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Creating sustainability across an archipelago of gardens

Dakota Hafalia-Yackel tends to chickens in his backyard on April 23, 2022. Photos: Jeanina Casusi

Dakota Hafalia-Yackel always knew he wanted to work in agriculture and the environment. With this vision, he founded Carabao Farms, a personal project guided by wisdom from his family and ancestors that seeks to return Filipinx land cultivation, food preparation, and identity to the diaspora in San Francisco.

“There are so many ways you can connect people to food, to culture, and that’s where I find joy. I treat it as my art form,” he said.

Carabao Farms is not a large tract of land in the conventional sense but a network that represents community, one grounded in traditional agricultural systems and ancestral practices in the Philippines. Hafalia-Yackel works across an archipelago of yards, home gardens, and plots of land, assessing soil and growing conditions to create sustainable farming spaces across the Bay Area, particularly within Filipinx neighborhoods.

“Learning more about place and identity is where I came into this. What is identity? What is American identity? Not what they taught you in school, but looking at identity from an immigrant agricultural perspective,” Hafalia-Yackel said. “I looked at the connections about how Black and brown people come to the U.S. through that agricultural exploitation.”

For Filipinos, this agricultural exploitation can be traced back to Spanish colonization, which enforced restrictive farming policies and methods in the Philippines. The introduction of the encomienda system restructured land use and had lasting effects on communities dependent on agriculture as their primary means of livelihood.

Exploitation took many forms in what is now known as the United States, from the enslavement of Africans to the continued occupation of unceded ancestral homelands of Indigenous peoples to the enactment of the Bracero Program, which subjected farmworkers to low wages and substandard working and living conditions.

Photo: Jeanina Casusi

Food is much more than mere products on a grocery store shelf. Food tells a story of history and power and offers a means of making connections and building relationships among different communities and cultures. It’s this very source of connection that Hafalia-Yackel emphasizes while working with youth groups in diverse neighborhoods like the Excelsior.

“I’ve had Filipino students who say, ‘my Lola makes this, this, and this. I know it so well!’ and then Latinx students who are like, ‘Nah, this is our crop,’” Hafalia-Yackel said.

Chayotl, also known as chayote or sayote, is a staple in Filipinx and Latinx cuisines. Grown widely in Mexico and Central America, this nutrient-rich fruit was introduced to the Philippines during the Spanish colonial period. Today, it’s used in a variety of dishes, including ginisang sayote.

“Food is about the people coming in, trading, moving, and that beautiful movement of migration. It is Filipino culture. It turns something that used to feel shameful into something that feels good,” Hafalia-Yackel said.

Growing food to reproduce and maintain traditional recipes is a significant part of Carabao Farms, but one that extends beyond cooking perspectives and techniques. The project values food, its relationship with the land, and its role in sharing knowledge across generations.

“There is a connection when you get to the table — the kitchen really — and ask what dishes we know and what that means to us. Where did we get those stories?” Hafalia-Yackel said.

He reflected on his childhood and the many stories his maternal grandmother, Ceralina Hafalia, would share about life in Ilocos Sur, Philippines. She told him about the animals that would walk about the farm she grew up on in Santa Lucia and the crabs and monkeys she played with as a child. But it was the story about a water buffalo that Hafalia-Yackel remembers most and is the inspiration behind the Carabao Farms name.

“Her big story is that the carabao she was feeding and would work with as a young child, its horn hit her right under the eye. That mark on her cheek is still with her at 98 years old,” Hafalia-Yackel said.

The carabao holds special significance to Filipino farmers like Ceralina. They are valuable contributors to Philippine agriculture, providing meat and dairy products, hide, and a heavy build well suited for hard labor in the fields.

“She always talks about how important the carabao was on the farm and that tillage and pre-industrial agriculture. That’s always resonated with me as a name and why I bring it with my own land management,” Hafalia-Yackel said. “My grandma is the champion of our family and the reason why I do what I do.”

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