Research

Live From Trinidad

Plants Without Borders

group of five men and two women standing under a sign that reads Cocoa ResearchDavid Pacchioli

Team Cocoa

Join a team of Penn State researchers and our own intrepid reporter in Trinidad as they kick off "Plants Without Borders," a project aimed at sharing some of the latest technology for growing one of the world's favorite crops—cocoa. During ten days in-country, associate professor of plant molecular biology Mark Guiltinan and his team plan to build a greenhouse for raising cocoa seedlings, complete with irrigation system. They will also give a workshop in cocoa-propagation techniques for local farmers, meet with scientists from the country's Ministry of Agriculture, and visit one of the world's largest cocoa seed-banks. Associate editor Dave Pacchioli, accompanying the team, plans to send back real-time dispatches on their progress.

Dispatch 1: Getting There

Woke up this morning to the smell of curry. Roopchand's wife Sheri was making breakfast—curried chickpeas (channa) and flatbread (roti)—which we all ate greedily, along with blood-red papaya and mangoes, which Sheri taught us to peel with our teeth.

people eating at a table

Curry for breakfast

We left University Park at 8:00 a.m. Tuesday and arrived in Port-of-Spain after midnight, along with three boxes of drip irrigation equipment that all managed to weigh in under the customs limit. Roopchand was waiting at the airport gate, with a broad smile and a sign that said "Welcome Penn State." Then it was on to the last leg, by 13-seat Maxi-Taxi to Mayaro, where we are staying in a rented house. We traveled east and then south the length of the island, heads bobbing, trying to adjust to being on the left side of the road. Much of the southern route was along the water's edge, with coconut palms silhouetted black against a moonlit sky and bone-pale ocean. Somewhere along the way our headlights caught a flattened snake stretched across most of the two-lane. We arrived at about 2:30, mosquito-netted the beds, and finally fell into them an hour later.

The house is 100 meters from the beach, where at dawn (so I have heard), fishermen gather at the blast of a conch shell to heave their boats beyond the breakers and put out. Later I saw others drawing hand seines through shallow water.

Roopchand and Sheri's farm is half an hour from the house, over serpentine roads through thick forest and scattered settlements. This morning, in daylight, we caught glimpses of what we couldn't see at night: the small farms, with their water cisterns and tethered goats, the hodge podge of roadside fruit stands, small eateries, and gas stations, the uniformed children walking from school. Signs everywhere hark a piquant masala (a mix) of cultures: East Indian, Chinese, Muslim, Rastafarian, and British. "Pudding and souse" are advertised next to "hot roti" and "Chip chip for sale." (There is also a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Mayaro.)

people standing inside the frame of a greenhouse under constructionDavid Pacchioli

First look at the greenhouse

Outside one house was a cocoa drying apparatus. It looked something like a shallow-pitched dog house on tracks, the better to pull back and forth. The beans are spread out on a steel bed to dry in the sun. The retractable roof allows quick coverage during the frequent rains. We've had a handful of cloudbursts already, having arrived here with the rainy season, but they pass quickly.

The showers have, however, made a bit of a muck of the greenhouse site, which was the first place we stopped this morning. The good news is that, anticipating the delays of the season, Roopchand and his crew here have got a good head start, framing out the structure and building a couple of cement-block propagation beds. Helping to lay the groundwork for our arrival, too, were Diana Fillhart of Brooklyn, NY, and Jeanne Peters of Ulysses, PA, two volunteers affiliated with the Coudersport (PA) Alliance Church, Candi's church back home. The first order of construction business, then, is to stretch some plastic across the roof frame, and spread some gravel across the floor, both to facilitate working through the rains. Before that, however, we're going to stop in at the Ministry of Agriculture.

Dispatch 2: Local Practice

Woke up this morning to the smell of curry. Roopchand's wife Sheri was making breakfast—curried chickpeas (channa) and flatbread (roti)—which we all ate greedily, along with blood-red papaya and mangoes, which Sheri taught us to peel with our teeth.

five people looking together at an object

Talking with Davion Ali at the Demonstration Station

We left University Park at 8:00 a.m. Tuesday and arrived in Port-of-Spain after midnight, along with three boxes of drip irrigation equipment that all managed to weigh in under the customs limit. Roopchand was waiting at the airport gate, with a broad smile and a sign that said "Welcome Penn State." Then it was on to the last leg, by 13-seat Maxi-Taxi to Mayaro, where we are staying in a rented house. We traveled east and then south the length of the island, heads bobbing, trying to adjust to being on the left side of the road. Much of the southern route was along the water's edge, with coconut palms silhouetted black against a moonlit sky and bone-pale ocean. Somewhere along the way our headlights caught a flattened snake stretched across most of the two-lane. We arrived at about 2:30, mosquito-netted the beds, and finally fell into them an hour later.

The house is 100 meters from the beach, where at dawn (so I have heard), fishermen gather at the blast of a conch shell to heave their boats beyond the breakers and put out. Later I saw others drawing hand seines through shallow water.

Roopchand and Sheri's farm is half an hour from the house, over serpentine roads through thick forest and scattered settlements. This morning, in daylight, we caught glimpses of what we couldn't see at night: the small farms, with their water cisterns and tethered goats, the hodge podge of roadside fruit stands, small eateries, and gas stations, the uniformed children walking from school. Signs everywhere hark a piquant masala (a mix) of cultures: East Indian, Chinese, Muslim, Rastafarian, and British. "Pudding and souse" are advertised next to "hot roti" and "Chip chip for sale." (There is also a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Mayaro.)

smiling man in fuschia t-shirtDavid Pacchioli

Roopchand Black, Cocoa Farmer

Outside one house was a cocoa drying apparatus. It looked something like a shallow-pitched dog house on tracks, the better to pull back and forth. The beans are spread out on a steel bed to dry in the sun. The retractable roof allows quick coverage during the frequent rains. We've had a handful of cloudbursts already, having arrived here with the rainy season, but they pass quickly.

The showers have, however, made a bit of a muck of the greenhouse site, which was the first place we stopped this morning. The good news is that, anticipating the delays of the season, Roopchand and his crew here have got a good head start, framing out the structure and building a couple of cement-block propagation beds. Helping to lay the groundwork for our arrival, too, were Diana Fillhart of Brooklyn, NY, and Jeanne Peters of Ulysses, PA, two volunteers affiliated with the Coudersport (PA) Alliance Church, Candi's church back home. The first order of construction business, then, is to stretch some plastic across the roof frame, and spread some gravel across the floor, both to facilitate working through the rains. Before that, however, we're going to stop in at the Ministry of Agriculture.

Dispatch 3: Hard Work on a Holiday

Thursday morning

Arrived at the greenhouse site this morning at 8:30, after a stop at Sugar's Hardware to look for clamps to hold the roof plastic. Today is a holiday, Corpus Christi, but Sugar's and some other places are open. Along the way we passed a crossroads where a new concrete bridge is in mid-construction, next to the existing iron span. What looked like 75 men milled at the corner, with a couple of gangly, gray-uniformed police. Apparently these men were hoping for work. Unemployment is high here; over 40 percent among young men, I've read. The lack of jobs has contributed to a rise in crime.

people using shovels and wheelbarrowDavid Pacchioli

aying plastic and gravel for greenhouse floor

At the site, the team quickly kicked into gear: heavy labor this morning. First, smoothing the red-clay sub-floor, (which was wet but not puddled) then laying black plastic over top, then a layer of white gravel over that for good drainage. Wheelbarrow loads of gravel, shoveled, carted, dumped and graded—by 9:30 most were red-faced and drenched with sweat. (Siela: "I knew there was a reason why I got a Ph.D.") Drinking lots of water, and slathering lots of DEET and sunblock. Making good progress, too; even though a downpour halted things for 15 minutes, by 11 the floor was done.

A trio of scrawny puppies keeps us company, shy of attention and keeping to the shade of the old house that fronts the greenhouse. There's a phone here, and with luck and a local phone card, I might be able to send this dispatch from here. That's assuming everything works perfectly, however; and for the first transmission (from a house in town after several other options failed) that wasn't the case.

person pouring a bucket of sand while two other people watchDavid Pacchioli

Leveling the floor with sand for proper drainage

Mohan brought lunch in the Maxi, and I rode back with him to fetch a piece of equipment. On the way he scouted roadside stands for the ripest gummy shells and silk figs (varieties of banana), and for pineapples for tomorrow's breakfast. We passed small boys selling clutches of crabs, a long funeral procession, and a parade that had stopped traffic for a quarter mile in the opposite direction: a children's brass band followed by 200 singing people in their finest outfits, shading themselves with umbrellas from the midday sun. Two elderly ladies, tired of going on foot, flagged Mohan for a ride. One of them asked me what I was doing there, and I tried to explain about building a greenhouse. "But we already got cocoa in Trinidad," she said. They're trying to improve varieties and get a better yield, Mohan said, and I said something about protecting tender young plants. From hard rain and the brutal sun. She only frowned. "Every-ting every time got to be modern," she said.

Back at the site the team had started assembling the irrigation system, reconfiguring where necessary as they went.

Dispatch 4: Running Water

students sitting on a new cement wallDavid Pacchioli

Nick and Candi help set up the misting system

The big accomplishment of Thursday, after the gut-busting labor of finishing the floor, was getting the misting system installed. Using a lot of black plastic tubing, a small submersible sump pump, and a plastic tool-box outfitted with timers and controls, the team created an inexpensive ($200) and efficient system to draw water from the three large cisterns behind Roopchand's house, which hold the rainwater he collects from his roof. The line feeds misting sprinklers that are spaced the length of the twin propagation beds, where cocoa cuttings will be started in a sandy mix. Misting, Mark says, is a key element in propagating cuttings, because these shoots initially have no roots. After thirty days of nurturing in the moist, protected beds, they grow enough root to be transplanted into soil-filled bags and set on benches at the other end of the greenhouse, to grow and harden for another two months or so before they are ready to be planted outside.

At 3:30, everything was set for a test. Someone threw the switch and soon two sets of five sprinklers were misting beautifully, creating small rainbows in the sunlight. "I'm relieved," Carter told me later. "I've set up systems like this at home, but I had my doubts. It works just fine." Still, he said, this is only the first step. The second, a drip irrigation system for watering the bagged seedlings, will be tougher. It will require a water pressure of 12-15 psi, piddling compared to the 40 psi gush of American taps, but not so easy for a little bit of gravity and a small pump. It would take a 30-foot column of water—twice again the height of Roopchand's elevated tanks & to achieve that pressure by gravity alone.

man standing on a construction platform next to a coconut tree

Mark makes the final connections to bring running water to the house

The real triumph today, judging from reactions, was that by adding a single T-connector and a bit of extra tubing to the greenhouse line Mark and the crew were able to bring running water into the Baschk house—up to the second floor, where the living quarters are. After eight years of lugging buckets up the stairs, the sight of water flowing from her kitchen tap brought Sheri to tears.

Dispatch 5: Turtle Diary

Thursday at dinner, Roopchand and Mohan told us about a nearby beach that is a nesting site for giant sea turtles. For two weeks in June, these great creatures come ashore, at night, to lay and bury their eggs. A friend, Roopchand said, had reported seeing one the night before last.

In spite of the day's labors, a decision was made to mount an expedition. At 10 we left for the beach the turtles favor: it is short and steep at high tide, which allows for a briefer stay on land where a sea turtle is in harm's way. After a short ride and then bouncing a half-mile down a dark rutted road we parked and walked through a farmyard scattered with palm trees and sleeping chickens to get to the beach. For some time we combed in both directions, walking quietly under an inky, star-filled sky, the lights of off-shore oil rigs on the horizon. "This has the flavor of a snipe hunt," Mark whispered at one point. But finally, directly in front of the large, wind-bowed palm that marked the end of the designated beach we spotted her - the huge, high-humped shell, front-to-back at least four feet, the football-sized head, the flat-paddle legs flailing. She was wedged in the foot-deep trench she had dug, throwing back sand to cover—and up to 15-feet beyond.

We stood our distance to give her room, stunned by the size and power of this magnificent animal and moved, too, by the force of her instinct. After a few precious minutes, when she was finished her burying, she paused, executed a 180-degree turn with three great shifts of her bulk, and lurched rapidly back down the beach. Hitting the water she went amphibian, and vanished quickly into the surf.

Candi, speaking for all, kept saying, "Awesome!" all the way back to the van. But whether from awe or simple exhaustion, nobody said a word on the drive back to the house.

Note: No picture, because we didn't want to terrify the poor turtle with flashbulbs.

Dispatch 6: Road Trip

coconut trees along a wooden fenceNick Willis

Coconut harvesters at work

Fast-food Trinidad-style: "doubles" from a popular shack in downtown Mayaro. Doubles are fry bread ladled with a sauce of chickpeas, cilantro, and hot pepper. You get two (at a time) on a piece of wax paper. Eating them is tricky—mostly it's fold and shove 'em in your mouth, then mop up what you dropped—but they sure taste good.

This was breakfast, eaten on the fly because we needed an early start: the plan was to drive to La Reunion to visit the propagation station there, then on to Port of Spain to buy materials. If we met success and got back by mid-afternoon, there would be a few hours of light to start on the roof.

Driving up the coast we passed through a palm plantation, where a team of three workers was climbing trees and cutting down bunches of coconuts. We stopped and they treated us to some of the fresh milk, neatly clipping the top off each coconut with a couple of sharp machete strokes.

people looking down at a collection of plantsDavid Pacchioli

At the propagation station in La Reunion

In La Reunion, in the north central part of the island, we toured the government station that propagates cocoa, citrus, avocado, and exotic fruits like pommerac—something like a very crisp, tart apple. We spoke with Ian Muhammad about local practice. One thing striking was the amount of empty space in the facility: much of the aging greenhouse area is not being used. Yet even while we were there, three farmers came in looking for plants and were turned away. A nurseryman told Carter they had about 30 requests per day, and there's a waiting list. So they aren't making enough plants to fill the demand, which seems curious, since the government is subsidizing cocoa farmers so heavily.

Roopchand's greenhouse, once established, could help to fill that demand—and be for him a profitable side business some day. Although it would on the face of it be hard for him to match the subsidized price for rooted cuttings, he could take advantage of the inconvenience of waiting and the fact that farmers in Mayaro have to pay transport to get plants from the north. He could be a local provider.

It's a complicated economy that runs in cycles. "When cocoa prices rise," Mark says, "people want to grow it. Then the market gets flooded, prices drop, and people abandon the farms. Then demand increases again, and people want to grow it again."

After we left the station, the afternoon turned into a scavenger hunt as we scoured the hot and smoggy city for roof plastic and other items unobtainable in Mayaro. We didn't get back until 5:00. Changed clothes and went out to the site even though there wasn't much light left. "It's a symbolic thing," Mark said. "I don't want a day to go by that we haven't worked on the greenhouse."

Dispatch 7: Road Trip

students and child sitting on tile floorDavid Pacchioli

Working late, making clamps

Featured in this morning's island Newsday, read outside the Doubles Man's shack: a story about striking nurses who, in an attempt to force higher wages, released a bunch of frogs in the local hospital. ("Hoppin' Mad Nurses," was the headline.)

Last night's short trip to the site revealed a couple of problems, one with the roof plan and one with the drip system. As a result of the first, Mark, Roopchand, Candi and Nick worked until bedtime sawing and fashioning 45 metal clamps out of aluminum and bolts. As a result of the second, Carter spent this morning digging a four-foot-round hole five-feet deep in the hard clay.

The check valve the team had planned to install to prevent unwanted dripping from the raised cisterns hadn't worked, he explained. Without it, the current set-up resembled a siphon, which would drain the tanks in a few days. The solution was to eliminate gravity by placing the lead tank down at sprinkler level, and depending completely on the pumps. That meant putting two thirds of the tank below ground.

man and woman on roofDavid Pacchioli

Attaching shade cloth

So Carter put his back into it. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew attacked the roof, a hot job on a cloudless day. A layer of plastic under a layer of shade cloth would cut the sun's penetration by over half. Combined with the misting and drip, this open shaded area would theoretically be cool enough for tender plants and still sunny enough for them to grow. Using a similar set-up (albeit indoors) in University Park, Carter, the greenhouse master, has achieved 90 percent rooting success. By comparison, the practice at the station at La Reunion, which closes the plants in tight bins to retain moisture and relies on much heavier shade to keep things cool, loses 40 percent of its cuttings.

By noon, the front half of the greenhouse was covered. The second half would go quicker, Roopchand said, since the first was training. That turned out to be wishful thinking. Still, by 4:00 the roof was finished. Sun-dried and exhausted, the whole crew headed for the beach.

smiling man holding a shovel while standing in a holeNick Willis

Carter in the hole

Dispatch 8: Making Contact

The other day I asked Roopchand and Candi for details about how this project got off the ground. It's an interesting story.

Last year Roopchand and Sheri traveled to the States seeking help for Christian, their oldest son, who needed (and still needs) surgery for a serious heart condition. In New York, they attended a breakfast sponsored by Diana Fillhart's ministry to the homeless there. Subsequently, during the months they spent up north, the family was adopted by Diana's sponsoring church, Coudersport Alliance. When their visas expired and they had to return to Trinidad, members of the church committed to build them a house.

woman on top of frame of roofDavid Pacchioli

Candi in the air

Coudersport Alliance happens to be Candi's church, and Diana Fillhart a friend of Candi's mom. One day, Candi remembers, Diana came to her house. She had been to Trinidad, and was full of talk about cocoa farming. "I think I was asleep on the couch," Candi says. But she was awake enough to hear the word cocoa. "I had been working in Mark's lab for a year and a half at that point. I thought we should be able to do something for Roopchand."

Guiltinan, who studies cocoa in a place that cannot grow the stuff, is always looking for field partners to help test the results of his work in lab and greenhouse. He is also interested in helping farmers grow cocoa by providing them with better plants. For a lab that specializes in developing efficient techniques for propagation, building a propagation facility—a greenhouse—was a natural idea.

At about the same time, Nick, a life sciences major, had joined the lab. He had worked on Habitat for Humanity projects, and his dad runs a greenhouse business in New Jersey. Nick was a prime candidate, in other words, for getting involved.

smiling young boy sitting under outdoor faucet with running water

Christian cools off

"Mark told us that if we planned it, it would happen," Candi says. So she and Nick, with considerable help from Carter, started pretty much from scratch, first contacting Roopchand, and asking him what kind of facility he thought he needed.

"I was green," Roopchand says, but he visited greenhouses, talked to farmers and agricultural agents, and drew a plan. On their end, Candi and Nick worked on organizing supplies and equipment, logistics., and fund-raising.

Between January and June, Roopchand and Candi communicated continually by phone and email to set things up, and the fruit of it all is this trip, the first in what Guiltinan hopes will be an ongoing series. Through the Office of International Programs at Penn State, Candi and Nick—neither of whom had ever been farther abroad than Canada before—are earning course credit for the experience.

Roopchand, for his part, is eager to get his cocoa farm up and thriving, and to start keeping data on his plants that will help Guiltinan's research. "If this is not done," Roopchand says, "the assistance would all be one way."

Dispatch 9: Send in the Clones

two men looking together at a plantDavid Pacchioli

Carter and a nurseryman discuss root-cutting methods

Today the greenhouse has its first plants: eight of them. They are clones, donated by the propagation station at La Reunion. Of two genetic varieties, known as 1188 and 919.

Cloning is an efficient way to reproduce high-yield, disease-resistant seedlings, which can then be planted in place of aging and inferior trees. In the lab back home, Guiltinan and his team have developed two cloning methods, a high-tech and a low-tech approach. The first, somatic embryogenesis, involves taking the immature cocoa flower from a proven plant and removing the sterile stamens. These staminodes, five to a plant, are placed in culture and induced with plant hormones to produce embryos, which eventually grow into plants. Since there is no pollination involved, the embryos (and plants) are identical to the original plant. "With this technology," Guiltinan says, "we can take elite genotypes and propagate large numbers of plants in a short amount of time. The question is, are these plants normal?"

four plants lined up in a rowDavid Pacchioli

Roopchand's first clones

To find out, he and his lab are currently field-testing several hundred plants on the island of St. Lucia, monitoring root structure, growth rate, yield, and fertility. The other, low-tech approach that Guiltinan and his team have developed is called bent-wood gardening. In this technique a chosen plant is topped and then bent parallel to the ground. The horizontal main stem then produces shoots which grow vertically. These orthotropic shoots, when cut and rooted, produce clones with true tree structure, as opposed to plagiotropic cuttings, which produce a bush. From ten good plants, Bent-wood gardening can produce perhaps a hundred more in a few years, a marked improvement over most rooted cutting techniques. The method is much less expensive than embryogenesis, and easy for farmers to learn and practice. The great advantage of embryogenesis, on the other hand, is that a single flower can produce over 8,000 plants in one year.

Whatever the propagation technique, preserving genetic variability is an important consideration. For one thing, almost all cocoa plants are self-incompatible; that is, plants of the same variety cannot pollinate each other. For cross-pollination, and as a hedge against disease, it's important for a farmer to grow several types. "The idea is to have good plants, but as many varieties of good plants as possible," Guiltinan says.

Dispatch 10: Cocoa Futures

greenhouse amidst greenfieldDavid Pacchioli

The (all-but) finished greenhouse

The greenhouse is finished—or as near to finished as this Penn State team can make it. The roof is on (and holding steady), the misting and drip-irrigation systems are in place and working, the frames for the plant benches have been painted with brown primer. Mark has even fixed the thing in space: this evening he took a reading with a hand-held Global Positioning System (GPS). (For those who care to visit, Roopchand's greenhouse is located at 10o 18.77' N, 61o 04.67' W.) All that remains is to fill the propagation beds with sand and add some more shade cloth to the east end, where the morning sun slants in.

We also solved a mystery. Returning to the Rio Claro Demonstration Station, where we spoke with Davion Ali last week, we had a chance to visit with the officer in charge, Kamaldeo Maharaj. Mark mentioned the supply-and-demand imbalance of rooted cuttings up at La Reunion, where cocoa farmers were going away empty-handed. Maharaj explained that what we had seen was the result of government policy: a plan to gradually close its propagation stations and encourage private farmers to develop facilities of their own. "But the response has not been good," he said. In fact, he acknowledged, there is little incentive for farmers to take this step, since they are heavily subsidized for simply planting land in cocoa, no matter the type or quality of the seedlings they plant. "This is a shortfall of the current system," he said.

man in light blue shirt and white pants standing and looking toward his rightDavid Pacchioli

Kamaldeo Maharaj

Maharaj went on to acknowledge that the cocoa industry in Trinidad is in decline. "It's not what it used to be," he said. "We need to renew. Our fields are old, our plants are old, our techniques are old." Farmers here get a much higher price for their cocoa than farmers anywhere else in the world, he said, but that's because the price is guaranteed by the government. "We need to get our yields up, our plant quality up. We can't