Text by Henrylito D. Tacio
Photo courtesy of PhilRice
If you are a rice farmer and looking for additional income, vertical gardening may be the answer to your problem.
“Adding a vertical garden in a rice-based farming system augments sources of income,” says the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) in a press statement. The line agency of the Department of Agriculture has an established setup in its Palayamanan farm in Nueva Ecija.
Palayamanan is a term coined from the words palayan (rice field) and kayamanan (wealth), which then refers to a field where more wealth is created based on rice as well as some other crops.
Dr. Marissa V. Romero, lead of PhilRice’s project Modernized Rice-based Farming Systems and Value-adding Technologies, said that integrating a vertical garden in the Palayamanan increases sources of food and income and enhances resiliency.
Engr. Kristine S. Pascual, activity lead, detailed that they harvested an average of one kilogram of lettuce from each growing tower 25 days after transplanting. “This is 10 times higher than the usual harvest from the same area,” she said.
At P200 to P300 per kilogram at the gate price of lettuce, she said that P20,000 to P30,000
can be generated from 100 towers in one cycle.
The vertical garden at the Palayamanan farm was established in a 100-meter two greenhouse where vegetables were grown following the hydroponics and aeroponics systems. “This is the system suited for farmers with limited space for vegetables,” Pascual said.
Hydroponics and aeroponics are production methods where plants are grown in a nutrient solution rather than in soil. Hydroponics uses a medium for growing plants, while aeroponics is in an air or mist environment.
Pascual shares that they used cocopeat as a material to plant vegetables for the hydroponics system. This is being enriched with nutrients during fertigation, in which the fertilizer is incorporated within the irrigation water.
“For the aeroponics setup, plant roots are suspended in the air, but we used a polyfiber to hold them,” Pascual explained.
In collaboration with the Central Luzon State University (CLSU) College of Engineering, 100 units of growing towers made of white polyvinyl chloride pipes were installed. The towers have a 6-in diameter and 1.5-m height. They are connected to a series of buried pipes that serve as drainage systems of the nutrient-enriched recirculating water during irrigation and act as the ground heat exchanger system.
Meanwhile, the Laguna-based Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) is aiming to popularize vertical farming technologies as part of its contribution to transforming food systems to better achieve food security.
Muneer Hinay, the founder of Kids Who Farm (KWF), seemed to agree. He said that households could significantly contribute to solving the country’s food security concern. “I realized that even a small child can actually propose solutions to the pressing problems of food security,” he explained during a “Pista ng Pagkain at Kabataang Pinoy” festival held by SEARCA.
Obviously, it is important for households to have easy, nearby access to their source of food – making it fresh and nutritious, Hinay stressed. And what a better way to have a nearby urban farm, no matter how small, than through hydroponics technology.
“When we talk about urban agriculture, a big challenge is space. But the truth is when you have a small space, then what you need is a big mindset,” he said.
Hydroponics, which has been proven productive long ago, from the Hanging Garden of Babylon to the Aztecs’ floating garden, comes from two Greek words: “hydro (“water”) and ponos (“work”). That is working or cultivating plants with water.
“In hydroponics, the plant roots absorb balanced nutrients dissolved in water that meet all the plant development requirements. The basic setup is you have a container or grow box, water inside with nutrient solution, and an air space so the container is not filled with water,” said Hinay.
The plants are in a growing media such as coconut coir or coconut peat – instead of soil. The plants get their nutrients from air and water – macronutrients, micronutrients – vitamins, and minerals.
Among the plants that can be grown via hydroponics are lettuce, pechay, kangkong, bell pepper, tomato, and herbs like basil.
While a sizable portion of food production is still soil-based, 95% of producing food from hydroponics offers advantages. Among these are its modular setup (vertical or horizontal), the ability for the monocropping season after season, and nearly pest-free nature.
“There isn’t so much waste,” Hinay said. “There is no leaching (contamination of the water table since plants are in a contained area). Generally, it is hygienic, and there’s no emergence of pests and diseases. It is very rare that a hydroponics setup gets pests.”
The idea of vertical farming originated from Dickinson Despommier, an American professor of Public and Environmental Health at Columbia University. In 1999, he challenged his class of graduate students to calculate how much food they could grow on the rooftops of the thickly-populated New York. The students concluded that they could only feed 1,000 people.
The professor was not satisfied with their findings, so he suggested growing plants indoors instead, on multiple layers vertically. Prof. Despommier and his students then proposed a design of a 30-story vertical farm equipped with artificial lighting, advanced hydroponics, and aeroponics that could produce enough food for 50,000 people.
Although the “skyscraper farm,” as it has been called, has not yet been built, it popularized the idea of vertical farming and inspired many later designs.
Vertical farming is a form of urban agriculture. The United Nations Development Program estimates that 800 million people are involved in urban farming around the world, with the majority in Asian cities. Of these, 200 million produce food primarily for the market, but the great majority raise food for their own families.
In a survey conducted for the United Nations, cities worldwide already produce about one-third of the food consumed by their residents on average. This percentage is “likely to grow in coming decades, given that the need for urban agriculture could be greater now than ever before,” wrote Brian Halweil and Danielle Nierenberg in their collaborative report published in the recent issue of State of the World, published by Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute.
Urban agriculture is nothing new. The hanging gardens in Babylon, for instance, were an example of urban agriculture, while residents of the first cities of ancient Iran, Syria, and Iraq produced vegetables in home gardens.