Building another pillar for Guam’s economy
Ridgell introduces bill to help farmers get water to their farmlands
With Guam tourism currently in a coma, agriculture, fishery and aquaculture are seen as viable options to help sustain Guam’s economy.
“Guam already has an agriculture industry,” said Chelsa Muna-Brecht, director of the Guam Department of Agriculture. “Right now, we are focused on expanding the industry, increasing our number of farmers, creating enough of a market demand that current farmers grow more.”
One of the challenges to fulfilling this goal is changing people’s mindset. Muna-Brecht said some people often view farming as a “dirty” job under the hot sun that pays too little. “In reality, there are methods to farming that don't require countless hours in the sun every single day,” she said.
Contrary to people’s misconception, Muna-Brecht said, farming can be a lucrative venture. “Agriculture has the potential to be another pillar in our economy,” she added.
The agriculture industry has the right tools to prop up Guam’s economy. “Agriculture brings food security,” Muna-Brecht added. “Food security can save everybody. Once we are able to provide produce and/or meat for our island, we can look to exporting. This creates another revenue opportunity.”
In order to get a farming permit, one must sign up with the department to become a bone fide farmer.
On a small scale, Guam residents have found interest in gardening and backyard farming, a global phenomenon triggered by coronavirus-related lockdown.
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The agriculture department’s Agriculture Development Services division has distributed hundreds of free home-garden kits to island residents in August. The project was launched in collaboration with I Hagan Famalåo’an Guåhan, Northern Soil and Water Conservation District, Chamorro Land Trust Commission and the Mangilao Mayor’s Office.
I Hagan Famalåo’an Guåhan, established in August 2019, has received a grant from the indigenous Pawanka Fund to distribute home-garden kits to reduce the impact of Covid-19.
“The current economic instability of our island—closure of hotels, and various other businesses, unemployment, etc.— due to the Covid-19 pandemic presents challenges to many families for food security thus increasing collective motivation for home gardens,” said Terilynn Francisco, co-president of I Hagan Famalåo’an Guåhan.
“The global scale of the pandemic also raises fears that our island's heavy reliance on imports could cause needed supplies and products to become scarce. We also recognize the therapeutic and mental health benefits of gardening, which definitely helps those with anxiety of the uncertainty that the pandemic brings to cope while being quarantined.”
The Farmer’s Cooperative Association of Guam celebrated National Farmers Market Week from Aug. 2 to 8, highlighting the importance of food security for Guam and the need to strengthen the local agricultural industry.
But there are some challenges that impede the promotion of farming on Guam, such as getting water connection with the Guam Waterworks Authority, Muna-Brecht said. “The current cost is too high,” she added.
On Sept. 8, Sen. Clynt Ridgell has introduced a bill that would allow residents who wish to use their property for agriculture and aquaculture activities to pay GWA’s system development charge over time.
“Some people have reached out to me and said they would like to farm their property, but the up-front cost of the system development charge for water is too expensive. I personally believe that if we really want to encourage an agricultural industry then there should be no system development charge for agriculture; however, GWA believes these charges are necessary," Ridgel said.
He said Bi 394-35 would allow farmers to make incremental payments for the system development charge. This way, farmers can bring water into their land without having to pay the entire system development charge up front and can begin to farm their land and begin to make money while they make monthly payments,” said Senator Ridgell.
Currently, anyone who needs a new connection to the GWA system has to pay what’s known as a System Development Charge. This charge can be costly and is a deterrent for many people who want to farm their land.
Current law allows GWA to offer an amortized SDC to residents constructing or purchasing a single-family dwelling to serve as a primary residence for the applicant and immediate family members if they meet certain qualifications. This allows residents to make an initial payment followed by monthly payments, with interest.
Bill 394-35 would expand this by offering residents an Amortized System Development Charge if they wish to conduct agriculture or aquaculture activities on their property.
Having to pay thousands of dollars for the System Development Charge upfront adds another financial burden and potential roadblock to residents who wish to use their land for agricultural or aquacultural purposes. Allowing residents to amortize those charges may ease the process and promote sustainability on an island that is heavily dependent on outside sources for many of our consumables, including produce and fish.
“The development of a local agricultural industry not only diversifies our economy, but it also keeps more money on island and keeps that money circulating within our economy,” Ridgell said.
As for fishing, Muna-Brecht said, a pelagic fishing industry is a potential, but Guam’s exclusive economic zone “is not that large.”
“We could likely provide fish for our island, but not necessarily to export,” Muna-Brecht added.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website, “the U.S. EEZ extends no more than 200 nautical miles from the territorial sea baseline and is adjacent to the 12 nautical mile territorial sea of the U.S., including the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.”
This proves to be a challenge to make Guam fishing industry lucrative, but having “access to waters outside of Guam's EEZ, training in the long liner fishing methods and the vessels by which to conduct long line fishing, Guam could thrive in the fishing industry,” Muna-Brecht added.
One way to get this pushed is to expand the Fishermen’s Co-op and to create space for trade and auction for fish.
Aquaculture is another industry that Guam may develop.
The University of Guam said locally and sustainably raised shrimp and tilapia from the Guam Aquaculture Training and Development Center are now regularly available for Guam residents and restaurants to purchase, contributing to food security on island as well as the local economy.
A tank at the UOG Guam Aquaculture Training and Development Center holds red tilapia broodstock, mature fish used for breeding. Photo courtesy of UOG
Under Managing Director Donghuo Jiang, an experienced aquaculturist with a doctorate in fisheries science from Texas A&M University, CoreSeed Aquaculture (Guam) Corp. is raising Pacific white marine shrimp, black tilapia, and salt-tolerant red tilapia at the UOG facility. The products are available on a wholesale basis through CoreSeed, while retail consumers can purchase jumbo-sized Pacific white shrimp and red tilapia at the Guam Fishermen’s Co-operative Association. Jiang is also raising giant freshwater prawns that are not yet for sale.
“We’ve been delivering jumbo shrimp to the Co-op every two or three days,” Jiang said. “Freshness is very important,” he added. “We deliver within a few hours of harvesting.”
With retail and wholesale orders combined, CoreSeed has been selling about 400 to 500 pounds of shrimp per month and is steadily ramping up production toward producing more than 1,000 pounds per month by the end of the year.
UOG researchers previously developed the “specific pathogen–free,” or SPF, shrimp being raised at the hatchery, which means no antibiotics or chemicals are needed or used as the shrimp are disease-free, unlike imported frozen shrimp. The demand for SPF shrimp throughout Southeast Asia is high, Jiang said, as shrimp in those countries routinely test positive for certain pathogens and banned chemical substances.
Jiang said CoreSeed’s shrimp have a natural sweetness.
Manny Duenas, president of the Guam Fishermen’s Co-op, said the group started with 20 lbs a week and has moved up to selling 80 pounds a week since January.
The red tilapia is a newer product available at the Co-op since the beginning of July. The fish has been selectively bred at the UOG facility to be tolerant of saltwater, giving it a flavor that Duenas said has been popular among Co-op customers.
Jiang said he is working toward producing 1,000 bs of tilapia per month as well.
CoreSeed’s aquaculture operation, made possible through a public-private partnership with UOG through the Research Corporation of the University of Guam, will continue to grow its production and be a consistent and reliable food source for Guam residents.
“Especially for Guam as an island, food security is an issue, and especially now during the pandemic, we need to produce food here,” Jiang said.
A version of this story was published in the print edition of the Pacific Island Times' September issue.