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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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

 

 

 

 

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.

The value of conservation within an investment scheme pt 1

I am a firm believer in the protection and establishment of conservation zones in a plantation setting.  Aside from the nice dose of karmic energy that you are sure to receive, conserving natural forest stands can yield tangible benefits to your project.   These areas may function as small habitats and essential sources of food to local wildlife, which will no doubt add to your farm experience.  The aesthetic value too, is surely a consideration.  That said, I want to discuss the commercial value of conservation zones.

In Central America a typical farm might have between 5% and 25% of its total land area classified as natural forest.  Since these forests usually represent a reduction of the productive area, they are usually reduced to small areas of difficult topography, or along waterways; most are threatened.  There are, however, good reasons to protect and indeed expand natural forest areas in your project.  The first function is that of a buffer zone.  For example conservation areas bordering riparian or agriculture zones can function as a natural shield by reducing the threat of disease and pests (depending where you operate).  Similarly they’ll form natural barriers against wind and livestock, reducing risk and the possibility of damage.  With its well-established shade, a secondary natural forest may prevent the spread of invasive species like introduced grasses and therefore suppress the negative impacts that these may have on sensitive ecosystems and your plantation.

Simply put a well-balanced plantation system will see reduced forest diseases and insect outbreaks.

Rainforests make water.  The California Academy of Sciences puts it well: Since water vapor needs something to condense upon, airborne particles become the seeds of liquid droplets in fog, mist and clouds. With examination, the researchers found that tiny grains of potassium salts are the basis of raindrops in the Amazon.  The salts are not generated by soot or the nearby Atlantic Ocean, but by the living things in the rainforest. Fungal spores seem to be one of the biggest contributors. In other words, the forest itself is causing the rain.  In other words THE essential ingredient for your plantation, is directly dependent on natural forests.  We can assume this process occurs elsewhere, but there is significant evidence that suggests forests have an effect on precipitation in their immediate area.  See TED talk ‘How to Restore A Rainforest’.

Erosion control too, and the preservation of topsoil, around or near your plantation, particularly in the early years, will reduce run-off and preserve land area.  For example, natural vegetation will keep banks from falling into waterways or embankments.  The restoration and protection of forest wetlands and mangroves may effectively cleanse and filter water pollution and other wastewater management challenges.  The upsides are extensive..

Natural forest have monetary value too. The carbon-credit market for example, while developing as a platform, shows great promise.  Most people I know, even those that don’t directly invest or promote the carbon market believe it to be a fundamental instrument in giving natural forest more value.  This is a big issue so we’ll talk about it more at a later date, but I believe once the world’s financial woes settle down, the carbon market will see quick maturation.

Important also, particularly in the tropics, is the natural seedbank you are protecting.  Even in secondary forests, it is likely you will find genetic material for your native species plantings.  Additionally, these will be naturally adapted to the area in which you operate.

One of the obvious advantages is the potential upside for tourism and real-estate you are creating.  Those forests, often ignored even if they are protected, offer opportunities for nature trails, bird watching and more.  In Costa Rica I know of several plantation projects that were once considered strictly farmland (with no particular tourism potential) that today play host to lovely establishments.  I recently visited an old hotel in Bocas del Toro, Panama set in an abandoned cacao farm.  The owners thoughtfully removed exotic species, cleaned the understory, promoted the growth of native flowers and plants and built several lovely cabañas whilst reviving the cacao operation and conducting limited reforestation.  They’re booked solid.  A project that promotes responsible tourism, while functioning as a productive farm is a compelling prospect.  Highest and best use, means thinking outside of the box and envisioning land-use for all of its potentials.

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Last month we visited la Loma Jungle Lodge in Panama

My final thought: In the end natural forests are beautiful, provide eco-system services and should be respected.  That in itself is enough, don’t you think?