In the earlier half of this century, Tobago made significant contributions to Trinidad and Tobago's production of world-famous fine/flavour cocoa, a worldwide-accepted benchmark in the global cocoa industry.
Cocoa was one of the major crops grown throughout Tobago and many of the larger plantations, such as the Roxborough, Richmond and Goldsborough Estates - all over 100 acres and more in size - had concentrated on the production of cocoa, a viable cash crop.
These privately owned larger estates produced the bulk of Tobago's cocoa, with the rest coming from individual small farmers who have operated on holdings of ten acres or less.
On these larger estates in Tobago - many of them now acquired by the Tobago House of Assembly - there is still tangible evidence of past involvement in cocoa production. Estates at King's Bay, Louis D`or, Richmond, and Roxborough, to name a few, still have old cocoa houses, and in some cases, these houses - with little renovation - are still in use.
In the fields, there are still hundreds of trees, even though they are showing signs of decades of neglect and inattention. There are about 45 cocoa farmers with farms ranging from two- (0,2) hectares; and there is only one functioning privately owned cocoa estate of approximately 80 hectares.
These new figures represent a complete turn-around in the cocoa industry in Tobago. Not surprisingly, it has become a widely held view, even within the farming community here, that cocoa has long passed its glory days in Tobago, and that there is very little likelihood of its return in any meaningful way.
When cocoa represented a much viable crop in Tobago the industry there was managed by a Cocoa Rehabilitation Board, then a separate entity within the Ministry of Agriculture. The specific mission of this Board was to manage and oversee the rehabilitation of cocoa in Tobago.
The Board's appointment emphasized the concerns of the then Government of the importance of cocoa to the socio-economic agenda at the beginning of this century. As far back as the 1930s, the Board established the King's Bay Propagation Station, which made cocoa plants available to farmers at no cost and, additionally, paid a subsidy for land clearing and the planting of clones.
At about the same time, the Pembroke Cooperative Fermentary was established as a private concern, with the primary objective being to assist the small cocoa farmers who had holdings in the Goodwood to Belle Garden district.
Such was the importance attached to the cocoa industry in those days, that Propagation Officers, appointed by the Board, were also attached to the larger cocoa estates, and were responsible for propagating the cocoa crop and for distributing the seedlings to neighbouring small farms.
A cocoa farmer then was considered a person of status in his community. The village elders of today can recall the lifestyle and operations of the cocoa farmer in the prime years of their life. The cocoa farmer then was a dedicated full-time farmer who spent long hours on his holding. As a result of such interest, the cocoa farms were well established. They were relatively free of pest and the yields and financial returns were very much in keeping with the efforts put into operation. Cocoa provided the farmer and his family with a comfortable standard of living.
But by the 1970s, the situation changed drastically. By then, the prominence and status once afforded to the cocoa farmer had disappeared, as cocoa no longer was considered a priority crop in Tobago's agriculture.
And as if to confirm this fact, the Cocoa Rehabilitation Board was disbanded in 1970, and the Estate Propagation Officers were incorporated into the Ministry of Agriculture as Agricultural Assistants.
Why was this so? What were the circumstances responsible for this turn around?
To the present-day farmers, there are three main factors worth considering:
1. The low priority which, after mid-century the government and society in general accorded to cocoa,
2. The high cost of labour since then and
3. The unceasing attack from pests, particularly the parrot.
The old-timers believe that the government of the day had deliberately underplayed agriculture as a mainstay of this country's economy. To them, it seemed that the government's interest had shifted to oil and its related side industries without there being practical support for the production of cocoa, such as was evident in the earlier half of the century.
Some farmers request the services of the Game Wardens who, on request, would assist by shooting the parrots.
This action would scare the birds for about one to two weeks after which they return. For those who do not request the services of the Game Wardens and are not about to help themselves, the pests are left to feed undisturbed.
The fact that cocoa has been one crop for which there had always been a consistent demand and price, because of the fine flavour product for which this country is famous, ought to have spurred governments to give this industry much more support than received in these years.
Notwithstanding the above factors, some commentators contend that many farmers now are primarily part-time farmers and, as such, do not spend quality time on their holdings.
There is a feeling that this type of farmer neither spends sufficient money on fertilizers nor sufficient time on weed control and other agronomic practices. Further, any cocoa harvested and sold by such farmers is regarded as profit, and is utilized with little thought to re-investment.
In Tobago at present, the few committed cocoa farmers range in age between 60 and 75 years. Most of them are now really shadows of themselves; they are not physically able to farm as they would like to. To whom will they hand over? Is there any hope for cocoa in Tobago?
Although, to date, cocoa is not considered a high priority crop in Tobago's agriculture, the Department of Agriculture continues to play its role as facilitator by addressing the major problems affecting cocoa farmers as well as providing assistance in technology transfer and in the supply of planting material.
The Department also facilitates the transfer of technology in cocoa agronomy and post-harvest handling of the beans (fermentation).
As recently as December of last year the Department facilitated a field trip to Trinidad for some cocoa farmers to visit and observe the most recent technologies in cocoa production at a holding belonging to Paul Manickchand, considered the most successful cocoa farmer in Trinidad and Tobago today.
Additionally members of the Cocoa and Coffee Board, the manager and senior inspector, visited Tobago, held a meeting/workshop with a group of farmers and visited the Pembroke Fermentary, imparting information on fermentation and the grading of cocoa beans.