Magulay na Pasko

Text and photos by George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Dec 18 2020 03:49 PM | Updated as of Dec 18 2020 03:52 PM

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Fr. Eduardo “Ponpon” Vasquez Jr. goes around communities in Caloocan City participating in the “Veggie Christmas Tree Challenge 2020." George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

A few months into the COVID19 pandemic, social media in the Philippines was abuzz with the sudden increase of ‘plantitos and plantitas.' Filipinos under lockdown turned to gardening in and out of their homes. As a result, the demand for plants skyrocketed and suppliers had difficulty in sourcing plants, with the prices of some up 300%. 

When Caloocan parish priest, Fr. Eduardo “Ponpon” Vasquez Jr., saw this trend, he grabbed the opportunity to promote vegetable cultivation in his community. 

On November 7, he launched the “Veggie Christmas Tree Challenge 2020” with the theme “Magulay na Pasko at Masustansyang Bagong Taon.” Participating communities have to erect 7-foot Christmas trees using vegetables as ornaments. An added twist is that the vegetables should be ready for consumption on the day of judging on December 26. 

Ponpon the farmer

From 2016 to 2018, Fr. Ponpon used to head the Oblate Galilee Farm in North Cotabato of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), a 9-hectare organic farm. The parish priest of the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace in Caloocan is also a TESDA-certified organic agriculturist. His plan was to educate the people on the benefits of urban farming. Initially it was hard to sell, but Fr. Ponpon persisted with the goal of changing the image of urban farming into a more appealing and sustainable activity.

“Ang una kong narinig nung nag-lockdown nung March 15, nasa mall ako noon eh. Yung mga saleslady nag-uusap usap, 'Paano na, anong kakainin natin?' Takot na takot sila na lockdown, hindi makakapasok daw yung mga gulay na galing sa probinsya papunta sa Manila. So yung words na yun, sabi ko, 'Ah eto na. Makikinig na sila ngayon, na kailangan nating magtanim sa bahay-bahay.'”

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Participants in the the “Veggie Christmas Tree Challenge 2020" use recycled pots and solar-powered Christmas lights as ornaments, on December 17, 2020. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Farm to plate

“Diba yung iba, farm to table daw? Kami dito, from farm to plate! Mula sa farm, lagay mo sa plato mo at hugasan mo, then kainin mo na,” Fr. Pon explains with enthusiasm. Since the announcement of the contest, participating Caloocan residents have been busy aiming to get the grand prize worth P100,000 and other consolation prizes. 

But more than the prize, the real goal of teaching people the benefits of urban farming has caught on. Participants have started consuming their own produce out of their urban farms. After growing the plants they use as ornaments for the Christmas tree, participants will be able to harvest eggplants, alugbati, kamote and other vegetables. 

Interest in the community has grown so fast that the 1.5-liter plastic bottles recycled as pots have become scarce. Those just joining the trend even go to junk shops to buy these plastic bottles.

“Namumroblema sila ngayon. Binibili nila sa mga junk shop, wala na silang mabili. E tinatapon lang naman nila yan. Pinag-aagawan nila ngayon. Yun ang impact sa recycling,” says Fr. Ponpon.

As part of the contest rules, participants are prohibited to use artificial fertilizer and must use solar-powered Christmas lights. Food wastes such as carrot peels, eggshells, bones from poultry are now being used as fertilizers, further reducing wastes produced by households. 

From waste to grace

As he teaches the people the benefits of urban farming, Fr. Ponpon hopes the real growth would be in the hearts of the people--that nothing in society should be treated as waste.

“Pag lugmok na tayo sa kasalanan, at maraming nagawang kapalpakan, 'di ba ang idea ngayon ng mga tao is, ‘Alisin na yan, patayin mo ang tao na hindi kapaki-pakinabang,’" Fr. Ponpon laughs wryly.

“Pero hindi ganun ang Diyos e. Gusto ka niya makarecover. Yun ang idea ng Waste to Grace.”

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Fr. Eduardo “Ponpon” Vasquez visits the site of one of the participating barangays. Fr. Ponpon announced the “Veggie Christmas Tree Challenge 2020” to educate the people about urban farming, and keep people busy under these uncertain times.George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Locals take pictures with one of the entries for the “Veggie Christmas Tree Challenge”.George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Participants are required to put up a 7-foot Christmas tree made out of vegetables and recycled materials.George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

“Very receptive ang tao ngayon sa pagtatanim dahil sa pandemic. Dun na ako talagang bumuwelo. Ngayon, pag pumunta ko sa mga barangay, nakikita ko yung excitement at high level of energy sa pagtatanim. Talagang nagkaroon ng interest,” says Fr. Ponpon.George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

“Sa totoo lang, ngayong nagpa-contest kami, nagkakaubusan na. Wala ka nang makikitang bote ng softdrinks sa mga junk shop. Sa buong Caloocan,” says Fr. Ponpon. The contest has kept housewives busy while learning a new and hopefully sustainable activity.George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

“If you take care of vegetable plants the way you take care of ornamental plants, dun aasenso ang Pinoy eh. Walang magugutom,” says Fr. Ponpon. He believes that urban farming is the way to go for Filipinos and the Philippines.George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Vegetables such as alugbati, pechay, malunggay, eggplant, sweet potato, and mustard leaves are just some of the vegetable crops locals have started planting.George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Carrot peels, egg shells, and other vegetable wastes are now repurposed as fertilizers in the gardens of participating barangays.George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Crab shells, a good source of calcium, is also used by Fr. Ponpon as fertilizer and even as ornaments for the garden.George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Aside from food wastes, rabbit feces are also used as fertilizer inside the small green house of the parish church.George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Fr. Ponpon visits one of the participating farms.George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

A resident reacts after seeing a small eggplant on one of the pots below the edible Christmas tree in one of the barangays.George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Since the contest started, participating residents have learned how to produce their own food.George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Even non-participating residents have joined the trend in urban farming. “Walang outsider dito. Lahat pwede mong i-unite. Walang pulitika, walang relihiyon. Kasali lahat,” says Fr. Ponpon.George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News