Food security, challenges and opportunities: CNMI begins exploring plans to enhance farming and fish
Saipan— The Covid-19 pandemic, which triggers economic disruption and uncertainty, underlines the global concern about food security, specifically in developing regions. In the CNMI, where groceries are glutted with imported frozen goods, public officials and business leaders are prodded into revisiting the opportunities offered by the commonwealth’s land and water resources.
At the Small Business Town Hall meeting set by the Saipan Chamber of Commerce last month, CNMI Public School System Commissioner on Education Alfred B. Ada said it is time to develop programs on fishery and farming and embrace the farm-to-table concept.
“When food scarcity happens, we will be preoccupied in our daily lives looking for means to satisfy our needs. Many of our food products are imported and we need to have a local plan to cultivate food security,” he said in an interview.
“With the pandemic, self-reliance and sustainability are more relevant than ever, especially in the CNMI. This mindset and attitude must be established first so it becomes a collective and communal priority. After we inspire the community to avoid being a hungry population, this will motivate all of us to drive the mission of food security,” he added.
The CNMI is 90-percent dependent on supplies, including food, from off-island sources. Supermarkets on Saipan, Tinian and Rota rely heavily on imported products. Occasionally, seasonal local fruits, vegetables, meat and fish would be available.
“The current reality right now is that we are accustomed to imported produce for our meals,” Ada said. “However, we do have the means to lessen dependency on outside sources by maximizing the natural things we have.”
Victor Cabrera, an agriculture teacher at Hopwood Middle School, warned, “Should a major crisis like a war, another pandemic, or some natural calamity occur, we may have serious issues with food and supplies not reaching the islands.”
He noted that “a lot of our people have foregone gardening/farming simply because ‘they have no time.’”
But the dark cloud of the Covid-19 pandemic has a silver lining. “I know many households that have taken up gardening since lockdown and home quarantining has begun. I can only hope that even after this pandemic passes and a vaccine is developed, that they continue to nurture their gardening/farming hobbies,” said Cabrera, who has been named 2020 Teacher of the Year.
Growing food, he added, doesn't require a lot of time and the simple basics is all one needs. “Tubers and bananas are the easiest to grow on our islands, even if you have limited backyard/garden space,” Cabrera said.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2018 census, the CNMI has 253 farms, each has an average size of 6 acres. Land in farms totaled 1,515 acres. Total value of sales was $1.6 million, with an average value of $2,245 per farm. Vegetables and melons represented the largest category of production, with sales of $639,000.
The federal department’s 1988-2019 record showed the CNMI has been awarded $469,110 in grants under the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program to support 26 projects, including research and education, professional development and production.
Ada and Cabrera agree that education and relevant government programs go hand in hand in reviving farming and fishing in the CNMI. Ada said PSS has existing programs and plans to mandate more of agricultural science, farming, fishery and more vocations as a required high school curriculum
“If food security programs are in place in the CNMI, it would change our way of life. People will safeguard their crops, own up to it and care more for the environment. As the saying goes, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’ that’s why our goal at PSS is to start them young. We are on the right track in educating our students with AgriScience, Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), fishery as extra-curricular activities,” Ada said.
With Cabrera on the frontline, elementary school teachers have incorporated gardening in their curriculum. Wayne Pangelinan, chairman of the Saipan Fishermen’s Association community outreach, has started a Youth Fishery program, which is now in its second year and “is gaining popularity with the young school age students,” Ada said.
Cabrera said STEM and agriculture classes will help build the knowledge base that is necessary to plant the seed in the minds of the youth that the community must focus on becoming self-reliant. “In addition to STEM and agriculture classes, we have Farm and Gardening Clubs that students can take part of as an extracurricular activity. A non-profit fishing association has been created to teach the youth about all sorts of fishing in the Marianas, headed by Wayne Pangelinan and their group has taught many volunteer youth how to troll, deep water fish, as well as talaya (cast-net) and so much more,” he said
“As a non-profit organization, they have taken bigger steps in reaching out to the youth and promoting fishing as a form of self-substance living. I think the community all throughout the Marianas greatly needs the government to help focus more time and energy into creating community gardens and providing more fishing classes to our youth and community in general if we want to live a more self-sustaining life here, free of our dependency on imported foods,” he added.
In March, the CNMI House of Representatives passed Rep. Lorenzo I. Deleon Guerrero’s House Bill 21-108, which would allow the Department of Land and Natural Resources to manage public lands from the jurisdiction of the Department of Public Lands and use this land as the ‘Kagman Commercial Farm Plot” to give farmers land to till and work on.
The bill—which is awaiting the Senate's action— would authorize the DLNR’s Division of Agriculture to manage the government-owned farm plots in Kagman. “This will empower the division to develop the necessary regulations and to issue permits to farmers to utilize these farm areas for their farming activities,” Division of Agriculture director Jack Ogumoro said.
“The bill is necessary not only to strengthen the division’s administration and management of these farm plots, but also for the farmers to be eligible for whatever financial assistance available to them, including the Environmental Quality Incentives program from the Natural Resources Conservation Service,” he added.
Under the bill, a total of 48 farm plots would be up for grabs. Each farm plot measures around 10,000 square meters.
“This is very important because not everyone has a farm and those who might have a small area to use for farming or their farm is not on flat land, or their land is not ideal for farming as it has lots of rocks and/or other obstacles,” Ogumoro said. “Once the farmers start farming, they will eventually start harvesting and selling their crops and vegetables at the markets.”
Ada said the proposed program would give new farmers a place to launch.
“Land and soil are vital and if we do not provide land to support the program, the concept is as good as smoke screen evaporating,” he said. “The government can help farmers and cattle owners in the CNMI by providing programs in assisting them to raise cattle and enhance our slaughterhouse to become world-class, regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and make our island a beef market export country. Another way that the government can help the farmers and fishermen is to control price gouging.”
Cabrera recommended that the Division of Agriculture be converted into a non-profit Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. “The division in its current state is not really doing much to promote farming. The farm plots and programs they are currently running are not helping to reduce our import dependency,” he said
“If they convert it to a CSA, it can be easily extended out to the villages with the Kagman station being the main base for operations. As a non-profit CSA, it would be easier to apply for additional Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education and USDA grants and this in turn has a greater potential of helping farmers and ranchers throughout the CNMI,” he added.
Ogumoro said his office administers two federally funded programs, one of which is the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program from USDA Agricultural Marketing Services. The program is designed to increase competitiveness of specialty crops, such as fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture.
“It also attempts to increase the number of education and outreach activities, as well as training for farmers. Every year the CNMI, through the division, applies and receives federal funds to enhance and promote these specialty crops,” Ogumoro said.
The funds are sub-granted to individuals or groups who are interested in soil projects such as school gardening, high tunnels, backyard farming, hydroponic, planter boxes and community farming. “Our office also provides assistance to farmers by recruiting retired farmers to help teach new farmers, as well as providing tractor, tiller, mower, plougher, disk and other equipment services,” Ogumoro said.
Cabrera said exerting collective efforts to meet the CNMI’s food security goal is non-negotiable. He said the community has the land, resources and all that is needed is will. “I have spoken to several people whose first response to this was ‘yes, but farming is hard work and I don't know how to do it.’ I was hoping to hear, ‘I really want to learn but I don't know who can teach us?" If people are not willing to do the work and put in the extra effort and time to ensure that they will have food to eat no matter what crisis may occur, then it won't matter if we have the means.”
“I believe it is possible to lower our dependency on imported foods. We just need to show more people and remind them often that it is not as hard as they think. We have done it in the past and we can definitely do it again,” he added.