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#435095 - 04/07/12 08:39 AM Mr. Pop’s Plantation
Marty Offline


I learn things from foreigners. We are all messengers.
Eladio Pop

During a recent trip to Belize, I visited the cacao plantation of Eladio Pop and observed the quiet passion, humility, and expertise of one of the District’s most well-known organic farmers.

We were returning from our ecolodge in Belize’s tropical heartland to the Belize City municipal airport. There, we would take a short flight to the southern state of Toledo. On the way, our driver asked our permission to pick up a woman waiting at a lonesome bus stop in the countryside. He knew her as the wife of a farmer and she was taking a basket of squash to market. We exchanged small talk and when she left the van, she turned to me and said, “Little Belize has a lot of richness but nobody pays no mind.”

I was still thinking of those words when we landed in Punta Gorda, just a little more than an hour later. Yes Belize is little. But I’m wondering if being ignored by the world is not a blessing in a way. With the exception of controversial coastal developments, and admittedly recent concerns over plans for offshore oil exploration, Belize seems comparatively untouched, and especially here in the south. The view from our fourteen-seat Cessna aircraft was uninterrupted green and snaking rivers.

Home to both Kekchi and Mopan Maya, farming in traditional ways remains a characteristic of this locale. Villages are nestled throughout the countryside off unpaved roads. Thatched-roof houses dot the lush green foothills of the Maya mountains. Many of these villages offer tours of local plantations as well as demonstrations of cacao bean roasting and tastings. Visitors can arrange an excursion through their hotel.

The Agouti Cacao farm is one such working plantation. Located in San Pedro Columbia, a traditional Kekchi Maya village of three hundred people, it’s about twenty miles from Punta Gorda. My husband and I spent a pleasant afternoon there. Indeed, this is a place in Belize that “has a lot of richness.”

Eladio Pop is a Mayan farmer at the Agouti Cacao farm and he is something of a local legend. He started the cacao plantation himself with a handful of seedlings more than thirty years ago. Now he has a thousand trees. Pop uses traditional Maya techniques, which involves companion planting and no fertilizers. He also admits to talking to his plants. Always holding a machete, he guides you through the trees as he clears the forest floor (for optimal aeration to protect from fungus). While we walk he explains nature’s ways.

“The more you pay attention to your plants the more they love it. These are my children here,” pointing to the cocoa tree as he cuts away a thunder vine that is beginning to strangle the trunk.

Bending over, he pulls up a small bulb of ginger and teases it with his thumb. It’s brilliantly orange, unlike the golden colour of ginger I know. “It’s flowering now. When the flower falls, the root is ready. There’s beginning to be a market now for ginger, here. Everything has a time. Um hum.”

Like many traditional Maya, Eladio is a spiritual person, infusing a kind of mysticism into his explanation of simple techniques. Referring to the agouti, a small rodent that collects and scatters seeds around the forest floor, he says, “I see Jesus through this little animal. I give respect to wildlife.” Thanks to the agouti’s forgetfulness, he will benefit from newly germinating cacao saplings.

My husband Dan is a master gardener back home in Canada and runs a small seasonal landscaping business. Both men are comfortable in each other’s passion for plants and Dan finds a kindred spirit in Eladio’s natural world approach. Dan explains how he has been discouraging deer in our garden back home by hanging rags on tree branches soaked in coyote urine. I expect this technique is not unknown to Eladio, still he responds with gentle humility, “I learn many things from foreigners. We are all messengers. Um hum.”

Cultural anthropologists observe that the Maya not so much transformed their culture under siege but grafted new ways onto old ones. At the time of the conquest, for example, the Maya remained intensely religious, absorbing and fusing Catholicism into their worship of earth, sky and ancestors. Whether the culture will continue to adapt to modern pressures, this time in the form of materialism, remains to be seen. But here at the plantation there’s hope. Eladio Pop is grafting modern organic farming techniques onto his ancestral Maya farming traditions.

An ancient Maya riddle asks “what is a man on the road.” The answer is “Time.”

We emerge out of the woodsy plantation at the base of the hill and we thank him for the tour. Eladio responds: “I am just a traveller. I am only here for a while on my farm. Um hum.”

#438758 - 05/24/12 09:41 AM Re: Mr. Pop’s Plantation [Re: Marty]
Marty Offline

Harvested cacao pods on Eladio Pop's jungle farm near Punta Gorda, Belize.

Eladio Pop's cacao farm in Belize

Ever wonder where chocolate comes from? A visit to a jungle farm results in a culinary adventure.

I almost didn’t go. Even though the thought of spending Chocolate Week at Cotton Tree Lodge in Punta Gorda, Belize, sounded like a home run as a vacation adventure it was a lot of money and I was having trouble finding someone to go with me. When I called to find out how much room was still available I was told there was only one cabana left: the Jungle House.

All of the other cabanas are nestled around the Cotton Tree Lodge with views of the Moho River. The Jungle House was a quarter of a mile away by itself. Um. By myself and deep in the jungle? I wasn’t sure about this. But after some prompting from friends and family that it would “be good for me” I took a deep breath and sent in my deposit.

And then I thought of my friend Carol. Carol bakes and blogs at The Pastry Chef’s Baking. A business manager at a media mogul in Silicon Valley Carol had once taken time off from work to get a culinary arts degree before deciding she’d rather keep her love of baking as a hobby. Nonetheless, Carol is a true chocolate geek. So I sent her an e-mail seeing if she’d be interested.

“How much time do I have to decide?” she wrote back. I explained that I had already reserved the cabana, she just had to figure out her flights, and could really have up to the last minute to decide. Within a half hour I got a response.

“I’m in.” Phew.

*  *  *  *  *

Eladio Pop shows visitors to his farm how to make a headband from sugar cane.

After surviving a violent thunderstorm and a chorus of howler monkeys the first night we stayed in the Jungle House at Cotton Tree Lodge, I was ready for something a little more structured.

On the schedule the next morning for Chocolate Week led by Taza Chocolate, was a trip to a local cacao farm. We would see how cacao pods are grown, meet the farmer, and have lunch with his family. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting. I think I was imagining some kind of plantation where the trees grow in neat rows kind of like an apple orchard and that maybe afterward we’d sit around a big farm table in the kitchen and swap stories. Wrong, completely wrong.

Meet Eladio Pop, cacoa farmer.

The only way to tell that we were on a farm was a tiny hand painted sign high up in a tree featuring some kind animal. Otherwise it seemed as if we had just walked directly into the jungle, which is exactly what we did. There are no “rows” on a jungle farm, no fences, no barns. Everything is growing all at once all over the place, blooming, withering, and crashing to the earth at different times.

Eladio told us he had been a farmer for 36 years, he started when he was 14 years old. After primary school, there really is no other choice in Toledo than to go into farming. “My mother said, ‘If you like mangoes, you should get to work and grow mangoes,’” he told us. He liked the mango tree because it was “permanent,” and not like corn that has to be planted every year.

His success with mangoes gave him “courage to try other things, and permaculture farming,” an agricultural system that preserves the relationships found in natural ecologies. This explains the weird-looking animal on his sign – the agouti, basically a guinea pig on long legs. Although shy and rarely seen, its taste for fruit and ability to crack open nuts helps to distribute seeds throughout the jungle farm. “The agouti is my friend,” said Eladio.

Eladio started farming cacao when he was 20. That is more than 30 years ago. It was also about the same time that he and his wife began having children. They have 15 children; at the time of our visit the oldest was 31 and the youngest was just over 2 years old. Even though the Pops straddle either side of 50, they are already grandparents several times over, with some grandchildren older than their youngest child. “The cacao has been good to me,” Eladio said with a grin. Even though we learned a lot about growing cacao that day, all I could think about was his wife bringing a new life into the world every two years. Every two years for 15 years. I can barely comprehend this productivity rate as a single, childless urbanite. Edit news files on an endless production cycle? No problem. Produce 15 children? My mind reels.

But like any large farming family, the many hands have proved useful for harvesting the southern Belize jungle of its offerings. Every weekend the Pop family comes to the farm to gather bananas, mangoes, lime, cacao pods, sour plums, ginger, all spice, jack fruit, sugar cane, and more. As he led us through the thick brush, wending us up steep hills and under the low hanging banana fronds, we stopped to taste each one of these – fresh, tart, and sweet.

Bananas felled from the tree and sliced with a machete had the flavor of apples. Mangoes were thick and meaty. We sucked on large sticks of sugar cane, and ate “coco-soupa” (little coconuts) that tasted like cookie dough, a treat carried to school in the pockets of local children. Wandering through the tall grasses, Eladio came to an abrupt halt, stooped, and dug in the dirt to unearth fresh ginger root. We marveled, how did he know how to find it? With a shrug he said he remembered the spot of its plant before it shriveled to hay.

Ten years ago, Eladio sold 700-800 lbs. of cacao. In 2009, he sold 400 lbs. of cacao. Hurricanes and blight have taken their toll on the trees. All of his beans, like every cacao farmer in Toledo, are sold to the British chocolatemaker Green and Black’s and are used to make its  Maya Gold bar.

The cacao grows throughout the jungle, all the trees at different stages of ripening in a perpetual cycle. The colors of a ripened cacao pod vary widely, from yellow-green to deep red.

We chewed on raw cacao beans, sucking on the sweet and tangy pulp before biting into the bitter bean. Cacao beans are fermented before they are roasted. They are covered with banana leaves for up to six days to build heat and drive the sugars from the pulp into the bean. Every second day they are stirred. The fermenting process varies from chocolatemaker to chocolatemaker. Taza Chocolate takes their fermenting process very seriously. You can read more about their process here.

At the end of the jungle tour, Eladio climbed with us into the back of the bus. We bounced in our seats as we bumped over rutted roads to his family’s compound where his wife and oldest daughter, dressed identically in turquoise cotton dresses, were preparing our lunch. Eladio got philosophical. “The jungle,” he said, patting his chest and gazing out the windows at the blur of passing green, “is my heart. It is my house, and my church.”

We silently nodded. No one wondered what he meant.

Related posts on Kitchen Report: Lunch at the Pop compound and learning how to make a delicious Mayan chocolate drinkThe Jungle House at Cotton Tree LodgeTaza Chocolate Tour

Christian Science Monitor

#438781 - 05/24/12 11:57 AM Re: Mr. Pop’s Plantation [Re: Marty]
Philus Offline
Coincidentally, I just watched the NFB movie about Mr. Pop on the Documentray Channel (Canada).

NFB The Chocolate Farmer

It appears that you can watch it online here:

Watch online


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