If you’re a frequent Bonifacio Global City visitor but only seek out its dining spots and cafes, you’ll be surprised to know there’s actually a 1,500-square meter vegetable farm right in the heart of this concrete jungle. It’s called BGC Community Farm by Urban Farmers, and its located at the corner of 5th Avenue and 34th Street, just right behind S&R and St. Luke’s Medical Center.
The urban farming project was spearheaded by social entrepreneur Louie Gutierrez and was made possible through the support of volunteers, Ayala Corporation (which lent the property), and global vegetable seed company East-West Seed (which helped set up the farm).
The farm grows a variety of greens (lettuce, arugula, pechay), and soon there will also be tomatoes, eggplants, as well as herbs like basil and mint. For a minimal donation, individual volunteers can learn and experience vegetable farming during weekends (one can harvest a bagful of greens for P200 to P300). Meanwhile, its doors are also open to companies who wish to conduct their Corporate Social Responsibility projects there.
The BGC Community Farm is actually one of three urban farms Louie built since the start of the pandemic. His social enterprise also runs Urban Farmers of Bel-Air in 23 Comet St., Bel-Air 2, Makati City, and the NLEX- SCTEX Community Farm by Urban Farmers in Brgy. 164 Caloocan City.
Finding a gem
Louie is actually not an agriculturist or a farmer by profession—he’s a gemologist. He’s the founder of the popular 30-year-old brand Silverworks, a leading retailer of sterling silver jewelry in the Philippines which has over 70 stores nationwide.
Like many business owners, the Covid health crisis caught him by surprise. In fact, prior to the first lockdown in March, he even opened two new Silverworks branches. “The economy was doing well at that time. A lot of SMEs were expanding. So the plan was to add more stores,” he recalls to ANCX.
But malls and shopping centers with non-essential businesses were soon forced to shut down operations. “It was really stressful on my part and the part of my employees,” Louie says. He had 500 workers and knew he needed to take care of them.
One day, while walking around his Bel-Air neighborhood, the gemologist chanced on a precious idea looking at an idle piece of land. Growing plants was becoming a trend then so he thought, ‘why not start a vegetable farm?’ He called the owner of the property right away and asked if he could use it for a couple of years. Happily, the owner said yes.
But he had zero knowledge in farming. The guy spent most of his life in retail. His brother Reimon and cousins Marni and Ricco Ocampo were behind the beloved 80s fashion boutique Sari-Sari Store. The Gutierrez family runs the Prado Farms in Pampanga but Louie was never involved in its operations. It’s the Pampanga-based Reimon who is running it but the guy couldn’t help set up the Bel-Air farm due to lockdown restrictions. So Louie tapped young agriculturist Erwin Belen who was already doing community gardening in Makati for grassroots projects.
“I call it a defining moment, when priorities change,” says Louie. “I thought farming would be good for our mental health, so nagsimula kaming magtanim.” With the help of some of his employees, he was able to set up Urban Farmers of Bel-Air, which has been providing fresh vegetables to communities in the village, in Rockwell, and Salcedo. The company was founded on five pillars: turning idle land into farms; using recycled and repurposed items; providing jobs to displaced workers; encouraging community involvement; and supporting poor communities.
The Urban Farmers of Bel-Air had a fruitful first year, and by February of 2021, Louie knew his urban farm needed more space to grow. It so happened that Ayala Corp’s current trust is community engagement. He met with Ayala Land Inc.’s Sustainability Consultant Anna Marie Gonzalez, which offered the property in BGC for Gutierrez’s urban farming project. “I thought if I want an impactful project, that’s exactly the place to do it. That’s where the influencers are, that’s where the young people congregate,” he says.
Now aside from the farms in Bel-Air and and BGC, Louie’s group is also doing consultancy services, working with the NLEX group in creating a community farm in Caloocan for a grassroots project, and building edible gardens for public schools.
One thing the pandemic taught him is that everything can change in a snap. Nevertheless, crisis situations are known to present its own range of opportunities. “There is such a thing as social return on investment (SROI), where creating impact is more valuable than monetary gain,” says this new urban farmer. Asked about his future plans, Louie says the big crazy idea is to turn all idle land in Metro Manila into urban farms.