When Charie Villa retired from ABS-CBN in 2014, ending a distinguished 30-year career as a TV journalist, farming was far from her mind.

Today, Charie wakes up at 6 AM to the sound of crowing roosters. She takes a breakfast of fresh guyabano juice, chunks of avocado, scrambled eggs and rice, in the company of her Belgian Malinois canine entourage Luna, Pandan, Spike, Stevie and Max, while enjoying the sight of Lily, Tala and Moro, a mare, a foal and a stallion, respectively, prancing on the grass just 15 meters away from her breakfast table. Sounding his own presence nearby is Macho, the Rooster.

“I live with nature. This is paradise,” Charie declares.

It is a windy afternoon. We just had a lunch of chicken inasal and picadillo soup, green Indian mangoes and bagoong, washed down with fresh buko juice, at her open-air kitchen surrounded by shrubs and shaded by trees. The faint scent of blooming camias wafted in the air.

Here, in this two-hectare farm she acquired in 2017, Charie discovered things she did not know about herself. Like: “I’m an animal lover pala.” She also learned about finance, people management and even the lunar cycles. But to be clear: this is not a commercial farm. “This is for my soul,” she says.

A soul sister lives nearby. Vangge San Jose-Giorgetti, a childhood chum since they were students at the Malate Catholic School, heard about the three-hectare farm that was for sale. She urged Charie to invest. Vangge’s Italian husband, Sergio, agreed to buy one hectare where the Giorgettis built their casa, an upgraded nipa hut-style house of old wood, vintage capiz windows, “taga sa panahon” bamboos and fine local handicraft. Vangge bakes Italian bread using a charcoal fueled pugon. She is also growing her own olive tree from a seedling she hid in her suitcase during one of her shuttles to Italy.

Charie’s farm nestles nicely at the foot of Mt. Malepunyo, in Sitio Paang Bundok, Barangay San Celestino, Lipa City. It is about 80 kilometers from Manila, and some three kilometers from the resort-spa, The San Benito Farm.

Finding Charie Villa’s farm is not so difficult. Even residents of the nearby sitio knows her. “Yong taga ABS? Yong macho?” a sari-sari store owner along the highway asked. “Sa kabila lang, diyan sa kalsadang ‘yan.”

The “fame” lingers from her days as a recognizable TV reporter. Charie chortles, “I’m also reklamador. The barangay knows me.”

In an interview that included a tour around the property, and merienda at the Casa Fiore of the Giorgettis, Charie told of her new life in Sitio Paang Bundok:

“Dayo or outsider, that’s how they (locals) called me when I first came here. Tanga ang tingin nila sa akin na kayang ikutan. (They thought I was stupid that they could fool). I was living in Parañaque, and drove more than 70 kilometers to get here. I hired the son of the previous owner as my caretaker. He lived in the adjacent farm. “Make an inventory of the fruit trees,” I was told. That kept me busy, and kept my mind off from mourning my brother’s suicide in November 2016. In his memory, I named the tallest antipolo tree “Junny,” after my brother, Atty. Francisco “Junny” Villa, Jr.

From the inventory, I learned I owned more than 100 trees, like guyabano, jackfruit, avocado, mango, bignay, chico, pomelo, banana, antipolo, duhat, rambutan, kalamansi, and many others. There were also 100 coconut trees and some pepper corn vines. Lagundi was everywhere, planted by the former caretaker and sold to cough medicine makers.

In one of my visits, I noticed deep tire marks on the ground. The caretaker said a trader bought 90 pieces of young coconuts (buko) at P1 each. I felt uneasy that he sold the fruits without my prior consent.

When I decided to plant cacao, I had the lagundi uprooted by workers from the neighborhood. They charged me P20 pesos per uprooted tree. Then I found out they were recycling already-uprooted lagundi for a second payment. Tanga! May lupa. May pera. That’s how they regarded me.

Just about the same time, I started renovating the old house, utay-utay. In one visit, I noticed the window air conditioning unit had marks, like someone tried to detach it. Attempted robbery! The caretaker had no explanation. Through my contacts in the Philippine National Police (PNP), a team was sent to my farm to investigate. No one talked, however.

I decided to take over the farm. I contacted a buko trader to pick up my produce. I sold 900 pieces at P4 pesos each. This infuriated my caretaker and his cohorts. One day, the workers went on a strike. Galit sa akin. (They were mad at me.) To protect myself, I brought my Belgian Malinois guard dogs.

A couple from Mindoro came to apply as farm hands. I thought it was good. Hindi sila malulungkot, pamilya. A small family with a little boy named Kingking. I let them stay in one of the smaller houses. Rose, the wife, is my all-around help in the house, while her husband is my right-hand in the farm.

So, after four years, I get it. Farming is hard work. It’s capital intensive. Money spent is money out. Don’t expect returns. And unless your farm has a spa, farming does not bring money. Definitely, it’s not sosyal.

It’s important to have a plan. In my case, I had many plans.

Initially, I wanted to plant cacao. I heard about this cacao farm in Davao, so I went there. I studied everything there was to know about cacao. In 18 months, with this UF-18 variety, I could harvest and recoup my investments, I was told. It did not happen.

An important rule is “no direct sunlight for cacao”. It should be under other trees, like coconuts. I uprooted the lagundi so I can plant cacao out there in the open field. The cacao died. I lost.

I realized then, maybe I was not really meant to be a farmer. Mabuti na lang I had my retirement funds, and my income from real estate and stock investments.

For a city girl like me, farming became a trial and error affair. I attended seminars on organic farming, bee culture, the science of farming. I also learned to listen to the voices of nature, too. Finding the right combination of science and nature is a big challenge.

For instance, bamboo must be cut at a certain period of its maturity. As they say, taga sa panahon.

Organic farming is safe and healthy, but that means slow growth and small fruits.

Don’t plant more than you can consume. We planted several plots of pechay early this year. It was nice, but we did not have a marketing plan. When harvest time came, we had pechay coming out of our ears. Pechay is life!

What I have now is a homestead for self-sustenance. In a farm, you can create your own space, and live according to the space you created. I have simplified my life. I eat what I produce, and buy those that I do not. Like meat, salt, eggs, sugar, rice, bread.

I realized, too, that if I want a farm, I must live here. Remote control farming doesn’t work. Some laborers are lazy. Pinapabayaan ang mga fruit trees. I have to remind them to prune, to spray. You have to do it every day.

And living here means I have to deal with the barangay, look after the health and welfare of the farm workers. I complain when the neighbors’ karaoke parties last beyond midnight, and I report to the barangay the stench from backyard piggeries. I reported the chain-saw cutting activities to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). It turned out that the culprit had the consent of the barangay!

I provide employment. Work begins at 7 AM, and ends at 4 PM. But these jobs, like carpentry and masonry, are seasonal. Clearing the ground of grass cutting is important to keep the snakes away. Planting and harvesting are scheduled. The workers live nearby. Some of them are actually children of the former landowner. A sad story, but not uncommon. They sold the land to finance emergency hospitalization, or pay loans incurred to buy fertilizers and seedlings to develop a farm. Unfortunately, the sales from the produce were not enough to pay off the loans. How could they? Imported rice, fruits are cheaper than locally produced, which they cannot even bring to the city. I see imported apples and oranges being sold at P10 – P15 pesos each. An avocado or mango sells at P25 each. Kawawa ang farmers natin.

When the lockdown was imposed last year, we sold avocado, dragon fruit, and vegetables in Alabang, Muntilupa City where Vangge and Sergio live. They transported the goods, and marketed them through Viber. The workers here got 30 per cent of the sales proceeds. I made them stake holders so they would work harder. I guess it was an eye opener for them.

Vangge and I have plans to turn the farm into a camp for the youth where they can meditate, commune with nature, acquire survival skills, deal with grief, and learn basic agriculture.

I am still in the process of establishing my presence here. I have a house with strong water, solar panels, Wifi, cable TV, Netflix. The house is furnished with stuff from our ancestral home in Parañaque. Journalist Sol Vanzi donated an antique aparador and other wooden furniture. I also brought my mother’s collection of family photos and news clippings of my father’s career from policeman, lawyer, National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) agent, chief prosecutor of Pasay City and lead Prosecutor of the Agrava Fact-Finding Board that probed the assassination of Ninoy Aquino in 1983. These are the things that I could not leave behind.

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Fe B. Zamora

8.8

Fe B. Zamora was a writer at Bibsy Carballo’s PR agency when Ninoy Aquino was shot on August 21, 1983. After attending a violent rally at Mendiola, she submitted a first-person account to the Mr & Ms Special Edition and got hired as a reporter in September, 1983. She was among the pioneers at the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI), first as a staff member of the Sunday Inquirer Magazine, and then as a reporter specializing in national security and politics.  Her reportage won accolades from the Jaime V. Ongpin Awards for Excellence in Journalism, the Louie Prieto Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Marshall McLuhan Award from the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility and the Embassy of Canada in Manila.  She also worked at the INQ7.net, the digital collaboration between GMA7 and PDI,  Radyo Inquirer, and the PDI social media desks.   She studied journalism at Silliman University and the Lyceum of the Philippines University, and plans to resume her masteral studies at the UP in Diliman, which was rudely interrupted by a single gunshot at the tarmac of what is now the Ninoy Aquino International Airport one August afternoon almost four decades ago.

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