Farm and family

published March 31, 2013, MST Sunday

It is Saturday morning and siblings Mario Jr., Mara and Marco Sebastian are seated on the benches of the Ateneo High School quadrangle, remembering their childhood with their father, Mario Sr., who has passed on less than a year ago. In a way, the sprawling Loyola heights campus where all four of them obtained their degrees is where it all started.
Long before it became fashionable to profess love for the environment, the elder Sebastian lived and breathed it, thus passing it on to his children who are now in their ’30s.
Mara and Marco remember the pencils best of all. While most children would throw away their pencils when these have become so short from sharpening, their father took them and attached them to used ballpoint containers so the children could continue writing with them until all the wood was used up.
They did not make much of this habit then, but now they realize their dad had all along been preparing them for something– something big.
A farmer at heart
Mario Sr. used to work in the distribution of agricultural products.  The business did well, enabling him to be a good provider to his family. In 1992, however, he decided it was time to pursue his lifelong dream of establishing a tree farm —first in his hometown of Urdaneta, Pangasinan, and eventually in another location in Umingan town. He called it MARSSE (pronounced as mar-say).
He wrote a letter to then-Ateneo president, the Jesuit priest Bienvenido Nebres, requesting permission to gather the Honduras mahogany seeds that just lay scattered all over campus. When his request was granted, he set his children to work. At that time, Mario Jr. and Mara were in high school and Marco was but a toddler.  The two older kids picked up mahogany seeds in the afternoon —quite an unusual activity for teenagers who wanted to spend time with their friends. They also spent their summers doing chores at the start-up farm.
The kids also remember their father sacrificing much for his dream during those crucial times. “We used to have several houses and cars, but Dad sold them and we moved to a smaller townhouse and had only one car,” they say.
They did not mind. “Dad has always been the kind of person ‘na walang arte sa katawan.’” He was the happiest he had ever been.
No weekend farmers
Marco was just a little boy when his father decided to pursue his dream.
Marco was just a little boy when his father decided to pursue his dream.
Fast forward to 2013. In the Umingan farm now stand 120 thousand trees, mostly Honduras mahogany and teak but also with some gmelina, narra and kamagong. They make sure they plant 4,000 trees a year.
The Sebastians had no prior tree farming knowledge—only a basic love for farming and a desire to learn how it’s done, even through trial and error. They consulted various forestry experts when they needed to, but on the whole just ran the operations by instinct.
Brothers Mario Jr. and Marco live in the farm (Mara does marketing work from Manila), refusing to subscribe to the weekend-farmer model. “You have to be there, to know what is happening, and show good example to the farm workers,” they say.  The brothers have been trained to do everything from start to finish, and they do not ask their workers to do or accomplish something they themselves cannot do. It fosters a spirit of teamwork, and offers an incentive for their farmers to be more productive. “Mahihiya sila magtamad-tamad because we are there doing exactly the same thing. This is one thing you cannot achieve by calling from the city and giving instructions over the phone.”
Three barangays surround the MARSSE farm, and the residents of these communities prove to be reliable farm hands.  There are no permanent employees, however.  “You have to know the work behavior and the patterns of people from the community,” Mario explains. On some parts of the year they work on other crops. On others, they help with the tree farm.
“We work with whoever is around, and whoever is willing,” according to Mario.
The surrounding communities derive indirect environmental benefit from the farm. When MARSSE started, the community grew one crop a year. But after seven years, springs started flowing and the farmers now grow at least three crops annually, making them more productive. They also found that they needed less fertilizer for their crops.
In December 2011, MARSSE had its first harvest.  But while he lived to see this milestone, Mario Sr. became progressively sick the following month and died in July 2012 from multiple organ illnesses, leaving the farm in the hands of his sons and daughter.
No to cheap-wood mentality
Bar stools, salt-and-pepper shakers and pepper mills are made from tree fallings.
Bar stools, salt-and-pepper shakers and pepper mills are made from tree fallings.
Mara emphasizes that they are, first and foremost, tree farmers who simply happen to process and market their products.
From their trees they come out with processed wood for custom flooring, paneling and molding. They prefer dealing with direct customers, homeowners who want sustainable wood in their homes, are willing to pay a slightly higher price, and are willing to wait the four months—the time it takes, on average, for the tree to be cut, and the wood processed to specification.
“We don’t stock,” Mario says. “We let the trees grow for as long as they can. We only harvest when there is an order.”  This has proven to be their niche—and they always show that the premium wood is well worth the wait.
Other orders include furniture for homes and restaurants.  MARSSE worked with the Department of Science and Technology and a private partner to develop equipment for custom-made orders.
The Sebastians make sure there is no wastage, too. For example, the fallings—wood that falls to the ground upon harvest—are made into kitchen and other home products like pepper mills, salt and pepper shakers, cheese serving boards and chopping boards. These are marketed by Sustainably Made, which has a Facebook page ( SustainablyMade).
The products are one of a kind —no two are ever the same. For example, the salt shaker may not be as round as the pepper shaker, even though they come together in a set. This is because they are fashioned according to the shape of the wood. Mass production is a term not found in the MARSSE dictionary.
MARSSE does away with contractors or middlemen who are more interested in getting the wood cheap so they can add on layers of profits before the products reach the customers.
“We don’t want to pay our farmers cheap. We give them slightly more because we save on middlemen anyway. We want to give them an incentive for coming to work with us.”
Passing it on
MARSSE conducts regular one-day seminars on tree farming, when they get requests from at least four participants in their Facebook page ( MARSSETropicalTimber)
The Sebastians want to pass on information and insights on tree farming they gained—often the hard way—over many years.
Mario Sr. before and after.
Mario Sr. before and after.
“If we knew then what we know now, our trees would have grown faster, we would have harvested sooner, and we would not have wasted as much time, money and frustration as we have,” says Marco.
The objective is to encourage more people to plant trees on idle land even as land for food crops must be cultivated even more. “We didn’t learn from the books, no site on the Internet will tell you what we have learned in the past 20 years.
They get a lot of requests from farming enthusiasts to landowners who simply have no clue on what to do with their property.  Another seminar on harvesting has a four-day, live-in set-up that dwells on the details and gives the participants a closer look at what it’s like to have a tree farm.
The objective is to replicate the success of MARSSE in many other areas in the Philippines and foster care for the environment not as some trend but as a sustainable way of life.
The rewards may not be felt for another 20 years, but they are willing to wait. Other rewards are manifesting themselves now. “Not everything can be measured in pesos and centavos,” says Mario.
 So the cycle goes
After graduation, Mara worked in a multinational marketing firm that took her from Manila to New York. She came back to the Philippines in 2010 and committed to work full time with her brothers.
Mario Jr., Mara and Marco Sebastian talk about their father’s legacy.
Mario Jr., Mara and Marco Sebastian talk about their father’s legacy.
Marco operates a bistro-bar in Pangasinan province—and all his furniture comes from the trees in the farm.
Mario’s wife Lyn and two children, boys aged 12 and nine, live in Quezon City (they attend Ateneo Grade School) but spend summers with him in Pangasinan.  It is not surprising that the boys are also required to put in a few hours a day in the farm at vacation time. Talk about starting them off early. They save what they earn and any gadgets, toys or branded things they might wish for themselves are bought using this fund.
Lyn also helps with MARSSE’s marketing and administration— she’s been a part of it almost as much as her husband is.  In their courtship days at the university, what counted as a date was an afternoon picking mahogany seeds for the farm.
The Sebastians are also planning to set aside an area for conservation in memory of their father.
They do not dare call what they have a forest. Only God make forests, they say. But MARSSE, their father and now the siblings have helped make the next best thing.