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A bright future for Belize through Agriculture and Innovation: A conversation with Silk Grass Farms Co-Founder and Executive Director Henry Canton

Posted: Sunday, September 24, 2023. 3:27 pm CST.

Тhе vіеwѕ ехрrеѕѕеd іn this аrtісlе аrе those оf the writer аnd nоt nесеѕѕаrіlу those оf Вrеаkіng Веlіzе Nеwѕ.

By Jose Luis Cruz: If you’re touring Silk Grass Farms with Co-Founder and Executive Director Henry Canton, you’ll likely be in his truck, rambling along a dirt road through tropical rainforest or lush orchards of coconut, cacao, or orange trees. At some point, he will slow down, lean out his open window, and gesture to a sunlit cacao grove. He’ll explain how the trees’ genetics and the fruits’ degree of ripeness determine the varied colors of the football-shaped pods — green, yellow, orange, and maroon. Canton may go on to tell you how Silk Grass Farms grows high-quality cacao in harmony with the natural ecosystem. He might then describe the company’s open-air fermentation method that ensures products preserve the natural flavor and health benefits of the cacao beans.

In 2019, Canton joined forces with social entrepreneurs Mandy Cabot and Peter Kjellerup and began visualizing the enterprise that would become Silk Grass Farms — 9,000 acres of Belizean farmland and a state-of-the-art food-processing facility organized to benefit the people and the natural environment of Belize, including an adjacent 26,000-acre wildlife preserve.

During a series of driving tours through sprawling farms depleted by decades of conventional agriculture, Canton, Cabot, and Kjellerup formed their shared vision. Canton spoke of Belize, the land, and agricultural practices. Cabot and Kjellerup talked about socially responsible business, conservation, and reversing climate change. “That was all very new to me,” says Canton. “As I played it back in my mind, I realized the [conventional agriculture] practices I grew up with and had been doing for 36 years were taking away from the Earth as opposed to reconstructing it.”

Canton was energized by the idea of using his country’s natural resources to create high-value products and high-value jobs. He saw how the partnership’s combined experiences could create a long-lasting, positive impact — “not just for the soil, the plants, the jungle and the animals, but for the people of Belize,” he says.

A New Way of Doing Business

Canton’s role as the day-to-day chief executive of Silk Grass Farms is to build a sustainable agribusiness at the intersection of industry and conservation, employing more than 300 local people. The former longtime managing director of one of Belize’s largest agri-processing companies, Citrus Products of Belize, Ltd., Canton is experienced in leading large agricultural enterprises, but he is new to operating a Certified B Corporation and triple-bottom-line company that values people, planet, and prosperity equally. “This,” he says, “has been a major change in how I do business.”

Canton sees Silk Grass Farms and its 130,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art food processing facility as an engine that can help propel Belize’s agricultural and economic infrastructure to benefit the entire nation. Canton says he relishes the opportunity to offer other Central American companies a replicable model for regenerative agriculture.

Silk Grass Farms’ 130,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art food processing facility

As Belize’s former Minister of Works (1998–2003) and current member of the Belize government’s Economic Recovery Advisory Team, Canton understands the complexities of addressing systemic issues. People tend to resist change — not only at the legislative level, but also when it comes to personal behavior. “There comes a time when you have to realize that expecting different results from doing the same thing over and over doesn’t work,” he says. “In some ways, I am a politician again, working with people and bringing out the best in them, making them happy and getting them to the right place. At Silk Grass Farms I’m able to do that — at a much smaller scale [than as a politician], but still impactful.” While elected officials face various obstacles that can limit their ability to achieve goals with efficiency, Canton has direct influence over process and outcomes at Silk Grass Farms. “I can follow through on the promises that I make,” he says. “I can deliver for all the people that I work with.”

People First: Building a Better Future for Belize

Silk Grass Farms “offers an opportunity to make a big difference for the people that work for us,” Canton says. Silk Grass Farms’ “People First” approach prioritizes employee benefits, which include a guaranteed living wage, rent-free housing, a school for children of workers, and more. “Our dormitories with indoor plumbing, our onsite Sandy Creek Academy — these are all new experiences for Belizean workers,” he says. “Silk Grass Farms has allowed us to create a whole new system for what sustainability truly should be, where people have something to live for, where they want to stay and continue working.”


Sandy Creek Academy was built in 2022 for the children of employees

The Silk Grass Farms model is designed to foster a community of workers who develop a sense of ownership of the company’s mission and view collaboration as the path forward. “The biggest challenge is getting everybody to agree and understand where we want to go,” he says. “Right now we’re working to create a rhythm where you pass it to me, I pick it up, and I know where to take it. It’s a rhythm where we’re working together and not just for money — it’s for that feeling of accomplishment.”

“If we commit to being respectful of our country and our people, no challenge will be insurmountable. Five years from now our model will be tested, and I think it will work. In fact, I’m certain it will work,” Canton says. “And then it is going to be evolving into something else, something new — I don’t think I’ll ever see a stagnant Silk Grass Farms. That’s our beauty and strength.”

 

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