Holy Carabao by Hindy Weber-Tantoco Challenges the Organic Standard in Metro ManilaJuly 19, 2015
Words such as ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’ are certainly not new within the culinary landscape. It is unfortunate that these are often reduced to buzzwords, or trends to follow simply to keep up with the times. Given that context, one might dismiss Holy Carabao Holistic Farms, a group of family farms with locations in Laguna, Baguio, and Batangas, as just another one of ’those things’—trendy. But make no mistake: what sets them apart is a philosophy that doesn’t just stop at the produce itself.
Fruits and vegetables are living, breathing things. We know that what goes into the production affects the output, and that the output affects the health of its consumers. Most modern agricultural practices make use of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides that maximize output (and profit), but pose a risk to the soil, to people’s health, and to the environment. Organic food production aims to counter this by avoiding the use of these synthetic additives. But the certification process needed to be labelled as such puts more emphasis on sticking to a set of rules which still have loopholes—still mass-producing crops in monocultures, or using fertilizers and pesticides that just so happen to fall under the legal standards. It’s a step forward, of course, but it is by no means flawless.
Holy Carabao, on the other hand, takes a biodynamic approach to farming, with sustainability as its framework and a more holistic perspective. Rather than viewing the plants and the animals in isolation, they consider all components as interconnected—each with its own role and importance, and each forming part of the big picture: the ecosystem. This means ensuring the best conditions across the entire process, from the micro level to the macro: the soil, the manner of harvesting, the crops, the livestock, the farmers, the drivers, the communities they serve, and ultimately, the planet we all inhabit and must care for. Having talked to owner Hindy Weber-Tantoco and retail store manager Joolz de Boer, it’s evident that their commitment to sustainability goes beyond riding on a fad.
While Holy Carabao used to only do door-to-door delivery, they’ve recently begun to supply to supermarket chains Rustan’s and S&R. Just last May, they finally opened their own retail shop in Makati. While it remains within walking distance from the busier parts of Barangay Poblacion (namely, Power Plant Mall and Ateneo Law School), the very area it occupies is very much a low-key neighborhood, with minimal noises coming from passers-by and the occasional street vendor yelling, ‘tahooooo!’ Literally tucked in the corner of Palma and Mañalac streets, the space is tiny—but charmingly so. It is admittedly somewhat cramped inside, and those looking for air-conditioning would be better off sticking to the mall. But this is hardly relevant as we are greeted by the ever-friendly Joolz, who added much-needed cheer to the day’s earlier downpour. “We’ve only been open a bit more than a month,” she shares. Hardly veering away from its origins as a farm, the interiors flaunt rather than disguise its roots. There is wood on the walls, the ceilings, the cupboards, and the floor. Inside the fridge one finds fruits and vegetables, but also a few specialty food items that include grass-fed meat, sausages and locally-sourced chocolate. Present, also, are non-food items: toiletries, household cleaning products, and cosmetics produced in ways that are consistent with their cause.
Hindy eventually arrives, and while she maintains her composure all throughout, she also exudes a peculiar coolness that was about as far from what I was half-expecting (and half-fearing). As the house designer for Rustan’s Department Store, she has certainly had her share of the glamorous life. Not known to many, though, at least at the height of that part of her career, was another passion. “I’ve always loved nature, and I was always an outdoorsy kid,” she shares. “I had an environmental advocacy group in high school, so that was always there.” Hindy also loved science and wanted to become a zoologist—a dream that would initially take a backseat as she went on to pursue fashion. She continues to work on the craft to this day, of course, but with another feat to add to her growing list of accomplishments: she is a farmer.
What is organic, in the true sense of the word, was the way the farm sprouted. The change in lifestyle was not so much a sudden switch, rather being a gradual and in many ways, genuine. It all began with the desire to give her children the best of health. “I didn’t want to compromise the food that I was giving to them.” Hindy eventually began reading labels and questioning the use of certain ingredients. “If I couldn’t understand what was on the label, I’d do research on it, and I’d be like ‘this is awful, this is the same thing they make lubricant out of!’”
Although organic options ran abound even then, she was dissatisfied with the lack of answers, even from the growers themselves, about how the food was grown and where it came from. As a result, she and husband Gippy decided to grow their own food in their own backyard at Santa Elena, Laguna. Although initially intended for their personal consumption, the couple soon found themselves at a surplus of harvest. Soon they began giving away to family and friends, and eventually, selling their produce. What started out as their backyard would soon transform into The Fun Farm, which is open for visits. They also partnered with Melanie Teng-Co, a fellow mom-slash-biologist who happened to share their vision.
Hindy started out with a perfectionist streak. The first 180 degrees of her switch had her seeing things in black and white, being dogmatic about following all the rules correctly. It came to a point where she considered breaking up with her other love, fashion. But today, she strives for balance, making for a fuller 360-degree turn. They would even allow for pizza and ice cream, that is, in moderation. “If we’re attending a birthday party and there’s cake, I mean, it’s a birthday party, we will eat cake!”
Their passion for the cause is very much like a parent’s love for their children. Rather than take a ‘gains’ approach that prioritizes profit, Holy Carabao puts the environment first, even if it translates to a loss for them. Some farms, even the so-called ‘organic’ ones, would end up using pesticides when their crops get infested—in minute amounts that are permissible, but still potentially harmful. “But we would rather lose the whole crop and turn [it] into compost. I’m sure a lot of business people would look at us and think we’re nuts.” Instead they use field sprays and make compost from biodynamic preparations, made from fermented manure, herbs, and mineral silica. Said to stimulate specific health-giving processes in the farm, they also believe the preparations help to counter the effects of pollution and the extreme weather.
She laughs at this point. “It didn’t start out with a business model, which is why we’re starting small like this. Every time we think really big, like ‘Oh my god, we should get an investor’, we’re like, ‘No, let’s not go there. Let’s not pump it up that way.’” In line with the holistic philosophy, they have also extended to contract farming, where they go to remote areas and meet up with farmers who share the same vision, but who may not be able to survive on their own. Some of these farms cannot even afford to get organic certification. “It’s very risky for us,” says Hindy, “But we take that risk, because we really believe in helping these smaller farmers.”
Coming full circle, just as the holistic approach goes back to the individual, the change has also impacted Hindy on a personal level. “Basically this all makes you more mindful of life, rather than live like an android.” By being more aware of what goes into which, one also sees the consequences of their actions—actions that one is now responsible for. Hindy views this not as a limitation, but as a way of discovering new possibilities and an avenue for adapting creatively. “There’s a whole other world that opens up.”
One point of interest is the potential impact of the movement on the dining scene in Manila. A number of restaurants now tout the farm-to-table concept or pride themselves for serving organic fare, perhaps manifesting this in the design and dish presentation—but still carrying a traditional restaurant mindset, as in trying to maintain a ‘static’ menu. Doing so, the items are expected to stay as permanent fixtures. This typically requires consistency in the ingredients, and the restaurant must be able to constantly source these the whole year round. While this assures diners that every order is created and executed equally, each and every time, these ideals may not always match that of an approach which strives to adapt with the environment, not control or manipulate it solely for man’s sake. Ideally, we would be eating seasonally and working with what’s available. One gets the best not only in food quality, flavor, and nutrition, but the approach also benefits the environment back, having a smaller carbon footprint, needing less fuel for transportation, and requiring little to no unwanted additives just to keep fresh. “We’ve been to other farm-to-table restaurants abroad that don’t even have a set menu—it literally depends on what the farmers give them!”, Hindy shares.
Is it a radical ambition? Even on an individual level, a lot of people tend to be put off by the idea of changing their lifestyle completely, especially with the ease and convenience modern living provides for us. We take a lot more for granted than we may think, and while it appears to be the more comfortable option, it also renders us passive robots, slaves to what convention would have us believe—even when it is to our own detriment. Small steps may be key; in this context, Hindy says it begins with knowing where your food comes from. Asking leads to awareness, and awareness leads to better-informed decisions. Going beyond a personal lifestyle, the commitment to sustainability is a commitment to the world around us. It includes, but also transcends, the individual benefit of health, recognizing every little thing as part of the whole.