Rona Denque, hailed as the leading Boholana farmer scientist queen of cultured fungi, and her husband Jares’ life story is the meat of Cinderella tales, complete with unexpected fairy godmothers and naturally, enchanting mushrooms.
When mushrooms and everything related to it actually preoccupies every hour of Rona’s life now, trying to meet a demand so huge she could make a gross income of not lesser than P50,000 a week, that came as a bonus when her infatuation with mushrooms started in an unexpected twist.
A Zumba practitioner healthy living advocate, Rona, 40, and her husband Jares, 41, kept an organic vegetable garden in their lovely 2.5-hectare property of generally flat grass-carpeted coconut groves overlooked by the family house perched on top of a hill in Sambog Corella since 2013.
Without a clear market and with almost every farmer in Bohol waving organic placards in their fruits and vegetables stalls, Rona’s produce goes to their kitchen for personal consumption and some of it goes to her Zumba mates for them to try.
Born in Tagum City Davao, Rona, who is an accounting graduate, had a childhood revolving around farm tasks in their family lot in Mindanao.
“One of my classmates at Zumba who trained at the Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Promotion Center in oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus) production told me about it,” she said, as she adjusts her face mask during a casual interview at the shed in the family farm tucked in a serene patch of Corella, close to the famed tarsier sanctuary.
The farm, named “Green Thumb Farm,” has had problems with their name at the Intellectual Property Office, but has now been cleared.
“When I was young, my parents would say ‘Si Rona patamna ana kay manggibuhi-an’ referring to planting. Greenthumb, they said,” she said, smiling in her white “Ironman” jersey.
Noting the potential for mushrooms in Bohol’s eco-tourism and hotel requirements, she tried asking to join the free government training, knowing the training has already started and was about midway.
With hardwork her staple since young, Rona took to online tutorials on Youtube and was insatiable in her research to make mushrooms year-round, getting a serious look at mushroom farming in 2017.
With wild mushrooms in Bohol only coming out in seasons, she was determined, strengthened by Jares’ support, to bring out a passion she realized she had.
This time, it would not take a good amount of lightning and thunder, in fact in the humid and well-ventilated sheds surrounded by natural pest repellants in cultivated basil, ginger, and wild basil (kagongkagong), pests are managed right. Mushroom culture grows from tissue culture, and a laboratory sits in the farm compound so they could produce the tissue they would put in the fruiting bags to grow.
In the farm, they produce grey, white and pink oyster mushrooms and milky white mushrooms (Calocybe indica). Growing them, however, was not among their dreams when they married.
An electronics communications engineer working at Bohol Light Company Inc., Jares’ creativity was tested when Rona asked support in fabricating what the old poultry production house needed to be converted into a mushroom growing house. Starting off with 4,000 mushroom fruiting bags, Rona has to get into the production of the substrate, learning every trick she can pick and her accounting experience giving her a mental picture of the costs every process along the way.
“Starting off early, she would be up, and would be back in the house late,” Jares said, noting the hard work his wife invested in the farm.
“Preparing the substrate was among the most backbreaking tasks,” Rona confessed, as Jares joined her in the interview after completing some errands in the farm.
Every night, her body aches, and she would ask Jares to rub it with ointments. Investing in sweat, tears and more hard work, and assisted by farmhands, Rona gets into every step of the process, mentally costing the outputs, and calculating where they could recoup costs so it could be reflected in the selling price.
“In our very busy schedule, we could only manage two kids,” Jares joined in, joking, exposing the outspoken personality he evidently hid during the first acquaintance.
Not only was it hard, it was also dangerous. Without the right equipment, they have to chop the rice stalks (to form the substrate where the tissue cultured oyster mushroom could germinate) and manually place them in fruiting bags. These bags are then placed under pasteurization to kill any bacteria that might kill the fungi.
“At the start, we used a lidded steel drum without locks to kill the bacteria in the fruiting bags, and a near accident happened. The pressure inside the drum built up and with the gas building inside, it was good enough that the helper was not totally within the range when the steel lid blew off and hit the shed ceiling, or the helper could be fatally hurt,” she narrated. “It was a huge failure, but it did not stop us.”
In the farm where they prepare the fruiting bags stands a mechanical chopper and a boiler with a pasteurization chamber which has since replaced the crude and dangerous steel drum, lay sacks of rice straws, marked as to the date of harvest. These are chopped to fill the fruiting bags.
Also pitching in their mushroom story is their fairy godmothers: the Department of Agriculture’s APC, Agricultural Training Institute, Department of Trade and Industry through the Kapatid Mentor Me Program, and their Negosyo Assistance desks as well as the Department of Science and Technology in product development and packaging assistance.
In a short tour in the facility, she showed a huge pile of rejected fruiting bags, one that costs about P20 each, and a reminder at how carelessness and diversion from the very scientific procedure can cause a production failure.
But with an accountant’s mindset, she keeps everything noted, one which she thinks helped them get better at what they do. This has also kept their failure factor at the minimum.
And then, when they had their produce, where do they sell them?
TOP PHOTO: MUSHROOM PRODUCTS. Mushroom chicharon, mushroom yema, mushroom pastillas, mushroom chili paste and the winning mushroom tocino are among the farm’s mushroom-based processed products. (rahc/PIA-7/Bohol)
“We were having a good time delivering to some resorts and hotels in Panglao, until the pandemic hit us,” Jares said. “We also opened up to two markets in Cebu: Rustans and Landers, and they asked for a supply of 200 kilos every week. That was when we realized there is still a huge market left,” he added.
At present, the farm could only supply a little over a hundred kilos of grey mushrooms a week, which led them to find contract growers to beat the demand.
“Well, there are competitors, but then there is still an underserved part of the community that will still come,” Jares shared.
“We were on our way to a Manila food fair, it would have exposed us to the whole demand market, on the day we had the island closed,” Rona said, highlighting an opportunity that was lost. “We were ready and had a few new products prepared,” she added, but then they had to find other markets to sell the harvest before it stales.
Perishable products, mushrooms only have a few days to be sold before they wilt and could not be sold. “Getting to online marketing and engaging resellers until we sold out all we had readied for Manila, we planned on strengthening our food processing and getting in the intellectual property rights,” she went on as her four-year old daughter hovered nearby.
Without helpers but a laundry on call, the Denques have to double up on house work too, including babysitting the toddler. “Knowing that mushrooms command more price when processed, we have to add value,” she said as she sat on the shed where in a center table, a platter of snake plant adorned the driftwood centerpiece and a dried ganoderma lucidum accent.
On a platter on the table too are two neat commercial vacuum packs of mushroom chicharon, one in original flavor and another in barbecue flavor. Beside it is a platter of mushroom tocino, with an uncanny resemblance and taste to the real pork tocino: products of the farm from product diversification trainings.
White oyster mushroom caps become chicharon, the pink oyster’s cap and stalk are also used for the tocino, while the chili paste from the farm are from grey mushrooms.
Also, as the family is into healthy living, a mushroom shawarma, or a taco mushroom in fresh tomatoes and salad greens, make the couples’ breakfast.
For the complete interview, a mushroom taco with a Green Thumb Farm label served on a platter garnished with blue ternate flowers and specks of catsup was done with the expertise of a chef, laid out in front of us during the interview. There is also a box of mushroom yema, sticks of mushroom pastillas and polvoron, which was not available that time.
Herself now totally dedicated to the precise science of mushroom tissue culture and production, Rona thinks getting everything in exact measures can also be a lesson in life. Temperature, humidity, ventilation, everything has to be just right, adhere to laboratory conditions, and in two months, you would have a good harvest, she said.
Taking control of everything would also seem to be the word of the wise farmer scientist to anyone struggling in life.
Beyond everything in the farm’s five-year success, Jares said, is Rona’s unquestionable passion. “I thought she would be on it for a month or two, and then we are finished. Now, were running five years and she seems unstoppable in what she does,” the husband and top supporter shared.
The farm has since been a learning center for people who are eager to learn mushroom production technology. But the family is not threatened. “People may say they, too, can go into production, but it is not easy, it is backbreaking and financially taxing, even to those financially capable,” he shared.
“And then, be ready with the losses, they will be huge, but then it can be lessened by meticulous hard work, as Rona has shown,” he proudly said.
Now an Agricultural Training Institute accredited learning site, the Denque’s Green Thumb Farm has been a venue for techno sharing in mushroom farming and is now being readied with Corella soon to become Bohol’s mushroom capital.
Among the pool of ATI’s trainers, the Denques now also hope to convince Boholanos with the farming passion to follow their path and earn in the high-value commercial product. Also a healthy food option, which incidentally is their marketing slogan, mushrooms provide several important nutrients that redound to health benefits in its proteins, vitamins, and minerals and antioxidants.
Antioxidants are chemicals that help the body eliminate free radicals or the toxic byproducts of metabolism and other bodily processes that build in the body, harming the body’s cells.
Mushrooms can also prevent lung, prostate, breast, and other types of cancer, its selenium and vitamin D are known cancer busters.
Mushroom’s choline also helps in reducing cancer risks, and Type 2 diabetes.
As for the Denques, working alone and away from public exposure has proven another truth: working away from the limelight can grow enchanting opportunities at striking gold in white, gray and pink fungi.
But most of all, mushrooms, or these edible fungi which have been the meat of fairy tales, have transformed the lives of the Denques and in their love story, Rona needs no glass slippers but surgical gloves and Cinderella’s hard work to make their story the stuff of legends. (Rey Anthony Chiu, PIA)