(Jamaica Gleaner) MORANT BAY, ST Thomas: Operations at the 685-acre pure stand coconut property at Nutts River in Morant Bay, St Thomas, which has diversified its operations from copra production to cold press virgin coconut oil and the bottling of coconut water, is worth going miles to see.
The father-son team of Michael and Stephen Black has positioned Michael Black Farms Ltd to capitalise on the renewed demand for coconut oil and the growing thirst for the water, 70 per cent of which is exported.
Even at peak production, they are unable to meet the demand for both products, but it hasn’t always been that way. Michael recalls the devastation wrought by Hurricane Gilbert on September 12, 1988.
“We used to reap on average about 100,000 nuts per week, and Gilbert came along and swiped 44,000 trees and those that were left were badly damaged. It came on a Monday and when we came up here the Tuesday, we decided we were still going to stay in coconuts.”
To most people, this did not make sense, especially given the critical shortage of planting material and the average payback time of seven years before trees would be expected to start bearing. Then there would be the ever-present threat of praedial larceny, and so intercropping with bananas was necessary to provide some income. So for all intents and purposes, the decision to plant pure stand coconut did not make economic sense, but Michael Black would not be deterred. After all, they had operated four copra houses before the hurricane.
With the help of the Coconut Industry Board, he was able to gather some 25,000 seeds to start a nursery. Thereafter, his team set out on an extensive replanting programme, putting in 60,000 trees, pushing down the damaged ones, and planting in areas that had not been cultivated before. In order to focus solely on coconuts, Michael took the decision then to get out of beef cattle rearing.
He remembers those trying days: “It took us some time to go fully back into production, and shortly after-wards, coconut water was starting
to take off and we used to sell coconuts to the higglers and the people who bottle. So we started our coconut water bottling business some 15 years now, and by being able to take off all our coconuts, we were able to export green dwarfs abroad. We would sell the nuts to nurseries in Miami and other places abroad where they would propagate them and grow out the seedlings.”
ramped up production
Anticipating a growing demand for the Blacks ramped up production, only to find themselves unable to offload their bonanza of nuts. The Americans. especially, would buy during the summer months, but come winter, there were no sales. So for at least half of the year, they were not doing much business, except for supplying their own needs. They were selling to other countries such as The Bahamas and The Cayman Islands, but not enough to compensate for the fallout in sales from the United States.
“I couldn’t absorb the amount I had, and it came to us that if we went into the oil business, we could use the product right around the year,” Michael explained.
This decision was informed by Stephen’s visit to The Philippines, where, in addition to witnessing the cold-press method of extracting oil, he was exposed to the use of coconut by-products on a level he had never imagined.
“I then came back here and set up a factory to remove and use the dried coconut in the oil business where we started this cold-press thing, and from that, the rest is history,” he told The Gleaner.
The coconut is grated using electric graters and placed on heated tin sheets (fire underneath) where it is rotated until most of the moisture is removed. The coconut flakes are placed in containers to cool overnight before being put into the press, which extracts pure, or virgin, oil. This is left to settle for some time and then strained and bottled on site. It is marketed under the Miss Dawn label, a tribute to Michael’s first wife and Stephen’s mother.
Michael admits that there is a serious price difference between the cold-press oil and the one produced by the traditional method of boiling the coconut ‘milk’. And with good reason, given that it takes on average between 125 and 130 nuts to generate a gallon of oil using the newer method.
With the seven-tables factory processing in excess of 500 coconuts each and running from Monday to Friday, there are plans to expand the operation as the factory is still struggling to meet demand.