Article Written by: Tamar Celis, Pacific Daily News
At present there is “a huge desire for subsistence production” on the island, according to Dr. Bob Barber, an expert on Agricultural Economy at the University of Guam.
The upward trend in agricultural interest has also been noted by Denise Mendiola, senior business adviser at Guam Small Business Development Center. For Mendiola, this growth is helpful in ensuring food security for the island and for the region.
However, showing interest is only a small part of the long and arduous journey to becoming a farmer on Guam in the twenty-first century.
Prior to U.S. occupation, virtually everyone on the island had some type of ranch or garden, according to a study conducted by the University of Guam’s Natural Science Division in 1997.
Some of today’s agricultural workers, on the other hand, may not be as familiar with the land, its farming potential or even farming in general.
Generational farmers, who make up a large portion of local farmers, “know exactly what kind of land they’re dealing with and they know exactly what they can and cannot do,” Mendiola stated. “The new farmers are the ones that need the assistance.”
Last year, Barber and Mendiola conducted a series of workshops for those interested in commercial farming. The workshop provided educational materials as well as hands-on training of the work the potential producers could expect.
According to Dr. Barber, very few of them had “solid agricultural experience.” By the end of the workshops, “only about five to seven (of about 45) want to go into commercial (farming),” Barber reported.
Another challenge for fresh produce growers is the amount of paperwork required to get into the market.
“One thing we found about farmers on Guam (is) they really need technical assistance,” said Mendiola. Land leases, bank loans, insurance packages and farming licenses all require extensive application processes.
Hampered by outdated market data
Even after entering the agriculture industry, commercial farmers big and small are still hampered by outdated, inexact or unavailable market data. This lack of access makes it difficult to know when, what and how much to grow.
“Currently we don’t have very good (agriculture) statistics,” Barber stated. “Guam doesn’t have accurate data on what’s imported. …Up until 2001, Customs and Quarantine monitored every pound of produce coming into the island.”
Additionally, the “Department of (Agriculture) stopped monitoring agricultural production on the island where they would go out and actually survey the farms … around 2000.”
The number of local farmers is another unknown variable.
“If you’re looking for a list of farmers on Guam, there is no set amount that everyone agrees on,” said Mendiola, whose work often involves partnering up with local and federal agricultural entities.
A comprehensive directory, she said, might begin with the Department of Agriculture’s list of bona fide farmers. However, it would have to include and be cross-checked with the Department of Revenue and Taxation’s list of farmers with business licenses, the Co-op’s list of farmers who sell at the Farmer’s Market, Farm to Table’s list of affiliated small-time-farmers and the Chamoru Land Trust Commission’s list of agricultural land leaseholders, to name a few.
More acres, more problems
Since World War II, commercial farmers have had to contend with limited land availability, increased labor costs and modernized farming technology.
Many lack the overhead needed to obtain property and purchase supplies and equipment. But, having these resources does not always guarantee success either.
Manhita Farms Managing Partner John Limtiaco explained that the 50-acre farm has its share of obstacles, including thieves, invasive species, unfriendly terrain and what Limtiaco calls politics.
For the large-scale farmer, tackling these obstacles requires various farming and business models, as well as an extensive network of bartered products and services.
In order for the 50-acre lot in Yigo to be farmable, for instance, it needs to be leveled, removed of rock and fitted with soil – projects that require renting and operating heavy machinery.
To accomplish these tasks, Limtiaco trades the rock and the use of heavy machinery for the soil that is screened from the displaced earth.
Not all commercial farms fare so well
A similar business agreement is used to upcycle the old wooden pallets found on the property, a former site of illegal dumping, into multipurpose mulch.
Other ways Manhita Farms stays in operation are through grants with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and through the use of sharecropping.
Additionally, in return for its investment into the unfriendly terrain, Manhita Farms is awarded with smaller rent payments, as stated in the 1979 legislation that makes the lease agreement possible.
Not all commercial farms fare so well.
“The main barrier … is the cost to operate,” Mendiola said, detailing the reasons Guam’s hydroponic lettuce farm – a “huge business that had a lot of hope” – shut down.
Electricity and plant nutrition systems were too costly, she said. Adequately housing the system was also a problem, as the sensitive plants were “under an infrastructure not protected enough from the elements.”
Lack of institutional support
Another roadblock on the path to food security on the island is the lack of institutional support for local producers.
In the past, schools on Guam were “still primarily buying from local farmers for local produce,” Barber stated. “Now, DOE only has cafeterias in four school that they actually still prepare the (meals) … It’s contracted out, and the vendors are not sourcing from Guam farmers, or it’s very minor.”
Mendiola sees the absence of a slaughterhouse on the island as another “missed opportunity.”
“When you see the pork that’s being sold in stores and restaurants, those are all coming from off-island … The farmers on Guam are not allowed to sell it to them.”
A sprouting industry
At the leisure and subsistence levels, farming can have therapeutic effects for veterans, provide food security for families with limited resources and add important vitamins into one’s diet.
At the commercial level, farming can help the isolated Micronesian islands become less dependent on imported food. This objective, sometimes called food security, has multiple secondary benefits, like lowering food prices, ensuring food availability during crises and reducing the island’s carbon footprint. Consumers would also be able to know where their food is coming from.
Guam’s prewar agriculture-based economy may never be fully restored, but that doesn’t stop organizations like SBDC, Farm to Table and the Cooperative Extension Service from helping communities on the island and in the region recognize the value of their lands’ natural resources.
In the last five years alone, more educational resources and both hands-on and technical support have been made available for local farmers than ever before, Mendiola said.