Encouraging entrepreneurial success on Saipan, Tinian and Rota, CNMI*!

*Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a US territory.

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Asap Ogumoro and the case for taro


The only way to take control of your life, raise your standard of living and move beyond merely surviving is to create your own unique product or service that you offer to increasing numbers of people in exchange for the things of value that you desire. This simple formula applies to countries as well as people. A self-sufficient economy has its own products or services of value to export to the world. Similarly, a self-sufficient individual has something of value to exchange in the global marketplace. That thing of value is based on your natural talent, skill, or interest—in other words, your passion!

It has been suggested that agriculture represents a potentially viable industry to develop in order to supplement Saipan’s tourism, stimulate the economy and help create a self-sufficient nation within a nation. During the mid-’30s, Saipan was a cane-producing island, and along with Tinian, produced approximately 13 million yen in annual exports. The islands provided food for military troops based here and in Guam during and after World War II.

Could it work today? If so, what could we produce? To get more information, I sat and talked with someone in the know.

Meet Asapmar Ogumoro, a teacher at Garapan Elementary School, with a passion for farming. "Asap" has a degree in Education from Eastern Oregon University, and is also Secretary of the Saipan Sabalu Farmers Market Association. This proud 26-year-old Carolinian is a man with a vision. Last week, I was fortunate enough to share that vision when I visited one of his three plots, a 2.8-acre taro farm in Kagman. It was there that I got a lesson in focus crops, bumper crops, mole crickets, seaweed fertilizer, crop spacing, and heard the case for taro and the virtues of sweet potatoes as export crops for the CNMI.

Walt: So, how did you get into agriculture and farming?

ASAP: Every summer, while I was growing up here on Saipan, I would practice subsistence farming with my grandfather. We grew taro, bananas, yams and other crops.

During my freshman year at Eastern Oregon, I had a chance to work on a farm for a mint oil company. That’s where I first experienced commercial farming. It was a huge operation. There were 12 of us from the college, working straight for two months. We experienced the whole operation: tractors, swathers*, even operated huge vats to extract and cook the mint. In those two months, we harvested and produced 81,000 pounds of mint oil. That experience made me want to see the same thing happening here on Saipan. I’m a teacher, but farming is my hobby, something I really enjoy.

*also called windrowers; the high volume stem-cutting tool pulled by tractors that most of us visualize when we think of large-scale crop harvesting]

Walt: With that as your background, tell us about your experiment?

ASAP:
Well, I set out to do a feasibility study and a business plan to see just how efficiently and profitably taro and sweet potato could be grown and sold here on Saipan.

I worked with the [Northern Marianas College] to get varieties of sweet potato and taro from Samoa, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, Hawaii, Manila, Papua New Guinea as well as local varieties.

We started with five varieties of potatoes, and 12 varieties of taro. I wanted to see which ones could be grown most efficiently. The major factors are the cost, the weather, and the market demand. After almost two years of experimenting, I narrowed it down to two types of potatoes and three types of taro. These would be the best choices.

One is the Purple Taro grown locally here on Saipan. [Asap tells me the scientific name is Colocasia_esculenta]

Walt: What was the most important thing you discovered?

ASAP:
Well, the coolest thing, and the most important lesson I learned was how durable the taro crops are. Weather-wise, we had a unique year with two typhoons and two tropical storms. I didn’t lose a single taro or potato. The papaya, pumpkins, the hot peppers, those were gone, but the taro survived. We still had something to offer and keep money coming in.

Walt: Even though it’s an experiment, it’s also a real business at the same time. Tell us about it. Is this a 100-man operation?

ASAP
: Actually, it could be a one-man operation! But since I’m a full-time teacher, I have two workers, one has been with the family many years.

Usually, Monday through Wednesday, we’re planting and fertilizing. Thursdays and Fridays we’re harvesting for sale. Some of my family members help out on the weekends.

This farm produces 200-300 lbs of produce per week. We sell on Saturdays, and also by special order to supermarkets and other customers.

Walt: And how much do you sell it for?

ASAP:
We sell the taro for $1.00/lb, and the sweet potato for $0.70/lb

Walt: So, based on your research, do you think purple taro could be a viable export for the CNMI?

ASAP:
Absolutely. It could be. “Could” is the important word. With the right people behind it and the right marketing.

Walt: What are some of the reasons you think it could work?

ASAP:
[Asap lists a number of reasons including:]

1. Purple taro has a distinct flavor.

2. It’s strong and hardy and can survive both the wet and dry seasons.

3. It’s more nutritious than regular potato and has fiber and protein.

4. The entire plant is edible roots, leaves and corm [the fibrous bulb we eat].

5. It’s requires less maintenance than other crops.

6. Taro diseases are not rampant here as on other islands.

7. You can time it; plant during the summer and harvest during the winter.

8. Most other producers are focused on the white variety of taro.

Walt: So, what would you like to see happen next?

ASAP:
I’d like to see us here on Saipan creating and selling a product grown and harvested from our very own land; a product we can sell to the world, and one we can consume for nutrition. So, even if you don’t sell it this week, at least your fridge is full. It’s a combination of commercial and subsistence farming.

One of my goals is to bring back the taro to our traditional diet. In the past it was a major part of our diet, but now rice has replaced it as a staple.

Walt: And, in order for that to happen…?

ASAP:
Well, right now, there are 32 plots here in Kagman, and I’ve heard that only half of them are actually active. We would definitely need more people involved. It’s even something you could do part time.

Also, the taro itself has about a one-week shelf life. If we had some value-added products, foods that could be made from the taro and eaten at a later date, that would help too—things like flours, chips, dried products.

Walt: Are there people doing that now?

ASAP:
Yes, it’s already happening. Three of the chip vendors here on island get their sweet potatoes from us. They order about 80-120 lbs each week.

If you see locally-produced sweet potato products [chips and pies] at the gift shops here on Saipan, chances are they get their potatoes from us.

Walt: What advice do you have for people considering farming?

ASAP:
First, definitely consult with existing farmers. Also, consult with NMC-CREES (Northern Mariana College - Cooperative Research Extension and Education Service) before venturing into agriculture. They can provide a lot of good advice and suggestions.

Second, start with a plan—a business plan to get your ideas organized.

Third, I would say that in order to be successful, you have to have the passion and the patience. Passion is what will keep you going, and the patience is a must in farming. Nature takes its own time. Sometimes you will be stressful about it, and very eager for your harvest, like I was at the beginning. Patience. Allow your crop to mature properly, so it tastes the way it should and has the nutrition it should. Sometimes, farmers will get too eager, and you’ll see crops harvested too soon, and they won’t sell. That’s what I mean by patience. That was a really hard lesson to learn.

ASAP’s Lesson for Life: Asap Ogumoro’s training and profession as an educator, as well as his desire to share the lessons of his experiment for the benefit of the CNMI and the world, clearly identify him as a “guru” in terms of his purpose (He is here to teach.) His passion is farming, and his product is the taro. He’s a textbook example for all of us of someone using a passion to live out a purpose, selling a product and turning a profit!

Interested in Taro? Want to purchase, prepare and even profit from it?

Or, if you want to discuss the virtues of Taro, or hire Asap as a consultant for your own future farming operation, you’ll find him on Saturday mornings 6am to 11am at the Sabalu Market opposite the Multi-Purpose Center in Susupe. E-mail him at Ogumoro@gmail.com, or call (670) 483-0477.

****

Note: Read more about the “creator,” “savior,” “guru” & “guide” dynamics, and the purposeàpassionàproductàprofit cycle of success at www.passionprofit.com].

Note: Ever wanted to direct your friends and family to a set of websites that said good things about Saipan? Do what I do: send them to www.bestofsaipan.com!

Note: Fans and followers of the book, Chicken Feathers and Garlic Skin: Diary of a Chinese Garment Factory Girl on Saipan may now find copies here on Saipan at Fu Dogs & Qi (pronounced chi), Saipan’s only Asian Antiques Store, located on the first floor of the Nauru Building (the “360 building”) in Susupe.

****

Until next week, remember, success is a journey, not a destination!

****

Walt F.J. Goodridge is author of 15 books including Turn Your Passion Into Profit. Walt offers coaching and workshops to help people pursue and profit from their passions. Originally from the island of Jamaica, Walt has grown several successful businesses in the US, and now makes his home here in Saipan. To learn more about the Saipanpreneur Project and Walt’s philosophy and formula visit www.saipanpreneur.com and www.passionprofit.com.

****

Send article suggestions, entrepreneur nominations and feedback about this article to walt@passionprofit.com.

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Located in the western pacific, a short flight from Guam and 3 hours from Japan, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) is a popular tourist destination rich in history, culture and natural resources. Saipan, just 5 miles wide by 12 miles long, is the largest and most populated of the 14 islands making up an archipelago that stretches 400 miles (north to south) along the edge of the Marianas Trench.

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