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MANILA, Philippines – The lithe frame and legs-that-go-on-forever belie the will and tenacity of this lawyer, environmentalist, change advocate, wife and mother of two adorable little girls.
When I met Paula Aberasturi, she and husband, Niccolo, were running The Flower Depot, a flower shop in Makati. They were just becoming interested in biodynamic farming.
Their passion and dedication have since transformed their conventional flower farm into a biodynamic one, which includes vegetables, honestly good-for-you dairy, and grass-fed, hormone and antibiotic-free meat. How did this beautiful lawyer end up on the right side of agriculture?
Here’s her story:
“I married a farmer who was growing flowers and lettuce conventionally,” Paula begins. “I had zero farming knowledge, but was beginning to sense the need for a simpler, more conscious and healthier lifestyle. There was a limited supply of organic produce then, but my grocery lists for wholesome products kept growing and with it, our weekly grocery receipts. It was absurd to spend so much for food we could grow ourselves.”
She continues: “As fate would have it, I discovered biodynamic farming. My husband attended a seminar and proceeded to pursue it zealously. We modified our farming methods and transitioned to sustainable agriculture. What began as a vegetable garden for our dinner table slowly became a business venture. We have expanded our products to include grass-fed cattle, organic pork and dairy. As with our flowers and vegetables, the animals were already there. We simply shifted our understanding of how to raise them and what their role was in the farm ecosystem.”
It couldn’t have happened like magic, or everyone would be jumping on the organic/biodynamic bandwagon.
Paula admits is has not been easy.
“Our soil was laden with chemicals. We moved our entire farm to another location and had to re-educate our farmers about sustainable methods. This continues to be a tedious process. Conventional methods give quick results; sustainable methods take time. We had to learn patience. Ironically, nature has also been our most difficult obstacle. Rain is one, pests another. But you learn to deal with your obstacles as they come.”
Despite the odds, her business has flourished.
I am in awe of how Paula is able to offer more of the goods I never dreamed I could have locally. If there are perks for me, she must have more than her share.
“Biodynamic farming teaches me more about nature and spirituality than I can learn from books or workshops,” she shares. “It teaches me to respect nature and its wisdom. By listening deeply to nature, you are taught to build on what it gives you..and then it rewards you a hundredfold: you see it clearly in the color of the flowers, the vibrance of the produce, the animals thriving, and your efforts becoming more economical. The more I embrace nature’s wisdom, the more I discover, and the more magic I can make happen.”
I know this initiative continues to change Paula in immeasurable ways. I can taste the living forces in her greens, I smell it in the unsullied blooms from her farm.
Surely her work penetrates into her life.
“Consciously pursuing a sustainable lifestyle, and especially going into biodynamic farming does change you,” she concurs.
“I am more deliberate about everything because I see the seamless whole. For example, the farm infrastructure has been carefully planned and built bearing in mind our ecological sustainability. Our greenhouses are built using bamboo, wooden pegs, stones, even old tires,” she says.
She adds: “It is the same for every little decision made on the farm. At home, we live with intention. This determines what I spend on, which businesses I support. Aside from food, there are choices to be made on every item, how we use energy and water, what we allow inside our homes, even the amount of time we spend, on what, how and where. It is a struggle to live intentionally, in the same way it was a struggle to transition from conventional to sustainable farming. The key is finding what is essential and being fully aware of consequences. It takes a very deliberate and conscious act, and oftentimes it requires much of you, but the rewards are priceless.”
Weeks after I first spoke to Paula, Sendong hit.
My first thought was of her farm, which is located at the foothills of the Kitanglad mountain ranges in Bukidnon. Fortunately, it’s on high ground, so it was unharmed, though Paula’s family worked tirelessly to help their farmers who lost their homes.
“For the first time, we had to deal with unusually strong winds. This was a challenge as we built our farm thinking that typhoons never reach Mindanao,” Paula shares. “We thought the worst as my husband went up to the farm after the typhoon. But the bamboo held fast. Because we didn’t use nails but pegs for the bamboo greenhouses, they merely swayed with the wind.”
I asked her what her insights were on the catastrophe. How does one move forward now?
“Agriculture has always been blamed for environmental degradation,” Paula explains.
“That is true for conventional agriculture, as it ruins the soil’s fertility purportedly to provide food for our growing population. How do you sustain a chemical-based agriculture that eventually kills the soil it needs and threatens the health of the very population it hopes to feed?
“Sustainable agriculture is a mitigation and adaptation approach to climate change, especially unpredictable weather.
“Biodynamic farming ensures a thriving ecosystem through, for example, healthy soil. Healthy soil captures, holds and stores water better.
“If more farmers switched to sustainable agriculture, we can have an abundance of good topsoil that can soak up rain so it doesn’t run off to the lowlands. You also have more robust and resilient crops.”
Paula says: “The changing climate teaches us mindfulness. What helped when the storm broke were our flexible bamboo houses, the natural wind breaks we planted, and canals we built. We also had rich organic soil, a consequence of years of composting and mulching.”
She claims that “changing weather is the ‘new normal’.”
Paula explains: “We have to prepare for stronger winds, more rain and prolonged droughts. We have to redesign our bamboo greenhouses to roll with powerful winds next time, or plant more wind breaks around the farm. We have to dig more canals between greenhouses to act as catchment systems and do more mulching.
“Sendong revealed to us nature’s limited carrying capacity and how each is a hologram of the whole,” according to Paula.
“What happens in the uplands affects the lowlands, impacts even the coast. What happens in the coast rebounds again to the uplands. Sendong showed we are inadequately prepared for climate change impacts. We have to ensure our farmers are prepared for the ‘new normal’. This means having a dialogue with our small community, perhaps the barangay as well, to plan ways of lowering risk and for ensuring disaster preparedness.”
Paula’s is one of many farms making the switch from conventional to sustainable farming, but sustainability is so much bigger than food.
Will we ever be a sustainable Philippines?
“Sustainability encompasses more than just economics and ecology. To get there we have to address multi-dimensional issues: poverty, education, corruption, politics, injustice, crime, environmental destruction, even our consumerist culture. Sustainability may be possible if every Filipino learned to live with intention, to act consciously, knowing that every word or act will have its consequences, positive and negative. That may be a start.”
Like everything borne of her farm, Paula is full of life-giving wisdom and creativity.
If everyone had her smarts, foresight, will, organizing and marketing savvy, a sustainable Philippines would be but a blink away.
Make sure to visit her websites and Facebook pages and start 2012 by adding living fare to your table. – Rappler.com
The Flower Depot www.myflowerdepot.com
Down to Earth www.downtoearth.ph