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Hydroponic farming on Grande Agro Cocoa Estate

“Once you have land, you have health and wealth.” It was her father’s motto, and one she lives daily as she puts food on the table that was grown with her own hands.

If you’ve ever stood in the grocery aisle longing for a healthier option to that bottled all-purpose seasoning, you’ll be interested to hear about one of the hidden gems of Trinidad: Grande Agro Tourism.
Alison Godwin

Alison Godwin of Grande Agro

Only available through direct sales, Alison Godwin’s all-purpose seasoning is one of the products of Grande Agro Tourism, a cocoa estate nestled just outside the heart of Sangre Grande in the north eastern region of Trinidad. But nutritious seasoning is not the only attraction of this cornerstone of our country’s cultural history. Alison describes it, quite aptly, as “the completeness of experience”. There’s a bit of something for everyone at this cocoa estate besides the historical aspect of learning the operations of a traditional enterprise. A visit here can be a fitness challenge with a moderate hike through the forest; learning organic farming through the hydroponics classes offered; and the general wellness of mind and spirit that comes from experiencing Mother Nature in all her glory.

The Legacy of Grande Agro

Alison’s family has been in the cocoa business for over 40 years, but the estate, like many others, suffered from a decline in labour as the country became more industrialised. Purchased in the early 1970s, its original expanse was 80 acres, most of which were gradually subdivided and sold off as housing development areas. The 10 acres on which Grande Agro now operates is a blend of the cocoa experience and the eco-trail through the forest, as well as a vertical hydroponics system that grows plants using only water and mineral nutrients, instead of soil.
Cocoa drying in the sun

Cocoa drying in the sun

Though she did a brief stint of AgriScience in secondary school, most of what Alison learnt was hands-on, following her father into the fields and learning the traditions of the estate: the best time to plant, how to trim trees to ensure they reap the best crop, and how to work the land. “Girls weren’t allowed in the fields back then,” Alison says. “My father wanted a doctor or a lawyer, not a farmer, and certainly not from his girl child.” She’d left Trinidad and had been working for five years at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a non-profit organisation in Florida, when her father eventually asked her to come back. “I loved my job there, but I didn’t feel like I had enough impact on the criminal justice system. I was mainly a liaison with law enforcement and parents,” she explains. “The land was always my first passion. So I came back, and now I’m keeping his legacy alive.”

Organic Farming Classes

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Learning the fine art of organic farming

Alison still gets her chance to work with young adults. She has made it the mission and vision of Grande Agro Tourism to increase youth interest and involvement in creating a sustainable cocoa industry, as well as encouraging healthy nutritious choices particularly among the nation’s youth. For the past four years, Alison has been working with the Ministry of Food Production, providing training for young adults in the age group of 18-25. Working with young people does bring some challenges. “Many of them who come are interested only in the government stipend… but that soon changes when they truly experience it,” Alison notes. “I remember a past student who used to quarrel: ‘You’re making me put my hand in dirt!’… but by the end of the 7 weeks, you couldn’t get her out of the garden!” The programme with the Ministry soon influenced Grande Agro’s business, as older adults began to ask about the classes. Surprised and pleased at the interest, Alison began to offer organic farming classes at the estate. “It’s nothing profound,” she warns. “Just the basics of agriculture without having to go to an agri-shop.” She does, however, still require that her students visit an agri-shop, as they will learn a lot more than can be learnt in a classroom — especially through interacting with the agrishop owners, who can advise on all variations of pests and diseases, as they get feedback from their customers about what works best.

At one with Mother Nature

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Various species of flora and fauna can be seen on the estate

Apart from the classes, there is also the key tourist attraction: the “Cocoa Experience” tour of the cocoa field, where one can experience the daily activities of pruning and harvesting of cocoa trees; and the cocoa house, where the cocoa is fermented and dried. Grande Agro also contains ponds where caimans, turtles and various fish can be seen; not to mention the many opportunities to spot various parrots, lizards, various bats, agouti, lappe, and other wildlife native to the area. Many of these can be seen along its nature walking trail, which is a moderate hike through a forest that contains Rubber, Sand Wood, Silk Cotton, Match Box, Red Cedar, Monkey Balata, Calabash, Coconut, Hog Plum, Cocorite, Pomerac and citrus trees. There are also various orchids, heliconias and caladium flowers and plants, as well as local green and Chinese Bamboo trees. And, of course, the experience would not be complete without a meal to showcase the products of the estate — their signature menu includes chocolate-glazed chicken, cocoa-crusted salmon or white fish, parsley potatoes, vegetarian pelau and fresh coconut water or fruit juices.

A Safe Haven on the Estate

Rest assured, your safety is of utmost importance to Alison and her small team of workers at Grande Agro. Some measures she has implemented include:
Safety first -- along the eco trail

Safety first — along the eco trail

  • To navigate the mountainous terrain, walking sticks are provided for everyone (not only the elderly!)
  • Groups are kept small — a maximum of 20 persons, with a guide at the front and another at the back, and a third guide if needed based on the size of the group
  • Walkie-talkies are used between guides, and someone always stays back from the trail to ensure readiness in case of any emergency
  • The Sangre Grande Fire Station is alerted prior to any hikes (Note: the hospital, police station and fire station are all within 8-10 mins drive of the estate)
  • Cameras have been installed both indoors and outdoors to protect the premises and its visitors
  • General safety guidance to visitors is given — in fact, repeated — along the trail to ensure visitors are aware of their surroundings and able to react quickly if necessary.
  • During the organic gardening classes, she does not use sharp tools like a cutlass, hoe or rake; and advises her students on how to properly secure tools to avoid injury.
These measures help the estate to be a safe haven for its visitors, who comprise of both tourists and locals, young and old, and from widely differing backgrounds. For instance, some of Alison’s visitors are corporate citizens seeking an area for a retreat, a team-building exercise, or just an adventure out of the office. The facilities can comfortably hold 60 people indoors, or more if outside is also used. She has also gone to offices to hold sessions for staff advising on organic farming, but she prefers instead to bring the staff to the estate. “The whole purpose is to bring them into nature, away from the urban, into the rural, into the completeness of experience — that ‘Oh, yeah!’ experience,” she says.

A Thing of Passion

It is evident that Alison’s love of nature is the driving force behind many of the choices she has made. Devoting a life to agriculture — not to mention managing a successful business from the estate — is undoubtedly a serious commitment, but she has no regrets. “There are days when I’m tired, when I don’t feel like going anymore,” she admits. “But apart from being my sole income, this is my purpose in life.” From her father who tried his best to improve the standard of living in the community through giving jobs and encouraging workers to own land; to Alison’s efforts today to spread the love of agriculture to the youth, it is safe to say his legacy is alive today. “Through everything I do, in any small actions, any way of sharing my knowledge or offering my time, it is out of love,” says Alison, who continues to make her own legacy. “It all comes back to this land… this is all I do. It is a thing of passion.”

 Need to Know Quicklist

  • All purpose seasoning (good for meat, fish, and even tofu!) runs at $10 for a 300 ml bottle, and $30 for a 750ml bottle. Although these are only on offer at the estate itself, if an office or group gets together and requests 100 bottles or more, delivery can be arranged.

  • The cost of the tour of Grande Agro is $75TT/$15US. Children under 5 years are free.

  • Tours run on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9:00am – 12:00pm, and 10:00am – 1:00pm. Saturdays can be booked between the hours of 9:00am – 2:00pm.

  • Group rates are available with a minimum of 20 persons.

  • Due to hilly terrain, there is limited wheelchair access.

For more information, visit Grande Agro’s website: www.grandeagrotourism.com, contact via email at info@grandeagrotourism.com or call Alison at 1 (868) 747-6232. You can also visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/allthingscocoa.