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meryenda with Denison Tan of Den & Jeans, Batangas
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meryenda with Denison Tan of Den & Jeans, Batangas

A kwento session with farmer and founder of Den & Jean's Natural Farm in Batangas

Welcome to meryenda minutes, our monthly audio companion illuminating Filipino chefs, doers, farmers, scholars, artists plus more with insight into their food (and/or beverage) stories. Through this interview series, we aim to better bridge conversations with Filipinos spanning the homeland and the diaspora. We hope this contributes to a flourishing of a much more interconnected community and enrichment of Philippine culture + cuisine.

This month, I speak with Denison Tan of Den & Jean’s Natural Farm in Batangas, about a two-hour drive from metro Manila. I connected with Denison after joining a session hosted by Ugnayan on regenerative agriculture.

Denison is the first farmer to be introduced on meryenda so for this conversation, I wanted to understand how he sees farming as part of global citizenship. He talks about local food systems, shifting mindsets on native vegetables like patola and patani, and how a focus on community can perhaps reframe the country’s agricultural framework.

Click above to listen to the full episode.


Jess:
I wanted to say thank you again for taking this time to speak with us. You know, two weeks ago when we had the Ugnayan event and I heard you speaking about what you did, I could tell that you were really passionate about it and I was like, this is not enough time for you to really discuss in depth what you do.

So I knew I wanted to connect with you again. Before we get into the details, I wanted to hear a bit more about your connection to food before it evolved to what it is now.

Denison:
I am Filipino-Chinese and I grew up with an abundance of food. When we eat, if you're familiar with Chinese lauriat, we eat like eight dishes, twelve dishes in a common sequence and all of them are like main dish.

There's no entree, there's no main— everything is main and it's always in abundance. So we ate a lot. So I thought I'm eating home cooked meal, so that must be healthy. It never came to me to even consider where did this crab, this chicken, this pork, this beef come from? Where did they come from? Who took care of them, who grew them? What are the intentions that went into growing these foods? And we just ate abundantly because we can, because we have money. We can buy and that gives us the right to just consume and not think about everything that's connected to our food: the environment, the people, Mother Nature, the bacteria, the sun, so we don't think about that. We just ate a lot.

Just recently my dad passed away. First he had a major heart attack at the age of 62 and he passed away at 70. And I thought, how can that be [when] 90 percent of our food are home cooked? So there must be something wrong with what we are doing, right? Now I know that health and wellness is more than just food, but food plays a big role in health. So when I became a parent, that's when my awareness started to transition from just being a consumer to being more aware, being more concerned, basically asking more questions.

And when my daughter came in, that's when everything changed. I need to know where my food really comes from. I need to know, I need to meet them. Like I can't just buy this brand or you know, this product with a nice packaging and just believe in the brand, believe in the company that does it without talking to anyone behind it.

So I guess that's my short version of my relationship with food.

Jess:
I'm sorry to hear about your dad, but I get how a major life event like that can really change how we think about everything really. My mom actually passed away when I was young too. She always thought about the food that she ate when she was getting chemotherapy and all of that. Food is really nourishment, right? So we really have to think about food as nourishment and just not something that we consume.

You started to ask more questions and really started to wonder about where your food comes from. How did you go about that process? Did you start going to the markets or did you just talk to the producers yourself? Or how was that process in trying to figure out where the origin of your food was?

Denison:
Yeah, so I think it started like six years ago. My daughter's now six. So when my wife was pregnant with our first child, we became more conscious about our food. So I do my own market. I go to the wet market. But the thing is when I go to the wet market, I became more like, "Ate, saan galing ito? Ate, is this from Nueva Ecija or from Pampanga? Is this local?" Ate, where is this from? Ate, is this from Nueva Ecija or from Pampanga?

Then I realized that along the years the ates keeps on mentioning more and more China, more and more Taiwan, more and more India. And I realized that, why are we getting onions, garlic from China? Why are we getting our monggo from India and so forth?

So I said, okay, it doesn't make sense because I have friends in my Chinese community who import a lot of food and they put a lot of stuff in it to make sure it comes fresh from wherever it comes from. One of my relatives is a crazy big importer of monggo and they import 8, 9, 10 trailer vans of monggo every week.

It's impossible to maintain its state. You need to make them not sprout before selling it, right? So they have to keep on spraying stuff to make it not germinate and not sprout. They have a big, big, big warehouse that's air conditioned, humidity controlled, as much as they can, so that it will stay ungerminated. But that's the thing: they can't because from the day of harvest, along the logistic line until warehousing, they have put a ton of chemicals already before even they even come into the market into small packaging.

With my first child coming along, I thought that that's not good. I just feel it in my gut that that's wrong. That's not how it's supposed to be. So I started asking questions and I started to look for other sources.

Apparently, I've a neighbor here who's a cardiac surgeon in one of the hospitals nearby and they grow their own food. A cardiac surgeon who's very unhealthy and he wanted to change his life. I got to talk to him and he's now growing their own food. It's like godsend that I have a neighbor who grows their own food. Can I buy it from you?

So they said that if we have excess, we'll sell it to you. They sell at chemical vegetable price, like if you say 70 peso sayote, they sell 70 peso sayote, not the 300, 400, 500 peso you see in crazy supermarkets. So I get to access organic food that's market price and it's like few blocks away, a few minutes away. But then they don't have a wide variety of vegetables, so I get 40 percent of my food there and 60, 70 percent of my food from the wet market.

I think that was like five years ago. That became a stepping stone to this tastes good, this doesn't taste good. Real organic food is so much better because I eat half the amount and I feel fuller. I feel fuller than with a whole bunch of the ones in the wet market. I'm Chinese, I eat a whole variety of vegetables. I eat so much. We are actually planting 60 varieties of vegetables in the farm.

For example, chives. Chives is a garnish or a side thing you put in meals. I buy one kilo of chives and I just sautee it. So the main dish is just chives with a bit of garlic and with a bit of maybe black beans. So the chives I got from my neighbor is like a few strands. I have to make do with it. I felt along the way that it's more flavorful, it's richer, it's more filling. We really need to get real food like this. But it's not easy. It's not easy.

Fast forward, we thought of there's no other way than to grow our own food. That's the easiest way instead of going into weekend markets, going into grocery stores and just trusting organic brands or natural produce. I'll just plant it on my own.

Jess:
See the thing is if you're in the Philippines, at least here, you still have the wet market or the palengke. You can actually talk to the vendors. But back home—I'm actually from LA area— if you don't go to the farmer's market, the nearest source of your food is just the grocery store. If you're not active enough to go to the farmer's market, you never really get a chance to talk to the producer. So your whole life, you can go about not knowing where your food comes from.

Denison: —you have to call the number at the back. There's a customer care number, number at the back—

Jess: (laughs) Right?

Denison/Jess: And the farmers market. But you don't know where the farm is and the farmer's market. And the, oh, sorry. Go ahead.

Jess:
Yes, farmers, farmers markets tend to be… it's not equally distributed. It tends to be, in certain more affluent places. So not everybody has access, but there's a movement to push farmer's markets to head towards the neighborhoods with less resources so they can also have access to fresh food.

But anyway, I just, I like how you said you were just asking "Ate, saan ba galing ito? Ate, where is this from?" Like all of that stuff because I'm the same way also. I wanted to fast forward and ask you about what you're doing now with the farm. So can you tell us a bit about how Den and Jean’s Natural Farm happened? I know you bought the plot of land. What principles did you, develop your farm around and how was that journey of getting to where it is right now?

Denison:
So the plan was like, it was already a dream three years ago because we were already deep into the plant-based diet thing. And creating our own farm has been a dream for like, four years, even five years ago.

But we were taking our time. We were like looking for the perfect land, thinking of ourI, ideal land and. The pandemic reallyhastened the process. My wife said it's now or never you have to decide. You have to look for one because here's the pandemic. It's gonna crush the economy, it's gonna crush the food system we have. And it did. It showed the vulnerability of our system— our economic, financial, food systems. In September of 2020, we got a land. It's just less than a hectacre, it's 9,000 square meters in Batangas.

It's midlands and we just started operation right away on October 1st. The first thing we did was we planted trees. I just, do my own, permaculture planning thing using my YouTube intelligence and my YouTube academics. Like the trees will be here, the vegetables will be here, the animals will be here.

We planted around 220 fruit trees. 30 percent are now bearing fruit two years after. We just did it so fast that. October 1 was the first day of operation. Our first harvest of vegetables was November 27th. So in a little less than two months, we were able to harvest. I thought now we have vegetables, how can we sustain it financially? How can we finance this? So I started calling friends— I'm thinking of growing my own food. Do you want in on this? I'm gonna give you a plot of land. I'm gonna stick your name on it. It's your land. You lease it for a year. You can plant whatever you need but if you don't have time to plant, I'll do it for you. I'll have someone water it, take care of it.

At that point in time, I had little ideas on farming. I just know some basic principles. Anything on YouTube, basically. Read a couple of books. So my friend said that's a great idea. You're leasing me a farm, that's my own farm and I'm gonna harvest every week whatever's on your plot, and I'm gonna bring it to your house in Manila. So you have a private farm, you can bring your family, you can sow, you can harvest, you can work the land, you can do whatever. It's yours. The first phase of our farm was plots of land. I've cemented beds and it has names on it. It was amazing.

Okay, now we have people leasing our land. We have some funds to keep the finances rolling. Now they keep on telling their friends about it. They keep on telling their cousins. They keep on telling their relatives, their brothers, whatever. Initially my idea was just like 30 clients. I wanted this to be a small community. I wanted this to be my close friends, my closest colleagues. It started from 13 to 25 in less than six months. So I had to create new beds. So we had to develop it faster because people are asking for the program that I did, the leasing program. I didn't even know CSA (community-shared agriculture) at that point in time. There's no CSA in my mind. There's no farm share. I didn't know about it. That's when I thought, okay, now I'm researching about CSA and farm sharing.

Now the operation has become more complicated because people want this and that instead of this. Like I want more kale than, let's say petchay.

So I'm having the difficulty with operations, making sure the supply is enough for what they need versus fighting nature, what nature really wants. But when we started, we really wanted everything to be natural, everything to be organic. When I saw that demand doesn't meet the principles of organic, natural, and permaculture farming, I said that we need to convert the consumers or my clients into consuming more native [vegetables] than wanting more kale.

Today, they want kale. Tomorrow, they would want other crazy stuff. It's crazy because I'm planting a lot of Chinese vegetable. I have (unintelligible), I have choy sum, and they grow in like 30, 45 days. Kale is like 60-70 days. So they said, "Can you just remove all of my choy sum and replace it with kale? And I want to have it delivered next week."

I can't plant kale and have it delivered next week in your plot of land. What happened is I had to create a lot of education: how do use talinum, how do use patola, how do you celebrate patani, how do you make your pansit-pansitan more eye-candy?

So I have to make a lot of those in our own small community. I'm using Facebook groups and slowly they get to see it. They get to see that there are these vegetables that are tastier, that are easier to grow, and supposedly are more nourishing than what we wanted. What we wanted were the kales. I was able to squeeze in a lot of native foods that were actually already in the farm, even before I bought the farm.

So that's the pipinito, that's the uray, that's the native spinach, and a whole lot of native stuff. Now they're the ones who's asking for it. They're the ones who's asking for it because you cannot get pipinito in your stands. You cannot get pansit-pansitan at S&R or whatever high end supermarkets you have.

That's a revelation to me that you can educate the consumers, but it's a slow burn. It's not an overnight thing, but you have to do a lot of work to make that happen. So I worked with chefs and I tell them, "Make this amazing." I know it's amazing because we eat it raw. I don't have enough time to cook so creatively, so I worked with chefs to romanticize these native foods for my clients. That's the journey of the farm so far.

The principles are the common ideas that you hear: soil health, bacteria, parasites, ecosystem. We make sure that all of the things we put in are as much as possible our own creation. We ferment our own fertilizers. We don't use plastic mulch. We harvest a lot of different grasses to use as mulch. We do a lot of composting, like two tons, three tons a month of composting. We do like two tons every quarter of vermicast— worm poop. I'm assuming that the terms are already out there.

So, all of the inputs are either created by us, 80 percent. 20 percent we get from our neighbors within the barangay. So we get extra manure there. They have extra grass there that they don't need. Do you have garbage basically? Do you have garbage?

Recently I discovered something, I thought how do I enrich my compost more? So every time I drive up the farm, I go through... if you're familiar with Tagaytay, there are a lot of fruit stalls. I stop by the fruit stalls and ask for unwanted fruits. Fruits that they don't want to sell anymore. Fruits that are going bad and it'll blow your mind how much food they throw away every day. Like I'm able to get 200 kilos of unwanted fruits every week. That's not even, I'm not even talking to all of the stalls. I drop into like 6, 7, 8 stalls and that's easily 200 kilos. And half of them are still edible, like it still looks good. It's so good that I don't want to give it to the pigs. I bring all of this unwanted food and the food that are still feasible for pigs and my chickens, I give it to them. The rest, I put it in compost. So it gives my compost a lot of macronutrients that otherwise I won't be able to put in it without real food rotting, real food composting. So its amazing.

Jess: That's a lot. Yeah. Sorry. Keep going.

Denison:
I'm just thinking about how I haven't even talked to the hotels, the restaurants, the buffet restaurants, the samgyupsal (all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ), eat-all-you-can-whatever chain of establishments. It's crazy how much food we throw away and our government, our mentality is... it's like we need to produce more food because food is becoming scarce. Food is becoming more expensive. Inflation's going up because we don't have enough. We have to import more. But the waste is almost as much as the food that we are creating. And it's so crazy to think 80 percent of Filipinos don't get access to the food, and the food are being thrown away.

Just because the businessmen, the capitalist world, thinks that this food is already paid for, I can throw it away if I want to. If I'm at a five star hotel, I won't even give it to my employees. I'm gonna throw it away instead of being sued by my employees because of whatever food poisoning. So they'd rather throw it away than give it to the poor. Now we have a new government, we have a new president and all they think about is like buying raw inputs outside and feeding the farmers those inputs so that the farmers can create more. That's not even fixing the problem fundamentally.

Jess: Right. You're absolutely correct. It makes complete sense. Hunger, and people not having access to food. But really it's the whole food distribution.

Denison: I guess happens what around the world, right?

Jess:
Even back home the amount of waste that comes from the grocery stores, the hospitals even the, the restaurants. But there are people trying to figure out ways to sort of redistribute the excess food to people that don't have access to it. A lot of it still comes from before that: how do you make distribution more accessible before it even hits those major streams of distribution.

I kind of also wanted to go back a little bit too about how you mentioned that I like how you are very determined in educating your consumersabout the native vegetables and native produce. Because sometimes I feel like when there's a demand, the market just feeds that demand. But you were like, "You know what? We have so much more variety here that's so much more nutritious. Let me figure out a way to get that to you." So I really applaud you for taking that stance of being like, hey, we have so much good food. I wanted to ask, how do you spread the message to people who think that this clean, local organic food is not accessible? How do you educate people that it is available and it it is accessible to them?

Denison:
Since we started the farm, since I got hold of my first 13 lessors, we weren't able to actually market our farm, our produce. We weren't able to because the demand— like there's more demand than I can even deliver.

So up until now, if you look at the history of our social media content, we haven't mentioned even once, subscribe to our CSA... hey, we have vegetables. We didn't have time because we were, even until today, we're still catching up with the demand. Because I have a small plot of land, I have to work with my neighbor farms to be able to provide that volume. I'm gonna tell a longer story about my farmer neighbors.

That's the thing— organic food, natural food, food that comes out of authentic intention, and growing your food— I think that's the marketing. I think that if I show people that my kids are eating 90 percent what we grow and they have more energy, they grow vibrantly, then people will see through to it.

Like this guy grows his own food. When I buy food from him, I can ask all the questions and he will know, or if he doesn't know he'll look for the answers to my questions. So I think I'm breaking the barrier of branding and marketing in such a way that it's so personal, it's so intentional, and the marketing is: the farm is my story. It's our family story.

I guess, changing the mindset of consumers, I think it looks harder than it should be, but it's not. It's a matter of making people believe in your story and when they believe, they're gonna try it, and when they try it, nature's gonna speak for itself.

There are still challenges that we went through. People are used to eating tomatoes all year round. I want cherry tomatoes in August, September when it's really raining hard. So I tell them we intentionally did not plant tomatoes because I'm gonna spend a lot of energy on it. My people are going to get frustrated because they don't grow well, because it's not supposed to be grown in this part of the year.

How about I tell you how to make use of your patani and your sayote because the sayote is crazy sweet and you can make a lot of stuff. And he says, "So how do I use sayote?" I call my chef friend, "Hey, I need up to make something out of sayote." I can't just tell them that you can sautee it in garlic and oyster sauce. So I guess that's educating consumers: really making sure that’s I’m closely connected to the food that they eat in a way that I can assist them in how to prepare them, how to store them, how to cook them, how to even identify them if they're good, they're bad, they're okay to eat, they're not okay to eat.

Jess:
I wanted to give you a chance to talk about how. you've sort of built this relationship with other farmers in the community. What were the toughest things about introducing organic farming to folks who may have been just used to conventional farming? And how did they start trusting this whole process?

Denison:
Okay, one day I saw someone across the road from our farm spraying chemicals on their mango trees. I thought to myself, "Hey, I'm an organic farm, but the wind's blowing from the east, it's bringing in a lot of chemicals, so am I 98 percent organic, 2 percent chemical?" The smell gets stronger and it's so bad that my farmers, that my people are already complaining.

So we went across the road and talked to this guy. We got the number of the owner. We talked to the owner, and the owner didn't even know. The thing here is the owners of big land will just ask someone to make use of the land. That someone does their thing— spraying and growing mangoes, and harvesting and selling into the market.

I guess they don't know how it, how the chemicals can affect the neighborhood, the people, the kids, the pregnant women. So it gave us a chance to like give a bit of backstory on how these chemical amendments affect our community, our health, our soil. So they appreciated that. And they stopped immediately after doing three rounds of chemical sprays. But what I did was I talked to the owner. I said, I know you have a big land. Maybe you can help us produce organic food. That was last year in June and since I'm already doing this, how about I knock on the doors of all my neighbors. So I talked to like 40 families within our barangay. 40 families and initially I get a positive response. 25 out of the 40. Only 16 came to my first meeting.

The first meeting I presented the idea, I presented my vision on what we are doing, and I try to make them appreciate this project that it will benefit them short and long term. All the stuff: you're gonna feel healthier, you're gonna spend less on your food, etc..

I'm gonna be there every step of the way. I’m going to help you with financial input. I'm gonna help you with education. I'm gonna make sure your farm's going to be operationally viable and produce the amount of vegetables that will make your earnings enough for your family.

So out of the 16 families that went on the first meeting, only five really made it up to until today. So we are now taking care of five farms, five farmer families, and they are now producing around 180 to 220 kilos a week across 30 varieties of vegetables.

So on top of my own production, which is around 200 to 230 kilos a week, we're producing a ton of vegetables a month and serving 60 families directly, three restaurants and around 57 families. I think that's the maximum that I can do. That's our maximum. If I talked to the farmers today and ask them, "What happened? Your journey, what did you feel? What do you think about what we're doing right now?"

They would tell me, "Alam mo kuya, when I started, my neighbors, my families, my friends were talking behind my back. Kung may chemical nga hinde mo kaya, ngayon pa walang chemical.” When you are using a lot of chemical fertilizers and inputs, you're already not surviving. How about now without all of those chemical amendments, how can you survive?

Now the neighbors and friends and families are now knocking on their doors asking for reject broccoli and reject cauliflower because what they do, which is part of our program, is I tell them to eat their food. Whether it's reject or good broccoli, good cauliflower, you need to eat your food. Your family, your kids need to appreciate it. To celebrate your produce before you even bring it to me because if you don't eat your own food, I will not get your produce. So the program is: you follow our principles, we monitor you three times a week, you grow whatever. As long as it's a variety and it's organic, then we buy out all of your produce at market price. So if the market is 70 pesos, kamatis are 50 peso, sayote— we buy it at that price, but we don't change the price. We have just one fixed price for the entire year. So, we don't care about what's happening out there. We have our own economy. We have our own pricing and market.

So when their family get to love their vegetables, when the kids get to eat more vegetables, that's the time that they really felt that this is luxury. This is luxury because the food that we're eating is exactly the food that my clients are eating, which are some of the craziest, richest people in the Philippines.

I tell that story to them every day. Every day that I get to meet them. You know the owner of this, this, and that? It's the same food that you eat. So they feel more dignified and proud. They post it on social media that I'm eating broccoli today. My lunch is French beets or bush sitao, and their families see that, their neighbors see that.

One of the farmers is actually earning 45,000 a month. And if you understand the earnings here in the Philippines, 45,000 is three times the the average earnings of the low income class. And that's just one family. And they bring me all kinds of stuff like, "Kuya, meron akong (I have) native mustasa or native uray or native whatever that I haven't even seen in my life. I've got katuray flowers. I have this and that."

I said bring it to me, I'll make sure people will want them. The marketing part is on me, but I have to eat it first. I have to make [sure] I'm gonna love it. I'm gonna share my journey on it. Then my 60 families will love it also. If you visit us I'm gonna bring you to the family farms, neighbor farms and I'm gonna show you how they do their farms. It's so varied. No monocropping. Their'll be okra there. Their'll be eggplant there. There'll be uray there.. There'll be spinach there, there'll be talino there, there'll be all kind of vegetables that look so varied and look so natural, I guess. It's amazing because now these families have that mindset of I don't need to sell my land.

My kids will get the mindset that we are already sitting on goldmine, that we don't need to sell our land make our lives better. Because it's happening around the Philippines and I guess other parts of the world also, that when the agricultural sector or the families in the agricultural sector have financial problems, the first thing they think of is sell their land.

And some rich guy will buy it and not use it, and land-bank it and that rich guy will hire the original owner to be the caretaker and the caretaker will earn eight, nine, not even 10,000 [pesos] a month. The family will just strive to have their kids finish education, go to Manila and be call-center agents or a nurse abroad, be engineers on big commercial shipping lines. It's that story I think… it’s like 95 percent of what's happening here in the Philippines. It's so sad because these people who are representing 80 percent of our population, they're not even aware of this vicious cycle that's happening and what that cycle, that construct will put into their kids' minds when [they] grow up. That will be worse. That system will be worse. I can't even imagine where this is going.

The five farmer families that we are taking care of, my priority are their children. The five families times three children each is fifteen kids. If I'm able to bring them up with the mindset that we have right now: health equals productivity, co-creating with nature equals saving Mother Earth, etc. If I can put that framework in their mindset, they will grow up to be not just different, they will grow up with a voice.

They will be our barangay chairman, they will be our senators, congressman. I guess it's putting more wisdom than academics is what I'm trying to say. Everyone's intelligent, everyone's coming from whatever university all around the world. What we need right now is wisdom, the truth of life that we've got disconnected with. And the truth is that we are getting more disconnected with nature and we are living in this modern society. We are living this modern comfort that is making the word sustainable more improbable, more impossible to achieve.

So I think if I can work with our barangay school, I can change 10 kids, 20 kids in my lifetime, then I think that will make a big ripple effect moving forward after I leave this world. So that when they reach the age of 20-30, they will be so much more progressive than us. They'll think of more and better solutions. And society, I hope, we will be more ready to hear their voice. My community is my goal right now. Changing their mindset about food, changing their mindset about environment, nature, their land, working with nature, etc.

Jess:
Thank you for sharing that message because that's amazing… because I don't even know if you're getting support or it seems like you're doing a lot of this, out of your own desire to change the community. I really just am amazed that the farmers are really the ones in your community that are finally getting recognition, as they should, and you're able to really shift the conversations on what good, accessible food is.

Thank you so much, Denison, for sharing your story and your vision and your dedication. Like I said, I feel like there could be part 3, 4, 5, but I see the door opening and closing (in the video). I feel like they want you, but yeah, I'm definitely excited to share your story with everybody else.

Denison:
Thank you so much to what you do. Thank you. Please tell the story. Please spread the word.

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