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.
In May 2018, AFTP Director, Professor Carol Wagstaff and her colleague Dr Martin Chadwick travelled from the UK to Dominica as part of a project supported by The University of Reading to start the process of rebuilding the cocoa industry 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.
Professor Carol Wagstaff, Dr Martin Chadwick and Fiona Lee from the University of Reading and AFTP have now returned to Dominica for a short eight day trip to assess how the project is progressing, and in conjunction with the Commonwealth of Dominica Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries will run a number of fields schools across the island with local farmers, providing educational materials and training on Cocoa Orchard management.
Diary Entry and Photos by Fiona Lee
Saturday 24th November 2018
The date of the field schools taking place during this trip had to be planned very carefully as the majority of growers on the island follow guidance provided in the old Farmers Almanac’s which is dictated by the phases of the moon.
During our week in Dominica the moon was in its “Waxing Gibbous” phase. Waxing means that it is getting bigger, gibbous refers to the shape, which is less than the full circle of a full moon but larger than the semicircle shape of the moon. With some exceptions, the Waxing Gibbous Moon rises after mid-day and is usually visible in the evening setting after midnight. During this period, the lit up portion of the moon increases from 50.1% to 99.9%, which according to the Almanac this is the optimum time for sowing, planting, pruning or grafting to encourage growth.
This was all new to me, having not heard of this age old formula of farming before, so I decided to delve into it a bit deeper learning that it’s believed the soil has more moisture and therefore more nutrients pulled up through it during a new and full moon. A quote I found from Ute York’s Living by the Moon: A Practical Guide for Choosing the Right Time, explains the theory.
“The old-time gardeners say, with the waxing of the moon, the earth exhales, when the sap in the plants rise the force first goes into the growth above ground. Thus, you should do all activities with plants that bear fruit above ground during a waxing moon. With the waning of the moon, the earth inhales. Then, the sap primarily goes down toward the roots. Thus, the waning moon is a good time for pruning, multiplying, fertilizing, watering, harvesting, and controlling parasites and weeds.”
It seems a logical enough theory to me, considering how the gravitational pull of the moon affects water on the planet, so I may just try it out myself with some of the veggies I grow at home through the summer!
The final field school of this trip took place in nearby Picard, on the farm belonging to the aptly named ‘Coco’, who Carol and Martin had met a number of times on previous visits to the Island. Coco’s farm was just a short ten minute drive away rather than a trek across island which afforded us the luxury of a bit more time in the morning so I took the opportunity to visit a local open market with Peter, one half of our fabulous hosts for the duration of our stay. We arrived just before 7:00AM to a real hustle and bustle of shoppers buying locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and fish, herbs and spices and homemade produce, accompanied by a preacher providing morning sermon via a very loud PA system to his captive audience right in the centre of the market. We purchased up some eggs, a bag of oranges for fresh juice and some bread and cinnamon buns from the Bread Man before making our way back to the house whilst providing a taxi service on the way. It’s common practice on the island for drivers to pick up and drop off hitch hiking passengers along their route of travel. Peter drives a truck and is known locally to be willing to ‘give lifts’, as was the case on this journey when he stopped to allow someone to jump in the back of the truck as we headed back up one of the narrow, steep tracks back to the Balvine estate, saving the thankful passenger a hot trek up the hill.
After a delicious breakfast we gathered our equipment and brochures and set off for Coco’s farm, a long, sloped strip of land which runs parallel to the Picard River. As is the norm here, Coco grows various crops on his land including, banana, papaya, peppers, dasheen, cocoa and a number of herbs including parsley, chives and sorrel, he was busy attending to some these crops as we arrived with an ultra-sharp cutlass, which I kept well out of the way of!
We had a smaller group of just ten present for the last field school including Ryan who was born and educated in the USA, but has moved to Dominica to take more responsibility in running his grandparents 300 acre Gingerette estate. The estate boasts around 4000 cocoa trees with 300 new trees planted this year to help repair some of the damage caused by Maria. He’s doing a great job clearing land and updating some of the local farming practices and also intends to look seriously at developing export links for the cocoa, producing chocolate with an emphasis on flavour. In addition he plans to run tours of the estate educating about cocoa production, local herbal medicines, and to show off the valley, and the colonial era ruins also on the estate. With the island marketing itself towards eco-tourism his ideas will fit perfectly within the sector and it was great to hear of such fresh ideas that will help get the island back on its feet again without spoiling the heritage and beauty of it.
Back to the field school, and as before we began with taking a number of soil samples from across the farm. Coco keeps goats and has started to collect the manure to produce fertiliser, so a sample was taken from the ground near to where the fertilizer is stored, another from an area downhill and close to the river, and a third from an area near the top of the slope. The samples were mixed and left to settle whilst we moved onto looking at orchard and disease management and pruning choosing a large overgrown cocoa tree which created lots of debate about the level of pruning undertaken and the benefits of it.
It’s recommended that to avoid sending a tree into shock, it is pruned back no more than a third of its overall size at a time, and is allowed to recover before pruning back further, on larger trees such as the one we were working on, a third of the tree looks a lot! After listening and learning from the previous two field schools I was almost as well versed as my expert colleagues now on how and open canopy leads to more airflow and less disease in trees. How removing lower branches which may touch the ground also reduces the risk of disease, the importance of cleaning tools between use on trees to avoid cross contamination, and how keeping trees smaller and at a height that is easy to harvest will grow roots that are stronger and more resilient to storms.
It all made perfect sense to me, being privy to the previous questions and answers on the subject, but did provoke some interesting discussion from one of the local growers who has seen and used different pruning and harvesting methods previously. Questions answered and methods explained the pruning continued with Carol and Martins guidance, and in my opinion it was no exaggeration to say it looked as though the tree had taken a huge breath of air once the pruning had been completed.
We returned to the soil samples which had been left to settle for a few hours and tested the soils Ph level and levels of Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium. The soil samples were taken from deliberate spots across the farm, from the area where the manure was being turned to fertiliser, at the top and higher elevated area of the farm, and from an area lower down the slope to determine if rainwater flowing downwards was having an impact on washing nutrients out of the soil. We saw the results we had anticipated from the samples with much lower levels of nutrients from the soil at the bottom of the slope, but a clear improvement of all nutrient levels and a Neutral Ph. level from the soil collected near the manure store. This simple test provided Coco with some basic information on how and where to fertilise his land to improve overall soil quality, and on placement of crops to maximize growth and harvest.
The discussion of soil quality led onto Cadmium, a heavy metal present particularly in volcanic areas around the world. The roots of cocoa trees in particular absorb the metal from the soil, which subsequently finds its way into trees’ leaves and beans and associated products. Although the absorption in the human body of Cadmium is relatively low (3 to 5%), the metal can stay in bodies for 10 – 30 years, and is thought to cause damage to kidneys, liver and lungs. This topic was of particular interest to Ryan, who as mentioned previously has plans to produce and export cocoa products from his family estate. He was unaware that if he wished to export products to the neighbouring islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, which are Overseas French Territories, he would need to comply with EU Law, and specifically the new regulations being implemented from January 209 which sees changes to the maximum levels of cadmium allowed in chocolate.
It’s unknown what the Cadmium levels are in the soil across Dominica, but because of the volcanic nature of the Island it’s believed likely to contain elevated levels of the heavy metal, this however has never been officially tested. Martin had hoped to bring some soil samples back to the University of Reading on his previous trip, but with export and import permits required from both Dominica and UK Customs Departments and many, many I’s to dot and T’s to cross to obtain them, the permits weren’t forthcoming before his return. Work is still ongoing to secure permits to allow soil samples out of Dominica and into the UK and once Cadmium levels are determined the University of Reading’s International Cocoa Quarantine Centre can assist with research and plant breeding to reduce the take up of Cadmium if required, so there are options for growers to comply with new regulation, it’s just a long process with the expected bureaucracy and red tape.
After three informative, interactive and thoroughly enjoyable field schools completed, we finished off by handing over the remaining soil test kits and pruning equipment to the North East Cocoa Growers Cooperative to be used by their members as and when required. And so it was mission completed.
I had heard about the impact of Hurricane Maria to the island from both Carol and Martin prior to my visit, and had seen their photos of the devastation caused to property and infrastructure across the island. Just a few months on from those initial photographs being captured, you could see that the island was trying to get back on its feet and a lot of remedial work had been completed to reinstate infrastructure to keep the island ticking over whilst larger construction projects are undertaken. There is still a long way to go through, with many homes still sporting a tarpaulin roof supplied by the aid agencies that had helped with the initial aftermath of Maria, and gaping holes elsewhere where other homes and buildings once stood. Hopefully one day I’ll be lucky enough to return to Dominica, see further progression in reinstating the island and its resources, and explore the natural beauty of it further.
Diary Entry and Photos by Fiona Lee
Friday 23rd November 2018
This morning saw the team heading over from our Picard base in the North West of the island, to Marigot in the North East to host the second of the field schools for the North East Cocoa Growers Cooperative. Dominica is not a large island, oblong shaped, 47Km (29 miles) long and 29Km (18 miles) wide, with a land mass of just 750 square Km (290 sq. mi) it is slightly smaller than New York City, yet crossing from one side of the island to the other can take hours!
Far from the stereotypical idea of a Caribbean island of white sand beaches and crystal waters, Dominica has nine active volcanos, mountainous rain forests and over three hundred rivers dominating its more rugged but still beautiful landscape which sees it tagged as ‘The Nature Isle’. There is a costal road running the circumference of the island, and a number of main arterial roads cutting through it, but driving anywhere on the island it is still evident that the flood damage caused to the road and bridge infrastructure by Storm Erica and later Hurricane Maria is still being repaired in many areas. This year’s hurricane season brought tropical ‘waves’ (a lower classification of storm) causing more damage to bridges and road surfaces as we found out first hand whilst trying to cut across the island to Marigot.
A long and bumpy drive saw us come across roads that no longer existed, failed bridges under reconstruction, ford river crossings which thankfully weren’t running too high or quickly when we drove through them, getting stuck behind numerous lorries on switch back roads, and having the car chased by a pack of dogs who definitely wanted us off their land. We eventually arrived outside the single track entrance to the Paris Family farm who are part of the North East Cocoa Producers Cooperative, and waited for all the participants to arrive so we could head up the track together in convoy.
With around twenty people from the cooperative present Stewart Paris welcomed the group to his farm and gave an overview of its history. I was interested to hear that the Paris family hold the prestigious acknowledgement of growing Dominica’s first international award winning cocoa beans by finishing in the top 18 of the 2017 International Cocoa Awards, Cocoa of Excellence (CoEx) Programme, a fact he and the North East Growers Cooperative are quite rightly proud of.
The field schools are all planned to run to the same format, however with a greater number of local growers attending this second event there was much more discussion based around the whole area of orchard management from the off. We started with soil testing, taking samples from three different areas around the farm, mixing them with water and allowing them to settle before carrying out the chemistry part later. This action sparked discussion immediately with various growers advising how they use fertiliser to try to put nutrients back into the soil. Methods varied around the group from using composted chicken manure, bagged fertiliser and letting fallen material rot around trees, it was clear that the growers were keen to tap into the knowledge and experience available to them in the form of Carol and Martin and the two way conversation with the group never ceased after this point.
Plant disease was discussed, a follow on to leaving material to rot around the base of a tree which can encourage pests and diseases onto low lying limbs. This was an area all the growers took seriously having seen the cocoa production of Jamaica wiped out for over a year after the highly infectious fungal disease ‘frosty pod’ spread across the island. The disease is notifiable, meaning it should be reported to the relevant agricultural authorities upon discovery, thankfully it isn’t present in Dominica but the growers were acutely aware of how much damage could be done from a contaminated branch, pod, or any other item which could hold its spores. Stewart Paris related how in the past couple of months he had visited Jamaica for an exhibition, knowing how infectious the spores of this disease could be he even ensured upon his return to Dominica that his laundry was all washed and sterilised before it got anywhere near his farm. The growers continued along the lines of disease prevention by discussing how they kept tools and equipment clean in between use on different trees, sharing some fantastic ideas with each other. You really got a sense from listening to these growers that they were a cooperative in more than just name, and were happy to discuss best practice with each other and share knowledge.
As before, the ultra-sharp new tools used for the demonstration in pruning fallen trees and opening up the canopy in upright trees proved popular, but we managed to avoid any overzealous pruning today. We had a working refreshment break to review the soil test results, which did show overall a trace to low level of potassium (as the growers had suspected). The growers were left with a pack of soil testing kits and instructions to allow them to sample test the soil on their own land and use the results to improve their own soil quality before we bid our farewells and headed south towards the Island’s capital Roseau and the government offices for a meeting with Felix Leslie, Head of Agricultural Extension Department.
Mr Leslie had arrange a gathering of University of Reading Alumni members and staff from Dominica’s State College to whom Carol provided an overview presentation on the latest updates from the Food & Nutritional Sciences and Agriculture, Policy & Development at the University of Reading and the AFTP. Hopefully this was a fruitful meeting for all involved and will see the traditional line of Dominican Food and Agriculture Postgraduates from UoR continue.
We left Roseau just as the sun was starting to go down and headed back to Picard via a pit stop for food in what was the islands version of rush hour. Although in true Caribbean style there’s no stress to this rush hour, you just need to ensure you plan to not get anywhere too quickly!
Diary Entry and Photos by Fiona Lee
Thursday 22nd November 2018
Colin and Sarah Grocock hosted the first field school on their three acre farm in La Plaine located on the South East side of the island where they farm cocoa, pineapple, plantain, banana, coffee and vanilla amongst other things. They have lived on Dominica for around two years, originally hailing from Newbury which is less than 30 miles from the University of Reading - It really is a small world!
The field school was attended by around 16 participants who included a number of local officials from the Government of the Commonwealth of Dominica, including Mr Ricky Brumant, Director of Agriculture and University of Reading Alumni, and a number of local cocoa growers.
The field school began with an overview of orchard layout, looking at managing orchards in sections and using crops such as peppers, dasheen, yam etc. to inter-crop with cocoa, providing both shade for the developing trees and an income in the short term whilst cocoa plants become established and begin to bear fruit, which typically takes around three years. On this farm plantain and banana were planted in abundance so were identified as being ideal to provide shade cover for seedlings. Spacing of plants and using an organised grid system which allows sufficient root space for trees, with roots generally taking three times the space of the crown of the tree, is important for cocoa where good root development will maximise nutrient uptake and, particularly pertinent in this area of the world, will also anchor the plant against storm damage.
We moved onto pruning cocoa trees which is where people really started to get involved. Following Hurricane Maria many cocoa trees, if not destroyed completely, had fallen and begun to grow again from branches at ground level. It’s great that the tree has survived, but not such good news for the fruit growing on limbs in close contact with the ground as they often end up diseased. Using some of the folding saws, pruners and extendable loppers we had brought over with us from the UK, the participants were invited to identify which of the new shoots should form the new upright trunk and which should be removed. Most enthusiastic to ‘get chopping’ was Simon, a local Cocoa grower from the Newfoundland area of the island who had graduated as a Soil Scientist from Virginia Tech University. He showed great passion for getting the island back on its feet and was also heavily involved in a turtle conservation project on the island, protecting the Leatherback, Hawksbill and Green turtles who visit the island to lay their eggs. With three species of turtle visiting the island the conservation team are kept busy all year round protecting the eggs and the magnificent creatures themselves from poachers. It was great to hear that there is such a pro-active conservation group on the island, and I for one was amazed to learn that the giant Leatherbacks migrate some 6000km back to the cold Atlantic waters off Iceland when they have finished egg-laying.
Back to the tree pruning…. It was discussed how fallen trees should be maintained if they are still producing fruit, but cut back once a new shoot has established. A new shoot should be selected as close to the roots of the tree as possible with all other shoots being removed to ensure all the nutrients are directed to the new shoot which in time will become the new stem of the tree. Finally the old trunk should be removed. We then moved on to pruning upright trees, looking at opening up the canopy to encourage air circulation inside the tree, removing suckers which take important nutrients away from established limbs, removing branches which may touch the ground and pick up diseases, and keeping the tree short so cocoa pods are always at a height that is easy to harvest. Smaller trees with strong roots are also more resistant to storms, which are prevalent in this area. As a rule of thumb it’s suggested that up to a third of the entire tree is only pruned back at one time, to prevent the tree going into shock, the enthusiasm may have overflowed with the pruning of the upright example we were working on in Colin and Sarah’s plantation, but I think we managed to wrestle the tools away before we went too far.
A delicious lunch of homemade cheese and mango chutney rolls, roasted plantain and sorrel juice was served over much more discussion before we had to bid our farewells and move down to the Islands capital Roseau for a meeting with the Governments Permanent Secretary for Agriculture, Dr. Reginald Thomas, to discuss a draft Memorandum of Understanding between the Commonwealth of Dominica’s Department of Agriculture and the University of Reading for mutually beneficial programmes, projects and activities of research in cocoa related areas of work within Dominica.
Diary Entry and Photos by Fiona Lee
Tuesday 20th November 2018
The team are staying on a small plantation in Balvine in the North West of the Island and spent a fairly relaxed day acclimatising and recovering from travelling. A productive morning saw around 35 plants from the first crop grown in propagation bags supplied by the project during the previous trip planted in various positions around the area with the help of Julian, the local farm manager.
Plants were placed in several areas to assess how well they will grow in different conditions. For example some were planted in between banana trees which will provide shade for the young cocoa plants as they develop. Julian was also keen to carry out soil testing on the farm as cocoa plants (as do all plants) require nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) to grow effectively, as well as other micronutrients such as iron and magnesium. At present very little is known about soil quality on the island, which is likely to be quite variable as this is a mountainous region with areas of volcanic activity. There isn’t a widespread culture of composting crop or household waste, with the result that nutrients are likely to be stripped from the land with each successive harvest, and part of the aim of the field schools is to create a more sustainable culture of practice amongst farmers.
The afternoon saw all three members of the UoR/AFTP team with heads down tapping away on their laptops working on various reports, funding applications and paper, which was only broken by a trek through a muddy wood to take a refreshing dip in a waterfall pool.
AgriFood Training Partnership
The University of Reading
PO Box 226, Whiteknights
Reading RG6 6AP