By Bea Cabrera
Taking the bull by the horns: Tinian seeking to revitalize cattle industry
Saipan— In the 1960s, Tinian was known as the “bread basket of the Marianas.” The island had several ranches and farms owned and operated by locals. Cattle, livestock and crops were distributed for local consumption and, if there was enough, sold to Guam and Saipan.
One of the big ranches on Tinian during that time was called the Bar K Ranch, owned by the late businessman Kenneth Thomas Jones Jr., who imported cows from New Zealand and had them breed with cattle from Tinian and Rota. Bar K Ranch had good machinery to operate because it had its own veterinarians and pharmacy. The ranch, which produced its own feeds for its livestock, was the first U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved slaughterhouse outside of the mainland United States.
The cattle industry was briefly interrupted when the $250-million Tinian Dynasty was built on this sleepy island in 1998. Until the China-owned casino facility went bankrupt and shut down in 2016, Tinian was branded as a gaming destination for Asian gamblers.
The CNMI Senate is now pushing for Tinian’s economic progress and part of the strategy is to revitalize the island’s cattle industry.
While the Bar K Ranch does not exist anymore, the residents who used to work there continued to raise cattle and manage their own farms up to this day.
Sen. Jude Hofschneider of Tinian said his office, in conjunction with the municipal leadership, has teamed up with the Cooperative Research Extension and Educational Services and Commonwealth Development Authority to get Tinian’s modular slaughterhouse certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“The infrastructure is already there and this would definitely provide economic opportunities for our farmers and ranchers,” he said.
Getting certified is just one of the components of the process. A feasibility plan is also imperative.
Currently, there are about 1,500 to 1,700 heads of cattle in different ranches on Tinian. “That is really not much if we want to distribute to Saipan and Rota,” said Hofschneider, who advocates for food security and affordability of meat and produce in the CNMI.
“Meat distribution is just around Tinian for now. Our responsibility is to find ways to encourage ranchers and farmers to continue on and make it exciting for them at the same time.”
For the entire CNMI, Hofschneider said lawmakers have the opportunity to evaluate and re-evaluate food source and security for residents “starting with working on our own slaughterhouse on Tinian.”
Hofschneider said if local ranchers master the art producing beef on Tinian, it will open doors for other produce.
“Beef is not the only one as we are capable of producing pork or swine as well. That’s the whole intent,” he said. “This is just the tip of the iceberg as we are looking for the long term. It’s not a quick fix. Careful planning is what we are after because it is going to yield benefits that are sustainable and people can embrace. It doesn’t matter who their leader is as long as there is that guidance.”
Over the years, he said, local leaders usually fail in taking a plan to the next level due to a lack of follow-up. “We have the product, a modular unit slaughterhouse and trying to get certified gives us a big opportunity to reach the next level. When those are achieved, distribution through retailers is the goal and it will go in cycle,” Hofschneider said.
He hopes to get the slaughterhouse certified by the second quarter of this year. “When that happens, we will be ready to distribute it on Tinian for personal consumption while we get the feel of the market. When the right time comes, then we will be mass producing; we will grow as we go,” he said.
Besides the cattle herd, Tinian is also known for its hot pepper, locally known as “donni sali,” a variety that is unique to the island even before the Spaniards arrived. This hot pepper is a staple in the jungles of Tinian.
It may look harmless because of its tiny size but it gives a mighty splash of spice and flavor and is the theme of a signature event that happens every February of each year that has attracted locals and tourists alike.
Over the years, local brands have been in distribution around the Marianas, mainland and even online but it remains out of the mainstream commerce. Hofschnieder said the distribution of Tinian hot pepper in various products has been moving in a regular manner.
“There is a market for it,” he said. “It started as a tourism pitch but making it commercial or mass produced is a bit tricky because the original pepper is not domesticated.”
The pepper grows in the wilderness and spreads naturally, whether by wind or when birds move seeds. Locals enjoy going and picking them in the boonies.
“If you commercialize it, you will need a field which is not an issue and I am sure that it has been thought of and vetted. Commercializing it is the ultimate goal but we have to make sure that it doesn’t distort the quality of the hot pepper which we are known for,” he added.