Thursday, December 01, 2005

Grasscutter: The other white meat

Reading the Graphic back in my JHR glory days when I come across a story that’s so fundamentally interesting, I have carried a clipping of it ever since. I carry an electronic copy of it on my computer, just waiting for the day I will do this story.

A woman has won farmer of the year. She is 75-year-old Madam Efua Frimpongmaa. That is all I know about her. I have no idea what she did to deserve farmer of the year. I don’t even know what she farms. She lives in some place called Agona Nkum in the Central Region and I am determined to find her.

Normally I would just go to the tro-tro station and say “Agona Nkum” when the mates ask me “Ou qu’hen?” But I have done a little footwork on this one and the average Ghanaian has never heard of this village. I will need to get serious.

So down to the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, the acronym of which Emily uses as a cussword. “You’re such a MOFA.” It’s perfect.

No one is quite certain where Madam farmer of the year is, they feel I should take a tro-tro to Agona Swedru and it will all come together from there. (Agona Swedru is where I go to visit my Ghanaian host family, whom I have not visited, even though I am dying to know if Grace made it through the birth of her seventh child.) I do have the option of going to the farmer of this year ceremony, up in Navrongo, which Madam Frimpongmaa should be attending in order to pass on the sword. (Literally.) Navrongo is the last town with a gas station in Ghana before one crosses into Burkina Faso. I’m not that eager.

I’m distracted anyway. Crossing the street on my way to the MOFA building, I notice a big bedsheet banner. Grasscutter Promotion Days. Dec. 12-16. Pre-registration required.

Sign me up.

I first read about the grasscutter one night in Chapters on John & Richmond, after learning I was coming to Ghana but before I felt willing to part with $40 to buy a guidebook. Under the “food” section, the kind people at Lonely Planet had spelled out that grasscutter was a local delicacy, a bushmeat most likely served in soup with fufu but also frequently served smoked.

A grasscutter looks like the product of a drunken encounter between a beaver and a large rat. They have coarse, dark fur, rather thoughtful brown eyes, soft pink noses, talon-like claws. And a big rat tail.

They’re the second largest rodent on the continent, behind the porcupine. And apparently they’re so tasty that Ghanaians eat the contents of their intestinal tract as flavouring for soup, even though grasscutters eat their own poop. (The accountant at a grasscutter co-op explained to me that their diet is so clean, their poop is actually like an energy drink, loaded with vitamin B12 and niacin. I have no doubt it resembles most of the stuff on offer at those freaky health nut juice places.)

Ghanaians are so nutty for grasscutter, taxi drivers have been known to be overcome by carnivorous zeal when one cuts across their path, swerving to hit the main course of a special meal. Boys sell them stretched out and smoked along the roadside. Apparently they sell for upwards of $30.

As their name suggests, they eat grass. And they hide there too. So most hunters, lacking anything resembling skill, simply wait until the dry season, then set the grass ablaze, smoking the grasscutters out of their natural habitat and onto their plates. The byproduct is an eye-watering, asthma-inducing haze, on top of the grit-in-your-eye, dried-out-nose, chapped-lip effect of the Harmattan. Dozens of other animals are smoked out as well and many trees are left charred and dead. The worst is that there’s no way to prevent the fires from spreading to farmers’ fields.

So, a clever idea emerges in the 1960s. Why not just trap the grasscutters, put ‘em in a cage and watch them go at it like rabbits? Then there will be grasscutter for everyone!

The problem is that these animals, unlike their vicious, sewer dwelling cousins, are so sensitive that few made it through the bumpy journey to their newly-built cages. They were so stressed they died. Those that did make it were often so beside themselves at the turn in their fortunes that they gave up eating and died.

The early years were ugly and the idea of domesticating grasscutters in Ghana quietly went away.

But the Beninoise kept at it, producing a breeding stock that could handle long, bumpy rides and chew happily once esconced in their cages. They’ll chew through anything, these grasscutters, because, as grasscutter farmer Atta Yeboah told me, “Every second of every day, a grasscutter’s teeth are growing. They have to grind them down or they’ll die. You have to give them some wood or a broken post. If you don’t do that, they’ll chew their cage.” Then they’ll chew through their feeding dishes. That’s $110 down the drain. So now the farmers toss in oyster shells and bones.

They’ll also toss in guinea grass or elephant grass, the stuff not found on golf courses. And cassava chips, maize, wheat or rice chaff.

I just had to meet a grasscutter in person, so Olivier, the JHR photographer, came out with me to a farm on the outskirts of Accra. Now, don’t go picturing rolling green hills or anything. This was in a residential neighbourhood, down a road that seemed more like a dried up river bed, studded with rocks and ruts.

Mr. Ocansey got into grasscutters about 10 years ago. He used to raise sheep and goats, but he was constantly plagued by theft. Then one morning he woke up and someone had stolen each and every one of his animals and he knew that was the end of his goat and sheep days.

He bought three grasscutters, two females and a male and a year later he had 12 new grasscutters. By the next year he had 20 new grasscutters. Now he keeps 200 grasscutters in a concrete block “barn” no bigger than most people’s kitchens.

It was feeding time when we arrived and, frankly, the grasscutter scurries just like a rat, even if its got more bulk, which freaked me out a bit, but I still managed to give one a small pet on the belly, just to see if Grasscutter Coats would be turning up in Jay-Z videos in the near future. By the time all the stalks of elephant grass had been folded up and placed inside the small cages, I was sneezing and the grasscutters were producing a chorus of “ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch” chewing noises.

I asked if Mr. Ocansey does anything special to get his grasscutters to grow. He thought I was joking, so I told him about how some dairy farmers play classical music for their cattle so they’ll produce sweet, more consistent milk. He slapped his knee and laughed, then asked if I brought a CD. I told him I wished I had some Celine Dion. Then we both agreed they might like hip life better and he did his imitation of a grasscutter dancing, top teeth ferreting out over his bottom lip. Hilarity ensued.

Mr. Ocansey wants to see grasscutter go big time, as do the good folks behind the Grasscutter Promotion Days. They know there’s a huge market in West Africa and an untapped market in the European cities where a lot of West African live, like London or Paris, where the few grasscutters available are smuggled in. The bushmeat trade is estimated to be worth $50 million US, including more than 30,000 tonnes of grasscutter meat. (The average grasscutter weighs 4 kg.) There’s never enough to go around.

Grasscutter, according to Ruth Yeboah at MOFA, is “a most interesting animal. Almost everything about it is interesting.” When she says “interesting” she means exploitable. The meat can be boiled in soup, roasted, grilled as kebabs, smoked or dried like jerky. The coat could be used, although no one is too sure as what, since it feels closer to porcupine than chinchilla. The skin is being used as flavouring in MSG cubes. Even the intestinal juices, as previously mentioned.

Mr. Ocansey already puts grasscutter meat in pies. Now he wants to see it canned. You know, like tuna or corned beef. When my eyes bug out and I ask, “Do you think people will really buy grasscutter in a can?” the accountant answers: “People aren’t ashamed to buy corned beef in a can, are they? And that’s not even a delicacy.”

All they need is an abattoir and a processing plant.

One farmer told us he was a retired service man who got into grasscutter rearing after seeing a documentary on it on Ghanaian television (you kinda have to see Ghanaian television to believe it). He was the kind of man that makes me really miss my grandfathers. I was holding a mango in my hand during the ride to his house – I found it on the front seat of his car – and when Olivier asked where it had come from, I said “Oh, it’s a grasscutter egg.” The old man just laughed and laughed, like it was a story that would be told for days down at the Ghanaian equivalent of the coffee shop. Then he gave me the mango.

When we arrived at his farm to take some pictures, he brought out some biscuits, playing with his 42 grasscutters as he fed them a little snack. (One escaped after Olivier asked him to hold it out by its tail.) He even showed us baby rabbits born three days prior.

At the end, when we drove back to the main road, I asked him if he eats a lot of grasscutter. Oh no, he said. He’s waiting until he has enough grasscutters that a new litter is born every day, about 200 in total. Then he would allow himself one grasscutter a week and sell the rest.

But, he said in a universal truth: it’s so hard to kill them after you’ve played with them.

News
Farmers in Ghana grab opportunity by the tail; Hoping to export a tasty giant rodent Grasscutter prized for its gamey flavour
Karen Palmer
SPECIAL TO THE STAR
1071 words
10 January 2006
The Toronto Star
A15

ACCRA, Ghana -- In the hands of marketers, pig became the other white meat, Tuesdays were reserved for turkey and buffalo found its way onto the plates of the cholesterol conscious.

Now West Africans are hoping to perform the same kind of image makeover on the grasscutter, a delicacy prized for its gamey flavour, so coveted by connoisseurs that boys selling them stretched out and smoked by the roadside fetch upwards of $30 per animal.

The makeover could be the key to bigger profits, similar to Australian marketers' hopes that "australus" will prove a big seller on menus down under - that's the winning name chosen last month after a magazine contest to rebaptize kangaroo meat.

Grasscutter, to the uninitiated, looks like what would result from a drunken encounter between a beaver and a big rat, with coarse, dark hair, a soft pink nose, rather thoughtful brown eyes and a big rat tail.

It is, to be frank, a giant rodent.

Ghanaian farmers, however, see it as a cash cow.

"This is not rat," explains Emmanuel Asamoah, an executive at the Ablekuma Grasscutter Association, a co-operative of about 200 farmers operating on the edge of the capital, Accra.

He stands surrounded by dozens of wooden cages, each containing at least one grasscutter, some with litters. It's feeding time, when dozens of stalks of elephant grass are folded up and pushed through the cages. Asamoah is accompanied by a chorus of "ch-ch-ch-ch" as the grasscutters munch.

"This is a very different animal all together. The hair of the rat is not like this. This animal eats only grass. It doesn't eat dirty things. It's not like a rat at all. This animal is very clean, it doesn't smell," he says.

"It's delicious," echoes farmer Atta Yeboah. "The taste depends on the way you cook it, but if you have antelope or chicken, people would pick grasscutter over all that."

So far, the fledgling grasscutter farming industry - prominent in Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Benin, as well as Ghana - is mostly ad hoc, lacking the slaughterhouses, processing plants and creative advertising campaigns that have worked wonders for other exotic sources of protein.

But this month, Accra plays host to an international conference designed to flesh out ways to capitalize on a seemingly insatiable hunger for grasscutter meat.

Bush meat garners some $58 million each year through the buying and selling of some 384,000 tonnes of meat. Grasscutter is thought to represent about 30 per cent of that.

Farmers want to boost the breeding stock, trade rearing techniques and sell the tasty critters across the diaspora, not only in open-air markets in the West African sub region, but in grocery stores in places like London and Toronto, where larges numbers of expatriate Africans live.

Farmers also envision the day when grasscutters are sold in meat pies, are even available on grocers' shelves, sandwiched between the canned tuna and corned beef.

Unlike their sewer-running cousins - aggressive disease-ridden fighters who are a symbol of filth - grasscutters can be so sensitive that the most common cause of death amongst caged 'cutters is stress.

Some are so beside themselves at being caged, they simply give up eating and starve to death.

They're the second largest rodent on the continent, behind the porcupine and, as their name suggests, they eat grass. They hide there too, so most hunters simply wait until the dry season, set the grass ablaze and smoke out the grasscutters.

The by-product is an eye-watering, asthma-inducing haze. Dozens of other animals are killed and many trees are left charred and dead. There's no way to prevent the fires from spreading to farmers' fields, says Atta Yeboah.

"When they set those fires, that destroys the environment."

The start-up costs are so far the greatest hindrance to the spread of grasscutter farming amongst West African farmers. They need to build cages that can cost upwards of $120, and buy supplemental foods, like cassava chips and maize, which can be costly for farmers who usually live hand-to-mouth.

Each breeding grasscutter usually costs around 400,000 cedis, about $52.

But the payoffs are quick, says Ruth Yeboah, an official at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, since grasscutters gestate for only five months and produce an average litter of five.

The sale of even one healthy, 4-kg grasscutter is often enough to pay a child's school fees.

"Grasscutter is a most interesting animal. Almost everything about it is interesting," she says, meaning almost everything about it is exploitable.

The meat can be roasted, boiled in soup, grilled as kebabs, smoked or dried like jerky.

The skin is being explored as flavouring in monosodium glutamate cubes.

The coat could be used, although no one is too sure as what, since it feels closer to porcupine than chinchilla.

Ghanaians also eat the contents of the grasscutter's intestinal tract as flavouring for soup, even though grasscutters eat their own feces. (The animal's diet is so clean, explains one farmer, that their poop is actually like an energy drink, loaded with vitamin B12 and niacin.)

Farmers feed their furry livestock guinea or elephant grass, as well as cassava chips, maize, wheat or rice chaff. They'll often toss in some bones or some oyster shells as well.

"Every second of every day, a grasscutter's teeth are growing. They have to grind them down or they'll get sick and die," says Atta Yeboah. "You have to give them some wood or a broken post. If you don't do that, they'll chew their cage."

Unlike their more familiar cousins, they also demand a clean habitat.

"If you are lazy, don't go into grasscutters," warns farmer Atta Yeboah. "The more you leave the environment dirty, the more harm you will cause."

| Olivier Asselin for the toronto star Farmer Olivier Teye Ocansey hauls a grasscutter out of its cage at a farm near Accra, Ghana. Ghanaian farmers hope the giant rodent, a delicacy prized for its gamey flavour, will turn into their cash cow, and are looking for ways to capitalize on the seemingly insatiable hunger for grasscutter meat.

6 Comments:

Blogger Flu girl said...

so, Obruni, what did it taste like? Chicken?
Multo snow here in the dark northern lands.

12:39 PM  
Blogger Palmer in Africa said...

Like rabbit, but gamier. (Is that a word?)

Second Xmas in a row away from the cold northern climes. This could be habit-forming!

6:28 AM  
Blogger SNAIL REARING said...

Fantastic write up on Grasscutter farming.I also rear Grasscutter myself,see detail @ www.thethyconsulting.com

9:33 AM  
Blogger alison wonderland said...

wow, this was quite a fun read - i spent a month in ghana last summer, it was so awesome...it was nice to be reminded of some of the things that i miss...like the awesome people.
i for one, really didn't like grasscutter - not one bit...especially in fufu, which was a dish i absolutely hated...the only things i really liked were those loaves of sweet, white bread (yum).
it weirded me out to read about that farmer whose goats were always being stolen...where I was staying (the city of Ho, in the Volta Region) there were goats EVERYWHERE! I mean...I probably saw 200 stray goats every day. It was funny.
anyway, I am looking forward to reading more about your Ghanaian adventures.

10:40 PM  
Blogger Addae said...

Your experience is an eye openner. As a Ghanaian myself and a development worker in the north, I will try it myself and encourage my farmer groups (in rural communities in the north) to go into it to supplement their incomes. The possible problem I envisage it the lack of starter breeding stock and ready information in the north for those interested to invest in it. I see this to be one of the significant ways of reducing the incidence of wild bush fires as mensioned in the presentation.

8:38 AM  
Blogger lekismile said...

I must say,this is indeed an awesome xtray of grasscutter farming.pls i need more detail especially about the approprate feed & housing for grasscutter.lekismile@yahoo.com

11:17 AM  

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