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Why cassava growing is a labour of love

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When Gabre and Deborah Swan describe their cassava pie as a labour of love, they aren't kidding.

They grow the cassava root themselves, organically. That involves tending it for two years before they can dig it up, peel it, grate it, and bake a vegan version of the traditional Bermudian Christmas pie.

“I love my cassava pie,” said Mr Swan.

They sell the root and have such a long list of orders they're not accepting any more this season.

“I might have to ask some people who have large orders to cut back on a few pounds so that other people on my list can be accommodated,” Mr Swan said.

He believes there's less cassava available on the Island. As a result, the local root is harder to come by.

Mr Swan could only name a handful of other farmers growing it for sale.

He farms a total of five acres of land in Smith's and Hamilton Parish. He's been growing cassava since 1980. At one point it was one of his main crops; he was growing as much as 1,500lbs.

These days, he grows much less. The broccoli, potatoes, beans, Swiss chard, carrots, onions and other vegetables he grows are all without chemical fertilisers or pesticides.

“I started growing organically because of my Rastafarian beliefs,” said Mr Swan.

“We believe in doing things in a natural way.”

Although organic farming can sound charming and trendy, it is the equivalent of facing a marauding army using the turn the other cheek method of resistance.

Aphids, chickens and cutworms are just a few of the pests the Swans face down. Cut worms will mow a crop without actually eating anything. Feral chickens wreck havoc.

“We also have the elements to deal with, thieves and what's left is ours,” said Mrs Swan, philosophically.

Mr Swan believes that by letting the attacks “run their course” the plants actually grow stronger and more resistant to bugs.

“I have accepted that losing some plants to insects is a part of the life I live,” he said. “You win some; you lose some. That is life. If the storm came and wiped my crop out, I would say, it's not meant for me to have this lot. So I start all over again.”

Mr Swan said cassava doesn't really require much in the way of fertilisers, anyway.

Cassava, a long, starchy root known as manioc, originated in South America. It takes about two years to harvest. “It is not a high-maintenance crop,” he said. “You care for it like a child. You do the best you can when it is young so it will grow big and strong and able to handle things on its own.”

Cassava is certainly high-maintenance when it comes out of the ground. Sometimes the Swans need to get help from friends to dig it up.

“These days I am closer to 60 than to 50 years old,” said Mr Swan, with a smile and a shrug.

The Swans have a machine to grate the root. In the old days, people grated it by hand — a long and tedious process.

“We try our best to stay as close to the earth as possible,” said Mrs Swan. “Whatever we put in there we try to make sure it is all natural.”

She described gardening as very peaceful.

“Sometimes when we are out here we can almost see things growing,” she said. “You might come in the morning and things have sprouted up. Then you go away and come back in the afternoon and the sprouts are higher.”

Mr Swan said living this way was a great preventive health measure.

“That is the whole reason why we do this,” he said.

“We are human, but to try to prevent sickness we try to eat as healthy as possible. The satisfaction is I have my sanity and that sense of peacefulness within myself.”

The Swans are regulars at the Farmer's Market in the JJ Outerbridge Building at the Botanical Gardens from 8am to 1pm every Saturday.

Cassava lovers: Gabre and Deborah Swan proudly survey their farm
Frankie McIntosh helping the Swans to peel cassava with his son Rock.
Bermuda roots: Cassava waiting to be peeled
Swan shows off the fruits of his labour
Gabre and Deborah Swan check their crops (Photo by Akil Simmons)
A cassava root is pulled from the ground

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Published December 16, 2014 at 8:00 am (Updated December 15, 2014 at 11:48 pm)

Why cassava growing is a labour of love

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