We have come about five miles along the cross-country road to Asuboi. Onwards from the outskirts of Nsawam there have been cocoa trees to right of us and cocoa trees to left of us, and still we are running past cocoa trees, but never a sign can we see of anyone at work among them, or any trace of a path that might lead to a habitation.
Naturally, you are anxious to get a closer view of cocoa trees, so we will leave the car and strike off haphazard into their midst.
It is rough walking among the thick tangle of leaves, which look as if they were evenly spread carpet-fashion over level ground, but which in reality hide a series of treacherous hummocks and hollows. But how good it is to be in the shade . . . and no wonder you are enchanted by the beauty of our surroundings. Alone, amongst this boundless stretch of cocoa trees laden with ripe fruit-pods, do you not feel as if you had been wafted into some magic grove hung with golden lanterns?
How came it to pass that these trees are growing here? . . . Who planted them? . . . Who looks after them? . . . Is anyone going to gather the myriads of pods that look quite ready to be harvested ? . . .
I know there are endless questions you are burning to ask me, and all in good time I hope to answer them for you. But as far as possible, in the time at our disposal, I want to show you the answers to your questions, and as the farmers, who are all their own masters, only work when the fancy takes them, we must take our chance of finding someone doing each of the many kinds of work that make up the whole business of cocoa production.
Now that we are in the midst of well-grown cocoa trees that are ready to yield a harvest, let us have a little talk about the general methods of bringing the crop to this stage in the older producing countries, and see how far those methods are practised by the newest competitors, the Gold Coast farmers, who have so rapidly won fame as the biggest cocoa producers in the world.
The first step towards creating a cocoa farm is known as CleaRing - In common with most sites suitable for cocoa cultivation, this land on which we are now standing was originally occupied by tropical jungle. A good clearing is made by cutting down all undergrowth, felling all trees, removing as much of the valuable timber as can be transported by available labour, setting light to the remaining debris, and ultimately grubbing out roots when the bonfire has done its work and the ashes are cool.
The Gold Coast farmers are not ambitious to make a good clearing; their idea is to get rid of forest encumbrances with as little trouble as possible. They cut down the undergrowth, and fell only the small trees that can easily be removed for firewood; the burn-off is made with the big trees still standing. There are numbers of the old forest trees, as you see, towering above the cocoa trees around us; unfortunately, most of them are cotton trees, the best-loved haunt of an insect that is among the cocoa tree's deadliest enemies.
Cocoa trees are raised from seed.
The seeds, which should be carefully selected from the yield of healthy and highly productive trees, may be reared in a nursery or sown in the ground which the trees are to occupy; the latter method is known as "planting at stake " - holes are made in rows at regular distances apart, and three seeds are planted in each hole; of the seedlings which come up, the weaker ones are thinned out, and the strongest of each group left in position. If reared in a nursery, seedlings are transplanted when they are about a foot high.
Young cocoa is usually tended to the point of being pampered, so delicate has it proved in most countries where it has been induced to grow. The seeds are often sown separately in little "pots," consisting of lengths of bamboo cut off at the joints. But no matter whether the seeds are sown in pots, in a well prepared nursery bed, or at stake, the rule is to shade the precious little seedlings. Plaited palm leaves are commonly used for shading the baby plants. Temporary shade is also provided for the trees, until they are about three years old, by catch crops, such as plantains, bananas, or cassava, planted between the rows of cocoa; these catch crops are removed in due course, so that they shall not strangle the main crop and rob it of nourishment. In some countries permanent shade trees are also interplanted at carefully calculated distances between the rows of cocoa.
Outside the Agricultural Stations you may search the Gold Coast in vain for a cocoa nursery, or anything approaching it in character. The seeds are sown mustard and cress fashion, in any bit of ground that has been scratched over with a primitive, short-handled hoe. Strange to say, too, they come up as thick and vigorous as a bumper crop of mustard and cress, and they grow and flourish exceedingly well, although they are not given any artificial shade; nor are they by any means always located in a naturally shady spot, for you may often see crowds of them growing by the roadside, exposed to the glare of the sun. When the seedlings are moved to their permanent quarters on the farm, they are not planted in rows or in accordance with any scheme of regular spacing. They are put in anywhere on the clearing so long as they are so close together that as they grow up their branches will meet to form a "solid" roof. By excluding the light, this roof discourages the growth of weeds and thereby lessens labour. Plantains are liberally interspersed among the cocoa seedlings; the plantains are not treated as a catch crop and removed in due course when the cocoa trees are well established; consequently, when both crops are grown up, they are very much in a tangle.
Cocoa trees grow to a height of 20 feet to 30 feet. The young leaves are yellowish brown in colour; the older ones are bright green and of a remarkable size - 12, 14, 18 inches or more in length. Tiny little pink and yellow blossoms grow in clusters on the old limbs and on the trunks of the trees. The wee flowers give place to little fruits like baby cucumbers, and in three or four months, if the weather is favourable, these develop into big pods. The clusters of flowers are called "cushions." Notice how very short and slender are the little stalks by which the big pods are attached to the cushions. Big leaves, tiny flowers, big pods, little stalks - do you not find such differences in size of details very striking, and is it not very strange to see fruit pods growing on the trunks of trees? The pods are green until they begin to ripen, when they turn yellow or red, according to the variety of the tree that bears them. The trees by which we are surrounded are, as you know, all members of the Forastero class, variety Amelonado amarillo; consequently, the ripe pods are all yellow. The average length of cocoa pods is from 6 to 12 inches, according to the variety of the tree; actual length and bulk of the pods vary very considerably with weather conditions, as also does the number of pods on a tree. Rain helps to swell the pods, and sun, of course, is needed to ripen them; a cold, dry wind has a shrivelling effect, and young pods are apt to drop off wholesale under such an influence.
The trees begin to flower, as a rule, when they are three years old, and to bear fruit onwards from their fourth year. They should be in full bearing by about their twelfth year. They may live and be productive until they are sixty years old or more, but their length of life depends very much on the way they are treated, particularly as regards the amount of care taken to safeguard them against disease. The trees flower and fruit all the year round. Look carefully at any tree which happens to be near you, and you will find on it flowering "cushions " to which are attached pods in various stages of development, from infancy to maturity. But although there are ripe pods to be gathered at all times of the year, there are special harvest seasons due to the tropical succession of rainy and dry seasons. In the Gold Coast the Big Season begins about the middle of October and lasts until about mid-January; this is followed by a Small Season between March and May or early June.
In most cocoa producing countries a considerable amount of work is regularly done on the land in the way of weeding, pruning, digging, mulching, and manuring, and a great deal of trouble is taken to combat disease.
In the Gold Coast, the great majority of the farmers give their cocoa little or no cultural assistance from one year's end to another, beyond drawing up some of the fallen leaves to the base of the trees - they do not even loosen the soil before applying the mulch. And if disease plays havoc with the trees on one bit of ground, they leave that plot to its fate and plant up a fresh clearing with cocoa. Very often the newly-planted plot is quite close to the abandoned one, which is to say very near a danger source of infection.