Making first class and naturally grown vegetables from Benguet accessible to Manila households—that’s the promise of budding entrepreneurs Sue Anne Laita-Go and MaryAnne Cua-Macaraeg.
When the price of vegetables skyrocketed in September last year in the aftermath of typhoon Ompong, frantic friends living in Manila messaged Cua-Macaraeg to send them vegetables. She and Laita-Go were quick to spot an opportunity and Mary Sue Farm Products was born. “When we started this, it was just after Ompong and the rate of vegetables was really high, like double, triple,” Cua-Macaraeg recalls. “Most of my friends order, or ask me to buy vegetables for them kasi ang mahal. And that evolved to this.”
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Mary Sue Farm Products gets their vegetables from the Haight’s Farm Association, which counts 33 farmer-members in Atok, Benguet, about 50 kilometers north of Baguio.
The Haight family has been farming in Atok for over a century. Laita-Go belongs to the fifth generation of the family that first planted cabbages in Benguet. Their farm spans almost 100 hectares with five hectares leased to an enterprise that practices hydroponic agriculture.
It was Laita-Go’s great-great-grandfather Franklin Guy Haight who introduced vegetable farming to Atok. Haight was an American soldier who settled in the Cordilleras in the early 1900s. Laita-Go’s father Guy bears the same name as the soldier. She, on the other hand, takes after the name of Susie, a Manyakan, Benguet Igorota whom the pioneer fell in love with at the turn of the 20th century.
Haight was a member of the US Army’s engineering corps, part of the military contingent sent to colonize the Philippines. This was after the country fought for its independence from Spain in 1898, only to be sold to the United States by the Spanish government. Haight was supervising the construction of Kennon Road, Manila’s main highway to Baguio, when he contracted a lung ailment, most likely early tuberculosis.
He was advised by doctors to recuperate in a place where the weather was similar to that of his hometown in Philadelphia. Haight found the perfect place in Paoay, Atok, Benguet. At 7,937 feet above sea level, the area experiences frost during the months of December to February.
The soldier chose grassland atop a plateau surrounded by mossy forests to farm in, ordering vegetable seeds from his parents in Philadelphia. Unlike other American soldiers who were lured by the gold mines of the Cordillera, it was the soil’s prospects for farming that attracted Haight. He discovered that the elevation and climate were ideal for vegetable growing. He grew cabbage, lettuce, turnips, rhubarb, sugar beets, carrots, celery, parsley, potato, even rye and oats.
Today, Atok is recognized as the salad bowl of the Philippines.
Franklin Guy and Susie had four children and one adopted child. Generations of Haights have since continued the pursuit of farming. Mary Sue Farm Products seeks to be the retail arm of the Haight family farm as well as its association’s members. The enterprise aims to deliver vegetables directly to your table, bypassing the wholesale market. Currently most of the Haight’s Farm Association’s produce are snapped up by wholesalers. “Mary Sue is a very small side of the business. So we deliver direct to households which they don’t cater to cause they supply institutional buyers,” Laita-Go explains.
Among the 33 association members are small farmers like Mena Sukil-Ap, who’s been farming since 2010 and recently opted to supply Mary Sue Farm Products directly. “Unang una, yung produkto ko iha-harvest ko lang dito tapos sila na ang bahalang hahakot diyan kasi along the highway naman. Pangalawa is yung presyo namin na farmer okay kasi fixed price kami. The whole year yan,” Sukil-Ap says, explaining that the arrangement with Mary Sue Farm Products shields small farmers like her from wild price fluctuations in the vegetable market, “Kunyari sabi nila (Mary Sue Farm Products) 20 kilos, alam mo na yung bayad ng 20 kilos kaysa yung compared sa trading post o sa conventional market sa Baguio. Pag narinig mo 30 pesos ang price, tapos pinunta mo doon, masuwerte ka kung tumaas yung presyo pero kung bumaba, tali ka kung ano yung maabutan mong presyo, yun ang bayad sa iyo.”
The partnership also opens new markets for farmers with smaller sized lots. “So we pull veggies from them and then we market it,“ says Laita-Go. “We get to program the produce that we want them to plant so there is no oversupply of a certain vegetable.” For example, the value of carrots goes down if too many farmers plant them at the same time.
Their scheme, Cua-Macaraeg says is a win-win for their farmer members and customers. “We give a premium price. We peg it on the market price not on the farm gate price. So the farmers earn more because they get to sell to Mary Sue at a higher rate compared to bulk buyers. So that's the advantage, in a way we are able to help them with their excess produce.” She says that even when they buy at a higher rate, when they sell to direct buyers it will still be cheaper than supermarket price.
For Laita-Go, the business is exporting the Atok way of life she grew up in, “This is still our playground,” waving her hand at the neat rows of vegetables, looking golden under the setting sun, as she breaths in the crisp air. “When we were kids, we get this. We harvest. We just play with it. For example, we get cabbage, we slice it put vinegar on it and snack on it. My kids also do that now. We just slice cucumber, carrots and that's their snack.” Her family doesn’t really go to fast food chains, and she encourages the household to plant their own. “You know, sustainability.”
Not all vegetables from Benguet are the same, the two are quick to point out. “We only sell the first class harvest. We don't mix vegetables with second class or produce that were harvested a day or 2 before,” Laita-Go says. “That’s why we follow a schedule to make sure that everything is freshly harvested from our partner farms.”
Laita-Go’s uncle Edward Haight is chairman of the Haight's Farm Association. Haight also assists Mary Sue Farm Products in the classification of their produce. Haight says the association implements safe agricultural practices even if it isn’t GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certified. “So we went to the seminars and we are practicing GAP but we don't have our certificate because we don't have enough money,” he says.
Very few farms in the Philippines are GAP certified, where a third party audit is conducted to ensure the farm is adhering to organic and safe processes. The cost of the audit can be prohibitive and the process can be tedious for small farms. Nevertheless, Haight says he is “against what they're saying that we farmers in Benguet are using a lot of pesticides and insecticides. No. We don't spray. We have a conscience,” he says. “We cannot feed people with pesticides. It's not good. We are already practicing GAP and the organic farming.” The group supplies fresh produce to Starlanes Philippines Incorporated and sells in the wholesale market in the La Trinidad Trading Post.
The pair says theirs is not just a business but an advocacy, “It was really more to reach out to households, encourage them to eat more from the earth not from packets or from canned goods,” Cua-Macaraeg enthuses.
In the future, they hope to sell seedlings, too, to encourage households to grow vegetables, “The best way is to grow your own food but not a lot of people have the time or the skills to do it. But even those who have a small garden in their backyard, it's still not enough to supply the entire household. That's where we come in,” Laita-Go says as she watches the sun set on the plateau where the first vegetable patch was planted by Franklin Gus Haight, a century ago.
In his honor, the family named a vantage point in their farm where it all began, that offers a spectacular view of the vegetable terraces, Haight’s Place.
Click on the image below for slideshow
Growing seedlings for transplant.
Watering the plants using a rain simulator.
Green houses at Haight's Farm.
Laita Haight, a member of the family’s fourth generation.
Red romaine lettuce in a vertical farm.
For more information, check out instagram.com/marysuefarm and www.facebook.com/marysuefarm/
Photographs by Andre Drilon