BUFF BAY, Portland — Her cocoa farm may be smaller than it once was, but 72-year-old Leith Forrester-James is still enthusiastic about the industry.
She has transitioned into value-added goods and was among a group of players who enthusiastically participated in a recent workshop to learn even more about how to optimise cocoa farming.
"It has allowed me to see some things that I am not doing that I need to implement in my business. I don't have a large cocoa farm like what I had inherited. I cut down a lot because of what was happening and I become a processer," she told the Jamaica Observer.
Still in the game despite the sector's challenges with black pod disease and low prices, Forrester-James proudly identifies herself as a member of the cocoa farmers' association's Hopewell group that covers Orange Bay and Portland. The workshop, she said, has been an eye-opener.
"I got a lot of ideas how to do the value-added as I am into seasoning and developing cocoa sticks for liqueur," she said.
She also spoke of the importance of sharing what was learned with other cocoa farmers.
"It is very crucial and important in the food security chain, you have to make sure you have a system. We have to show how we receive the product from the farm and RADA [Rural Agricultural Development Authority] plays a very important role in this," she explained.
"I'm going into a niche market and buyers ask, 'Can we visit your farm, are you GAP certified?' They want to know that whatever they are getting is secure and they are willing to come here to have an experience with us. I am developing a whole range of products and doing my own farming right here in Portland; not only cocoa but a wide range of spices," she said.
Forrester-James was speaking with the Observer after a workshop on post-harvesting management of wet cocoa beans. It was a joint collaboration by the College of Agriculture, Science and Education (CASE), cocoa farmers, RADA, the Jamaica Agricultural Commodities Regulatory Authority (JACRA) and the Ministry of Agriculture.
Leading the workshop was Sarah Bharath an expert trainer in post-harvest processing — fermenting, drying and storage — of cocoa beans. From Trinidad and Tobago, Bharath is also a private consultant trader of dried cocoa beans and has worked at the Cocoa Research Centre at The University of the West Indies, St Augustine campus for many years.
She spoke of the success she has had in Trinidad and the expectation that Jamaica's cocoa industry will also benefit from her expertise. She has learnt, she said, that it is best to work directly with the players on the ground to ensure that they implement and benefit from her wealth of knowledge.
"Trinidad had a problem with quality, so I understand what is going on in Jamaica as well," she said.
With her intervention, she said, the quality of the product improved and Trinidad's cocoa farmers were able to earn more. They were also paid in a timely manner, and this financial security gave them the breathing room to focus on their product.
"The timely payments is so critical for farmers and having the market access, they didn't have to worry about finding someone to purchase at the end of a processing cycle. They knew it was going to happen; so they relaxed to do what they do best," said Bharath.
Eager to replicate that success in Jamaica, she noted that it all starts with training.
"We want to train the trainers, extension officers and providers at RADA so that when they go out they are able to better guide the farmers. If we do not start [training] the people who are actually doing the work, [if we are] only sending in trainers who are not working with the day in, day out, there will still be a bit of a gap. I am glad for the farmers who are here as they have a vested interest as we have to train together. They are the ones who want to learn. We cannot only sell wet or dry beans; the farmers are asking what else is in this that can add value so that we get a much higher price for the product that is being created, so that the actual economic standing within the country is assisted. You can export your beans at a higher quality for a better price that can bring in the much-needed foreign exchange. But we shouldn't have the thinking that is only the export that is going to bring us the money. We have to look at diversification for the income in the industry for the country," she said.
Portland coffee farmer Marlon Laidley said the workshop has helped him with his management skills.
"We as farmers are realising that is not just going to the farm [to] go reap but we need to have the quality management to get the quality cocoa on the farm. When we reap, the vessel that we put the cocoa in has to be clean and all those things. I did some training in 2010 and this is like a refresher for me and some new things. Every farmer should get a little of this so that they can see clearly what it takes to produce at the highest quality and care for the products," he said.
Janet Carby, who has been a cocoa farmer for more than three decades, is concerned that it is not attracting younger players.
"I am concerned about the price as it has gone down. I still do it but I don't see any of my family taking it up because it is a lot of work and it take lots of time. I have been doing this over 30 years. If the price is good it will attract the younger farmers," she said.
"The workshop is enlightening and I have learnt some more things that I will apply. This is the best workshop out of all of them that I have attended on cocoa. The lady is an independent trader so she brings out the entire thing that others in the cocoa industry know that we don't know."
Participant Marcus Brown from SOS Seed of Life Chocolate which is produced in Portland was also among those with high praise for the workshop.
"We make artisan black chocolate as we grow our own chocolate trees. We also try to stimulate back a high quality cocoa production by purchasing cocoa beans from farmers in the community and neighbouring communities in Portland. We purchase beans all over Portland," he explained.
"This workshop is extremely important as it goes very deep into the science of cocoa production and cocoa processing. It cannot be enough as the industry is evolving more and digging deeper into the science behind, and especially the potential for, sustainable community development. It is very important as interest is back on track as we are now paying attention to details that we were not paying attention to before. After we do our homework then we can actually start to grow; once we do the homework the potential is incredible. It is a total new structure evolving and we have to do what needs to be done," he said.
Seymour Webster, head of department plant, soil sciences and engineering and consultant at the CASE was instrumental in coordinating the training workshops, across three other parishes: St Thomas, St Mary and Clarendon.
"The training took place at the CASE commercial farm facility in Spring Gardens. Three lecturers and six students of the Faculty of Agriculture participated in the two-day training workshop. The lessons learned from this workshop on post-harvest processing of cocoa beans, will be infused, where appropriate, into the curriculum of the plant science programme, offered by CASE," he said.
The workshop was made possible with support provided by the European Union (EU) and the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS).
The collaboration took place under the International Trade Centre's (ITC) Alliances for Action programme. It fell under the African Caribbean Pacific (ACP) Business-Friendly Programme which aims to achieve increased productivity, quality, incomes and employment across a range of value chains in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific. Alliances for Action is an ITC initiative that seeks to transform food systems through producer partnerships that cultivate ethical, climate-smart, sustainable agricultural value chains.
— Everard Owen