Grenada is known as the Spice Isle of the Caribbean and is famous for its heady blend of clove, cinnamon and nutmeg that wafts around the island pretty much year round – you think it’s a myth until you are actually there, and it wraps you up in a fuzzy blanket of aroma as soon as you step off the plane – or was that the bug spray they doused us in before we left the aircraft? Anyway, what is still relatively unknown to many is that Grenada is also in the world’s top 10 countries for producing Fine Flavour Cacao – quite a feat given how small it is – see map below! It is also home to a very interesting man with very exciting plans for his ancestral cocoa farm!
We arrive at Zabuco Estate, once a bustling farm boasting a fine array of produce aside from cocoa, including coffee, cashew nuts, nutmeg, sapodilla and soursop to name a few. It’s owned by someone who shares the passion of the Grenada Chocolate Festival, and is a pioneer in the Grenada chocolate industry – Aaron Sylvester of Tri Island chocolate – an inspiring man on a mission with a vision for the Grenadian economy, working on encouraging people to utilise the abundant produce of Grenada – in particular cocoa.
We started the day relatively early on Aaron’s farm; many of us had been to cacao farms before, but this was a first experience of a cacao farm in the making, and a once in a lifetime opportunity to get hands on in creating the very foundations of what is to be one of Grenada’s first permaculture farms. Aaron had inherited various plots of land across Grenada from his grandfather, father and uncle, but much of the land had been left to mother nature since 2004, after the devastating hurricane Ivan tore through the Caribbean, laying waste to Grenada and leaving 90% of homes destroyed in its wake.
Keen to share his vision with us we embark on a thoroughly engrossing day. Aaron’s passion for his work and cocoa is infectious and before we know it he’s got us all raking leaves for compost bins, digging swales, and pruning the old unruly cacao trees into submission to get the farm back on its feet, with the help of Public Health graduate and passionate permaculture promoter – Clifton Maxwell. Permaculture literally means ‘permanent culture’ and their dream is to turn the farm into a ‘closed loop system’; where everything needed to sustain the farms’ operations and produce cocoa and a biodiverse range of food for consumption will all to be met with resources readily available on site.
Two of those essential resources – drumroll please – are water and soil. Water is key to maintain crop production and quality, but with changing weather patterns resulting in harsher droughts and more devastating floods due to large-scale human interference with the land they are faced with a big challenge. Their solution – build a swale; a clever sort of trench dug along the contours of the land, designed to channel and slow down rainwater as it runs across the land, giving it a chance to be absorbed into the ground. Over time this raises the water table underneath the land so trees and other crops become more drought resistant. The wall or mound of the trench, known as the ‘berm’ is where big shrubs and small trees are planted – such as banana and moringa – as well as deep rooted grasses – all of which stop the soil washing away when it rains.
But where is soil and water without top quality compost for your crops? Now as any keen gardener knows, a surprising amount of work goes into the creation of a respectable compost heap, and this one was no exception. In fact, this was the most intricate, meticulously planned out composting process I think I’ve come across. The heap’s structure was constructed out of plywood crates steadied by split bamboo posts, and was divided into three sections for ‘flipping’ the compost over time – ensuring the bottom bits sat on the top for a while and the top bits had a good chance of decomposing on the bottom. The contents of the compost was equally as fascinating as the construction of the compost facility – who thought compost could be quite so exciting! You want 3 parts brown matter – think brown mulch, leaves etc all rich in carbon, 1 part green matter such as manure and seaweed for your nitrogen, stack in layers as you build, and then the interesting bit – a light sprinkle of crushed sea urchin, or ‘sea egg’ shells as they are called in the Caribbean. These urchin shells are added as they bring the ‘lime’ into the mix, and I don’t mean lime as in Tequila and lime, but lime as in limestone as they are high in calcium and the magic ingredients to a top quality compost.
Aaron and Clifton have great plans for compost in Grenada – their dream is for every farm on Grenada to have its own compost bin, with bigger community sized ones within every community, and their vision – to move Grenada to become a completely organic island. Why? Because organic composting helps increase soils’ ability to hold on to water; saves money, saves the reefs from being polluted with artificial fertiliser and grows healthier chocolate for people, so everybody wins.
After composting class was over we were greeted by one of Aaron’s neighbours – Mr Smith – who shows us the expert technique in pruning the trees, using a long robust bamboo shaft with machete (or ‘cutlass’ as it’s known in the Caribbean) attached to the end. This tool, when used properly, can nip off ripe cacao pods from the tree without causing damage to the younger pods and flower ‘cushions’ further down the trunk towards the base. A tool such as this is particularly useful on more unruly farms that have been left unattended for some time, often in these cases the trees have grown considerably and many of the ripe pods are not within arms reach, pair this with trees growing too close together, fighting for nutrients and blocking out each other’s light, and you have your work cut out. Luckily this extendable bamboo machete can also be used to prune the branches themselves, encouraging the tree to grow more bush like, as opposed to tree-like, so that harvesting can be easier and less damaging to the tree, essentially ensuring its productivity increases.
After we had composted, raked, dug and pruned to our hearts content, with tired limbs and massive grins on our faces, safe in the knowledge we had contributed – albeit in a small part – to the creation of what will one day become a shining light in Grenadian and indeed Caribbean cocoa production, it was time to pack up and head back to True Blue, with our pockets full of mace, nutmegs and cashews, and heads full of many happy memories.
Although the festival has only just begun, I have a feeling this will be one of the highlights!