Farm-to-consumer connections: This eco-friendly store brings people close to farms

by Echo Store on October 11, 2023

Pacita 'Chit' Juan, the founder of the ECHOStore, is a notable figure in the world of social entrepreneurship and sustainability. Her passionate advocacy revolves around sustainable farming, aiming to revolutionize the way people perceive and interact with agriculture. 

One of her initiatives is the establishment of ECHOfarm in Amadeo, Cavite, a project designed to blend agritourism with sustainable farming practices. Through this endeavor, she aspires to bridge the gap between consumers and the farming lifestyle, fostering a deeper understanding of where our food originates and the processes behind it.

A commitment to community

When Chit established ECHOStore back in 2008, eco-friendly initiatives were still relatively scarce. Recognizing the potential for change and the need to amplify their impact, she began to forge meaningful connections with various charities and foundations. These organizations often had livelihood projects centered around the creation of processed products, yet they faced a common predicament – a lack of market access.

ECHOStore, an acronym for Environment, Community, Hope, and Organization, actively supported small manufacturers of processed products, serving as an intermediary between producers and consumers. This role not only ensured the marketability of these products but also advanced the broader goals of environmental sustainability, and community empowerment.

In response to this challenge, Chit conceived an innovative idea: why not establish an eco-friendly store that could not only showcase these products but also serve as a means to uplift the communities behind them? Thus, the concept of the ECHOStore was born.

Their initial store took root in Serendra at Bonifacio Global City, and while it was a promising start, it raised questions about its upscale location. Critics wondered why they chose such an affluent area to champion an eco-friendly cause. Chit, with her foresight, understood that to effect change on a broader scale, they needed to inspire and educate ordinary people from all walks of life, including those in upscale areas.

Chit's strategic decision to begin in an upscale locale was driven by her vision to initiate change from within and gradually extend the message of eco-friendliness to a wider audience, fostering a more sustainable and conscious community along the way.

One of their notable endeavors was providing support to the Kababaihang Masigla ng Nueva Ecija program, an initiative aimed at creating livelihood opportunities for the wives of farmers. This program addressed the issue of seasonal fruit abundance going to waste by transforming these fruits into naturally preserved products, preventing unnecessary loss and fostering economic sustainability.

Chit formed partnerships with the Philippine Commission on Women as part of the Great Women Project. Within this collaboration, discussions and initiatives spanned the realms of coffee, processing techniques, and weaving.

The expansion of ECHOStore was marked with the opening of shops in prominent locations like Podium Mall and Centris, Quezon City, as well as Salcedo Village in Makati. However, the onset of the pandemic prompted a strategic shift. Chit recognized the need to prioritize safety and chose to redirect their focus towards their farm operations, which provided a more secure environment for both the team and customers.

ECHOstore has undergone a transformation, shifting from the conventional mall-centric approach to focused on farms. Previously, consumers frequented malls in search of products; however, Chit has reversed this trend by bringing consumers to the heart of farming.

Embracing agritourism

Through engaging farm tours and immersive experiences offered in the farm, Chit has effectively exposed consumers to the intricacies of food production. These hands-on encounters provide invaluable insights into the processes behind the products they purchase, fostering a deeper appreciation for sustainable farming practices.

Beyond product awareness, Chit recognizes the long-term sustainability in teaching people how to farm and grow their own food. By empowering individuals with the knowledge and skills needed to cultivate their sustenance, Chit contributes to a more self-reliant and environmentally conscious society. This shift not only promotes sustainable living but also bolsters food security and resilience within communities. 

Preserving indigenous crops and empowering farmers

Chit's commitment to sustainable food practices extends to her support for the Slow Food movement, a global initiative founded with three critical objectives in mind: to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the proliferation of fast food, and combat the diminishing interest people have in understanding the origins and global impacts of their food choices.

Numerous crops, such as batuan and kadios, hold the risk of fading into obscurity if not given attention. Chit actively engages in their promotion and conservation efforts of these crops and products.

One tangible approach involves documenting these culinary treasures in cookbooks, ensuring that the knowledge of their preparation and cultural importance is passed down to future generations. Additionally, by supporting and showcasing such products, Chit contributes to not only preserving but also revitalizing traditional food items. 

In 2021, amidst the challenges posed by the pandemic, Chit took the reins of their farm. They had previously focused on cultivating crops like lettuce and arugula, which they served in their cafes. However, with the temporary closure of their cafes, they envisioned a new direction for the farm – the creation of an herb garden.

Chit found solace in tending to this aromatic garden, nurturing herbs like oregano, basil, Thai basil, tarragon, rosemary, thyme, and many others. As time passed, the farm evolved into more than just a place of cultivation; it began to serve as a platform for learning and agritourism.

Visitors to the farm can now partake in immersive tours that take them through the herb garden and into the coffee farm. These tours offer insights into vegetable and coffee production, organic farming, and sustainable agriculture practices. A small fee is charged for these experiences. To enhance the visit, they extend refreshing treats like fresh buko juice, freshly brewed coffee, and snacks.

The feedback from visitors has been overwhelmingly positive. Chit has set her sights on a grand ambition – transforming the farm into a model for agritourism, showcasing the harmonious blend of nature, education, and sustainability for all to appreciate and emulate.

Shaping mindsets for a sustainable future

ECHOStore has proudly advocated sustainability and steadfastly supported local farmers for a remarkable 15 years. As a brand, ECHOStore has become an inspiration for other social entrepreneurs, pioneering the concept of direct support to farmers when it was once deemed unimaginable by many.

Chit’s mission lies in the value of traceability. This commitment has led to significant accomplishments, including the resurgence of indigenous crops such as adlai and heirloom rice. Beyond merely selling these products, ECHOStore weaves the story of their importance and the urgent need to preserve them into its offerings.

The store continues to introduce and promote a wide array of indigenous crops, from brown rice to cacao products and coffee. Consumers now actively seek to understand and share the stories behind these sustainable crops.

While promoting traceability and support for local farmers may require a shift in mindset, Chit is dedicated to influencing this change, even if it takes a generation. The rapidly growing consciousness among the youth, who increasingly prioritize businesses with a social mission and purpose, holds promise for the future. Chit hopes to inspire the younger generation to engage in farming, particularly in rice and corn, and sees the potential to influence others, especially in the coffee industry, due to its appealing and trendy nature.

This article first appeared on Manila Bulletin.