A Green [Organic] Valley in Grenada

Paul Crask visits the organic agri-tourism attraction Belmont Estate

A selection of Belmont Estate’s fine organic chocolate. Photograph by Celia SorhaindoDrying cocoa beans. Photograph by Celia SorhaindoOpening a cocoa pod. Photograph by Celia SorhaindoOwner of Belmont Estate, Shadel Nyack Compton. Photograph by Joel Peters

“Try the goat’s cheese. It’s amazing.”

Shadel Nyack Compton, managing director of Belmont Estate, is buzzing with enthusiasm. She tells me that not only is the goat’s cheese delicious, but it is also completely natural and made on the estate, from the milk of a herd of thoroughbreds that roam a large paddock on the hillside above the ambrosial restaurant that we are sharing with a busload of tourists.

Between the pastoral villages of Hermitage and Tivoli, the 400-acre Belmont Estate lies among the lush hills of Grenada’s scenic northeastern parish of St Patrick. Its history can be traced to the late 1600s when French settlers grew coffee here. A century later, when Grenada was ceded to Britain, the estate successively became the property of two British families, the Aitchesons and the Houstons, who grew sugar, cotton, cocoa, nutmeg and bananas. In 1944 it was purchased by the Nyacks, an entrepreneurial Grenadian family of Indian descent who lived in Hermitage.

In 2002, Nyack Compton, granddaughter of Norbert and Lyris Nyack, opened the gates to the public, and Belmont became both a functioning estate and a pioneering agri-tourism business.

“Necessity was the mother of invention,” she said.  “I had to find a way to revitalise the estate and ensure its financial viability and sustainability.

“The plan was to showcase our farm and beautiful environment, our products, processes and people, while at the same time adding fun, education, cuisine, culture and tradition. If we could integrate all this into the agricultural work we were already doing, we would have an agri-tourism enterprise.

“I studied several successful models in the Caribbean, South and Central America, Europe and the US, and continue to do so.  It has helped me to plan and structure our product, to appreciate what works and how to best present it.”

Just up the road in Hermitage, the Grenada Chocolate Factory had been founded by environmental idealist Mott Green, and was making chocolate from organically grown cocoa. Green was looking for a local supplier, and in 2000 Nyack Compton boldly decided to make the transition to organic cocoa production. In 2003, Belmont Estate’s cocoa farm was certified organic.

But then Hurricane Ivan struck Grenada in 2004. The devastation was dreadful. Homes, crops and livelihoods were decimated, and recovery for Grenada’s agriculture industry remains a constant swim against the tide, especially for the once burgeoning nutmeg sector.

“All of our new tourism facilities were destroyed, along with 80 per cent of our nutmegs,” said Nyack Compton. “There was severe structural damage to our cocoa fermentary, cocoa drying trays, greenhouses and nurseries.  The plantation house was obliterated and I was forced to close the tourism component of the business for three years. Most of our agricultural production and processing facilities were also lost.”

I wondered if she had felt like giving up on agriculture, as others had done.

“Giving up never crossed my mind,” she said. “I had to think and act quickly and rationally. We had to be positive and look at this as an opportunity to review and redesign from the ground up.

“Since then we have invested about US$1.5 million in the rehabilitation of our agricultural fields and the reconstruction of buildings and other infrastructure.”

The cocoa trees had weathered the storm marginally better than nutmegs, and their recovery time was much shorter, so they became Belmont’s main product. Organic nutmeg and other spices still feature strongly in future plans, however, though Nyack Compton does not expect nutmeg harvests to return to pre-Ivan levels for another eight years.

“Organic agriculture and ‘slow foods’ have become our philosophy and ethos. Our mantra is: good, clean and fair. Good food that is fresh and tasty. Clean, because it is grown naturally, in its own time and free of chemicals. Fair, because we respect social justice and compensate everyone involved in the process fairly. There’s no other way.”

Before lunch I had been given a tour of the estate and had met farmers, cooks, cheese- and chocolate-makers and, of course, those goats. I had found other animals here too, including parrots, mona monkeys, and red-legged tortoises, or morocoys. The salient impression of Belmont was that it was a place of genuine happiness, and I was impressed by the candour of contented and enthusiastic workers who have devoted much of their lives to the estate and who share the intimate bond of family.

Much of this is due to Nyack Compton’s philanthropic nature. The local people she employs have been with her for much of her journey, and they seem as important to her as the success of the business itself. She speaks of her extended Belmont family with maternal tenderness and affection. On a more formal footing, her Belmont Foundation helps local families afford food, schoolbooks and uniforms.

Now a popular visitor attraction, Belmont’s organic agri-tourism experience preserves colourful traditions such as “walking” and “dancing” the cocoa, and the tree-to-bar tour takes visitors on a scrumptious journey from cocoa pod to chocolate bar via the irresistible Grenada Chocolate Factory bonbon shop.

“We still have a very strong and complementary relationship with the Grenada Chocolate Company,” said Nyack Compton.  “We are their biggest supplier and we do all the primary processing of cocoa in preparation for chocolate-making. We recently constructed new cocoa storage facilities, we have introduced innovative solar-drying mechanisms, and we now have the bonbon shop, of course.”

In 2007, initiated by Mott Green, the Grenada Organic Cocoa Farmers Co-operative Society was registered, and in 2011 the non-profit Grenada Organic Agriculture Movement (GOAM), of which Nyack Compton is a director, was incorporated.

“We made the switch when there was no national organic movement. Many farmers were sceptical and believed organic farming was fine for backyards, but that it couldn’t produce commercial yields and profits.

“But we believed in it, and our tenacity has paid off. Grenada’s organic movement is stronger now and gaining momentum.

“We still face the challenge of convincing more local farmers of the benefits of making the transition and adopting organic principles, but GOAM has the full support of the government and, with certification and labelling, farmers should be able to enjoy the price differentiation that organic foods can usually attract.”

Now that it’s organically managed throughout, after a lengthy and costly journey, when does Nyack Compton think Belmont Estate will begin reaping the rewards of its new philosophy?

“Actually, we are already producing 50 per cent more cocoa than we did prior to Hurricane Ivan. And we fully intend to become the best organic agri-tourism experience in the Caribbean.”

Belmont Estate is between Hermitage and Tivoli, Grenada. Guided tours are available from US$5 per person. www.belmontestate.net