Isabela locals Claudio and Aida Gonzaga came back home in 1997 from living and working in New York for over 20 years.
With their retirement fund, the couple decided to do what they’ve always wanted to do—live the simple, yet enjoyable farm life in Santiago, Isabela.
But they did not want just any other farm. They wanted to cultivate food the organic way.
“Even before, the way of farming here at Gonzaga Farm has always been organic,” says Florita Legazpi, a longtime staff at the farm. “They just wanted the food they eat to be healthy.”
How they farm
From planting produce for their own consumption, the couple eventually farmed a variety of fruits and vegetables in larger quantities at their 2.4-hectare farm so they could sell to visitors.
“They started with calamansi and pomelo,” Legazpi shares. “Now, they have lettuce, okra, spinach, eggplant, kale, and arugula. They raise pigs, too.”
The 36-year-old staff says they plant produce depending on the season. Lettuce, for instance, can only grow in cool climates. In a region known to experience record-high temperatures during the summer, Legazpi says they either plant lettuce during the last months of the year or use what they call a UV net. This is to prevent the leafy vegetable from ending up small and tasting bitter.
“This is to decrease heat,” she explains. “Even though there’s direct light, it reduces the heat by as much as 50 percent. We plant in shaded areas, too.”
For all their produce, the farm staff opts for worm feces and an in-house, all-natural concoction as fertilizer.
“Whatever is available in our farm, we use as fertilizer,” Legazpi says. “The fruit-fermented juice we spray, for instance, has banana in it because it’s abundant here.”
Not only is this safe for the farm staff as it has no chemicals that can harm one’s health, it also eliminates the need to buy anything else from outside the farm.
“The biggest expense would be the salary of the staff maintaining the farm,” Legazpi says jokingly.
But apart from being cost-effective, the produce from organic farming is way better.
“You’re eating food that’s truly good for you. With usual produce, you’re already being embalmed while alive,” she adds. “Also, when you buy, say, a cucumber at the market, it’ll be withered and wrinkled. When it’s from an organic farm, even if you don’t keep it in the fridge for a week, it’s still crunchy.”
Their pig pen does not stink, too, primarily because feeds are fresh produce from within the farm.
“The Department of Agriculture themselves said that eating at the pig pen is possible,” Legazpi shares.
Apart from fresh, organic produce, Gonzaga Farm is also famous for its by-products.
Sand-roasted peanuts (Php50 for 125g; Php80 for 250g; Php100 for 333g; Php150 for 500g; and Php300 for 1 kilo), as the name implies, are unshelled peanuts cooked in sand over fire.
“This was not washed or opened. All its natural flavors are in there,” Legazpi says. “Cooking it is much like roasting it. Two kilos of peanuts take three hours to cook.”
The farm’s matriarch Aida shares her signature salad dressing (Php 280 for 250ml), too.
“The dressing has honey or muscovado sugar, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, pepper, salt, and basil,” Legazpi says. “It enriches the taste of lettuce and other veggies in a salad. It’s so delicious that even the leaders of our city love it.”
Lessons learned and shared
As with any endeavor, running Gonzaga Farm is not without hiccups.
In the past 20 years, there have been failed attempts to grow some crops, like pineapple and honeydew.
“The first fruit sold outside was honeydew but it didn’t last long because it was the size of an apple,” Legazpi shares. “Others laughed at it because it’s not supposed to be that size but after trial and error, it was eventually perfected.”
Lessons like such are now shared in their farm school, the Gonzaga Center of Agronomy.
With the help of the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Tourism, Technological Education and Skills Development Authority, Santiago City local government, Agricultural Training Institute, the Organic Certification Center of the Philippines-certified farm has been teaching students organic farming practices for two years.
Legazpi, the farm school’s registrar and trainor, has so far educated over 100 students through their 29-day training. Many of their students have become certified and have proceeded to cultivate their own farms or work abroad.
With the construction of a living space inside the farm, students who live far away can pursue the training without worrying about transportation costs.
Currently, face-to-face classes are allowed because the farm is an open area, making it relatively safe for all students, trainors, and farm staff.
Despite the recent passing of Claudio, Aida and all eight regular staff continue to run the farm. In fact, they have a number of plans up their sleeve, including the production of pomelo wine.
“So much pomelo gets harvested. Each tree yields 150 pieces at most and fifty at the least,” Legazpi says. “Instead of going to waste, we are looking for someone who can make pomelo wine.”
They also plan to transform a portion of the farm into an agritourism attraction, in the hopes of helping farmers and the surrounding rural community through an opportunity to diversify economic activities and create new demand for organic agricultural products. In a gesture as simple as visiting the farm, tourists can help contribute to this growth.
“Given the large fish pond, we plan to make a raft that visitors can board and bamboo chairs where they can relax,” Legazpi says. “The challenge is when it will begin.”
Regardless which plans push through, Legazpi says she and everyone at Gonzaga Farm will do what they do best.
Offering farm tour packages, meanwhile, are still in the works, though visitors are welcome to look around for free.
“Just continue what was started,” Legazpi says. “That’s what Sir Claudio and Ma’am Aida always tell us.”
Open for orders
For orders, Legazpi says their SMS (09178264012) is open.
Guests who plan to visit must also set an appointment via their email ([email protected]) ahead of time and must follow safety protocols like social distancing and wearing of face masks.
How to get there
To get to Gonzaga Farm, board a Santiago City-bound bus in Cubao. Depending on traffic, the whole ride is around 8-10 hours long.
By air, simply book a Cauayan Airport-bound flight from Manila, which is only 40-45 minutes long. From there, an option to rent a van going to Santiago City—an hour away —is available.
From Santiago city, travel another seven kilometers until you reach Gonzaga Farm.
Outsource the Planning
For a seamless trip, you may leave the planning to DOT’s accredited tour operator in Isabela:
For Department of Tourism-accredited accommodations, visit the official Cagayan Valley Tourism website, region2fun.ph.
All tourist destinations in Isabela have health and safety protocols in place to protect locals and visitors alike. Everyone is expected to comply by wearing face masks, regularly washing their hands, and practicing physical distancing.
To check out up-to-date information regarding local destinations that are open and the safety protocols and requirements needed for each location, you may visit www.philippines.travel/safetrip or download the Travel Philippines app at app.philippines.travel or the Google Playstore.