Pay your cacao farmer well!

Cocoa beans from a Theobroma cacao tree

Cocoa beans from a Theobroma cacao tree

There is a troublesome trend in the farm world; small farmers are throwing in the towel and big farms are getting bigger.  Naturally, these massive operations have effects on the environment, food costs, human health, communities, and more.

This year we had an experience that made this trend personal.  To be honest, we’ve had an awful harvest when we didn’t expect it.   As a medium scale operation, the income that our harvests bring can be a critical element to our financial sustainability.    We want to do things right, and that costs money.

Last November when our “winter” harvest usually comes in we had a series of weather phenomenons that threw a big fat wrench into our cacao efforts.  Climate change for us, has felt very real this year.  In fact we estimate a 70% decrease in production when compared to last year.  Thankfully we have good clients and we’re diversified; for example we’ve been able to sell lumber and services to make up the difference, but what about the small farmer?  How does one who already lives marginally cope with these situations?  Does he/she give up to go work for the industrial farms?

Most Cocoa farmers, the majority of whom live in West Africa, live in poverty.  In Guatemala, where most of the cocoa is grown by cooperatives, the socio-economic situation is not bad, but its still marginal.

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For the poor farmer that eeks out an existence and is burdened with the risks of climate change and commodity prices, something has to change.  And part of that is to address the value chain and to recognize that we can pay our farmers a little bit more given all of the warmth and goodness that chocolate brings us.

Recently Izabal Agro-Forest conducted a market study for cocoa and found that a substantial increase in the commodity price for cocoa who would have almost no price effect on the consumer, which is crazy!  What the message here?: Let us pay our farmers more:

Andrew Miller (of IAF & Big Leaf) comments:

“Higher cocoa prices need not result in proportionally higher chocolate prices as cocoa represents just 5% of the retail price (see table below). Even if this percentage were to double to 10% in 2020, as projected by Euromonitor, chocolate prices could remain roughly flat.”

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Small to medium sized chocolate makers generally understand that quality and social sustainability are critical elements of supporting good quality cacao and its farmers.  We just need the industrial guys to catch on.

Pay your farmer well!

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Izabal Agro Forest’s field staff

The heart and soul of any forest operation, today I would like to honor IAF’s field staff:

Francisco Chacon Age: 26 Place of Residence: Seja Languages Spoken: Spanish Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 9 years Jobs: Prunes and takes care of the cacao. Is an all around boss. Other employment: Has worked on other farms Future plans: work on the farm, marry girlfriend Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: Close to Seja, makes it easy to get to work. It’s a large farm with many different trees and there is always work available.

Francisco Chacon
Age: 26
Place of Residence: Seja
Languages Spoken: Spanish
Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 9 years
Jobs: Prunes, grafts, and takes care of the cacao.
Other employment: Has worked on other farms
Future plans: work on the farm, marry girlfriend
Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: Close to Seja, makes it easy to get to work. It’s a large farm with many different trees and there is always work available.

Vicente Pan Age: 45 Place of Residence: Seja Languages Spoken: Español and Kekchi Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 20 years  Jobs: Grafting, fertilizing, prune, clearing underbrush, planting kudzu and cacao Other Employment: Vicente has worked on other Farms before Izabal Future Plans: To continue working on the Farm and live in Seja Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: A beautiful farm with a large variety of species in both flora and fauna.

Vicente Pan
Age: 45
Place of Residence: Seja
Languages Spoken: Español and Kekchi
Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 20 years
Jobs: Grafting, fertilizing, pruning, clearing underbrush, planting kudzu and cacao
Other Employment: Vicente has worked on other Farms before Izabal
Future Plans: To continue working on the Farm and live in Seja
Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: A beautiful farm with a large variety of species in both flora and fauna.

 

Conrado Rodriguez Age: 57 Place of Residence: Fronteras, Izabal Languages Spoken: Spanish Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 27 years Jobs: Supervisor field operations Other employment: has worked on other farms Future Plans: For now just continue working on Izabal Agroforest Opinion on Izabal Agroforest:The work is best here

Conrado Diaz
Age: 57
Place of Residence: Fronteras, Izabal
Languages Spoken: Spanish
Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 27 years
Jobs: Supervisor field operations
Other employment: has worked on other farms
Future Plans: For now just continue working on Izabal Agroforest
Opinion on Izabal Agroforest:The work is best here

 

Name: Miguel Angel Chacon Chacon Age: 19 Place of Residence: Seja Languages Spoken: Español Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 2 months Jobs: brush control,  Other employment: worked in a carpenter’s shop Future plans: continue working and eventually marry girlfriend Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: Theres a lot of different jobs to do and its closer to Seja than other farms

Name: Miguel Angel Chacon Chacon
Age: 19
Place of Residence: Seja
Languages Spoken: Español
Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 2 months
Jobs: brush control,
Other employment: worked in a carpenter’s shop
Future plans: continue working and eventually marry girlfriend
Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: Lots of different jobs to do and its closer to Seja than other farms

Name: Jose Alvez Age: 22  Place of Residence: Seja Languages Spoken: Español Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 5 years Jobs: Brush control, planting seedlings, prune cacao Other Employment: Has worked on other farms Future Plans: He says he’s hoping for good luck in the future, so he can provide a nice life for himself. Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: He says they different plants here, and lots of different types of work to do.

Name: Jose Alvez
Age: 22
Place of Residence: Seja
Languages Spoken: Español
Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 5 years
Jobs: Brush control, planting seedlings, prune cacao
Other Employment: Has worked on other farms
Future Plans: He says he’s hoping for good luck in the future, so he can provide a nice life for himself.
Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: He says they different plants here, and lots of different types of work to do.

Name: Arnulfo Chacon Age: 34  Place of Residence: Seja Languages Spoken: Español Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 20 years Jobs: Taking care of the trees, working in the nursery, fertilizing plants  Other Employment: only worked on izabal agroforest, Future Plans: plans to just keep living and working on the farm Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: He says that for its size, it has a lot of different rare and special trees

Name: Arnulfo Chacon
Age: 34
Place of Residence: Seja
Languages Spoken: Español
Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 20 years
Jobs: Taking care of the trees, working in the nursery, fertilizing plants
Other Employment: only worked on izabal agroforest,
Future Plans: plans to just keep living and working on the farm
Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: He says that for its size, it has a lot of different rare and special trees

Agusto Chaco Age: 60 Place of Residence: Rio Dulce Languages Spoken: Kekchi and Spanish Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: more than 20 years Jobs: maintain the garden, mow the grass, clean Other employment: worked on other farms when he was much younger Future plans: might take some time to go travel Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: There are more animals here, snakes, insects, etc

Agusto Chocoj
Age: 60
Place of Residence: Rio Dulce
Languages Spoken: Kekchi and Spanish
Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: more than 20 years
Jobs: maintain the garden, mow the grass, clean
Other employment: worked on other farms when he was much younger
Future plans: might take some time to go travel
Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: There are more animals here, snakes, insects, etc

Name: Adelso Yavani Age: 20  Place of Residence: Seja Languages Spoken: Español Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 5 Years Jobs: Brush control, planting trees, trimming cacao Other Employment: Worked as campesino on other farms Future Plans: His plans for the future are to keep working and save money so he can have a good life ahead of him.  Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: this farm is better because it has more trees and animals

Name: Adelso Yavani
Age: 20
Place of Residence: Seja
Languages Spoken: Español
Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 5 Years
Jobs: Brush control, planting trees, trimming cacao
Other Employment: Worked as campesino on other farms
Future Plans: His plans for the future are to keep working and save money so he can have a good life ahead of him.
Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: this farm is better because it has more trees and animals

Name: Victor Manuel Ramirez Age: 40  Place of Residence: Seja Languages Spoken: Español Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 5 years Jobs: Grafting, Brush Control, looking after the trees  Other Employment: Has worked on other farms Future Plans: No plans as of yet Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: The woods they grow here are different, they are rare woods that not a lot of other people grow

Name: Victor Manuel Ramirez
Age: 40
Place of Residence: Seja
Languages Spoken: Español
Time Spent on Izabal Agroforest: 5 years
Jobs: Grafting, Brush Control, looking after the trees
Other Employment: Has worked on other farms
Future Plans: No plans as of yet
Opinion on Izabal Agroforest: The woods they grow here are different, they are rare woods that not a lot of other people grow

Pending are: Juan Castillo, Victor Castillo, Javier Sosa, Marta Estrada, Juan Tiul, Luis Chacon y Rigo Chacon.

Gracias hermanos.

Thank you to Jasper Lyons & Jack Betz for photographing and interviewing IAF staff members.

Growing Pataxte

IAF grown Pataxte, Izabal, Guatemala

Young Pataxte tree, IAF, Izabal, Guatemala

We recently started planting Theobroma bicolor, an overlooked, and uncommon relative of cacao.   “Pataxte” as its known among the Kekchi communities near our farm, has been used by the Maya for at least 1500 years; and most likely longer.

I would say the taste is similar to cacao but less “chocolatey” with more coffee notes, more astringency and something like a sweet buttery-lemon element. It’s smell is more delicate than cacao and it has an all-white seed.

For the few people that actually use Pataxte, it may be prepared like cacao; that is fermented, dried and roasted; oddly though, I’ve found that most Mayan growers skip the fermentation step.

Apparently it has a higher fat content than Theobroma cacao, and according to my archaeologist father, was prized by the Aztecs for its foaming qualities. Which is of course, a good thing when you’re making hot chocolate 🙂

Pataxte (theobroma bicolor) pod

Pataxte (theobroma bicolor) pod

In Belize and Northern Guatemala it is referred to as Cacao Silvestre (Wild cacao) or balam-te’ (Jaguar tree in Yucateco Mayan); unlike cacao, most Pataxte seems to be directly descended from its original Mayan lineages as it was never exported or hybridized.  As a comparison, I would say that 95% of the world’s chocolate derives from genetically “improved” hybrids. (That figure by the way, is not to be quoted, it’s just a semi-educated guess)

What really intrigues me about Theobroma bicolor is that (unlike its more popular cousin Cacao), it can be grown in broad daylight without shade.  So not only can we plant it on the edges of our forests, where Cacao might whither, we can also plant in areas of low shade or simply in an open field.

We decided to plant it under our tropical cedar trees (Cedrella adorata), which lose their leaves in the dry months so totally inadequate for Theobroma cacao.  This experiment is important for us because, if successful, all of a sudden our “plantable” areas are greatly increased.

Dwight Carter, from Frutas del Mundo, whom kindly supplied us the seedlings, suggested that with proper pruning the Pataxte could actually function as the shade-giving agent for a cacao plantation.  If successful, (and I think it could be given its height and broad leaves), growers could potentially have an all-theobroma plantation, which is fun.   I would love to hear if anyone has done this by the way!

Interestingly, the sacred maya book “Popol Vuh” mentions it as one of the foods of Maya paradise: “This will be our food: maize, pepper seeds, beans, cacáo & pataxte…

Theobroma bicolor

Theobroma bicolor

 

 

 

 

An old story

Embera girls holding cacao pods

Embera girls holding cacao pods

Over the last few months I’ve heard a lot of hype about where the Cacao market is heading.  Huge investments are being raised in response to rising demand.  And its true the outlook is good, especially considering the growing premium market and untapped Asian markets that have barely begun consuming chocolate.  60% of the world is Asian so, there’s reason to be optimistic.  But…  I’m seeing a tendency toward the mistakes of the past.

Although Cacao is originally from the Amazon basin, it was most famously consumed by the Mayans in Southern Mexico, and Central America.  Today most of it is grown in Western Africa and consumed in the North America and Europe.  These are huge mono-cultures stretching across thousands of kilometers.  Countries like Ghana and Madagascar seem to be providing a steady supply of good quality fruit, but others have struggled and the cacao industry is rife with problems, political and biological.  Once again we’re seeing this industrial tendency to do things as big and as cheap as possible, leveraging economies of scale to the bitter end.

Broadly speaking, mono-cultures by their very nature are more susceptible to disease and insect attacks, which makes organic or low impact agriculture very very difficult.  Throughout cacao’s industrial history, we’ve seen huge single year drops in production due to out of control diseases.  They also tend to be one dimensional in that if you have a biological disaster or the market tanks, that’s it, your financial model breaks. Its one of the many reasons I’ve been a proponent of agroforestry for so long, I just can’t wait until we see it at an impact scale.

I’ve seen proposals for industrial projects throughout Latin America and its really just a repeat of the past, basically the attitude is: let’s take the latest, hottest commodity and plant it to the end of the horizon.  When I see these, I can’t help but wonder what kind of technical advice these proposals are based on?  Why aren’t these proposals more diversified?  What are the environmental and social impacts?

A productive cacao tree is sensitive, requires consistent phytosanitation and silviculture; basically it is generally susceptible to biological risk.  In my opinion an industrial cacao plantation should not exceed 200 hectares and larger projects would do well to geographically separate farms.   There’s a reason most of the world’s cacao is grown by small scale farmers, its never worked as an industrial crop.  Cacao fund managers should carefully assess management teams and conduct thorough feasibility studies, or they might see an old story repeat itself.   Don’t get me wrong, I think cacao is wonderful and has huge upside, I’m actually planting a lot of it, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the accepted (institutional) model can be improved.

(Click images for a higher resolution view)

My farm's tri-level approach to cacao cultivation

My farm’s tri-level approach to cacao cultivation

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A shoot grafted with heirloom stock in our nursery

Young Mahogany and cacao mixed species stand

Young Mahogany and cacao mixed species stand

Diseased Cacao tree, location not cited

Ah monoculture…

Cacao supply by country

TCHO’s cacao

Tcho's dark chocolate form Ecuador

Tcho’s dark chocolate form Ecuador

While in California my wife and I dropped in on family friend Brad Kintzer, chief chocolate maker at Tcho in San Francisco.  Not only does Brad have the sweetest job title I can think of, he also works for a company that has developed an innovative relationship with its cacao producers.

Most of the world’s chocolate, at least 90%, is made of cacao grown by micro producers, meaning farmers with two hectares or less.  Many of these small farmers are organized into cooperatives.  In a sense this is great, but because you’re dealing with so many individuals there has been a historical lack of consistency in product.  Cooperatives can have any number of members, in Mexico and Central America my very broad estimate is that these average about 500 members.  Presumably in Western Africa and South America cooperatives are just as big or bigger.  So controlling individual practices and processes to attain uniformity of quality and flavor has been one of the major challenges of selective chocolate makers.  Moreover most cacao producers have never tasted the chocolate made from their own beans.

Tcho’s solution, and it’s a good one, has been to create a program that is dedicated to creating a direct partnership with their growers (tchosource).  Tcho provides the tools, training, genetic advisory and education to its buyers, empowering them to “improve their livelihoods and hone their craft”.  By doing so they provide the company with the high quality beans that enable the company to create excellent chocolate.  Its created a mutually beneficial relationship that stokes vested interest and a sustainable relationship in both the financial and social sense.
One of the more interesting components of the program is the use of “flavor labs”.  These are essentially small, affordable chocolate factories designed to quickly make chocolate and analyze the quality of a batch of beans.  And because the quality of the beans are directly affected by its growers and cultivators, Tcho’s major coop partners are supplied with their own “flavor labs”.  These field labs are essentially identical to the lab used in Tcho’s San Francisco headquarters.  And for the producers to really take advantage of this system, (and to facilitate communication), sensory training is provided to their producers around the world.

I found the concept so important that we’ve decided to invest in a flavor lab for our own cacao plantation.  The thought is that we’ll be more equipped to produce consistent & flavorful beans for our own purposes and also give local growers access to the equipment.  In the end we want chocolate to garner the same respect, in terms of attention to origin, genetics and process as that of wine or cheese and Tcho’s efforts are a big step in that direction.
Molly chatting with Tcho chocolate maker, Zohara.

Molly chatting with Tcho chocolate maker, Zohara.

Cacao bean cross section

Cacao bean cross section

Brad, Jefe de los Chocolates

Brad, Jefe de los Chocolates

Finished chocolate bar, yummy

Finished chocolate bar, yummy

View near factory

View near factory

On my last trip to the Darien I stopped in on this girl's family, whom have had cacao trees around their houses as long as they can remember

On my last trip to the Darien I stopped in on this girl’s family, they’ve cultivated the cacao around their home for as long as they can remember.