fingerlings. While it is to help food security and to increase incomes, it also supplements the fish protein requirement for the region, which understandably is insufficient given its mountainous terrain as compared to coastal areas. The need is even bigger in this pandemic, and the agency has a proposed budget of P2,750,000 to finance aquaponics for 2021.
At the BFAR-CAR grounds stand models of aquaponics using the nutrient film technique where water from a fish tank is passed through a filtration system then pumped into PVC pipes with holes drilled on top where the plants are grown. It can be set up on walls or hung from ceilings in places without much ground space.
Abanag’s aquaponics reflects how he experimented with the media-based system, where he has tomatoes, gabi, cucumber and even a papaya tree dug into stones a foot deep and submerged in water. But about eight or 10 of his aquaponics beds are of the floating raft or deep-water-culture type with improvised material of styrofoams that were once grape containers with holes cut on top from where he has his plants growing. The foams floating on one-foot-deep water are weighed down with water-filled one-liter plastic soda containers.
Abanag has four fish tanks that accommodate about 300 tilapia fingerlings to grow. He said that the water from the fish tanks passes through a net to filter waste, then goes to the water beds where nutrients from ammonia are converted into nitrates which the plants absorb, and the water is then pumped back into the fish tanks. It is a symbiotic system, Abanag explained, because too much ammonia, if trapped in the tanks, would otherwise result in a fish kill. “It’s pretty much like a home aquarium system,” he said.
It was quite a thrill to see the wide varieties of plants Abanag was growing in his garden. Lettuce, pechay, strawberries, kale, among others. I marveled at the long roots of ashitaba that he pulled out of its styrofoam hole to show me. “A cousin gave me some seedlings and I tried to experiment if it would thrive well in the water,” he said. He added that it may no longer grow on ground if transferred as matured plants. One bed with kangkong (water hyacinth) plants had goldfish that Abanag is propagating as a hobby. “I found that goldfish don’t like eating the kangkong roots, unlike other plants,” he said. There is also a water bed covered with a carpet of emerald colored azolas which he feeds his fish with.
It is the simplicity of his backyard project that has actually served as an inspiration to some of his neighbors and nearby towns, seeing how doable and productive aquaponics can be. Impressed by his endeavor of establishing an aquaponics project starting from just a pail of fish and a single water bed, the Agricultural Training Institute (ATI) under the DA gave him a little funding in 2017 to set up a modest greenhouse.
And this is what the DA-CAR is intensely doing in this time of the pandemic, giving every bit of support to every household to grow their own food.