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House members push farm plot bill

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VICE Speaker Lorenzo Deleon Guerrero, Reps. Ivan Blanco and Roman Benavente are urging the Senate to pass House Bill 21-108, which they say will encourage locals to work on farms.

In a joint interview on Tuesday, the three House members said it is important to encourage people to try subsistence farming.

“We need to encourage them especially now with this Covid-19 pandemic — people have time to plant even a home garden,” Blanco said.

It is good exercise, and helps families grow their own food, he added. “So farming saves money and promotes a healthy lifestyle.”

He said a  lot of locals are interested in farming if provided farm lots.

Blanco also noted that a provision of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security or CARES Act provides financial assistance to local farmers.

But without a proper permit to farm on government plot, locals will not be able to apply for federal assistance, he added.

Aside from CARES Act funding, Blanco said there are other federal loan programs for farmers who can also apply for U.S. Department of Agriculture-Natural Resources Conservation Service assistance.

Vice Speaker Deleon Guerrero, who introduced H.B. 21-108, said some local farmers have signed lease agreements with the Department of Lands and Natural Resources, but those are basically interim arrangements, he added.

He said DLNR, through its Division of Agriculture, still has to promulgate rules and set requirements for farming permits.

There needs to be a statute that will authorize DLNR to issue permits, he said, which is why he introduced his bill.   

He said the Kagman Commercial Farm Plot program created in 1991 does not give  DLNR the authority to hold and manage those farm plots. As a result, he added, more than 30 commercial farm plots in Kagman are “in limbo.”

H.B. 21-108 will allow the director of Agriculture to issue licenses or permits to farmers in Kagman for at least five years.

For his part, Benavente said, “We should encourage people to engage in farming and become less dependent on imports.”

Saipan Chamber of Commerce president Velma Palacios also supports H.B. 21-108, which she said will help increase the viability of local agriculture as an industry.

The bill is pending review by the Senate Committee on Resources, Economic Development and Programs, which is still soliciting comments from agencies and members of the community.

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