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!
The Wild Flower of Sambangan!
Believe it or not, there are people who’ve lived on Saipan for years who are still not familiar with one of the island’s best-kept secrets: The Sabalu Market!
“Sabalu” is the Chamorro word for Saturday, and every Saturday, from about 6am to 11am, on Beach Road, across from the Marianas High School in Susupe, you’ll find a gathering of farmers and vendors and their abundant displays of locally-grown and harvested fruits, vegetables, plants, flowers, eggs, livestock, shrimp, and fish for the community to enjoy.
And when you stop by this Saturday, (and you WILL stop by this Saturday), be sure to visit the Greenlife Local Fresh Produce tent where you’ll be greeted by the friendly smile of one of the Sabalu Market Farmers Association’s original members, and today’s first featured Sabalu-preneur, Sol Consuelo Cabrera-San Nicholas.
Sol is originally from Sambangan on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. (My research reveals the name “sambangan” comes from a Malay word, which means “a place where wild flowers grow.”) Sol came to Saipan for the first time in 1989, as a tourist, and then returned a year later.
WALT: Tell me a little about your background.
SOL: Well, I grew up in the Philippines. After I graduated from high school, I worked for nine years as a saleslady at C.O.D. Department store in Manila. Then I worked five years for Egypt Airlines as a secretary to the manager. While I was working for Egypt Airlines, I went off island to Cairo, Egypt for about three years, to go to school for airline training. When I left Egypt Airlines, I lived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, from 1983 to 1984. At that time, I worked at a fast food restaurant called "747 Hamburger!" Eventually, I went back to the Philippines, where I started my own business, buying and selling in different places.
WALT: How did you find out about Saipan? What attracted you to Saipan the first time, and why did you return to stay?
SOL: At that time, we had a relative who had worked at P.I.C. here on Saipan for many years. So we always knew about Saipan. I first came here as a tourist in 1989. What I liked about Saipan was that the life here was very simple. I observed the people, and thought that this was a very special island, very productive, and very beautiful. That’s why I decided to stay.
WALT: When did you get into farming?
SOL: When I returned to Saipan, I was a contract worker at first. I met my husband Pedro San Nicholas, who was working at Duty Free at that time. [He just retired this year.] We got married in October 1990. We decided to open a commercial farm in April 1993. My husband’s family owns land in As Lito. At the time, it was an undeveloped plot of land, about 36,000 square meters of land [approx 9 acres]. We planted, corn, sweet potato, tarot, different vegetables, almost everything except watermelon.
WALT: Who are your customers?
SOL: When we first started, we sold fruits and vegetables to the hotels and restaurants and garment factories. We sold to the barracks for different companies like Sablan Construction. We delivered to supermarkets like Joeten, and Carmen Safeway, and other places like Coral Ocean Point. A lot of companies and factories have closed or moved away since that time, but I’ve been supplying a lot of the same customers with vegetables from the beginning up to the present time.
WALT: How many employees do you have?
Sol: Five right now. There is Erminda Ereno, who has worked for me for 13 years. Rolando Lamorena who has worked for me for nine years. Fe Areglado, 5 years. There's also Clarita Calimag and Cherry Morales, they are the ones who pre-pack the vegetables.
WALT: Are your children involved in the family business?
SOL: We have two daughters and three sons, all here on Saipan. Our oldest son, Andrew, is working at the Hyatt. My second son, Brian, works at Tony Roma's. Our youngest, Angel works at Mobil. I have two daughters, Lara, 13 and Natalie, 11. Right now, my two daughters are the ones assisting me in the business because one of my regular workers is in the Philippines. I'm training them how to grow and sell vegetables, how to communicate with customers, issue receipts, and make deliveries. [Note: Sol and Pedro had six children, but sadly, lost a daughter in an auto accident in 2005]
WALT: You’ve been doing this now for 15 years. Why?
SOL: I believe eating naturally and staying healthy is very important.
I also want to encourage local people to plant and grow and eat their own food. Especially now that we are in an economic crisis, everyone should learn how to plant food in their backyard. You don’t need to purchase food all the time, at least they can grow for their personal use.
We also need to teach children how to grow and eat local vegetables. Many children don't even recognize or know the names of the vegetables. The parents should cook more local vegetables, and not always depend on meat, so the kids can learn how to appreciate them.
It's important for our children, because we don't have to use frozen produce, and vegetables from outside of Saipan, full of chemicals, when we can grow food here.
WALT: You are also part of the Federal Food Nutrition Service in the CNMI Public School System. What exactly do you do?
SOL: Yes, we are the ones who are in charge of the meal programs in every public and private school in the CNMI. I've been a Food Service Coordinator for four years. My job is to monitor all the food the vendors are serving and to make sure everything is in the proper amounts and provides the right nutrition.
WALT: One of the reasons I shop with you, Sol, is that when I first came to Saipan, I looked for vendors who were selling food grown without pesticides and other chemicals. In fact, more and more new arrivals to the island often ask me where they can get “organic” fruits and vegetables. Is the produce at Sabalu organic?
SOL: I cannot speak for all the vendors at the Sabalu Market, but I personally do not use chemical pesticides on my crops. In fact, for a long time, our farmers experimented with natural ways to protect the vegetables, and we developed our own organic pest spray made from hot peppers grown right here on Saipan! So our vegetables have no pesticides. And, you know, Walt, those chemicals are also very expensive!
WALT: Cool. That's a great trade secret that cuts expenses and is also good for the environment. Any other advice for potential Saipanpreneurs to make their businesses as successful as yours?
SOL: Well, from what I see, I believe I have a different way of dealing with the customers. You need to have good public relations. That means always putting on a good face to the public. You have to have consideration for your customers. Do special things for them. Making the customer happy is the reason you are in business, so it should always be the most important consideration, even more than profit.
I also sell produce at the Thursday Street Market, and I want to offer a wider variety of local fruits. So, I am encouraging anyone, if you have local fruits, any kind of fruits in your backyard, I can promote them at the Thursday Street Market. If they have fruits growing on their property, I can buy from them, but only fruits.
We always have tourists shopping at the Thursday market, and they love to eat the fruits we have on Saipan, especially things they’ve never tried before. All of our tourists, Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Americans, want to know about the food they've never seen in their countries. I’ve noticed, for example, that the Russian customers love pineapples, and local mangos.
WALT: What's in the future for Greenlife?
SOL: Right now, we are planning to open a permanent booth on Beach Road. I am processing all the documents I need for the zoning now.
WALT: Until that happens, where can people find you?
SOL: First, there's Tuesdays in Garapan [3pm - 9pm across from Kristo Rai Church], Thursdays at the Street Market [6pm to 9pm across from the Hyatt Hotel] and then, of course, Saturdays at Sabalu Market [from 6am to 11am; Tip: a source tells me that the early birds who come as early as 5am can find a better selection!]
Come and see for yourself
My own preference for eating naturally and locally drew me to Sabalu when I first arrived on Saipan. With vendors selling pastries, soups, breakfast and lunch, a playground a few yards away, and a great view of the ocean, you might also want to include a stop at Sabalu as part of your regular weekend get-together with family and friends! See you there! And say hi to Sol!
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Note: At various times over the next several weeks, as part of the "Sabalu-preneur Series" I’ll be profiling the farm owners, farmers, vendors, and board members of the Sabalu Market Farmers Association. In each column, you’ll learn of the success stories, the challenges, the vision for the future, opportunities for growth and expansion, community impact and more things you never knew.about Saipan’s Secret Sabalu!
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 at Bookseller Bookstore in the Joe-Ten Plaza in Susupe or on Amazon.com. Hurry, supply is limited!
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!
Contact Sol at GreenLife Local Fresh Produce at (670) 288-1191, or (670) 256-1879.
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Until next week, remember, success is a journey, not a destination!