In September 2017, 'Hurricane Maria', a category 5 level storm and the deadliest of last year's hyperactive Atlantic hurricane season, struck the Caribbean island of Dominica. With maximum sustained wind speeds of 165mph, the hurricane caused total devastation to the country's buildings, vegetation and infrastructure, while also decimating the Dominican agricultural sector - a vital source of income for the country.
Prior to Hurricane Maria, a collaborative project had been put in place between the Dominican Ministry of Agriculture and the Cocoa Research Centre in Trinidad to establish a propagation garden in order to increase the stocks and diversity of cocoa varieties grown in Dominica. The local import-export agency had also been working hard to develop a roadmap to increase the amount of processing possible on the island, and to get the quality of the crop produced recognised by the fine chocolate houses of the world.
AFTP Director, Professor Carol Wagstaff, has travelled from the UK to Dominica as part of a project supported by The University of Reading, where she works as a Professor of Crop Quality for Health, to start the process of rebuilding that infrastructure for propagation, for developing a network of farmers and processors who want to produce a high quality crop, and for putting steps in place to make the industry resilient against biological and climate borne challenges that will inevitably come Dominica's way again.
Diary by Professor Carol Wagstaff, AFTP Director
Day 10, 18th May 2018
Mine and Andrew’s last day on this beautiful island. We had an early meeting with the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Dr Reginald Thomas at the ministry headquarters. The building was unmistakeably governmental: grey, rectangular, with all the architectural appeal of a concrete block. This wasn’t helped by the damage it had suffered in the hurricane and inside ceiling spaces and pipework was exposed through water damage. I rather cynically thought that the meeting would be a tick in the box for show, you know – a quick handshake, some platitudes about how good it was to work together, a group photo and out in ten minutes. Well, I was right about the photo, but wrong about everything else. Dr Thomas has his qualifications in veterinary science, meaning that he was well educated about scientific practice and had made it his business to absorb the agricultural history, strengths and weaknesses of his island’s culture. As a result we had a really meaningful discussion for over an hour, which got down to some fine detail about what aspects should be prioritised and some strong messages about what should be preserved. He really drove home the point that the heritage of Dominica’s cocoa should be retained in order to preserve its global reputation for producing fine quality chocolate. As a veterinarian he was well placed to appreciate the threat from incoming diseases and we could discuss mitigation strategies in some detail, with him leading the way in appreciating that cultivating a range of different varieties was essential as part of the risk prevention. We do not wish to repeat the mistakes made by the banana industry whose “all the eggs in one basket” approach led the worldwide crop to be susceptible to a single pathogen. Dr Thomas also promised to ensure that the Department of Agriculture provides an agronomist to work alongside Martin for the next two months, which will increase the capacity of the project to sample leaves, pods and soils and to reach out to more farmers across the island. The smiles that you see in the photograph are therefore entirely genuine.
Image (Right) - Back row from left to right: Dr Thomas (Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries), Martin (University of Reading), Karen (Cocoa Research Centre). Front row from left to right: Lambert (Cocoa Research Centre), Carol (University of Reading), Andrew (University of Reading), Ryan Anselm (Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries)
Our afternoon meeting was with the Cocoa Cluster, a group coordinated by DEXIA (Dominica Export Import Agency), who have a common mission to increase cocoa production, processing and export from the island. The group contains large and small growers (in terms of acreage under cocoa), people who process into chocolate or cocoa products, Caribbean Agricultural Network and our friends from CRC Trinidad. Again, the absolute requirement to kick start tree planting and propagation was emphasised – everyone wants to stop importing beans from Granada and get to a position of export of beans and cocoa products as soon as possible. The sense of urgency amongst these more commercial organisations and private individuals was more palpable than in government circles. There is a danger that this could lead to knee jerk reactions rather than planned sustainable activity, but on the other hand people’s livelihoods are at stake. Throughout the meeting it became evident that activity is needed on a number of different levels and timescales.
There is an immediate need for more plants, whether grown from seed or as a result of clonal propagation. Some producers would wish to retain the status of ‘estate produced chocolate’ and I can see why such a precise definition would bring a premium. However, I can also appreciate that cooperative facilities for fermentation and drying would provide an outlet for smaller growers whom are never going to grow enough for the export market on their own. There is also the need to improve livelihoods at all levels, not just for the people that could make a significant impact on the Dominican economy through cocoa, but also for individuals who can greatly improve their standard of living by having some pods to sell on a regular basis or small batches of beans that they can make into cocoa sticks for the local market.
We contemplated the future and the most gorgeous sunset over a beer or two that evening. I will leave this island with a sense of determination to make a difference, both through action provided by the supply of materials, labour and analysis and through training to increase the skills capacity by running some farmer field schools later this year. I was drawn to science, as many are, by a sense of wanting to make a difference in the world. This is one project that I feel has the potential to actually do that for a small group of people on a dot of an island in the middle of the Caribbean.
Day 9, 17th May 2018
Another day spent in Roseau today. First stop was with the local television station, Marpin, who interviewed Lambert and me for their own Marpin News programme. Communications are still very difficult on the island so the TV channels cannot broadcast through normal means and are instead loading content onto YouTube. The content will be shared through the Government Information Service, which is used by farmers to find out about training events and agricultural developments so this will be a good way of starting to raise awareness of our project. DEXIA (the Dominica Export Import Agency) also has its own radio channel, which distributes market information and they will also share an audio version of the interview which will also help to increase awareness of our project aims.
Left: Carol, Edona Jno-Baptiste (the Marpin interviewer) and Lloyd Pascal from DEXIA. Right: Carol, Edona Jno-Baptiste and Lambert Motilal from CRC.
Interviews and photoshoot over, we then retired to possibly the best office in the world, at least in terms of a view, to work on the farmer questionnaire that Martin will be using over the coming weeks. Our aim is to find out what perceptions farmers have of their production pre and post-Maria, what their ambitions are for expanding their cocoa operations, what value (monetary and acceptance) they place on premium plant material, such as the grafted clonal plants that could be supplied by the collaboration between the University of Reading and CRC, and what training they feel would be useful to help them to build up their operations. We will start by engaging with the farmers that participated in the DNA genotyping exercise carried out by CRC, but we would like to engage as wide a farmer community as possible so we can gather views from across the industry.
Day 8, 16th May 2018
We were back in the field today, touring the island to view propagation facilities and field sites. We started in Portsmouth, very familiar to Martin and I since it was our base last week, and around an hour’s drive north of Roseau up the west coast road, or at least on what’s left of the west coast road. Towns, such as Colihaut (below) that sit in the mouth of a valley were almost destroyed by flooding and landslides that accompanied the category 5 hurricane. My friend Peter, who lives just outside Portsmouth, said that his place was subjected to 165 mph winds for 8 hours as the hurricane passed over, accompanied by a huge tropical rainstorm that lasted for the best part of 12 hours.
The first site at Portsmouth was an agricultural station belonging to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. The office building escaped intact, but major flooding of the nearby Barry River caused the majority of damage to the site. The shade house used for propagation is bent, rather than broken, and wouldn’t take much to get fully functional. One end of the covered potting up area has a broken roof, but again, this should be quite straightforward to repair. It needs more benches, and ideally raised on blocks to a height that makes more delicate operations such as grafting easier for those doing it. The big containers provide secure storage for essential equipment and materials for running the operation and they were previously raised on concrete block – as you can see the force of the hurricane and flooding was sufficient to push them off, which didn’t do the adjacent tractor (the only one I have seen on Dominica) any favours.
At present the only thing being cultivated are a few passionfruit plants, but the ministry says this is because the supplies haven’t been available until recently. Apparently the site was previously used to provide ~3000 grafted cocoa plants every 3-4 months and production could not keep up with demand. Plants retailed at $5 ECD per plant for orders of 50 or more and $10 ECD per plant for orders of less than 50, both heavily subsidised rates as the Ministry estimate is that it costs $17 ECD to produce a single plant. This history of past purchase is encouraging, as it means that farmers understand the value of establishing grafted plants in their fields over and above plants grown from seeds or rooted cuttings. Grafted plants are of known provenance and will fruit more rapidly than seed grown stock (within 2-3 years). Although seed grown stock will produce a plant with a strong tap root (good for keeping it upright in hurricanes), most cocoa is open pollinated so there is no guarantee that seeds planted from a particularly good tree will retain all of the parental characteristics as it depends what other parent that plant crossed with to produce the seeds. In contrast, rooted cuttings are clonal of their parent plant, and therefore retain desirable characteristics that the parent tree might have, such as fine flavoured beans, adaptation to the local soil, or disease resilience, but they do not develop such a strong root system so they are vulnerable to sudden climactic events such as a hurricane.
Our next stop was a brief one – back to see Alan Napier at Pointe Baptiste Estate Chocolate to check the existence of a tag on a tree that was previously tagged by Trinidad Cocoa Research Centre (CRC). The tag was there, but not the label and we completely failed to find a previously tagged tree all day. Clearly the tags were not built to withstand a category 5 hurricane, and CRC prioritised older trees that could potentially yield a large number of cuttings for producing grafted plants but unfortunately the bigger trees were more vulnerable to destruction from the hurricane. We continued on, after sampling once more Alan’s amazing view from his veranda and home-produced fresh juice, to the village of Woodford Hill. We continued beyond Rufus’ place, along some unmade road, to a propagation station that is in the process of being renovated.
The Woodford Hill station is on government land, which is preferable to private ownership and it prevents sale of a site that has benefited from investment. It also benefits from a supply of pipe borne water. An office and packing shed are under construction, with work scheduled to complete by August this year. Adjacent to these buildings were partially cleared concrete bins that had previously been used for propagating coffee plants and which could be put back into service as nursery beds. On the land to the other side of the track was a rather tatty shade house and quarter of an acre plot that has currently been apportioned by the local workers to grow their own tomatoes, with an intercrop of squash plants. This is the area that the Ministry has identified for constructing a shade house to harden off grafted cocoa plants, and which our team are considering as one option to contribute to enable the prioritisation of its construction. The site will also be used for maintenance of a living collection of varieties of cocoa sourced from around Dominica, and from the University of Reading quarantine centre. Whilst driving away from the site we passed by the Woodford Hill School renovation project – we last saw this six days ago (see Diary Day 2) and it was impressive to see that rapid progress was being made in terms of building roof trusses and replacing walls.
Clockwise (from top-left): Office, Shade house in need of renovation, Site identified for living cocoa collection, Woodford Hill School, Andrew and a local worker discussing the site, Propagation bins and Packhouse.
Our journey continued on down the east coast to a site at Londonderry next to the Toulaman River that had been built as a centre for tissue culture and propagation of banana (see below). It turned out that banana had never been tissue cultured on the island, but plantlets in media had been brought over from a centre in France that had subsequently been transferred to soil and hardened off at the facility. Whilst in need of some renovation, the basic infrastructure was quite strong and the land looked decent quality with easy access to clean water from the river. Importantly the river was kept at bay by a substantial concrete wall, helping the site to withstand flooding damage, although the bridge downstream had not fared so well. In all cases it would be desirable to build shade houses to a greater height than they are at present to allow better air ventilation for the crops within and to allow some venting at roof height to be installed. This site is not a main priority for the Ministry, although our personal view is that it would be much easier to renovate this than to construct the new buildings at Woodford Hill.
Almost next door to Londonderry, just the other side of Melville Hall Airport, was a disused site that was originally envisaged as a central fermentation and drying facility (see below). The office building is pretty unscathed, but work was halted on the fermentation facility before it ever took shape and the drying facility is no more than a concrete base at the moment. The Ministry is planning to enable the Cocoa Cooperative that formed amongst the growers on the northern end of the island to develop and use the facility, which would be a great move. For us the immediate priority is to enhance production, but it will be around three years before cocoa pods start to harvested in bulk, giving some time to develop the central facility in the medium term.
High above the Melville Hall estate lay the first of several cocoa orchards that we visited, with the condition of each access road progressively posing more challenge to our less-than-robust hire car. The story in this location was the same as for others on the east coast; trees were in general not well-maintained and pruned prior to Maria, orchards tended to have a very loose structure with cocoa trees and shade crops interspersed quite randomly rather than in organised rows.
However, most trees were pushed over by Maria rather than uprooted - unlike the coconut which is frequently used to intercrop with cocoa to provide shade and which was either decapitated or uprooted by Maria, both with terminal consequences for the tree. There were some healthy looking pods on some trees that had survived the hurricane, and very little sign of disease. We saw occasional instances of black pod, but nothing particularly serious.
Clockwise (from top-left): Mature cocoa and coconut orchard post-Maria, Franklyn, Lambert and Martin inspecting cocoa trees, Immature orchard post-hurricane, Black pod infection, Healthy pod, Mature cocoa pods on dislodged tree, Karen and Lambert at the Waitukubuli Trail.
The contrast in orchard management between what we have seen in Dominica and how cocoa is grown in other parts of the world is quite striking. In places such as Indonesia and Columbia (pictured below) the cocoa is grown in regimented rows, with a fixed distance (around three metres) between trees and pruning is sufficiently heavy to maintain a fairly low tree height and an open canopy. In some ways the intervention by Maria provides an opportunity to rehabilitate cocoa production on Dominica and to develop skills and methods to allow production and processing practices to be improved compared to what was there before the hurricane. We will be proposing some farmer field schools later this year to enable best practice to be adopted.
Day 7, 15th May 2018
A rather more formal day today, starting with a meeting at the Dominican Export-Import Agency (DEXIA). We (Andrew, Martin and I), along with Karen and Lambert from the Cocoa Research Centre (CRC) in Trinidad, were given a warm welcome by Lloyd Pascal (Head of Export Promotion and Development Department) and Gregoire Thomas (General Manager).
Having outlined the expertise and interests of our various organisations we discussed some of the work that DEXIA has already initiated to try and secure funding from Compete Caribbean, itself supported by the Inter-American Development Bank, UKaid and the Caribbean Development Bank to form a Cocoa Cluster. DEXIA has already formed a wide network of interested stakeholders, encompassing around 250 farmers with an interest in cultivating cocoa, cocoa stick manufacturers, chocolate producers, plus supporting agencies such as CRC and CARDI (Caribbean Agricultural Development Institute). Through our discussions we established that, although the most immediate need is to restore and expand cocoa bean production, there are medium and long term needs to ensure that standards such as CODEX are met to cover food standards, phytosanitation and safety – the latter in relation to the potential for cadmium contamination of cocoa crops as the EU is shortly to impose a restriction on the acceptable levels of cadmium permitted in imported chocolate of 0.80 mg/kg for chocolate containing more than 50% cocoa solids. Cadmium is known to be present above these levels in cocoa sourced from some Latin American countries, but the situation in Dominica is so far unknown. Research has also shown that different clones of cocoa accumulate cadmium to different extents, so it is possible to select types that do not accumulate this heavy metal.
From left to right: Lambert Motilal (CRC), Lloyd Pascal (DEXIA), Carol Wagstaff (AFTP/UoR), Andrew Daymond (Cocoa Quarantine Centre/UoR), Martin Chadwick (UoR), Gregoire Thomas (DEXIA), Karen Lee Lum (CRC).
Whilst the initiative with DEXIA is focused on production, the long-term aim is clearly to develop the export market for Dominican cocoa products. In order to achieve this some training will be needed to ensure a more consistent and higher quality fermentation of the harvested beans, possibly through the establishment of a cooperative facility. There is a willingness to embrace such practice and a cocoa cooperative is coming together in the north part of the island.
Following a local delicacy (a kind of roti layered with lentils and curried vegetables or meats) for lunch, we (those of us from the University of Reading and CRC) headed off to the Botanic Gardens in the northern part of Roseau to meet with the Ministry of Agriculture at their headquarters. Damage from Maria is still very evident, with many buildings lacking roofs and suffering from water damage; unsurprising when you consider the image on the left showing the Roseau River (that runs alongside the Botanic Gardens) the morning after the hurricane.
We were privileged to meet with key people, namely Ryan Anselm (Acting Director of the Ministry of Agriculture), Franklyn Joseph (National Coordinator for Cocoa and Coffee), Joseph Blandford (Head of Propagation), Nelson Laville (Plant Pathologist), and Adisa Trotter (Agriculture Information and Communication). The meeting was really informative in terms of describing the situation pre-Maria. Dominica’s cocoa production was already in a declining phase, since farmers had been persuaded to prioritise banana cultivation a number of years ago. Pre-Maria production was therefore around 180 acres, whereas around 400 acres that was previously in cultivation had already been abandoned. It is estimated that approximately 300 acres could be put back into production quite rapidly, with a planting density of around 500 trees per acre to allow for intercropping with other cash crops such as yam, banana and other crops that form part of an agroforestry system, such as coconut, coffee, citrus, nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla. CRC had already undertaken a survey of the different cocoa types (accessions) distributed across the island, and one of the immediate needs is to see how many of these well-characterised trees remain. Many were classified for their fine flavour and it will be important to ensure that this provenance remains intact for the future of the cocoa industry. The Ministry of Agriculture was in the process of building propagation centres in the north of the island, and we will visit these tomorrow. Although the hurricane clearly altered timescales, it is planned to have at least one of these operational by August this year and we are investigating if we can support the addition of an adjacent ‘hardening off’ facility to enable the young cocoa plants to become resilient to damage they would otherwise suffer from sudden exposure to high light intensity and heat. The government is sensibly taking a sustainable approach to infrastructure building – using renewable energy sources where possible for misting and handling water needed to grow plants, and trying to build structures that are hurricane proof – or at least with easy to remove shade panels so that the wind is less likely to cause extensive damage. After a hot day in the capital city we are looking forward to getting back into the field again tomorrow to see cocoa production in action….
Day 6, 14th May 2018
The project is gradually starting to take shape now that we have met with Dr Karen Lee Lum and Dr Lambert Motilal from the Cocoa Research Centre (CRC) in Trinidad who have come over to Dominica to join with us for the week and take part in some key meetings with government officials and the Import-Export agency. CRC are already close collaborators with our Cocoa Quarantine Centre at the University of Reading and they are very well connected throughout the region, which is certainly helping to open some doors. Lambert was the leader of the project that was in place to use molecular genotyping (DNA fingerprinting) to characterise the range of cocoa varieties that were present on Dominica before the hurricane.
For those of you with a technical interest in such things the fingerprinting was done using a panel of 96 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), most of which were associated with known genes, in many cases genes with particular functions of interest, and which broadly covered the whole genome. This is quite a low number of SNPs to use, although cocoa has a fairly small genome (10 chromosomes; diploid; 445 Mega base pairs). As a comparison the genome of tomato is 900 Mega base pairs, humans are 3200 Mega base pairs, whereas lettuce is a whopping 2.7 Giga base pairs so life could be a lot more complicated.
The genotyping was sensitive enough to distinguish between really different varieties and between different variants of each type that probably arose through natural crossing or hybridisation. Cocoa is divided into three distinct types: Criollo, Forestero and a hybrid between the two called Trinitario. Criollo is the rarest of the three, but does well on Dominica being native to the Caribbean islands and is known for its fine flavour properties. Only around 5% of world cocoa production is from Criollo types as it is quite difficult to grow and not very resilient to environmental threats, but it is highly prized for manufacturing the best chocolate. Forestero accounts for around 80% of world cocoa production and originated in the Amazon. Yields are much higher than for Criollo and it has some resistance to diseases. It is said to give chocolate its full-bodied flavour, but it lacks the complexity for a really fine product unless it is part of a blend. Forestero has given rise to a number of sub-species e.g. Amelonado, Cundeamor and Calabacillo and tends to have yellow pods when ripe, even though the beans inside are purple. Trinitario is the overarching name for hybrids between Forestero and Criollo – the hybridisation event occurred many times so there are many different variants of the species rather than a single pure breeding line. Rather like wine, the final quality of the product is determined by a combination of the plant genotype, the ‘terroir’ or soil environment in which it grows, and the influence of the climate and challenges it faces from pests and disease. Also like wine, a lot of processing happens between harvest and consumption, so there are many stages at which quality can be compromised if they are not done well.
All this knowledge is going to be essential if we are to assist Dominica to recover its cocoa production, and also to future proof the crop against future challenges.
One such challenge is the spread of diseases around the world through illegal movement of plants, or people being careless on their travels. Cocoa has three main diseases, all of fungal origin: black pod, witches broom and frosty pod rot. Only black pod is present on Dominica, and can be controlled by correct pruning of the trees to allow good light penetration and air circulation around the canopy. Neither of the other two diseases has ever been found on Dominica; however, the Caribbean region as a whole is extremely concerned about frosty pod rot (below). This was prevalent across Latin American countries, but somehow made its way to Jamaica in September 2016. As a result, pretty much all production in Jamaica was shut down for a year whilst the disease was isolated and bought under control as much as possible. Complete elimination isn’t possible since the disease is transmitted through fungal spores that are produced in extraordinarily large quantities and which are extremely persistent in a range of environments. Some of the clones identified by CRC from their large collection have good resilience to frosty pod rot and would therefore provide an insurance policy for islands such as Dominica if the disease should ever spread. However, it will be important to preserve the fine flavour characteristics of the native Dominican cocoa so that in the long term a breeding programme will have to be implemented to ensure that all the desirable qualities can be preserved in the crop.
Moving away from the more technical aspects of the project, we managed to find the agricultural supply store in the capital Roseau which, as you can see from the pictures below, has suffered a lot at the hands of Maria (although the market still has a very healthy level of produce for sale).
Whilst not exactly bursting with stock, the agricultural store did have the plastic propagation bags we were looking for – it was also interesting to see that most of the seeds for sale were pre-treated (the coatings generally provide protection against fungal diseases, some nutrient and protection for the germinating seed) and that inorganic fertilizer is readily available – although we couldn’t ascertain if very much of it was sold.
I haven’t seen a single tractor on the island and mechanisation just doesn’t feature over here. Dominican cultivation is about as far from a UK farm as it is possible to get – most plots are between a quarter and one acre; five acres is considered medium size and ten acres or more is extremely rare. Unlike UK agriculture, which seeks to tame and manipulate the natural environment to enhance productivity of a very few species, Dominican farming style seeks to work with nature. It works, even though yields are very low compared to a UK farm, because it is supporting a small population (the population of Dominica wouldn’t even fill Wembley Stadium and is smaller than the population of Reading). However, it works within the means it has available; the cropping systems are very mixed, in general quite low yielding but with very little intervention necessary (or possible) to prevent diseases. Tillage is all by hand with simple tools, often just a cutlass. The land is unsuitable for tractors as in general it is on the side of a monstrously steep hill and no one can afford the tractor or the fuel to put in it anyway. Some communities, particularly the Rastafarians, practice biodynamic farming – in other words farming by the cycle of the moon. Whilst this is completely alien to most western agricultural practices I can see that some aspects make sense. During the four quarters of the moon’s monthly cycle the practice means that all the agricultural ‘jobs’ get done – sowing, plant and land maintenance, and harvesting. The belief is that plants mirror the moon, so when you want seeds to germinate, swell and grow you plant during the waxing (expanding) phase of the moon. In contrast, anything that involves ‘surgery’ e.g. harvesting, grafting, pruning is done when the moon is waning or completely dark so that the wounds heal quickly. We do know that some crop pests are more active during the phase when the moon is full and many aspects of biology have a diurnal rhythm or daylength sensitivity, so maybe the ideas are not so crazy as they first sound to our European ideals. What is certain, however, is that we have to be sensitive to such cultural practices when engaging farmers with our project. There is no point running a farmer field school on orchard management and pruning when the moon is full as no one will let us cut their trees for demonstration purposes and when no one is prepared to go away and implement the practice. We have to maintain credibility with local communities and work alongside their ideals rather than imposing our own upon them.
In the spirit of adventure we then drove back to the north west of the island to deliver two hundred bags to our friend Coco to enable him to propagate from the plants on his own land. These plants could form good rootstocks for grafting on budwood sourced from the Quarantine Centre in Reading in due course, particularly if he grows from seed, which will produce a stronger root system than from rooted cuttings. However, the plants he produces will also have a value in their own right, as they are from good trees that give good flavour quality, and producing young plants for sale will provide Coco with an income for the next few years whilst his own stocks become mature enough to bear fruit. Coco is now moving ahead with his plans to erect a shade house near the river that will provide a good environment for raising the plants and we are looking forward to seeing his site develop.
Day 2, 10th May 2018
Fascinating day today, but probably a good thing that university health and safety weren’t asked to do a risk assessment for the activities we undertook. We drove to Calibishie, on the north east coast of Dominica, discovering along the way that the hire car windscreen wipers were completely ineffective at removing water from the windshield and that driving involved large amounts of pothole dodging and navigating areas where the tarmac was completely missing. Our first stop was with Alan Napier, who runs Pointe Baptiste Estate Chocolate, and who is certainly the leading (only) maker of fine chocolate on the island. Many people make cocoa sticks, used for making cocoa tea, but apart from a few hobbyists there are not many people with the knowledge or equipment to make chocolate properly. Alan was a kind and knowledgeable man, who is now based permanently on the island in a beautiful house originally constructed by his grandfather, which is positioned above the sea in the most gorgeous location.
He first showed us around the ‘farm’, which doesn’t bear any resemblance to a European style of farming. Clearly Hurricane Maria brought down a lot of trees, which increases the sense of chaos, but it never did conform to our monoculture way of doing things. Again, it makes some sense: mature banana plants shade young cocoa, mixing in ground crops such as yam, dasheen and tania prevent the growth of invasive weeds, and disease spread is minimised by having different species of plants adjacent to each other (below left). Alan understood the need to prune cocoa trees to allow air to circulate inside the canopy (below middle, pruned branches evident below the pod near the base of the main stem); this helps to prevent black pod disease. He also allowed new plants to develop from the old in a controlled way so that he was effectively succession planning for his crop (below right).
Despite his knowledge about growing plants, in part honed from growing wine grapes in France, Alan’s real expertise lies in the processing of cocoa beans into chocolate and he needs to buy far more stock from around the island and elsewhere than he can supply from his own land. The ‘factory’ is split over two floors, plus an outside location where the initial fermentation and drying takes place. It works, it wouldn’t pass a BRC or NSF audit, shoes are not compulsory on the premises, and it’s a funny mixture of some high-end kit and some very homemade processing solutions. The montage below shows the process of chocolate making, Dominican style….
A: Cocoa beans are removed from their pods and fermented in polystyrene boxes for approximately seven days, turning and mixing them each day to ensure an even fermentation. The polystyrene helps to generate the heat required for efficient fermentation and it is this first step that most frequently is done improperly by local producers. They either do not ferment the beans for long enough, meaning that the good flavours do not develop, or for too long which results in off-flavours generated by alcohols accumulating in the bean, or they don’t mix them enough which results in uneven fermentation.
B: Fermented beans are dried on trays undercover. Optimal drying is fairly slow so that the beans dry evenly and completely. They also need to be mixed during the drying process to ensure even drying – if this is done badly the beans can accumulate vinegar characteristics on the inside or mould on the outside so care is needed. During the drying process the beans change colour from grey to purple to the brown colour associated with chocolate.
C: Roasting is currently done on a small scale as the new oven (D) requires three a three phase electricity supply which hasn’t been possible since Maria. It takes ~45 minutes to roast a 5 lb batch of dried beans at 240 – 250 °F. The new oven (D) is programmable and has also been used to dry fruits such as mango to generate a wider product range.
E: The next step is milling the beans to a course dimension. The process of roasting also detaches the skins from the beans and these need to be removed before the cocoa is ground any further. The rather Heath Robinson vacuum contraption (F) completes this process of winnowing as efficiently, and rather more cheaply, than a commercial device, giving bean fragments that are ready for grinding (G).
H: Final grinding generates heat, which in turn causes the bean fragments to melt into a paste. Flavours, such as tangerine oil, ginger, chilli oil, are added at this stage and then the grinder is turned to a slow speed and left to rotate for three days to generate a smooth chocolate base.
I: The final stage is tempering, which is done through cycles of heating and cooling to ensure that the chocolate has the correct crystal structure that determines the melting point of the final product. A new machine (J) is waiting to be commissioned, that will be able to handle larger batch sizes and also regulate the cycles automatically, but again this needs three phase electrical supply. Alan chooses a structure that gives a high melting point, the chocolate is then poured into moulds (K) so that it sets into the familiar shaped bars (L).
Having tasted a range of the final product, I would say that the chocolate is indeed worthy of the ‘fine’ label. It is quite light in texture and takes a long while to melt in the mouth. The added flavours are very clean and work well, I have to say that the lemongrass is my absolute favourite!
Our next appointment of the day was with Pascale and Rufus. Pascale was born in France, but now splits her time between Ghana and Dominica and her partner Rufus has recently taken over around five acres of land from his mother in a village called Woodford Hill. Woodford Hill appeared to have been hit really hard by Maria, possibly because the quality of building isn’t as good on the east side of the island as the west, since the latter is slightly more prosperous. Island people still seem friendly, with everyone waving and saying hello as we drove past. In some ways I am quite glad that our hire vehicle is a distinctly battered SUV that fits in well with local traffic, as something new and shiny would definitely look out of place.
Rufus’ land is on an extreme slope, but is good quality soil and supports a wide variety of fruit and vegetable crops, both tree crops and annuals. I did slightly wonder what we were doing following a man with a cutlass (local term for machete) down an almost vertical hill and into a remote area of woodland. Rufus and Pascale moved around with ease, I rapidly discovered that my shoes weren’t very good at gripping onto soil or logs and I need to practice balance and extreme terrain negotiation a little more frequently.
The lower area of the land is where Rufus would like to expand his cocoa production. It’s a good area, there’s a wonderfully clear stream running through it that supports a healthy crop of watercress (a plant that is a good indicator of water quality) and the cocoa plants already there are fruiting well. It turns out that Rufus’ father used to grow a fair number of trees, but they were all ripped out in favour of banana, the value of which has now decreased. This is one of the advantages of cocoa, not only is the freshly harvested crop worth a reasonable value, but it is possible to add further value by fermenting and drying the beans to a good standard.
One of the major aims of the project is to ensure that more of the value chain stays on island, rather than all of the economic profit from the crop benefitting those overseas. Rufus is particularly fond of the purple-podded cocoa variety (could either be a purple Trinitario or the native – but more rare – Criollo). Like Alan’s, most of his trees had been pushed sideways or decapitated by Maria but, unlike Alan, Rufus didn’t yet have an understanding of how to prune his trees. However, he’s basically a good plantsman and could easily understand the benefits of allowing air to circulate amongst the branches. Farmers in Dominica, particularly the Rasta community, follow biodynamic farming principles, which translates to farming according to the cycle of the moon. To our westernised ideals this can sound faintly crazy, e.g. harvest your crop when the moon is in the ‘dark’ phase and plant when the moon is full, but like many traditional methods there is often a degree of common sense underlying practice i.e. full moons encourage more nocturnal activity from mammals such as rats that tend to destroy a harvested crop. We ate our way around Rufus’ farm, including a grapefruit type of citrus with a very thick peel, but refreshing segments once freshly peeled with a cutlass, and ended the visit with cocoa tea provided by Pascale in their simple house – basically a two room platform half way down the hill that lost its walls and roof to Maria.
Our final visit was closer to home, to an old friend of mine from a previous visit to the island. The aptly named Coco showed us around his farm and showed me again just how much this community knows about growing plants even if the methods and environment are somewhat different to those used in the UK. Coco already has three varieties of cocoa growing on his land, including the short-podded Forastero variety (picture below), and is skilled in techniques such as grafting. He understands the value of clearing vegetation from around his crops, using natural compost from the chicken and goathouses to improve the soil, and how to propagate clonal cuttings. His trees are producing lots of seedlings and suckers from the mother plants (left) and he has the materials for a shade house to propagate them, which he understands is the right way to generate strong plants to transfer to the field (and by selling rooted cuttings he can make an income in the period before his plants are mature enough to bear fruit), but he is currently lacking the money to pay for labour to help him clear some land ($80 Eastern Caribbean Dollars /day) or the propagation bags (~$0.40 ECD/bag). At the moment he has taken a regular job at the local medical centre helping to rebuild what he can to provide an income, meaning that time with his plants is restricted to weekends – remember that his house has no electricity and it is dark at 6pm over here so not much happens in the evenings. We will certainly build a propagation facility associated with the Department of Agriculture in the south of the island, but if it is at all possible I hope that we can support Coco, Rufus and Alan in the north, by providing the means to establish an equivalent facility here that will lead to more production of the raw material and ultimately increased production of fine chocolate from Dominica.
Day 1, 9th May 2018
First proper day on the island today, following a longer journey than planned from the UK to Dominica via Antigua. The locals refer to LIAT airlines as Leaves Island Any Time, which in our case turned out to be two and a half hours later than planned, on a plane with 20 seats fewer than scheduled. I don’t think UK airport health and safety would have approved, but hey, we landed in the right place and the right way up and the general consensus seems to be that in the Caribbean airline timetables are merely advisory.
I last visited Dominica seven years ago, when all was green and food was bountiful. The island is still utterly beautiful, about the same size as the Isle of Man, and home to a wonderful mix of cultures from around the world that co-exist in a kind of jambalaya of laid back friendliness. Hurricane Maria struck last September and was utterly devastating. My friends, whom my colleague Martin and I are staying with this week, were in the UK at the time but the local guy Julian who manages the place in their absence reported 165 mph winds for 14 hours. He has lived on this island for half a century and said he has never been so terrified. Fortunately this house escaped almost unscathed, having had some European building standards and materials imposed on it, but the majority of local housing was significantly damaged – either by the wind itself or the rain that followed it. The picture on the left below was taken in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane with the red arrow pointing to the house in question which used to be completely surrounded by trees and palms. Coconut trees with their growing points (that generate palm fronds and the coconut crop) destroyed, meaning they can never grow back (below right), whereas the native forest was stripped bare of its leaves and branches.
Eight months on the coconut palms are still grey sticks in the ground, but the forest is starting to re-green with many vines taking advantage of the sudden light penetrating the canopy and shattered trees starting to push out new leaves; compare left (Sept 2017) and right (May 2018) below.
Hurricane Maria wreaked extraordinary havoc on communities. The images below show the capital city Roseau, which is in the south west of the island the morning after the hurricane passed over, together with other sizeable towns, such as Marigot in the east.
Individual buildings took their toll, as the church below illustrates quite dramatically, but what I find most surprising in some ways are the buildings that escaped unscathed. Walking around the local town of Portsmouth today showed the degree to which repairs have been affected, or otherwise, largely due to the financial status of the property owner, or the potential of the property to return an income eventually.
People on the island are not wealthy, unless they are part of the small number of Europeans who have chosen to purchase property over here. In general the latter are welcomed, as they inject a valued investment into the local economy, but more casual tourism is now almost non-existent and many rental properties and restaurants are perceived as not worth the effort to repair when their potential for generating an income is now limited. Tarpaulins are still very much in evidence and it is difficult to see how many buildings are going to be made watertight and strong before the next hurricane season starts around July. Fortunately Maria was a ‘once in a hundred years’ event, although whether this frequency increases as the earth’s climate becomes more unsettled remains to be seen.
Local markets are recovering; but produce is more limited than it was on my previous trip in 2011, shown on the left. However, plants grow quickly in a tropical environment and crops such as green beans and tomatoes are already back in production, whereas the root crops such as yam, dasheen, ginger, onions and garlic all escaped unscathed (right). It’s the tree crops that have really suffered. Apart from the coconuts, limes (essential for making rum punch) are in very short supply and sold at huge prices, mangos are totally out of production, papaya can be found green, but hasn’t yet matured to ripeness and the same is true for banana and plantain.
The pictures below show a pair of views that were taken in March 2011 (left) and May 2018 (right) respectively, illustrating both the change in foliage cover and the extent to which it has already recovered in eight months compared to the scenes from the immediate aftermath of Maria.
Then of course there is cocoa, which is the reason we are here. Cocoa trees grow really well on this island, as they do around the Caribbean and in many other parts of the world, including Africa and SE Asia. Although one of the world’s most coveted crops, in places such as Dominica relatively little of its value remains on the island as pods are usually harvested and then sold to a trader, with processing into chocolate happening downstream in the value chain.
Prior to Hurricane Maria a project had been put in place as a collaboration between the Dominican Ministry of Agriculture and the Cocoa Research Centre in Trinidad to establish a propagation garden in order to increase the stocks and diversity of cocoa varieties grown in Dominica. The local import-export agency has also been working hard to develop a roadmap to increase the amount of processing possible on the island, and to get the quality of the crop produced recognised by the fine chocolate houses of the world. Our project is supported by The University of Reading to start the process of rebuilding that infrastructure for propagation, for developing a network of farmers and processors who want to produce a high quality crop, and for putting steps in place to make the industry resilient against biological and climate borne challenges that will inevitably come its way.