Last summer my wife told me it was time I took a holiday. I’ve never been one for lounging by a hotel pool so, having been fascinated by some of the farming I’d seen on a visit to India a couple of years before, I decided on a busman’s holiday.
The farm I manage at Stoughton near Leicester is part of The Co-operative Farms, itself part of The Co-operative Group, well known for its track record in supporting Fairtrade farming so I wondered whether I could have a closer look at Fairtrade, while also looking for opportunities to link this with our award-winning “From Farm to Fork” schools project.
Ghana was a good option, as The Co-operative sources a lot of cocoa from there for its Fairtrade chocolate. Also, knowing how much children like chocolate, it was an ideal opportunity to learn about the process myself, so I could help explain it to young visitors to Stoughton – after all, how many British children realise you need to farm cocoa to get chocolate?
After flying into Accra, Ghana’s capital, I took a five-hour bus journey to New Koforidua. Here I would be able to work alongside local farmers, and gain a feel for how they farm cocoa, citrus and rice.
I was met with a warm welcome, but had to justify my stay in the village. The local farmers, “King”, “Queen” and “Chief” all wanted to know why I had come to stay. I explained how I wanted to understand farming in Ghana, and to take back experiences of cocoa and rice production to children in the UK. I was given the okay to stay, and a welcome present of a large bunch of locally-grown bananas.
One of the first farmers to invite me to his farm was Emmanuel. Getting there involved a 40-minute walk from the village, along a track through cocoa and citrus plantations, before arriving at his seven acres of cocoa trees.
Emmanuel was one of the better-off cocoa producers, in that he had a foreman working for him who lived next door to the plantation, albeit in somewhat sparse accommodation.
My first impression walking into the cocoa forest was one of horror – I couldn’t see the ground because it was covered with cocoa leaves, yet I’d already seen a snake skin that must have been approaching 8ft long and didn’t fancy stepping on an actual snake. When I asked Emmanuel about snakes, he just laughed and said there weren’t any. I wasn’t convinced.
I was shown where the cocoa pods grew, which from what I could see was anywhere on the tree from up in the canopy to the base of the trunk. In season, the farmers walk through their farms as least once a week looking for pods that are ripe for harvesting.
Pods ready for harvest need to be yellow in colour, and farmers walk through the forests with cutlasses to cut them off. These are then put on the ground, ready for the wives to pick them up and put them into baskets.
The baskets are carried back to a central point called a “work station”. This is where pods are gathered and cut open to reveal the cocoa beans inside. The beans are scooped out and laid on banana leaves and, once all the pods from that day’s harvesting have been cut open, they are covered with yet more banana leaves.
Fairtrade ensures disadvantaged farmers and workers in developing countries get a better deal through the use of the international Fairtrade mark. By requiring companies to pay sustainable prices (which must never fall lower than the market price), Fairtrade helps the poorest, weakest producers to improve their position and have more control over their lives.
There are between 50 and 60 beans in a pod, depending on its size. They are deep purple in colour, with an edible white membrane. I was asked to try it and, after watching a few of the other farmers having some, I gave it a go. I was pleasantly surprised – the taste reminded me of a pear drop. The next process is fermentation, which takes six or seven days under cover of the banana leaves.
Farmers return on foot, with very large baskets to the work station where the cocoa beans have been fermenting. The banana leaves are removed and the fermented beans are carried, in the baskets, to the main village.
It surprised me that there was no means of taking the beans back to the village by vehicle. I was even more surprised to see the farmers’ wives, with children strapped to their backs, effortlessly carrying more than 35kg of wet fermented cocoa beans, on their heads, back to the village.
This is all done early in the morning, before the heat builds up. The beans are then tipped on to slatted tables and spread evenly across the vented bamboo. They are then allowed to dry for a further seven days, depending on the intensity of the sunlight. The farmers rub and turn the beans daily, removing any mouldy or discoloured beans. When they’ve gauged the dryness of the beans they are then bagged into very large hessian sacks, each one contains 65kg when full.
Once the bags are filled, they are taken to a cocoa office, where they are weighed and checked for quality before being stitched up and placed in a store room to be picked up. Collections usually take place once a week.
I was lucky enough to be on the farm when there was a collection of beans from the office. The beans are picked up off the floor by hand and carried to the lorries. Two men carry the beans while a colleague stacks them on to the lorry.
Nick joined The Co-operative Farms in 1988, as a craftsman, and progressed to arable foreman then assistant manager on a mixed dairy unit, before becoming manager of Stoughton, one of its biggest and flagship arable estates, in 2001.
I asked how many cocoa bags they picked up on a typical day. I was astonished when they told me in excess of 500; this equates to over 32t, ie 16 tonnes of cocoa beans per person.
It was amazing that all this work was done without any machinery – and remember that each bag weighs 65kg.
Talking to Emmanuel, once his crop was safely on the lorry, I asked him about the money he would receive per bag of cocoa. He was reluctant to tell me how much he would receive for each bag, but did say a good income for a year would be equivalent to just over £300.
Bear in mind, though, that an annual income of £300 goes a lot further in Ghana that it would do here, and that, without benefiting from Fairtrade, with its guarantees of fair prices, Emmanuel and his colleagues would be a lot worse off.
Fairtrade also provides a “social premium” to fund important projects in the community. The people of New Koforidua benefit from a school, health centre, clean toilets and a safe and reliable fresh water supply – all thanks to shoppers buying Fairtrade chocolate made from their cocoa.
There did seem to be an understanding between the farmers of collaborating togetheras a co-operative and, if one farm was having difficulties all the farmers would rally round. Labour was shared with no money changing hands; food and meals, not just for the farmers but also their families, were traded.
I was struck by the lack of mechanisation on the farms. I saw 65- and 70-year-old farmers carrying 65kg and walking four or five miles to and from their businesses, using cutlasses all day on their farms for weeding and harvesting cocoa, as well as pruning their trees.
There didn’t appear to be any young people staying in the village that would carry on with this way of production. Most of the farmers’ children wanted very little to do with the farm, and wanted to go to the cities to find jobs. I did feel this was like the UK, where younger people are not coming into agriculture.
It appeared to be a very simple way of life, but most people seemed happy and content with what they had. It was refreshing to visit a place that didn’t have all the consumer products that clutter our lives, and the simple things appeared to make them happy.
It was a great opportunity to discover how cocoa is grown, and the work that goes into producing chocolate, one of our favourite foods – but one that many of us take for granted.
Farm to fork
|This was born in 2005, when Nick, and his wife Michelle, saw the gulf between children’s education and how food is produced. The project shows kids how farming supplied “wholesome food in a sustainable manner that left space for nature”. He set up classroom visits to Stoughton, with a four acre field becoming an outdoor classroom showing pupils and teachers examples of crops and operations. The project has been rolled out to other Co-operative farms as the From Farm to Fork initiative. In 2009, about 20,000 children had the experience.|