Jalingo — Cocoa is West Africa's single most expensive cash crop but those who farm the crop in Taraba live in squalor. The rich loamy and clay soils found around the rainforest parts of Kurmi, Gashaka and Sardauna Local Government Areas of Taraba are ideal for cocoa farming and scores of old farmers do cultivate the crop, mostly out of emotional attachment to the cash crop than the cash it would generate.
Nigeria is the fourth largest cocoa grower in the world but farmers of the crop still grapple with challenges of acquiring inputs like fertilizers, herbicides, and even modernised farm equipments for large scale farming and improved production of the cash crop.
Life for the industrial crop farmers in Taraba is just basic and simply wretched. Alhaji Yero Adaji is a 70-year-old cocoa farmer in Kurmi and can boast of 350 hectares of cocoa plantation but he still lives in penury. He lives in a mud-zinc house in Baissa, headquarters of Kurmi Local Government Area in Taraba State, which he proudly said he built with proceeds from his over 30 years of cocoa farming.His cocoa plantation at Ndaforo, a nearby village with thick undergrowth and towering trees typical of rainforest vegetation, is in ruins. Overgrown bushes and shrubs have stunted the growth of the cocoa plants and the leaves and pods looked blighted.
The frail looking old man admitted he no longer has the strength and the financial resources to clear the about 350 hectares of land, plant new cocoa seedlings, and tend to them.
Adaji explained that cultivating cocoa is tedious work that needs hired labour. "I am old and I do not have the strength to toil on the plantation again. Unfortunately, I do not have the money to employ labour.
"When we first started farming cocoa here about 30 years ago, we had so much hope that we will become big time farmers and our lives would improve but our hopes are now dashed.
"In the late 80s up to the early 90s there were so many prospects for cocoa farming around here. It was then that I accessed a loan of N300, 000 from Nigeria Agricultural Development Bank (NADB), Kaduna. I remember I was given seven years to pay back but I was able to pay up the loan in three years. It was only then that I cultivated the whole field and most of the cocoa trees still on the farm are the ones planted that time," the old farmer said.
He lamented that over the years government has been promising them (cocoa farmers) assistance but year in year out they wait anxiously and nothing happens at the end.
Adaji prepares nursery beds for cocoa seedlings between November and December, when the rains end and between February and March, when the rains resume, the seedlings will grow enough to be transplanted on a well cleared field with enough shed from sunlight.
By April the soil is moist and humid enough for the seedlings to take roots but the old man does not have the strength or the money to employ labourers to clear his land. So, his nursery bed with overgrown seedlings stay abandoned by the stream and his large farm still unkempt, with pest infested dying cocoa trees is a sad story today.
He said being a successful cocoa farmer needs government taking certain initiatives that will encourage farmers.
According to him, cocoa is a lucrative cash crop but it takes a long time to be harvested, and between the time of replanting and harvesting, alot of work and investment must be done on the farm, without which there will be poor yield.
"It takes three to four years before the pods are ripe for plucking and between that time you have to weed, apply fertilizer, spray chemicals and prune branches where necessary, so it takes a lot of time and money to to maintain a cocoa farm.
"Unfortunately for us here, after going through the farming season for three years or more with no fertilizers and chemicals, the little you harvest you end up selling it at give away price because there is no market for it here in the north," he added.
He said because of the challenges of acquiring inputs, he has only once harvested 10 bags of the crop, adding that the fortunes of the farm have dwindled each passing year.
And with the prices of cocoa still very low, with a bag currently selling at about N16,000, old Adaji does not see how the young generation, who are so money conscious will be attracted to the cultivation of the cash crop.
He said the cocoa merchants who come from the south-western part of the country to buy cocoa take advantage of them and buy very cheaply. He said the merchants have admitted that the quality of cocoa produced in Taraba is good, they still do not offer good prices, calling on the government to at least open up market for the crop.
He said Kurmi alone has over five communities, apart from Ndaforo, that farm cocoa, some namely, Amburu, Maihula, Asha, Dembo, Abong and Sabon Gida, lamenting that efforts to form cooperatives have failed over the years.
He however said he has benefited a lot from banana, plantain, pineapples, kola nut and orange crops he has planted on the farm as shed for the cocoa plants in the small part of the farm that he manages to maintain.
At Gashaka too, the story is the same. The vast expanse of land, especially at the foothills of the Mambilla Plateau, the soil type, the climate and the vegetation provide ideal environment for the production of cocoa but farmers face enormous challenges that discourage them from farming the crop.
Johnson Aminu is a 63-year-old farmer at Mayo Salbe, a rustic village lying on the northwestern slopes of the awesome Mambilla Plateau. He has farmed cocoa for the past 10 years but he has remained poor.
Over the years, his harvests have been poorer and poorer. His about four hectares of farmland have never produced more than one bag of cocoa. He said getting farm inputs that will improve the yield of the crop is a problem.
Garbed in tattered attire, the bearded farmer said he does not get fertilizers to apply on his cocoa farm nor herbicides or pesticides.
"We don't get fertilizers to apply on our farms but that is not so much a problem because the land is fertile. Our biggest problem is that of pesticides and herbicides that will help us control pests and weeds.
"We incur so much loss on our farms because at very tender stage, some of the cocoa trees are eaten up by termites and other insects. At pre-harvest stage too some insects blight the pods, and sometimes, monkeys eat up every ripe pod on the farm resulting in poor harvest at the end.
He explained that at Gashaka the amount of rainfall is not as high as that of Kurmi, he starts planting his cocoa trees in June, and also plants banana, oranges and mangoes where there are no trees, and the cocoa plants are exposed to direct sunshine.
He also said because of the texture of the soil, particularly clay soil, the cocoa plants need much watering at the early stage for them not to wither and die, making the whole farming project tedious and more capital intensive.
He lamented burning during dry season as a big challenge for him, saying that he lost over one hectare of his four-hectare cocoa farm to fire, leaving some of the trees charred, dry and unproductive.
"The little we harvest, buyers come from the south and cheat us right in our homes. They refuse to buy in bags. They bring big basins and claim that is the standard measure and they also fix the prices at their whims. No amount of bargaining on our part changes anything and we sell because we are poor and we need the money no matter how meager," Johnson said.
He added that they had formed an association at Gashaka but since it was not helping them to procure fertilizers, chemicals and other farm inputs, and add market value to their cocoa, every farmer has decided to go his own way.
He said since there is no motivation from government, farmers are gradually losing interest in cultivating cocoa, stressing that the Aminu Johnsons, Benjamin Atsus and Donald Yohanna Wadis are ageing and there is a possibility that soon cocoa farmers in Gashaka will be extinct.
Sunday Istifanus Fanan is the head of department of Crop Production at the College of Agriculture, Jalingo and he told our correspondent that cocoa as an important cash and industrial crop in West Africa has high prospects in Taraba because the two varieties mostly grown in Africa do well in different parts of the state.
He said both criollo and forester varieties do well on clay or loamy soils across the state where the crop is cultivated. He however, added that an improved variety, actually, a cross breed called amazon is the type grown in other parts of the country now, but was not sure if the old farmers in the state are aware of the development.
He acknowledged that there are challenges cocoa farmers in the state are facing, which require urgent government's intervention.
"Cocoa is a cash crop so it is when farmers grow it on a large scale that they make profit and for farmers to grow it in large quantities, they need money to access modern farm equipment for to clearing big farmlands.
"Also, because cocoa only thrives in areas with high rainfall and humidity but because of low temperature, rapid growth of grasses, after planting, the farmer needs herbicides to clear weeds and other chemicals to control pests because they similarly have fevourable temperature to thrive," he explained.
He enumerated other problems cocoa farmers in Taraba face as unavailability of fertilizers at affordable price at the right time, erosion in some areas due to high rainfall, lack of a nearby market where the harvested cocoa beans can be sold and poor road networks to the farm sites.
Fanan said government needs to cultivate cocoa plantations at Gashaka, Kurmi and Sardauna and employ youths, most of who are trained by the college, to man the farms.
"Cocoa producing areas in Taraba are difficult terrains and if plantations are not opened up, with the necessary facilities, the younger generation supposed to take over from the aged farmers would not go to live in such remote places. Young people, even those we train here at the college are running away from farming because there is no government encouragement, and in the case of cocoa specifically, there is no market for it in Taraba," he said.