I volunteer at Sophie’s Farm, a piece of land on Samar Island on which a small model of sustainable farming is slowly but surely taking shape.  Sophie’s Farm is a project of the SHIFT Foundation, a non-profit organization run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. Samar is one of the poorest islands in the Philippines, and the farm was conceived to become a learning center at which local people can be helped to grow food for their tables in a way that is mindful of the environment.

Coconut trees dominate the hills behind the farm

I stumbled upon this project in that strange way life has of leading you from one thing to another. Three years ago I had recently returned to Manila from working overseas and had decided to make fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains the staples of my diet.  I frequented weekend “farmers’ markets” to source fresh, locally grown produce.  At one of these I met Gil Carandang, an organic farmer, owner of Herbana Farms, and a man on a mission. He was giving 3 and 5 day impassioned seminars on organic farming at his five-hectare spread in Calamba.  I went for the weekend and stayed 3 months, working as an apprentice at his farm and learning the ropes of organic farming by getting my hands dirty and my feet wet.

Three kinds of basil on Sophie's Farm. From top, clockwise: Holy Basil, Sweet Basil, Thai Basil

After my 3 months were up, and while I was wondering what to do next with my new-found and very small store of knowledge, I met by chance one of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. She casually invited me to their farm in Samar, telling me how they wanted to start going organic but did not have the know-how nor the human resources. They probably got a big shock when I actually turned up 2 weeks later.  I had also brought Cameron, one of the other apprentices I had met at Herbana Farms.  After a short visit we returned and since then have been working on and off as volunteers on the farm, digging plots, sowing seeds, concocting smelly brews of bio-nutrients, culturing microorganisms, mulching, weeding, second-guessing the weather, chasing off bugs, making compost, harvesting the fruits of our labors, saving seeds, making many mistakes but learning so much.

Eggplants, peppers, basil & tomatoes under a shaded canopy

On Sophie’s Farm today regular harvests include eggplants, pumpkin, mung beans, green and purple okra,lettuce and pechay.  There are tentative tomatoes, hesitant capsicums, undecided carrots, but also promising corn, patient pineapples, string beans biding their time, and 3 kinds of basil ready to take over (it was an overly ambitious pesto project).  The herb garden we started last year was overgrown when I came back last week, but upon clearing, I discovered some of the chili peppers had survived, and there were straggler colonies of mint, tarragon, local oregano (Indian Borage), and maiden wort (dahong maria).  I plan to put in cilantro, parsley, chives, stevia and bunching onions. On the property there are fruit trees: bananas, papayas, jackfruit, santol, avocado, and many many coconuts.

There is a lot still to be done, many choices to be made. An aborted vermi-culture (earthworm farming!) trial promises to be revived very soon.  Cameron wants to put in a fish pond to harness all that rainfall, and have a real livestock program to integrate the farm. And we’ve been talking forever about doing an experimental plot of rice.  We’re also just starting to form linkages with the community—with women’s groups, with young people, with the university, with government agencies and NGOs.

But we are sowing seeds–and it is with hope and wonder that we’ll watch them sprout and grow.

For more information contact:
SHIFT Foundation at Sophie’s Farm
.  Brgy. Dona Lucia, Mondragon, 6417 Northern Samar
Mobile No. +63 (918) 918 1253.  Email : shiftrscj@yahoo.com. Web: shift.rscj.org