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Wednesday, October 5, 2022

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by Khaila Gentle BELIZE CITY, Thurs. Sept. 29,...

Maybe I was wrong

FeaturesMaybe I was wrong

Ouch, my best efforts to keep my word count down didn’t get the job done, so I cut off the rather lengthy preamble which dealt with how I anguish over past failures, be they big or be they small. This story is long, despite my breaking off many threads as they began to unravel so that I could keep the focus on a single thread, a decision I made, why I made it, and why, yes, I do have some regret that, someone has held animosity toward me for it.

It is my hope that this story finds its way to this person, and while I’m not about forgiveness, it is my hope to give him some perspective on a matter that might have caused him pain and, I guess maybe, some embarrassment too.

At the beginning of the state of emergency I went to pick up some items in a shop and I was coming up the aisle toward the main cashier when my eyes landed on a couple, a man, let’s call him John (not his name), and his wife, waiting to make payment for some items they had picked up.

Okay, on approaching the cashier I saw John and his wife out of the corner of my eye, and I looked in his direction, briefly, to acknowledge him, but as I was turning my eyes flush toward the gentleman I saw him grimace and abruptly turn his head away. Oops! I hate to be the ruin of anyone’s day, so I immediately changed direction and headed to a line that was being attended by another cashier, to give him his space.

In 1978, after graduating from the Belize School of Agriculture, I went to work at Hummingbird Hershey Ltd. (HHL), a cacao farm on the Hummingbird Highway. The big boss at HHL, the late Norris E. Wade, was partial to me, gave me the run of the farm, maybe because I was a fresh horse to pull the cart. Hmm, I will say that I was no slacker in the field. Yap.

Briefly, my first job was to survey all the blocks on the plantation – HHL was a relatively new enterprise on an old cacao plantation – and I literally ran through that survey job with my able assistant, Mr. Nicholas Santos, from San Antonio, Cayo.

In September 1978, Hurricane Greta struck HHL, a direct or near direct hit I think, and down went the best laid plans of men. At the time there were 80,000 cacao plants sitting in HHL’s nursery that we had just begun setting out in the fields. At the time of the hurricane there was an ongoing program to prune, with chainsaws, all the salvageable trees in the old blocks. Immediately after the hurricane HHL purchased some more chainsaws and we set about a major exercise to cut up and pile the fallen trees in windows, the boss tabbing me as the one in charge.

Our target was to complete the rehabilitation of the farm by mid-December, so we could get on with the planting. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the names of those guys behind those chainsaws, because while I was looking good, they were the true heroes. All day, up til late in the evenings, Mervin Armstrong, Philip Rubio, Sr., Philip Rubio, Jr., Joe Ingram, and Raymond Warren had those Homelite chainsaws humming through the broken limbs and trunks of fallen cacao, and madre de cacao (a shade tree for cacao plants).

Cacao grows best under some forest cover, and the hurricane had denuded the plantation of the main shade trees, so the managers of the farm put in plantain suckers as temporary shade. By December, when we were ready to start planting cacao again, the plantains hadn’t grown enough to provide sufficient cover for the sun-sensitive cacao seedlings, so our guys had to cut cohune fronds and make little shades to help the plants survive through the upcoming dry season.

Okay, HHL had 80,000 cacao seedlings to put down and provide shade for between mid-December and mid-February, two months, and yes, I was in charge of getting them spotted in the field, planted, and shaded.

We had some problems. The farm had two tractors and two trailers and they were not up to the workload of delivering the plants to the fields. The farm also had a truck, but that wasn’t released to help speed up the delivery of plants often enough. The consequence of this failure was that sometimes there were contract workers in the fields, with no plants to carry or set down.

The second problem had to do with the plants. HHL was an experimental farm and there were a number of varieties of cacao they were researching. Apparently many of the plants were slow to develop a good root system to hold the potting mixture, and when we put them in the field the ball crumbled. Holding the ball of soil together was important because the trees wouldn’t last through the dry season if the roots were bare. The managers decided that for those plants that didn’t have a good ball we should slice the bags on three sides, and on the bottom.

Maybe I brought the last problem on myself. I could have gotten more money for the planting operation, but my survey of the farm had showed me that different areas demanded different rates. I felt that when we needed a little extra, it wouldn’t be a problem. Color me naïve, at that young age, to the ways of people who keep the numbers in books.

The job was no stroll in the park. The farm wasn’t fully prepared for it. It was all day jamming—doing the best with what we had until the dry weather overtook us.

The first blocks we planted were a soft spot, easy earnings for the workers, but then we got into some difficult blocks, and until we crossed into a new area we were up against it. We entered the tough blocks and every day we were not getting the plants supplied on time. On top of that, the spotters weren’t making any money because some rows had rejuvenated trees springing from old stock so many new plants weren’t needed.

So, I went for a slight rate increase to get us through. Keeping it bare bones, my boss told me that the people managing the money did not support my request to up the rate for the spotters. If I recall correctly, with my back against the wall I made the decision to take one cent per plant from the planters and give it to the plant spotters.

Of course the planters weren’t happy, but the rate change being only for a few blocks, I thought we could get by. I knew they would still be making fair wages because they were putting down 3,000 plants a day, if we could keep the flow of plants to the fields. After that decision I spent a lot more time pushing the supply of plants than I spent in the fields helping my field captains with their supervision.

The third day after I made the rate change, I set out for the fields very early in the morning. Before I got there I got word that all was not right.

I had two gangs of planters, the larger one, about twenty-five guys, with one captain, and the smaller one, about eight guys, with one captain. John was one of the planters in this smaller gang. The captain was his dad.

I went to the field where the larger group was working, and when I got there I began digging up plants. More than 50% of the plants had gone into the ground without the bags being cut. I asked the captain if he knew what the men were doing, and he told me he did not.

I then went to the field where the small group was working, and started digging up plants. Again, more than 50% of the plants had gone into the ground without the bags being cut. I didn’t ask the captain if he knew what the men were doing. My numbers said that it was impossible for that smaller gang to do a bad job without his knowledge.

I told John and his dad to collect their pay. I didn’t do that out of any kind of malice; I did what I believed I had to do. I then went and collected my gears and then I went to my boss and told him how I had messed up. He told me that at some time we would have to rectify what had happened. He then said that I should put it behind me. I told him I wasn’t about putting it behind me. I told him that I should be fired, and if he was too soft to do it I would resign. But I preferred that he fire me because that is what I deserved.

My boss talked me out of leaving, and after I decided to stay on the job I went out and enquired after John and his dad, but they had already left the farm. It can’t be any consolation, but I would have taken them back. I would have taken them back, not because I believed my decision was unfair, but because in my mind I had the most guilt for what had happened, and I was staying.

All I can say today, so many years later, is that I did what I thought was right. But, maybe I was wrong.

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