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Friendship goals: How five TV journalists bought a farm and saved their sanity in the pandemic

By Tanya Lara Published Jul 02, 2021 7:04 pm

 There are no fences on this one-hectare farm owned by five friends who are all broadcast journalists. What’s here instead are bahay kubos, trees, birds, plants—a shared dream that’s finally come true and more dreams for the future.

Friends for life and TV news colleagues Susan Enriquez, Mark Salazar, Atom Araullo, Branden Milla and Alex Baltazar bought a farm together in Indang, Cavite in 2017.

They bought a farm! Susan Enriquez (center), Branden Milla, Mark Salazar and Alex Baltazar (not in photo is Atom Araullo). Photos by Geremy Pintolo/Philippine Star   

They only started building their bahay kubos and planting trees to save their sanity during the pandemic lockdown last year.

Covering the news in ordinary times, there’s always bad news every day but some good news too. But this past year and a half has been extraordinarily stressful for everyone, more so for people who cannot shut out the news because it’s their job to cover it.

Thus for this tight-knit group, developing the farm was their way to cope with anxiety, to relax amid all that was happening.

Susan Enriquez says, “We couldn’t do anything, we couldn’t go out, we couldn’t travel, so we said, magbungkal na lang tayo.”

Mark Salazar’s treehouse 

The original farm was 5,000 sqm., which they split equally and titled individually in 2018. Then a neighboring farm, also 5,000 sqm. sold to them but only Susan and Mark were interested.

“It’s not partitioned between the properties. European Union ang peg namin, walang borders,” Mark Salazar says. “Yung tipong kapag tinamad si Alex magluto ng ulam eh tatawag na lang kay Susan, ‘Susan! Anong meron ka dyan?’”

In the beginning the lot was “a jungle filled with so many snakes (cobra),” that when they would visit they’d just stay at the front and not dare venture inside. “Diyos ko, natatakot kaming matuklaw ng ahas!” Susan says. So they had it cleared. “Ang nangyari, kinalbo! They removed the coffee shrubs and left only some fruit-bearing trees.”

These friends’ farm is home to so many fruit-bearing trees including avocado, apple, mullbery, bignay, langka, rambutan, siniguwelas, etc. 

Bahay kubo, a treehouse, a greenhouse

Today, the farm that they’ve named Balustre has so many fruit-bearing trees. They have apple, avocado, santol, guava, langka, guyabano, mango, mulberry, bignay, sineguwelas, kaong, rambutan, duhat, and dragon fruit among others.

Susan built two bahay kubos; Mark built a treehouse; plantito Branden built a greenhouse. Atom and Alex have yet to start on theirs but they’re already planting trees.

“Alex has so many dragon fruits,” Mark says.

Branden Milla’s greenhouse where he grows collectible plants.

Susan’s first bahay kubo, smaller than the second but both with one bedroom each, was built “out of desperation” so they could have an electric line connected to the property (a structure being one of the requirements).

Mark’s treehouse was built between two big trees that he didn’t want to cut down.

Branden’s greenhouse is filled with his plant babies—aroids, philodendrons, anthuriums—which he started collecting before the “plandemic.”

Alex Baltazar says, “Ang mumura pa nila dati, aba nung pumutok tong pandemic they got so expensive. Eventually I plan to propagate and sell.”

Susan Enriquez’s bahay kubo

When there was no structure to hang out in, their visits would be brief. Once there was, weekends became too short. If they had their way, they’d be living there full time.

Susan and Alex cook for them when they’re there. She cooks sinigang, adobo, tinola, pancit “kasi malalakas silang kumain pag Pinoy ang niluluto ko. Ang sarap na nakikita mong nabubusog sila.”

To Alex, who usually cooks lunch, it’s such a wonderful feeling to get their food from the farm. “Last weekend, we had ginataang langka so pinitas lang namin yun sa puno.”

Farm dreams

Inside Susan’s bahay kubo. “Tawanan lang nang tawanan”

The farm may be for leisure for now, but they have bigger dreams for it. Susan plans to build a swimming pool, and perhaps they all could put up a bed-and-breakfast in the future.

Because if there is anything this pandemic has made us realize, it’s that we’re all tired of living in the city—we want a break, to be surrounded by nature, hear the sounds of birds in the morning and see fireflies at night.

They are also talking about putting up a coffee shop since a lot of bikers have the area in their long-ride routes.

Branden dreams of turning his greenhouse into a destination for plantitos and plantitas. 

Mark muses, “Coffee shop ni Susan, green house ni Branden na mag-eexpand pa to become known for rare plants that plantitos and plantitas would visit. I’m dreaming of the farm becoming an agri-tourism site that would involve the community of farmers with idle land. What if we put up a bee farm or produce other things and we would be the center for this?”

He says they have the contacts to help this get off the ground and benefit the community. “Kami magdadala ng technical know-how sa mga farmers, train them and eventually makikilala yung area and maybe become a tourist site. Yun yung dream ko—at magkakatabi kami doon tatanda.”

Friendships that span two decades

“Now we have something to really look forward to every week. Sana Friday na, sana Sabado na, magtatanim na kami, magkukwentuhan.”

The five of them met while working for TV stations as reporters, hosts, executive producers. At one point they all lived in the same condominium building near the GMA compound—until Atom moved away.

Mark says, “Alex used to be a reporter for then ABC 5; Atom, Susan and I were at GMA. Si Branden matagal siyang executive producer at GMA then he was pirated by TV5.

Even before they spent weekends on the farm, they were already inseparable on weekdays after work. And they never run out of conversation!

Branden Milla says, “ We’re at the age that we’ve chosen whom we want to be friends with. Hindi kailangan marami, few lang at sila na yon. This is a group that when we retire we’d still be together at the farm. Kami na to.” 

Bamboo, sawali, kawayan and nipa are soem of the materials used for Susan’s bahay kubo.

The five also travel together with their loved ones—usually to Europe. In 2019, they went to Tromso, Norway to see the Northern Lights. In 2020, they were planning to go to the Balkans but then the pandemic happened.

Mark deadpans, “Ito’y samahan ng may pera. Yung barkadahan namin, kapag nabo-bore kami, nagbu-book kami to Europe.”

If not for the pandemic, they wouldn’t have had the time (or the extra money) to develop the farm because they would have been traveling abroad.

This is that rare group that wants to spend all their time together. They have very different personalities, sure. But it enriches their relationship rather than complicates it.

Susan with daughter Audrey and chihuahua Sparkle

So how would they describe each other? Atom Araullo, who couldn’t join the Zoom interview, is the one to “engage for a cerebral discussion,” according to Mark. “He’s not very talkative pero siguro siya yung pinaka-matalino sa amin, you’d consult him for decisions that require intelligence.”

Susan, being the only woman and married (the four guys are bachelors), brings laughter and joy to the group. “Kung gusto mo tawanan, siya yon, she sets the mood . She’s very thoughtful, she takes care of us.’

“Branden is the kindest person I know,” says Mark. “Ako kasi yung pinaka ‘kups’ sa amin e, parang siya lagi yung konsensiya sa ginagawa mo. He was born kind. He’s not only a plantito, he’s also an animal lover. He wouldn’t let us kill insects.”

Harvesting for the weekend getaway.

With Alex, he continues, there is no dull moment. “Kapag ikaw ay nabo-bore, nalulungkot, si Alex ang gusto mong kasama kasi masaya siya lagi. He’s also very kind.”

Mark is the de facto leader of the group. He gets things done, according to Branden and Susan. “We value his opinion so much.When we have an idea, it’s he that turns it into reality. If we have a problem with the caretakers, he’s the one that talks to them. He’s the problem solver,” Branden says.

Susan adds, “Siya ang pinaka vocal and transparent. He’s very frank, he doesn’t sugarcoat things. He always says, you can’t give the right solution to the wrong problem.” 

In a short amount of time, they were able to build bahay kubo, landscape around them and plant more trees. 

As the weekend rolls along, you can expect these five friends to excited about packing their sweaters and overnight bags once more and driving south.

Susan says, “Now we have something to really look forward to every week. Sana Friday na, sana Sabado na, magtatanim na kami, magkukwentuhan. Nababawasan ang anxiety namin pag nasa farm kami. Ang saya, ang saya lang.”