19 September 2013

Roland Samaniego: Gentleman Organic Farmer

One of the great contradictions of these wonderful islands of ours is that, while the soil is rich and the climate perfect for agriculture, many citizens who live off the land actually do so to get out of it. The average thinking, it has to be said, equates farming with hard work but meagre returns.

Hence, young people of this country are conditioned to aspire for a blue or white collar job somewhere or to become professionals. A desk job is almost universally more appealing that getting one’s hands dirty in a farm. To a certain extent, this is why our economy has an excess of these workers; and then we have to export them to work elsewhere as OFW’s.

There are those, however, for whom the opposite is true. Meet Roland Samaniego, a DLSU-Manila Computer Science graduate in an era when the IT industry was just starting to take off and was in abject need of professionals. But for a few years in the industry, however, Roland has never really become fully immersed in it or his profession.

In retrospect, perhaps the temperament was never right for somebody who used to skip high school football training because he had to water his Mom’s extensive collection of exotic orchids and anthuriums.


While it is sadly true that there are farmers who live hand-to-mouth lives growing everyday things that we take for granted, there are those who can make good money from farming. Capital is probably needed; but more important than this, knowledge and farming for the right market.
While Roland continues to create and maintain database systems here and there, what mostly keeps him occupied these days is an organic farm in Lipa City that he maintains with his older brother Eduardo, an engineering graduate from the same university who has similarly opted to become a gentleman farmer.

To the uninitiated, organic farming is that which relies on biological rather than chemical means for the fertilisation of crops and the control of pests. If this is Greek to you, just nod your head, pretend that you understood and read on.

“Everything you will find in this farm,” he jokingly told me yesterday when I visited, “is for the rich!” That was his funny way of saying that organic farming is, indeed, big business.

While romaine lettuce is the farm’s staple – and primarily because this is dictated by market demand – there are strange little herbs that are used in the preparation of food for the uppity. If you do not watch Master Chef or any of the other Culinary Arts shows that have become such a fad these days, then you will probably not recognise the plants growing on the plots of the organic farm.

Chances are that you have not heard of arugula. No, this is not some strange looking microscopic organism but, instead, is a delightful little herb that is used in making some types of salad and is also used in many Italian delicacies. Arugula sells, if memory serves me right, for PHP 400 a kilo

And while rosemary is a common enough feminine name, what is not so known in these parts is that there is a fragrant herb that goes by this name which is used to flavour meats.

Roland stooped down to pinch a few thorn-like leaves from this small cactus-looking plant and bade me to smell them. “Do you smell the chicken?” he bade me. I could not.

To be fair, the leaves emitted this delightful fragrance which, however, reminded me more of this local camphor called sambong. The latter is a similarly aromatic herb that mothers of yore boiled for children coming off a ‘flu to bathe with.

Roland also pointed at this singular plot which he said was planted with coriander, also known in culinary circles as cilantro. The leaves and seeds of this herb are used as seasoning or garnish.

I once made the mistake of plucking a bundle from off a supermarket shelf thinking that it was kinchay or what my Mom used to call Chinese celery. To the untrained eye, it is difficult to tell the difference.

Roland also showed us this plot of tomatoes which he said he was experimenting with. The fruits were round and smaller than the average local tomatoes. Cherry tomatoes, Roland called them.

I took one look and immediately knew what they were. These used to grow randomly all over our property and were what my Mom used to call kamatis-na-ligaw (wild tomatoes). My Mom preferred these for making her sinigangs; but some enterprising chef must have found better use for them in salads.

“Do you have mint?” I asked Roland. I once nibbled on a mint leaf and found it delightful; but it was so long ago that while I remembered the taste, I had forgotten how it looked.

Roland led us to the back of the farm, stooped down to pluck some leaves from this ugly looking plant and nibbled on one. “That’s mint,” he told me assuredly while handing me a leaf to nibble on.

I took it, took a small bite and spit it out with alacrity. Mint my fat arse! It tasted like dog shit! Naisahan ako.

Of course, all that brash declaration about planting food for the rich was just banter between friends. I also saw plots of the less exotic and more familiar and ubiquitous eggplant, okra and kangkong or water spinach. By the fence, there were moringa trees. Fancy name, huh? Malunggay.

Roland is trying to have every inch of land in the leased property planted with anything that can be sold. Nothing is wasted. Once plants die off, what remains of them are composted to be used as fertiliser for future crops.

The arrangement, he told me, is that he does the growing. Brother Eduard takes care of the marketing. The next time you reach over to pick a plastic bag of lettuce from some fancy supermarket, it may just be from the Samaniego farm.

While it is sadly true that there are farmers who live hand-to-mouth lives growing everyday things that we take for granted, there are those who can make good money from farming. Capital is probably needed; but more important than this, knowledge and farming for the right market.

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