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 and her colleague Dr Martin Chadwick have travelled from the UK to Dominica as part of a project supported by The University of Reading, where they both work, 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 Entry by Dr Martin Chadwick, University of Reading
Day 61, 8th July 2018
Satellite image of Hurricane Beryl
On Friday 6th of July, the second classified tropical storm of the year officially became the first hurricane of the season. Initial estimates suggested Hurricane Beryl was a relatively small storm, but that it was likely to reach the Leeward Islands by Sunday evening, and small hurricanes are especially hard to predict. When Hurricane Maria hit Dominica last September it was classed as a category 2 hurricane (windspeeds of 155-178 km/h and a storm surge of less than 2.4m) until after the nation’s communications were cut off, at which point it developed into the a category 5 hurricane (windspeeds over 250km/h and a storm surge of over 5.5m), so there was a collective suspicion of the categorisation. Every tracking model I have seen plots the path of the hurricane over Dominica, with some leeway possibly meaning it could hit Guadeloupe or Martinique, French territories either side of the island. Interestingly all the news sites I could find with information were discussing the potential impact on Puerto Rico, which was also badly hit by Maria, but which has undoubtedly recovered much more quickly than Dominica. I can only assume that Dominica, which seemed certain to be hit again does not have the political weight to reach the interests of the world media in the same way as the US territory of Puerto Rico.
The projected paths of Tropical Storm Beryl all pass directly over Dominica
Cue confusion and a whole range of responses from the Dominicans. Most well organised people here keep a ‘hurricane box’ with food and essential supplies, but there are still reports of queues in the supermarkets taking well over an hour as people stock up in case of another major disaster. A friend here queued for over two hours to refuel, before the petrol station ran dry and she was turned away. However when I reached the Roseau, the capital on Saturday afternoon, I found it relatively quiet, with the shops quieter than usual, fully stocked and with no sense of panic in the locals, backed up by their purchasing choices of beers, crisps and ice cream. Not items I would consider essential, especially as anticipated power outages will stop fridges and freezers working. In contrast our fridge, which I am currently sharing with a troupe of IsraAid employees is packed with water, as is the freezer in to hope of keeping it cool should the power be cut off. We have a seemingly endless supply of dry goods, rice, pasta, tinned meat and vegetables to last us through the storm and its aftermath.
By Sunday morning the hurricane has been downclassified to a tropical storm offering wind speeds of less than 119kph, but still heading directly for Dominica, and where many of the houses are still covered by tarpaulins. We are advised there will be a 24h curfew from 4pm so following local advice I pack my essential belongings to keep with me, and cover my bed and other belongings under a spare US Aid branded tarpaulin to keep the rain out. Each NGO uses only branded tarpaulins in what is reminiscent of a charity turf war. Such is the community spirit here that various friends, both ex-pats and locals have asked me whether I have somewhere safe to stay, and offer their own houses should I need it. Luckily for me the IsraAid folks have a shelter and offer for me to join them. I take them up on this offer accompanied by two pickup trucks full of supplies; water, petrol, chainsaws, a generator, more tarpaulins, mosquito nets and whatever else we could need for the next 24 hours.
Hurricane preparations, water is essential, we had around 300 litres plus several bins full with rain water, and a tarpaulined bed to protect from the rainwater which would blow through the shutters.
We arrive at the shelter around 1pm to beat the curfew rush. Sundays are always quiet here, but today there are virtually no other cars on the road. The shelter turns out to be the house of another IsraAid employee, and probably no more secure than my own home. We unload the two pickup trucks and start long wait. Water has already been cut off, internet is still running, but slowly so it is hard to get up to date information. We anticipate that the storm should start to pick up around 8pm, so we have 7 hours to wait. The calm before the storm springs to mind. There is not so much as a breeze.
The view from our ‘shelter’ out over the atypical grey skies and Caribbean sea, and an as yet unrepaired roof. One of many.
By 6pm we are informed that the storm warning has been cancelled, but a curfew appears to still be in place. Sources on the East of the island report torrential rain, without information it is hard to make a decision as the whether to wait here or head home to sleep in our own beds. There is still no sign of a storm at all here in the West.
By 8pm there are thunder storms over the Caribbean and our best guess is that the storm has now passed by Guadeloupe. Storm maps are not loading due to the slow internet (but it is enough at least to stream Leonard Cohen, Fleetwood Mac, and a 60’s hits megamix to some portable speakers). The neighbours helpfully suggest not to drive back ‘because it is dark’ and a friend of mine tells me to stay alert even if the storm has passed. We stay put, and making the most of the cool calm night I sleep on the balcony.
By morning the curfew is still apparently in place, despite an uneventful night. There are still flood warnings in place and alerts for those on the rough Atlantic side, but from where we can see the Caribbean side is still as a mirror. In spite of the anti-climax it is easy to see how much this situation affects people, the tension was palpable at times, and there is clearly a psychological effect on the islanders even though the storm did not materialise. This can only be even greater for those who still do not have roofs, or who lost loved ones in Maria. With a particularly active hurricane season expected, there may be more of these events to come, and I fear Dominica is still unprepared.
The progression of the storm until 5pm, at which point we could get no more information.
Diary Entry by Dr Martin Chadwick, University of Reading
Day 58, 5th July 2018
‘Visit a neighbour’ says the daily advice column in my farmer’s almanac, and I did.
The 'Farmers Almanac' is a guide used extensively here; It details the concept of biodynamic farming, or farming according to the phases of the moon, as well as by other astrological phenomena. Biodynamic farming appears to have been developed by a Farmer MacDonald in the US in 1897, and has been adopted by many of the growers in Dominica, typically but by no means exclusively within the Rastafarian communities. The basic principles are that you should divide work according to the phases of the moon, planting and harvesting while the moon is waxing, and coppicing and weeding while the moon is waning. Different crops have specific differences to note, and the prevailing star sign is also said to influence best practice. For example Venus is a water sign and brings good fishing according to biodynamic farming.
While the concept seems strange to us (and has certainly not been adopted by any of the industrial scale growers here) there seems to be some credibility in some of its concepts. Locals insist that seedlings plated at the wrong time will be eaten by worms slugs or caterpillars, while bamboo cut for timber at the wrong time is said to rot within a month. The practice also ensures that all the important jobs are done within each month, are there may be some truth in the activity of pests in line with the prevalence of moonlight.
So in line with my astrological advice, I visited my neighbour Colin. Colin lives on an estate south of La Plaine, 11km away if I could reach it in a straight line, on the east side of the island. Given the terrain and the road condition this is roughly an hour and a half drive to reach him. Colin is my neighbour in more ways than one, being an English ex-pat from just outside Reading. I am here to venture into the jungle to the nearby Williams estate, which after a report in 1999 was said to have some of the most interesting cocoa varieties in the island. Sadly the owner abandoned the plot shortly before Hurricane Maria, and died shortly afterwards, and so the plot has now been reclaimed by the jungle. Along with two locals Hendricks and McKeith who know the route, Colin and I set off set off into the jungle with our cutlasses.
What remains of the path to Williams estate, completely overgrown after months of disuse.
The path, which McKeith used to use daily, was built around 100 years ago, by men with pickaxes carving steps into the cliff, and is now entirely buried under the vegetation. It takes the four of us about half an hour to pass around 200 metres, and this would be impossible without the guidance of McKeith, who is at the front, pointing out to us where the cliff edge is under the vegetation, as well as highlighting the plants with spines or those with irritating sap. The other hazard which I have been repeatedly warned of are the red ants, which fall from trees as you disturb them. The red ants prove almost unavoidable, and I have a very itchy neck before we even reach the lost Williams estate.
The view into Williams estate, once a pristine cocoa plantation with trees around 100 years old.
Once at the estate we carve a path through what I am told was once a clear, well organised plantation. Most of the trees, having been pushed over in the storm, and now overgrown with vines and other vegetation are not bearing fruit, but we find a few trees which we can discern as being different from each other by the memory of our local guides, and by the colour and size of the leaves. I took a few samples from these trees to test for their genetic quality when I return to the UK, and we head back out via the river to wash off the ants.
The team after returning from our trip into the jungle. Left to right; McKeith, Martin, Hendricks, and Colin.
After cooling off and rehydrating, Colin, Sarah and I discuss the project and how they can help. They are offering help to a local school, delivering books, stationary and basic supplies, and will soon be building them a polytunnel, where the children can learn to grow their own fruit and vegetables. This is something the island needs, as there is a real lack of younger farm workers here, as with in Europe. We discuss the optimum fermentation of beans, and how we can improve the quality of production on the island, particularly for the very small scale growers who cannot produce enough beans by themselves to properly ferment a batch. Colin and Sarah are also growing more cocoa, vanilla, and sugar cane themselves, on top of keeping bees, and have already shared some of their own chocolate with me in exchange for my expert tasting opinion.
Cocoa beans after drying and fermentation. Left: Possibly under-fermented and not fully dry | Right: Fermented and dried well, and with a less bitter flavour in chocolate form.
Diary Entry by Dr Martin Chadwick, University of Reading
Day 44, 21st June 2018
Back up in the North of the island, I return to the propagation facility which we first visited together with Carol Wagstaff and Andrew Daymond from The University of Reading. Some of you will remember the facility from one of Carol’s earlier posts, which is in need of some repairs, and which might be a priority for our cocoa project. Production of new plants is picking up since we last saw the facility, but the repairs are still needed, especially as we are now in hurricane season, and a further storm could multiply the work needed.
The propagation facility in Portsmouth, starting to look a little more green, but there is a long way to go before it is fully operational.
This is a story across the island. Priorities are hard to work out when you need farmland for income, but also need a roof. Builders are in very high demand, and so labourers can command a higher price repairing buildings than they can clearing land. For many, the land is a lower priority, especially with regards to replacing a crop which will take several years to yield fruit. Unfortunately for me this means that many of the cocoa plots are completely inaccessible, covered in tangled vines, riddled with razor grass, (which lives up to it’s name), hidden spines on adventitious papaya plants, fallen trees, and other hazards. It is easy to see how clearing the land in a country where weeds grow back in weeks can be a lower priority task. We can see cocoa trees around the island being stifled and starved of light by the vines.
It’s hard enough to see the cocoa trees in this tangle of vines, much less find a specific tree, which may have been lost in the storm, identified by a small plastic tag, which also may have been lost in the storm.
By contrast a trip to Gingerette estate, owned and run by the Shillingford family is a much more organised affair. With over 200 acres of land they have had to prioritise some plots over others, but are fighting their way now to some of the further reaches of the land. This hasn’t been helped by the fact that their land straddles two sides of a valley, and the bridge connecting both sides was badly damaged by the storm. Consequently, a trip from their house on the North side to the Southermost plots is now a 22km journey though poor condition mountain roads, rather than 500 metres over the bridge, unless the river is low enough to drive through. Ryan and Merlin showed me around some of their plots to a very varied selection of trees, apparently brought over from Trinidad in the 1930’s. Ryan, who was born in New York and educated in Florida has come back to stay on Dominica and is doing a great job clearing land and updating some of the local farming practices. There are plans here to look seriously at developing export links for the cocoa, producing chocolate with an emphasis on flavour, and add tours of the estate, to educate about cocoa production, local herbal medicines, and to show off the valley, and the colonial era ruins also on the estate.
Clockwise from top right; Martin with Ryan on part of the Shillingford’s estate, one of the cleared cocoa plots, one of few that is well pruned and planted with regular spacings, Ryan’s nursery with some cocoa seedlings, and a pre-Maria view of part of the Layou Valley.
Finally, a return to Coco, one of the first stars of this blog, is one of the growers we are working with more closely. Coco has cleared space for a shade house and has the materials to build it on the way. This will hopefully allow him to produce grafted plants for the community, aside from the ministry of agricultures own plans, helping to introduce some resilliance to the industry, while getting plants out to some of the smaller growers while the bulk propagation is underway. It is also a supplementary income for Coco himself while his own cocoa trees are maturing. Not wanting to waste any time he is already planting out seedlings in the evenings after he finishes his day job, and also treated me to a performance of his band at the weekend, some genuinely good reggae by the Heartstrings!
Cocoa showing off his cocoa seedlings, currently kept shaded under straw by the side of a house, and showing off some Caribbean culture playing bass in a local reggae band.
Diary Entry by Dr Martin Chadwick, University of Reading
Day 41, 18th June 2018
It has been a busy time here in Dominica exploring the island. By now I have been to every region and met a number of interesting people, and seen many farms, in various conditions. Everyone has been extremely helpful in completing my lengthy questionnaires, and growers I could not visit on the first trip around are getting in touch on their own initiative, eager to support the project and to reap the benefits.
One thing that is striking about the island is the different environments you can find in such a small area. We visited Cuthbert, a former employee of the ministry of agriculture, who’s large, and very mixed farm sits on top of a mountain. It was understandably very hard hit by Hurricane Maria, but due to the presence of wind breaks survived better than might be expected. It is one of the few places on the island where coconuts can be said to be abundant, and as ever Cuthbert was keen to let me try his. To our surprise we found two of the trees we were looking for here, still with their tags from the previous study. This means that the trees can be identified, and added to the local living genebank if it has traits of interest (after we clear the land on which the genebank is placed).
It’s not all hard work! Left: Enjoying a young ‘jelly’ coconut from Cuthbert’s farm up in the mountains. Right: The view down to the bay, from up on one of the higher cocoa plots on the island.
By contrast, just a 20 minute drive back down to the coast we came to meet Lister on Batali Estate. This is the only place I have seen with ripe mangos, and huge numbers of them. Lister, one of the few female land owners goes so far as to give me a bag to help carry my share back to the car, but not before a long tour of the plot, with a large number of different varieties. We struggled to find the marked trees here, in part because what used to be a road is now a river, which throws Franklyn’s bearings off, and he is the only person here who was present when the trees were marked. Lister is incredibly energetic and despite spending some of her time in England, has an infectious love for Dominican life, clear as she wades through the undergrowth with arms full of ripe mangoes.
En route to another estate in the West, my eye is caught by the other area of my research - lettuce. I have noticed that here, most people plant their salad vegetables on raised platforms, generally ramshackle constructions, and this is no different, balanced on old oil drums and a broken refrigerator. The reason for this I am told, is the ever present threat of slugs and caterpillars, which are many times larger here than in the UK, and the weeds, which due to the heat, rain, and fertile volcanic soil, grown at unprecedented speeds, swamping the small crops before they can be harvested. Lettuce tends to like deep soil, but here, this set up seems to work well.
Lettuce production here is typically raised from the ground by any means possible, to protect from slugs and weeds.
Diary Entry by Dr Martin Chadwick, University of Reading
Day 34, 11th June 2018
It has been a busy few days of getting out to meet the growers around the island. Everyone is different, but so far, everyone has been extremely friendly and happy to talk. There is a picture emerging about the desires of the farmers, and it seems they are a pragmatic bunch in terms of their needs, and invariably very proud of their farms. Everyone I speak to has the best, highest yielding, tastiest, oldest, cocoa trees on the island, and I have been offered all sorts of other crops which the growers want me to try. Most have been farming all their life, and I believe I am yet to meet a single cocoa grower under 50 during these visits, though many want their children to take over their farms.
Valentine, a Rastafarian still farming in his 70’s offers rosemary and patchouli, a local herb to make tea. Rosemary enjoys the reliable high temperatures of the Caribbean and produces more volatile flavour compounds when exposed to intense sunlight, the aromas we detect are produced as a kind of natural plant sunscreen, and this is one of the best I have ever smelt. One grower offers jackfruit juice, his favourite, but he laments that the people in the markets do not know it and will not buy it. While asking questions of Amos, his wife brought over some yellow watermelon. It is sweeter than the usual red one if not as tasty. Amos looks back at the storm from a fortunate standpoint; his house was mostly unscathed, but he recalls being unable to open the door to reclaim his hammer and make repairs, the wind was too strong. I have been also asking many of the growers about soursop, something of a personal mission as this fruit (also known as guanabana) which grows all around the Caribbean is my absolute favourite, however few of the trees survived and none are bearing fruit at the moment.
Valentine had one of the most beautiful views over the bay, and gave me some rosemary and patchouli to flavour bush tea.
Even this past week, there has been a noticeable improvement in the availability of fruits. I am yet to see a single lime, despite having stayed a week on a plantation formerly owned by Rose’s limes, but other citrus is back on the menu. I have had my first passionfruit, and the bananas are starting to ripen well. It seems strange to think that such a verdant island is so short of native fruit, and the prices are affected accordingly. A small watermelon costs about three times as much as a bottle of rum, even though the local rum distillery was destroyed in the storm, and the curcurbits (melons, pumpkins, cucumber) are thriving in the spaces opened up by fallen trees.
The bays here are affected by a plague of orange seaweed, Sargasso. It is a general nuisance throughout the islands which I am told that gets worse every year. The blooms deplete the oxygen in the water, as well as choking the beaches making it difficult to send boats out, and for turtles to come in to lay eggs, aside from hampering beach tourism. The smell of rotting Sargasso is also deeply unpleasant, and I am told that some of the beachside hotels have had to close their doors due to it. Ever opportunistic, some of the locals want to harvest it for fertiliser. Some are saying they do so successfully, others claiming it is high in arsenic or that the seaweed acidifies the soil. Others still say it is fine so long as the sea salt is washed off. There is definitely potential if these problems can be resolved; there is certainly no shortage of the orange-red weed.
A ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ is taking over the Caribbean. Jean Rhys, author of the acclaimed book Wide Sargasso Sea was born in Dominica.
The weekend offers different opportunities. A trip down to the peninsula of Scott’s Head at the Southernmost point of the island gives great views back into the island. A snorkel and mask reveals under the water with an array of tropical fish, but not as many as in other locations around the island, as the shallow coral reef has been destroyed entirely. Some corals survived the hurricane in the deeper water. Of the fish, there are too many to count, but one of the easiest fish to photograph are the lionfish, beautiful orange and white striped fish with large gossamer fins. Sadly they are invasive in the Caribbean, with no natural predators, venomous spines, and a voracious appetite. Most divers in the area take a speargun specifically for controlling their numbers, and they are sold at some of the restaurants, as while they are difficult to prepare, they are delicious.
Clockwise from top left: The view toward Soufriere from Scott’s Head, A carpet of destroyed coral, An invasive but tasty lionfish, and yellow tube sponge, which stifles new coral growth.
Diary Entry by Dr Martin Chadwick, University of Reading
Day 29, 6th June 2018
Some progress over the last week. I have been out on visits to farms across the island (primarily in the South and East). It has been a real experience and a chance to meet some real Dominicans and hear their stories, as well as to see the range of production systems present on the island. I must apologise if this post is a little gloomy in places, things are still recovering in many ways.
My primary purpose has been to collect leaf samples for genetic analysis. Before the Hurricane, the Cocoa Research Centre, based in Trinidad conducted a survey to see what genetic resources are available on the island, and what interesting quality traits they convey. Unfortunately, the best laid schemes go oft askew, and while the trees were genotyped as planned, the hurricane removed most of the trees and nearly all the labels before they could have GPS coordinates taken. As a result I am tasked with locating the remaining trees so that we can decide which are most suitable to produce new plants from.
My first visit was to Mr Ralph Fadelle one of the most advanced growers on the island. His primary business has been in poultry, owning 3 chicken houses and over 1000 hens. This has been reduced to only 14 hens which now live underneath the cocoa drying racks, which are currently unused. An interesting and practical man, Ralph tells me that is main problem post hurricane is that his children are not here to help clear his land, as they have all taken higher paid jobs in the USA. He worries that none of them will return to Dominica to take over the farm after he passes away, given how he deftly negotiates the undergrowth with a machete in hand, I am confident this will be some way off.
Retractable drying shelves to protect from the rain and midday sun, under which the remaining 14 chickens now reside.
Ralph Fadelle (left) and Martin (right) in front of what remains of the cocoa drying and fermenting facilities.
Another encounter with local man Marlon, tells another tale of the hurricane. While sheltering in their house, Marlon, his wife and 5 year old child made the decision to run for a friend’s house, through the eye of the storm, as their own house began to give way. Marlon, an athletic man, realising that his daughter did not have the strength to make the final run to the friend’s doorway picked her up, and threw her around 3 metres through the air before running to safety. All three, but not their house survived the encounter. It is in these encounters that I see the real impact of the hurricane is not on the fallen trees, leafless forests, or even the tarpaulined roofs, but often the psychological effects of dealing with a category five storm.
Samuel Joseph, one of the more spirited characters I met is one of the more unusual cases, rather than inheriting his land through family, or growing into a farming community, he studied engineering in Sacramento, California, and took a PhD in Trinidad before returning to Dominica to start his farm. He has, let’s say, ‘strong opinions’ on the government approach to the aftermath of Maria, as well as the general development of infrastructure on the island. In many ways I can see his point, Samuel, now in his 80’s has more energy than a great number of the islanders, and the practical knowledge to back it up. The island pace can be frustrating for such a man. He leads us directly to the two trees which we came to find, both of which had lost their tags, but Samuel knows every corner of his land, and is quick to uproot some of the few weeds with the reverse side of his machete while I slowly get a GPS location of the target trees.
Samuel Joseph points out the cocoa trees on one of his plots of land.
We visited a number of growers who were happy to help us finding the trees, not always successfully. Part of the experience has been a formal questionnaire of the growers, but some of the more interesting points have come though being able to simply have a chat with the farmers. Needless to say, life on an active volcanic island in a hurricane region is not without its challenges, but it also has its rewards.
One of the rewarding views on the island. A banana plantation with Morne Fous in the background.
Diary Entry by Dr Martin Chadwick, University of Reading
Day 27, 4th June 2018
Today saw a meeting with the Ricky Brumant, the Director of Agriculture in Dominica. Ricky is charismatic, forward thinking, and engaged with the needs of the growers. Ricky studied for his masters degree in 2001 at The University of Reading’s very own agriculture department) and himself plans to grow a small acreage of cocoa. We were able to have a lengthy discussion about the progression of the project and the potential to build stronger ties between Dominica and Reading. It seems that in the past there has been a formal arrangement with, amongst other activities, a program to send promising students to Reading to study at a higher level, and Mr Brumant seemed keen to rekindle this collaboration, potentially stating with our cocoa project.
There is real interest in not only what we are aiming to achieve over the next few months, but also in developing that further for the growers on the island, Mr Brumant spoke of the bigger picture, understanding the importance of a resilliant economy through training programs with Reading and elsewhere to ensure that growing and processing skills are present on the island. There was talk of setting up a centre of excellence in the longer term, where growers across the island can come to learn skills starting with planting seedlings and grafting techniques right up to production of high quality chocolate, cocoa tea, and cosmetics. This may be some way off but I could tell that the director honestly has the belief and the drive to make this happen.
Left to Right, Franklyn Joseph, Martin, and Ricky Brumant
Stepping outside into the botanical gardens, the road normally busy road throught the botanical gardens is currently closed for repairs, an irritation for the locals who use it as a shortcut to bypass the busy streets of Roseau, but now a much more pleasant place to stroll. Consequently I arrived on foot by a different route to usual, and saw an impressive sight I had so far managed to miss. David the Goliath reads a sign next to a Baobob tree in the collection which fell during the 150mph winds of Hurricane David. The tree, an impressive 5.8m circumference fell onto an empty school bus during the storm and both have been unmoved since. The tree survived and new shoots have since grown to main stems of 6.4m and 3.1m circumference respectively. It is sometimes hard to imagine the power of these storms, but this is a dramatic illustration, and hurricane season in the Caribbean is just beginning again.
School bus crushed by a Baobab tree during Hurricane David, 1979.
Diary Entry by Dr Martin Chadwick, University of Reading
Day 13, 21st May 2018
Today I took the trek down to Bois Colette, an 18th century estate currently growing cocoa, and running tours for the cruise ships. I was warned of the road quality on the way to the site, and this was not an overstatement. The road surface was variably rubble, broken and uneven concrete, or absent entirely. The road wound tightly up on the side of a hill, with a cliff on one side, and nothing at all on the other. Bois Colette is run as a tourist site, displaying classic methods for the production of cocoa on a small scale, with hand ground nibs, and Victorian era bean roasters, as well as producing chocolate for sale on a more modern, but still small scale system.
The estate is probably the oldest surviving on the island, constructed from stone, which marks it out against the primarily wooden buildings of the 19th century, and survived this latest hurricane without further damage. I was shown the old mill, which the owners have plans to restore if there is sufficient interest from the Dominican government in terms of funding, but at present there are other priorities.
(Clockwise from Left) The remains of the mill at Bois Colette | Fermenting box, with holes for the fluid to drain through, is a traditional low tech way to ferment the beans | Hand powered grinder for cocoa nibs, and behind, a roasting oven.
Jonathan, an American ex-pat and entrepreneur took me on a tour of the 10 acre estate to show me some older trees established in decades gone by as well as recent acquisitions from the local government’s propagation programs. Here in Dominica a major challenge is the natural vegetation, especially vines, which quickly take over cultivated land, and which cost Bois Colette 90% of their seedlings which were bought from the ministry three years ago.
They are very interested in the work we are doing here and back home at The University of Reading, especially with regards to flavour science, asking a series of questions about which varieties are available, how we can scientifically define a fine flavour, and how they can spot the varieties with Criollo heritage. Criollo is one of the main types of cocoa plant, have origins in the Caribbean and Central America and the beans are especially noted for their flavour. Jonathan is especially worried about the impact of diseases such as frosty pod, which if introduced and allowed to spread across the island, would devastate the industry. There is already a precedent for this, Jamaica was affected by frosty pod two years ago. There is therefore a careful balance to be struck between maintaining the existing fine flavoured production on the island, and establishing plants which could resist these diseases.
The orchards, while overgrown and in need of some heavy pruning contain a wide range of varieties which could be of interest in maintaining the high quality of cocoa on the island.
Diary Entry by Dr Martin Chadwick, University of Reading
Day 12, 20th May 2018
On Saturday 19th of May, Prof. Wagstaff flew back to the UK leaving me behind, on this tropical island. Naturally I found a group of likeminded people and went to explore a little.
The cottages where I am staying are currently inhabited by Dora and Quentin, a couple of travellers who stayed behind after hurricane Maria, and a number of aid workers, primarily for IsraAid, helping to coordinate some of the repair efforts who were more than willing to show me the sights for the weekend. There of course still huge amounts of work to be done, another aid worker we met suggested that by the time of the 2018 hurricane season, there will still be several thousand houses without permanent roofs, primarily belonging to the poorer islanders.
We ventured up to Middleham Falls, a 45 minute walk through a track in the forest. A little off the track we managed to spot an endemic lobelia, which my more botanically experienced guides tell me they expected to find only on Guadeloupe, as well as a surprising sign of the hurricane damage, in the form of a fir tree with most of its branches stripped, the only survivors downwind of the trunk.
(Left) Hurricane damaged tree by the entrance to Middleham Falls. (Right) Lobelia endemic to Dominica and Guadaloupe
Further on we discovered a severe landslide, with trees blocking the path, and the entire walkway swept away. This apparently happened 2 weeks ago, but there is simply not the available machinery or man power to clear this route, despite it being one of the main tourist attractions on the island. Having slowly negotiated the mud slide we later paused at a shelter (in this part of the island it seems to rain every hour of the day) where we met with two local men, Adi and Pharell, thrashing through the undergrowth on one of the other nearby routes. They had been clearing a part of the national Waitukubuli trail, and estimated that in the previous four hours they barely got further than we could see through the forest due to the condition of the path. Armed with machetes and a genuine love for the national outdoors, they were clearing the way for the chainsaw crew to come along later to tackle the larger trees. No heavier machinery can make it this far into the forest. As testament to how well connected the islanders are, the clearance team immediately recognised Frida the dog from where we are staying. It seems everyone on this island knows everyone else, even the pets, and Adi and Pharell stopped for a chat. We went on to the main falls, and enjoyed another side of Dominica.
(Clockwise from Left) The view of the main falls at Middleham, Fallen trees blocking the path to Middleham falls, The landslide en-route to Middleham falls.
Diary Entry 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.
Diary Entry by Professor Carol Wagstaff, AFTP Director
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.
Diary by Professor Carol Wagstaff, AFTP Director
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.
Diary Entry by Professor Carol Wagstaff, AFTP Director
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….
Diary Entry by Professor Carol Wagstaff, AFTP Director
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.
Diary Entry by Professor Carol Wagstaff, AFTP Director
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.
Diary Entry by Professor Carol Wagstaff, AFTP Director
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.