Not just a handshake and a photo op

La Siembra Producer visit in Dominican Republic

By Josiane Paquet

At La Siembra, we think that the best way to learn when visiting our producers comes from feeling, seeing, doing, touching, tasting, and most important, listening.

Learning comes from conversations at dinner after a long day of work. It comes from a sore back because you were trying to reach a cacao pod with a long, skinny stick, way up a tree. It comes from emotions, tearing up hearing how a hurricane, in nineteen eighty something, nearly wiped out the neighbours’ homes and destroyed many crops. Learning by immersing ourselves into the everyday life of producers is how we like to experience our producer trips. 

This past April, four of La Siembra’s worker-owners travelled to the region of San Cristobal in the south west of the Dominican Republic. It is a very lush area, fertile for cacao as well as tasty fruit and beautiful flowers. Poverty is very present and safety is an ongoing concern for locals as well as visitors, but the hearts of our hosts were warm and incredibly welcoming. My colleague Isabel and I were wholeheartedly received by Efrain and Dominica, in whose home we stayed for 3 days and 2 nights.

Efrain, in his 70s, has the physique of a 40-year-old who goes to the gym every day. His silver hair contrasts with his dark skin, and his smile is honest and friendly. He is hard working and a natural community leader. His innate sense for business has taken him far, despite his limited education. He is a past president of the Board of Directors for FUNDOPO – Fundación Dominicana de Productores Organicos – a co-operative association of approximately 1800 small-scale farmers, and the current area coordinator for Loma Verde, coordinating about 26 producers. 

Efrain, called Frao for short (his actual name is Frederico – talk about nicknames!), inherited the land from his father. Back in the day, the farmers were producing cacao but didn’t really know its value. As cacao cannot really be cooked and eaten as a vegetable or a fruit, they would sell to buyers who came around, for little money. Efrain who always had a co-operative spirit, originally organized with two of his neighbours. He would buy their cacao and sell all harvests to the buyers.

Frao works the land with his wife, adult children and, sometimes, the grandkids after school. Unfortunately, not all of them go to school, to Frao’s great disappointment. His deepest belief is that hard work always pays off. It’s the root of his life and what he teaches his family. He also believes that family is the future and without family you have nothing. “Your kids are the ones who will work the land to keep the revenues coming and take care of you when you get old.” Seniors cannot rely on the Dominican government for pension and support.

Frao is a man with a lot of drive. At 50 and with a grade 4 education, he decided he was going back to school, and then to college for a business program. Despite circumstances and obstacles, he made it to 7th grade. He was going to school via the radio, and after 3 years the program folded. He decided that he had accomplished a lot and that his education was not the only factor for his success. His business sense, relationships, and the trust of his neighbours and community had taken him to where he was and he knew could still do more.

Dominica, whom everyone calls Negra, is a lively and loud woman with a million stories to tell. She told those tales and grabbed our full attention by her dramatic facial expressions, gestures and intonations. Even when we didn’t understand a word, they were always captivating stories (even when it was about her old washing machine working better than everyone else’s new machines!). She wears colourful scarves in her hair, and she often sings her words when she talks and has a great sense of humour. She is a focused woman. Don’t ask her to stop cleaning her floor for a photo. You better wait until she’s done! Negra is Frao’s partner in the business and she takes notes when the producers bring in their harvests. Together they lead a large family, who mainly lives right around them.

Their house is a hub. There is a flow of visitors, especially during the evenings. It’s the producers bringing in their harvests, it’s their sons, daughters, nieces, grand and great grandkids. Efrain loves nothing more than seeing everyone. Added to the usual hustle and bustle is the gentle presence of their 11-year-old granddaughter Ifraimy and their great grandson Darien, who is 3. Frao and Negra take care of those two sweet kids as if they were their own. Frao has immense love for his family and believes they are the basis for a good life.     

The best thing about Frao is his laugh. A mischievous, raspy, contagious and enormously joyful laugh that reveals the little kid inside is alive and well. Talk to him about going dancing and having a couple of cold beverages, and he giggles and lights up. He and Negra surely spent many nights burning the rustic dance floors in their days. Frao truly enjoys life, and values family, love and hard work over everything.

When we at La Siembra visit producers, we want to get to know them, understand what their joys and difficulties are. They are proud of their farms and working hard to improve them. Our visits and interest in them is an encouragement. They don’t need our validation as they already get it from providing for their families and giving themselves a good life, but I think knowing that we are there, counting on their good quality cacao, gives them motivation and a bit of an extra pat on the back.

They are always impressed to see the chocolate bars that contain their cacao, but they don’t always like the taste! We North Americans sure like our sugar and flavours! The farmers tell us that the chocolate they make at home is the best, of course, as they are used to a simpler, pure cacao taste.

As our weeklong visit was coming to an end, we had a last group meeting, and this is when these amazing producers really gave us the best present. They told us that they are proud to receive visitors from different countries, who come in to shake their hands, visit their fields and snap some pictures. There is a lot of interest in cacao. But they especially wanted to thank us at La Siembra for our interest in them personally, for taking the time to get to know them. We were the first to ask if we could stay in their homes, help with the harvest and experience their work with them. It touched them deeply, as it did us. We really felt we should be thanking them for letting us into their homes and in turn, there they were thanking us. Needless to say, everyone was in tears! 

At La Siembra, all our hard work is done with the producers in mind. We want to sell more products in order to buy more of their delicious cacao, so they in turn have a better income for their families. Producer visits are so important to make those personal connections. Knowing they feel just as privileged to meet us as we are privileged to meet them is incredibly rewarding and motivating. It is tangible proof that our work is valuable, and that the only thing to do is to do more. Our visits are not only a handshake and a photo op but they create long-lasting connections. I don’t know when we are going to see them again, but I know I’ll probably be talking to Frao next weekend as he usually calls to say hello! 

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