Checking a cassava farm in Floridablanca, Pampanga

He was just selling sili to sisig joints—until his love for farming grew into big business

He’s since been Pampanga’s top supplier of herbs and produce and known as the ‘chef’s farmer,’ growing the ‘requests’ from the restaurants of his hometown 
RHIA D. GRANA | Sep 29 2020

It’s quite funny how Carlomagno Aguilar, better known as Carlo the Farmer on YouTube, got into farming. His older brother, Paul, one day brought home a kilo of worms (African nightcrawler) from a workshop he attended at the Department of Agriculture.

Paul had no space to put up a worm farm—or any kind of farm for that matter—in his Cubao abode, so he decided to bring the worms to their home in Pampanga.

Ano gagawin ko dito?” Carlo, then working as a financial adviser for AXA Philippines, asked his brother, referring to the creepy-crawlies.

His brother answered, “Ay Carlo, organic fertilizer ang pupu nyan.” Paul, a programmer by profession, never got into farming; he was only interested in picking up new learnings.

Carlo learned a lot by trial and error, and by doing a lot of research and development.

Not wanting to waste the worms that his brother had brought, Carlo tried his hand at planting chili peppers (siling labuyo)—six pots of them. And that was the very first time he had ever planted anything. He was 26. “That was the time that the price of sili rose to P700 a kilo. And I was able to harvest a kilo every other day!” he recalls. “Sabi ko, ang ganda pala magtanim.” 

So he would pluck the sili from his plants in the morning, bring his harvest to the sisig places in Pampanga, and then proceed to his office. “Tapos sisingil ako hapon. Meron akong P700. Dun na-ignite ang aking passion for farming,” Carlo shares.

As his love for farming continued to grow, he started planting other types of vegetables like eggplant and tomatoes in a 450-sq.m. vacant lot near their house in Pampanga’s San Luis Park. 

Meeting chefs allowed him to discover unique farming opportunities, such as focusing on specialty crops. “The chefs would ask me, ‘Carlo, marunong ka ba mag-grow ng arugula?’ I didn’t know how, but I tried anyway. Naging successful,” he says. And that’s how he started becoming a supplier for a restaurant.

Tibby's Farm in Angeles City, Pampanga

The chefs would later on ask for herbs, so he grew them as well, naturally expanding his network of clients. “The reason I got called ‘the chefs’ farmer’ ay dahil ang mga kliyente ko ay chefs,” he says, his smile bright against his brown skin. 

This led him to start Fresherb, which sells a wide selection of organic culinary herbs, edible flowers, microgreens, and specialty produce. “We focus on herbs kasi yun ang hanap ng mga chefs, and we saw the need in Pampanga, which is the country’s culinary capital,” Carlo says.

Before, Kapampangans used to source their herbs from Tagaytay and Baguio. But they would often die due to the heat—so Carlo studied how to acclimatize the plants to the temperate environment of Pampanga. And that was how Fresherb became the source of herbs in Angeles and San Fernando, eventually becoming top of mind for specialty produce.

With wife Graciel at Fresherb

No such thing as green thumb

Carlo is not a believer that one has to have a so-called green thumb to grow a garden. “Ako, I just experimented,” he says. “Ako kasi yung tipo na gusto ko lahat scientific. I do research and development, trial and error—different soil, different exposure sa sunlight, different seeds, different fertilizers. Hanggang sa ma-perfect ko.”

He admits he had committed a lot of farming mistakes in the past, and those were major learning experiences. He recalls one painful lesson he learned way back in 2013. “Nung 2011, I was able to harvest one kilo of peppers every other day. Sabi ko, I will try again in 2013. Pero minadali ko. Hindi na-prepare ang land, madamo pa. Hindi ko inaral ang topography, ang daan ng tubig. Nagmadali akong bumili ng seedlings kahit mahal. I spent P40,000. Then binagyo. Umiyak ako, grabe, kasi na-washout lahat,” he recalls.

“That is why when people tell me, ‘Carlo, namatay ang mga tanim ko.’ Ang sagot ko, ‘At first namatay din lahat ng mga tanim ko. Inaral ko lang, and now I understand farming better,” he says.

Carlo helped build The Farm at San Benito in Batangas.

The former missionary (he is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) doesn’t hesitate sharing what he knows about farming. So when he met Kenneth Cacho, former president of International School for Culinary Arts and Hotel Management, and was requested to help develop a farm-to-table model for their culinary school, that gave birth to the concept of a second company, Organic Growth.

After developing the edible farm of the school, he started offering the service to resorts like Bamboo Private Islands in Coron, Palawan and The Farm at San Benito in Lipa, Batangas. “The goal of the company is to bring the food closer to the people. So what I do is I customize the variety of crops based on the needs of the client,” he says.

Farm at Bamboo Private Islands

At Bamboo Private Islands, the staff needed to travel by boat for two hours to buy their fresh produce, and the travel time back to the resort takes a toll on the produce. Those vegetables had already traveled from Baguio before they were dropped off at Balintawak market and then brought to Coron. “Sa island, sa tapat nila, meron silang bakanteng lote na hindi ginagamit. That’s where we designed their farm. So now, they get to harvest veggies, herbs, edible flowers from their own edible garden,” says Carlo.

He also designed a farm-to-table model for The Farm at San Benito, where they plant high-value crops such as cherry tomatoes, microgreens, imported varieties of peppers and salad greens. The resort owners were able to cut cost by 50% since they don’t need to travel to buy their fresh produce. At the same time, the concept was able to help provide employment to farmers in the area.

Carlo offers the same service to families who would like to develop their own private farms. “We upskill the farmers, teach them new knowledge, then I get paid a monthly consultancy fee,” he says.

Carlo taught the indigenous people of Culion how to grow arugula, herbs and lettuce

Impact of COVID

When the lockdown was implemented, Carlo’s consultancy business was naturally affected. Since there had been travel restrictions, he had to let go of his Laguna and Batangas clients.

But since many people have a lot of time in their hands and have to stay in their homes, farming knowledge became in demand—which is why he thought of offering a virtual farm consultancy through online distance learning.

Before COVID, he had started his YouTube Channel, but he wasn’t that active. When the pandemic occurred, he was able to make time for producing content. “Dahil gigil akong magturo at ang daming gustong matuto, nagturo na lang ako sa YouTube. Fortunately, madami naman palang nanonood,” he says. His channel now has over 35,000 subscribers.

Carlo doesn't believe that one should have a green thumb to grow a garden. "Kailangan mo lang aralin," he says, which is precisely why he decided to put up his YouTube site Carlo the Farmer.

But the Asian Studies graduate from UST warns those who are looking for entertainment in his vlogs—you won’t hear Carlo crack jokes or show funny antics. “I tell people, yung pagpapatawa is not the direction of my channel. I have to admit, my videos are not entertaining, but they are educational,” he says.

“If you look at the phasing of my video, it’s step by step—from what kind of seed, what type of soil, when to plant, how to plant, how to transplant, when to fertilize. Ganoon ka-detailed ang mga videos ko. Lahat ng mali na naaalala ko, binanggit ko doon para di na pagdaanan ng iba. Ang goal ko ay mawala yung thinking na dapat maygreen thumb ang isang tao to grow a farm. Ang gusto ko ay matuto ang mga tao ng farming basics through my channel,” he says.

The 34-year-old Kapampangan has also decided to focus on his Pampanga clients, which has grown over the last few months. He’s helping develop a papaya plantation, a pepper plantation, and a vermiculture facility in his hometown. 

The father of three has also started urban garden projects in Pampanga—that is, converting vacant lots located in residential areas into edible gardens. “Ang mga bata, pati matatanda, inip na inip. Wala silang mapuntahan. So we thought of this project,” he says, adding that it’s been getting good feedback. “May mga naka-lineup na kaming [urban garden projects] kasi maganda ang proof of concept. Yan ang pinagkakaabalahan namin ngayon, pero within Pampanga lang.”

Carlo's kids Gab, Gio and Cariel in their urban garden

He must admit that due to the closure temporary and permanent of many restaurants and hotels, farmers lost a big market for the high-value crops (arugula, microgreens, herbs, and other leafy vegetables). So they had to re-strategize by growing low-value crops in high volume. 

“For a hectare of papaya plantation, we harvest about a ton. We sell it for P15 per kilo, mura. So babawiin namin sa volume. Pre-COVID, it’s high value crops pero, low volume. During COVID, it’s low-value crops pero high volume,” he says.

Asked about his goals, he says it all boils down to teaching people about food sustainability. The group he had created with some businessmen in Pampanga plans to achieve this by developing all the farms and urban gardens in the province. Then their group will make the produce available in an e-portal, to be sold within Pampanga.

But Carlo admits his foremost dream is lofty. “My dream really is to solve the agricultural problems of our country—pang Miss Universe ang answer ko. Hahaha! But seriously, gusto ko sana bago ako mawala sa mundong ito, may magawa akong pagbabago sa sektor ng pagsasaka natin dito sa Pilipinas,” he says.

For now, he has his hands full with Pampanga. Tomorrow, the Philippines.