A Walk Up to Cochrane Dominica: Hot Farms, Warm Friends and Cool Mountains!

Jenny captures some of Dominica's verdant splendour during a walk to Cochrane from Springfield.

Jenny captures some of Dominica’s verdant splendour during a walk to Cochrane from Springfield.

On a beautiful March day during Dominica’s ‘dry season’, Jenny Spencer and I took a long uphill walk from Springfield Plantation to the mountain village of Cochrane.  I had arranged a visit with Karen Sutherland of Roots Farm so that we could have a good look at her  nearby organic garden.  Jenny is a volunteer  researcher from the Zoological Society of London who is assisting  the local Forestry and Wildlife Division  with efforts to save the critically endangered mountain chicken (Crapaud) frog.  She was curious to discover the origin of some of the delicious produce that she had enjoyed during her sojourns on the Nature Island and I was happy to take her there!

We set off in bright early morning sunshine and steadily climbed  a smooth but steep back road located  a short distance  west

A westerly view of high hillson the back road to Cochrane.  The Caribbean Sea is somewhere just beyond those massifs!

A westerly view of high hills from the back road to Cochrane. The Caribbean Sea is somewhere just beyond those massifs!

of Springfield.  In days gone by, I had walked on this road and its connectors to the Middleham Falls trail-head, which is situated above the village of Cochrane.  During that era, I could hike directly to that beautiful cascade and back to Springfield in about five hours return. Of course, it is shorter and more  easily accessible from the Laudat area, but I’ve done it recently from that side. I think that I should go there from Springfield again very soon, and take Jenny along for the fun! Maybe I can convince Karen too, however, I know that it is not easy to take a day off from all that is required for the smooth manual operation of an organic farm on a tropical island!

Jenny pauses at four corners just below our destination.  While we were headed for Roots Farm, we wer also close to the road to the Middleham Falls trailhead.

Jenny pauses at four corners just below our destination. While we were headed for Roots Farm, we were also close to the road to the Middleham Falls trail-head.

As we trekked upwards from the edge of the rainforest at 1,200 feet to our destination of 1,600 feet, we paused in a few places to take in the wondrous sights around us: mountains in all directions, swathed in all shades of green contrasted perfectly with the stunningly blue sky and cottony clouds on that lovely day in paradise.  After about 45 minutes, we approached Karen’s home and surrounding garden.  She noticed us on the nearby track, and ran out to meet and greet us, with a big smile and a warm hug for each of us!

We chatted in the shade for a few minutes, met the farm dogs and then walked around the corner of her house to admire the awesome view before us.  While the mountains were shrouded in clouds at that moment, the cool breezes that blew directly  from  the pristine Morne Trois Pitons National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) immediately refreshed us. Karen pointed to an area at a higher elevation where her partner Roy and a worker were toiling in another section of their farm.  In the wind, she said she could hear voices coming from that direction.

White cottony clouds shrouded the mountains in teh area around Middleham Falls, as seen from Karen's back yard.

White cottony clouds shrouded the mountains in the area around Middleham Falls, as seen from Karen’s back yard.

From there, we commenced our garden tour. When Karen started to tell us about the prolific plants and trees around us, we were interrupted by squawks and

A Jaco Parrot perched above us as we tourd Karen's organic garden.

A noisy Jaco Parrot perched above us as we toured Karen’s organic garden.

shrieks overhead. We looked up and Karen pointed to a Jaco  (Red-Necked Amazon) Parrot, perched on a leafless (seasonal) tree a short distance away.  She told us that this endemic bird and its numerous feathered friends had made plenty of noise lately.  She suspected there was a special reason for the ruckus, possibly mating season, but we would have to confirm that with a Forestry Officer.  In any event, Karen said it was entertaining to observe their antics, despite the clamor. This particular breed, whose numbers were once declining seems to be making a come-back, which is certainly an encouraging sign.

This lovely papaya tree in the Root Farm gardenseems to have perfect symmetry!  Photo taken by Jenny Spencer.

This lovely papaya tree in the Roots Farm garden seems to have perfect symmetry! Photo taken by Jenny Spencer.

We admired a beautiful papaya tree in the brilliant sunlight, while munching on an assortment of basils, which thrive in this mountain garden. As we carefully walked through it and Karen pointed out various plants in various stages of growth, she picked various leaves

Holy Gteen Basil grows prolifically in the Roots Farm garden.  It is renowned as a botannical health remedy.  Photo taken by Jenny Spencer.

Holy Red Basil grows prolifically in the Roots Farm garden. It is renowned as a botanical health remedy. Photo taken by Jenny Spencer.

for our taste enjoyment of this particular herb.  We savoured several flavours from some basil varieties: Cinnamon, Holy Green, Holy Red, Malaysian, East Indian, Lemon, Thai, Anise and even Blue Spice that tastes like bubblegum! I definitely got my quota of daily greens during that garden tour!

As Karen shared her phenomenal knowledge about plants, it was apparent that operating a small organic farm

Karen has a genuine love for her work and a firm belief in healthy environment and way of life, for the good of the planet and everyone who lives on it!

Karen has a genuine love for her work and a firm belief in a healthy environment and way of life, for the good of the planet and everyone who lives on it!

without machines or chemicals of any kind is definitely very hard work.  Even though Karen was dealing with a back challenge that day, she never stopped moving while she took us around the plot.

 Foreground: Asian greens, Fennel, Sweet Peppers, Culantro, Basil Background: Shimonita Scallions, Basil (vartious types) Visible trees: Cherry, Carambola, Moringa, Sapodilla, Papaya

Foreground: Asian greens, Fennel, Sweet Peppers, Culantro, Basil
Background: Shimonita Scallions, Basil (various types)
Visible trees: Cherry, Carambola, Moringa, Sapodilla, Papaya

An Avocado tree in flower attracted bees and bananquits  to its blossoms.

On the Cochrane Back Road, a fragrant Avocado tree in flower attracted bees and bananaquits to its blossoms.


Sometimes, she harvested a long bean, occasionally, she pulled a weed, once, she righted a plant that had toppled.  But it was clear that she truly loves what she does and I and many others on Dominica are so grateful to partake of the pure fruits of her labours! She also seems

These jicama shoots hold promise for goodness to come!  I think Karen is the only person on Dominica who grows this tasty vegetable.

These jicama shoots hold promise for goodness to come! I think Karen is the only person on Dominica who grows this tasty vegetable.

to have some fun experimenting with plants that are not endemic to Dominica, such as strawberries. I bought a plant from her several months ago, and even though I live almost at sea level where it is much warmer, it is actually bearing fruit! Her seeds are organic and non GMO, of course!

THis young pumpkin has a way to go before harvest.  I have seen Roots Farm pumpkins that weight more than 20 lbs!

This young pumpkin has a way to go before harvest. I have seen Roots Farm pumpkins that weigh more than 20 lbs!

Her pumpkin variety is sweet and flavourful.  Many people rave about its wonderful taste!

I simply marveled at all that she and Roy had done as I admired the abundance that surrounded us  at  Roots Farm garden that fine day.


Karen says this is a weed — likely Horehound Family, but I think it’s really pretty, even if it is not a flower!

Snake Gourd flower. Kind of cool!

A Snake Gourd flower. Kind of cool!

Pretty pineapples flourished in the Roots Farm garden in Cochrane.

Pretty pineapples flourished in the Roots Farm garden in Cochrane.

Interestingly, when queried by Jenny, Karen did mention that she has seen  worrying changes in the environment  over the years as evidenced in a number of ways on the farm.

She mentioned that plants may flower more quickly, and are  then too young to have the foliage to support their flower/fruit/seed production, as one concern.  Karen also noted that there is typically no longer a clear distinction between the wet season and the dry season in Dominica.  This makes it very difficult for farmers to plan what to plant when, as some crops need to mature in dryer weather. “If  [the] historical probability of dry weather is no longer valid, there is a risk for the farmer of losing that crop,” which results in greater total risks (financial, logistical, emotional, etc.). Her examples suggest to me that climate change/global warming is having an adverse effect on the planet, no matter where one lives. That pronouncement certainly gave me food for thought as I reflected on my lifestyle and its (hopefully mostly beneficial) impact on the earth.

After a couple of hours of reverie in this delightful place, Jenny summed up our experience  at Roots Farm this way: “Every minute in the garden was awesome – the plants, bees, parrots, sunshine and fresh mountain breeze – no wonder the Roots Farm produce tastes so good!”

We parted company with Karen after a brief meditation facing those incredible mountains in Dominica’s interior.  While walking down the Cochrane Back

Karen and Jenny pose in Karen's back yard, with Morne Micotrin in the distance.

Karen and Jenny pose in Karen’s back yard, with Morne Micotrin in the distance.

Morne Micotrin (Macaque) figures prominently when the clouds lift, as seen from Karen's corner of upper Cochrane Village.

Morne Micotrin (Macaque) near Laudat figures prominently when the clouds lift, as seen from Karen’s corner of upper Cochrane Village.

Road en route to Springfield, we shared  our  mutual feelings of respect, admiration and appreciation for Karen and Roy’s exceptional efforts to promote and realize organic  agriculture on the Nature Island .




Karen Sutherland and Roots Farm: Sustainable Living on the Nature Island*

Roots Farm is found every Saturday at the Roseau Farmer's Market.  They sell completely organic produce to their many customers.

Roots Farm produce is found every Saturday morning at the Roseau Farmer’s Market. The stall is situated on Hanover Street, near the Chinese Friendship Bridge. Karen and Roy sell completely organic products to their many satisfied customers.

I had heard about Karen Sutherland some time before I actually met her here on Dominica. Then one Saturday  morning at the Roseau Market, I practically

Karen is an American expatraite, who lives with multiple chemical sensitivites. Her health has improved significantly wher she lives in an ecological house and manages an organic farm.

Karen is an American expatriate, who lives with multiple chemical sensitivities. Her health has improved significantly on Dominica. She lives in an ecological house that she built and works on her organic market farm.

stumbled upon her. That fortuitous meeting took place several years ago, and since then, it would be rare for me to miss a weekly purchase of her organic produce! During this time, I have come to learn that she and I have similar environmental health challenges and live in Dominica for basically the same reasons. Because of her  self-described obsession with gardening and a great passion for sustainable living ventures, many of us on-island have benefited from the ‘fruits’ of her labours. She and her partner Roy run Roots Farm, a 100 per cent organic farm (uncertified but in accord with all U.S.  Organic certification standards — there is no local Dominican certification agency) high in the mountains near the village of Cochrane Dominica.

It has been an extra special blessing for me to get to know Karen, as we both suffer from multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS).   I have appreciated her advice and support, as she had previously counseled people with environmental health challenges while she was in recovery in the United States.  I am so glad to know another person on Dominica who understands and manages the complexities of this type of diverse and often misunderstood chronic health condition.  I am grateful for her help!

Over sporadic conversations at her busy market stall, we settled on a date for a rendez-vous at her home to discuss how Roots Farm was born, among other related topics. I finally made it  there one relatively fine August day. I parked the car at Springfield, and walked for a half an hour or so up the very steep feeder road which joins Cochrane to the Imperial Road that connects Roseau with the island’s interior and the east coast.

As I climbed from 1,200   to  about 1,500 hundred feet above sea level, a persistent breeze tempered my uphill exertions and at last I was there!  Karen greeted me with her dog Magic, a short distance from her house.  Right away, she gave me a tour of the surrounding property.  Her abode near Cochrane is neatly tucked into an area where the prevailing  easterly trade winds  pass through Dominica’s remote interior  and offer a cooling respite even on the hottest of days.

A field filled with thriving plants and an area where seedlings are germinating first captured my attention.  Before she took me into the work area where produce is sorted, cleaned and packed for market, she showed me an unusual plant from the tamarind family.  ‘This particular fruit is dying out,” she said, ‘There used to be lots of them but people aren’t planting them any more.  They cut them down for cash crops or housing lots.  I thought I would give it a try.” I couldn’t help but be impressed with her curiosity, as well as her desire to preserve ‘endangered’ plant variety.

Karen's ecological house is situated high in the mountains, wiht southerly and easterly views of the Roseau Valley and Dominica's virtually uninhabitated interior.

Karen’s ecological house (centre) is surrounded by trees, plants and flowers. It is situated high in the mountains where there are few sources of pollution.

When I stepped inside her home, I gasped in amazement.  Beautiful wood (imported pitch pine) predominated on the walls and  in the kitchen area.  Lovely natural linoleum, made from  pressed linseed oil  covered the kitchen floor.  Because she could not tolerate any chemicals in the construction, careful thought was given to the selection of all products in the building of the house.  For example, the wood had first been treated with a boric acid based product and then a soy based sealer was applied (There were several coats on exposed woods outdoors). She had done a lot of research and had previous experience with  renovating a house in the northeastern U.S., so she had a good idea about what she needed to do. In fact, she and an engineer friend had a consulting service called Building Health Associates where they provided assistance to others to strategize cost-effective alterations to their homes for better health.

As well as no toxic chemicals in the construction, she stressed that it was important to think about the future  of the house so that  pests, rot and dampness would not affect the house.  She showed me efficient exhaust fans that had been installed to minimize moisture accumulations, thereby preventing mold growth in the kitchen and bathroom. “You have to be a planner in order to cope with this condition,” she emphasized.  I easily agreed!  It was very important for her to set priorities and  think through what needed to be done in order to minimize toxic exposures.


The view from Karen’s porch takes in parts of the upper Roseau Valley in Dominica’s mountainous interior.

Of course, there were a few challenges, but in time they were all overcome. It took a couple of years to build this non-toxic house, which was formed from a previously existing structure.They had to break down the old walls to create her special home!  Sometimes, she had to persuade the trades-people that she needed to do things a certain way or it would not work out well for her.  I greatly admire her tenacity!

My tour around her home included an introduction to her dogs.  The cats were hiding, as I was a stranger, but Karen did tell me an incredible story about one of them who assists her with natural pest control!  The feline named “Solo’  catches mole crickets when he hunts and then brings them in the house for Karen to inspect.  These insects  devastate crops from underneath the ground, This kitty is certainly a valuable asset on the farm . “I’ve never had a cat like that in my life!” she muses.

Then she told me about how she first became ill  and later discovered Dominica, which is now her home base, and created Roots Farm, her life’s passion and obsession.

In the early 1990’s, Karen was working “hard and long hours” in the office of an oil company that supplied heating fuel and diesel products to consumers. Diesel storage tanks were located right outside the building’s windows. They had recently installed a new carpet (which was off-gassing chemicals) when she noticed that she would feel sick by the late morning, and had to go outside to take a walk to feel better. Soon, she developed  severe headaches all day and her feelings of unwellness progressed so that she would only feel good on weekends.  More symptoms started to emerge in response to ever-increasing types of common chemicals and then she didn’t feel well at home either.  Her health challenges became all-encompassing and she could hardly function at work.  She had difficulty concentrating and became emotionally volatile.  She took a leave of absence from her job and went to see a physician who specialized in environmental medicine.  He diagnosed her as having MCS and advised her to leave her job right away. “At first I was shocked, as I had always been a healthy person. I could not initially believe that exposures to everyday things could be so crippling and devastating. If it had happened to someone else, I probably would have doubted that person,” she admitted. Karen initially resisted the medical specialist’s advice until she was not able to function in her position at all.

She immediately began to research this illness and learned that different chemicals could provoke different reactions in different people.  Over time, she discovered that people with MCS “have short-term noticeable responses to chemicals.  Most people are more constitutionally able to withstand poisons on a short-term basis, although long-term results like cancer, MS and other non-communicable diseases (NCD’s) are not so easily avoided.  We all have different proportions of enzymes which help  some of us to detoxify more efficiently than others.” Karen reminded me that those of us afflicted with MCS are like canaries that were once used in coal mines to determine the levels of oxygen and poisonous gasses in the shafts.  When these little birds died, it was a strong signal to the miners that the air was bad… and to get out fast. Now that’s food for thought!

Karen’s initial  treatment protocol was very specific, and  included  nutritional supplements, intravenous drips to detoxify, and  sublingual neutralizing antigen drops. She also had to make major changes to her house, which she did over a period of time, so that, for example, the heating system would not affect her.  She also had to part with anything in the house that contained formaldehyde and other chemicals that she could no longer tolerate. As well, she had to isolate herself from all products that made her sick.  ‘I did not go out into the world at all,” she recalled.   The main thing she had to do was avoid all offending chemicals, and this was not always easy – fragrances on people and clothing, petrochemicals,  and synthetic materials such as carpeting were everywhere.  However, with determination and planning, she started to recover and went back to work at a different job. However, there were too many chemicals in that environment too.  Even though her co-workers were very understanding and accommodating, she realized that she could not continue there either.

“I had been so sick with chemical sensitivities and I needed a place where I could live a free and productive life.”  Although she was better after years of treatment from the environmental health physician, she could only work from her home.  Nevertheless, it was still difficult to go out for any reason because of substances such as exhaust fumes,fragrances and air pollution from factories and industrial regions in the eastern U.S.

She made the decision  to visit Dominica in 1998 when she read a notice in an MCS newsletter that was posted by another sufferer who had been  living in Dominica for a while.  She wrote that the Nature Island had “Great air. Land available. Let’s build an MCS community.” While Karen did meet the woman who placed the advertisement, the special living locale unfortunately did not materialize – but it certainly was an intriguing concept!. (Coincidentally I met this person too, when I first arrived in Dominica in 1997, but she is no longer on-island).

During her first week on the Nature Island, Karen noticed a remarkable difference in her health: “I went out sea-kayaking.  I reached a plateau of wellness that had evaded me for so long.  I was very impressed with how well I felt,” she enthused. She recollected that the physical movement, pure air and minimal stress of any kind contributed to her feeling of well-being.

Amazingly too, she met her partner Roy during those early days in Dominica.  She overheard him talking to someone else about growing asparagus, when she was standing outside a grocery store.  As she was an enthusiastic

One of the growing fields of Roots Farm is right outside Karen's door!  There are other plots and reas which Roy tends even higher up in the mountains.

One of the growing fields of Roots Farm is right outside Karen’s door! There are other plots and areas which Roy tends higher up in the mountains.

gardener and had previous tropical experience in St. Kitts, she keenly contributed to their conversation.  Then she worked on his farm for her entire  three-week visit, although it was not completely organic at that time.  But she did benefit  from the fresh air, excessive sweating,  resulting in detoxification and the prevalent sunshine, which provided her with natural Vitamin D for a stronger immune system.  Her friendship with Roy subsequently blossomed

The seedlings are carefully tended by Karen.  They are sourced from certified  organic seed companies in the United States.

The  sprouting seedlings are carefully tended by Karen. They are sourced from certified organic seed companies in the United States.

and she was thrilled to have found a companion “who is understanding of unusual health challenges.”  And out of their partnership, Roots Farm was born!

Now Karen is delighted to be living in a home that is safe for her health problems and  pursuing  her life-long passion – gardening.  She spends most days in the business of her organic enterprise:  researching the latest American organic farming methods and certification  requirements; ordering seeds;  sowing seeds; nurturing seedlings; harvesting mature plants; taking orders from enthusiastic clients; packaging the produce; and selling their bounty at competitive, not higher prices at the  Roseau Market every Saturday.

While she feels so much better in Dominica, she is still very careful about exposures and is thankful to live and work in such a pristine place.   She continues to have trouble with “fragrances on people and  exhaust from vehicles.”  It is impossible for her to travel  by bus because of these types of chemicals,  as well as the deodorizers inside these vehicles that emit a strong synthetic scent. She explained that  “smell” does not operate as an “image” like sight.  Rather, odors  from molecules of these types of chemicals enter into the body via inhalation where they lock into cell receptor sites – not mediated by the blood-brain barrier – and so can cause damage throughout the body.

And there can be occasionally other types of hazards on  the Nature Island too. “Some people still burn tires and plastic”…but thankfully she is able to “side-step” these hazards here. When she returns to the U.S. to visit, she is able to cope with the onslaught of chemicals for a longer time before becoming ill again.  Then she is reassured that she has done the right thing to relocate to the Nature Island. Here, symptoms such as severe headaches, swollen sinuses, nausea and difficulty concentrating only occur when she has an infrequent  major exposure to an irritant.

In the mean time, Karen urges consumers to consider their food sources carefully and ask questions of the farmers about how they grow their plants and what products they use on the soil and the produce. “When you poison with chemicals, you change the constituency of your organism with unpredictable results,” she cautioned.

At 68, Karen is glowing with good health and vitality in the pristene environment of the Nature Island.

At 68, Karen is glowing with good health and vitality in the pristine environment of the Nature Island.

There is always an array of seasonal organic produce on the Roots Farm table at the Saturday Roseau Market.

There is always an array of seasonal organic produce on the Roots Farm table at the Saturday Roseau Market.

Her advice as a person who lives with  and has learned from her challenges with chemical sensitivities is practical, forward-thinking and for the greater good of humanity: “People should clean up their diets, make minimal purchases of processed  products and boycott all genetically modified foods. Eat natural, whole,  local foods as much as possible and support organizations that are trying to improve the environment  in Dominica. Be aware that “tipping points” exist – you can use chemicals and synthetic products with no immediate or obvious ill effects until suddenly it’s too late.  Life is cumulative…”

Karen  also feels that concerned citizens should urge the government to think of ways to stop the import of toxic products into the Nature Island. ” Vote with your buying power. And get school children to do science fair projects to see what happens to land and/or plants  that  are sprayed with chemicals.  Calypso songs on this  important issue would definitely get the attention of more people too!”

Karen’s message is clear: “‘This has to be non-political.  There has to be some sort of coming together for the good of the country, the environment, the world, let alone the individual.  Too often we focus on the short-term, but we cannot be short-sighted when it comes to our [long-term] health.”

For more information about Roots Farm and its  organic products, email: karen@rootsfarm.info

Karen’s house has a non-toxic apartment on the ground floor, which is available for short-term rentals to fragrance free, chemically cautious individuals and others who are looking for a healthy and/or healing vacation on the Nature Island.  Further details can be found here.

*Special thanks to Karen for her candor and for  taking the time to share her exceptional story.  Here’s to your good health, Karen!

**To obtain further background about multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) and common treatment  protocols, refer to the Environmental Health Center in Dallas Texas U.S.A. They are  the North American pioneers in this medical specialty. Additional information can be found at http:// http://www.mcsrr.org and http://www.thetenthparadigm.org/

*** Gwendominica’s experiences with environmental health challenges are found on her Canary Gal  blog (in progress).