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

 

 

 

 

The Final Warning Bell

In Brazil deforestation repesents 70% of the country’s carbon emissions (photo courtesy of the WWF)

The final warning bell has been rung by a UN Climate Change report.  The ongoing destruction of the remaining tropical rain forests and the advance of the pine beetle into the extreme north has contributed to 1/5th of the carbon being delivered into our precious atmosphere, much more than all the motorized vehicles, ships and factories on the planet.  Agriculture is the main polluter and negative factor in this equation.  Here in Guatemala, just to mention an example, at certain times of the year, the burning of the cane fields on the Pacific coast, is enough to darken the sky and cause an ash fall of choking dimensions in nearby communities.

The question is why has forestry not been able to play a more important and sustainable role in mitigating climate change?  One obvious reply is that the global public is kept in the dark by a disinterested media, passive educators and politicians looking only as far as the next vote.

But then what about reforestation companies and the forest investment companies?  Why are they not playing a greater role in the sequestration of carbon and so the salvation of our planet as we know it.  Again the answer is painful:  enormous areas covered by mono-cultures of short term tree crops for mainly pulp or biomass using species (e.g. Pine,Eucaliptus or Melina) that are most often foreign to the tropics with negative effects on the soil.  Sustainable agroforestry is one answer.  India has just passed more progressive legislation that removes many of the bureaucratic restrictions on the planting and use of new forests by farmers,that is expected to increase the forest cover there by millions of hectares.  Both investors, forestry companies and governments need to pay more attention to native forest species for lumber and food while considering the infinite possibilities of sub-canopy planting.

In addition, especially Universities should be playing an important role in environmentally correct reforestation and habitat recovery, but sadly most often their endowment funds invest in mono-cultures and doubtful short term returns, while their scientists preach another story.  It is a dysfunction that every responsible citizen and especially foresters need to urgently correct before we are obligated to send a flotilla of arks to Bangladesh, a country that lies almost entirely at sea level.

– Richard Bronson

Palm monoculture

Palm monoculture in Guatemala

Agrforestry parcel, IAF, Guatemala

 

My Hormigo Guitar

Hormigo Guitar IAF 3

My new Hormigo guitar, built by Taylor Guitars, wood (back & sides) from Izabal Agro Forest

I started playing the guitar when I was 14 years old.  When my Dad bought me my first classical guitar, a Yamaha G-230 (that I still have!) from black market guitars in San Francisco I was thrilled.  I remember looking at the mahogany back, wondering about the workmanship and incredible quality of the wood.  21 years later I commissioned my first custom-made guitar.  The idea, from the beginning was to use woods grown on our farm, initially I thought we would use some of our plantation Mahogany or Rosewood, but my Dad suggested we do something more experimental.  “Why not Hormigo?” he said.  Hormigo, Platymiscium dimorphandrum, is a rich gold and brown tropical hardwood, what was intriguing about his idea however is that in Guatemala it is considered the finest tonewood for marimbas.  Naturally then, we thought it would make a good guitar.

With the decision made, we had a piece cut with our Hudson bandsaw, and sent it over to my friend Chris Cosgrove, wood buyer for Taylor guitars in California.  I gave them the specifications and a few weeks later we received this beauty in the mail.    The tone is beautiful and rich, and I’ll let the images speak to the quality of the finish.

For more information about our tonewood plantation please visit: izabalagroforest.com

Hormigo Guitar IAF 1

Hormigo body and sides, mahogany neck, spruce soundboard, with Cocobolo inlay

Hormigo Guitar IAF 2

Using the sapwood adds to the natural beauty of the Hormigo grain.

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The first of many instruments to be made from lumber sustainably grown lumber at Izabal Agro-Forest

Hormigo Guitar IAF 5

Hormigo grain, Platymiscium spp.

Hormigo Guitar IAF 7

The front of the guitar was made from Norther Spruce, however the inlay around the sound hole was made from Cocobolo

Thank you to all the good folks over at Taylor guitars.

Thank you to all the good folks over at Taylor guitars.

Hormigo-made marimba

Taylor Guitars

Finished Taylor Guitars

Finished Taylor Guitars

We visit home, California, a couple times a year.  While here we bask in the fresh food, family fun and general goodness that is the Bay Area.  It also gives me an opportunity to visit with the wood workers and craftsmen that consume the hardwoods we work so hard to cultivate and protect in the tropics.

A few days ago I had the opportunity to visit the Taylor Guitar facilities in Southern California.  Taylor is a world class acoustic guitar producer that has become one of the leading proponents of sustainable hardwood sourcing.  They use Genuine Mahogany, Cocobolo, Sapele, Koa, Rosewood, Ebony and other species for their guitar components.  After a substantial number of processes, including milling, drying, sanding, laser cutting, treating, sealing and more, the incredible aesthetic potential of these woods is revealed in spectacular fashion.  The shapes, patterns, color and luster were a vivid reminder of why these woods have been sought and traded for so long.

My host was Chris Cosgrove, wood buyer for Taylor Guitars.  He, better than most, understands the finite nature of these endangered woods (most are cites appendix I or II listed) and we’ve been discussing long-term sourcing solutions for their instruments.  To the company’s credit, they work with responsible suppliers and concessions and do their best to buy from sustainable sources.  Recently they’ve invested in a concession and mill in Cameroon, a move that was risky but possibly necessary to secure the medium term availability of precious hardwoods, particularly ebony (Diospyros crassiflora).

Taylor’s Spring Limited Edition Granadillo and Ebony Guitars

Since I’ve always been a huge fan of Mahogany and its viability as plantation species we spent quite a bit of time discussing its qualities and availability.  In their warehouses we saw Mahogany from Fiji, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.  (Only the Fijean lumber is plantation sourced, however Fijian politics and bureaucracy have severely limited its viability.)  Tropical Mahogany is one of the most important tonewood species, used by generations of instrument makers for its workability and balanced tonewood qualities:

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Genuine Mahogany (darker boards) at the Taylor facilities

In general most tropical tonewoods are sourced from natural (non-plantation) forests, which means of course that they are being depleted without being replaced.  Species like Cocobolo and American Rosewood are already difficult to acquire and must be extracted from isolated forests, which even if purchased legally (bought through a concession) will be subject to less oversight.  (see National Geographic’s recent issue on Mahogany for the many problems with concessions: June 2013)  Essentially there is and will continue to be a need for plantation tonewoods, even moreso in the next decade when the concessions dry up.  Musicians and lute makers alike would do well to consider the future of their craft and consider and support the only viable, not to mention sustainable, solution for their longterm raw material needs: meaning an international tonewood reserve & plantation needs to be established and supported as soon as possible.

A few photos from my visit:

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Taylor Guitars 016  Taylor Guitars 018  Taylor Guitars 020  Taylor Guitars 022

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The case for Genuine Mahogany

Last month, an article about Genuine Mahogany was featured in National Geographic magazine.  In it the author discusses its threatened state, demand, and solutions to curbing its illegal harvest.  Since most large Genuine Mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) stands are found in the remote forests of South America controlling its illegal harvest has been difficult, despite its endangered species status (cites.org).  Apparently logging companies will buy or lease legal forest concessions, usually quickly depleted, but then will use these permits to sneak into adjoining protected forests or indigenous territories.  These circumstances are met with increased patrolling and stricter trade laws but in the end, like drugs, the product will make its way to the consumer.  Its a great read, but I ask myself why one of the world’s great timber species is still rejected as a plantation crop.  I know the answer, I’ve worked with foresters and timber investors my whole life, it all come down to a pesky insect.  The Mahogany shoot borer (Hypsipyla grandella), damages trees when its larva bores into and kills the terminal shoot. A lateral branch grows upward to replace the lost terminal shoot, resulting in a crooked main stem. Also, the damage to the terminal breaks apical dominance, resulting in excessive lateral branching. (Howard and Meerow 1993). Small trees whose terminal shoots are attacked repeatedly in successive years become extremely deformed, severely reducing its commercial value/potential.  The shoot borer has created a situation in which the only considerable plantations are located on islands (exotic to mahogany) where the moth doesn’t exist, namely Fiji and the Philippines.  That said, and despite what you may hear, the shoot borer can be controlled.  We’ve been doing it for years.  There is a cost effective, easy method for doing so, the only requirement is consistent management.  The big argument is that individual control is too labor intensive and therefore too expensive.  In Guatemala, we recently did a cost study of shoot borer management for 13000 trees.  In the first year we averaged $0.16 per tree, in the second year when the trees are taller and more difficult manage, that increased by 25%.  By the third year, no more control was necessary due to height and hardening of the shoot.  Furthermore mahogany requires less formative pruning than other species because it naturally grows vertically.  There is significant data on its growth, recently a comprehensive study conducted by the University of Munich estimated optimal rotation length for mahogany at roughly 25 years, which is more than competitive when compared to other hardwoods.  This estimate is roughly in line with our own growth predictions.

Geniune Mahogany stand with zero bifurcation

Genuine Mahogany stand with zero bifurcation on lateritic soil

The biggest advantage of Mahogany against, say Teak, is its incredible robustness.  Mahogany can grow on very poor  and diverse soils, which is evident when you consider its wide distribution from Mid-Mexico all the way down to the Southern Amazon.  Meaning, even if the labor requirements are slightly higher, you can establish it on cheaper lands.  In Panama’s Western Darien “teakable” lands cost anywhere between $4000 and $7000 per hectare, marginal lands may be procured at half of that price.  That ratio remains roughly consistent throughout Central America and I speculate Brazil is similar.

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Mahogany’s wide distribution is a testament to its vigor and durability

Mahogany is a “cites” listed species, meaning endangered.

The other side of this story is calculating market value for plantation mahogany and how it sizes up to Teak expectations.  And of course a quality comparison between natural and plantation mahogany.  I will be discussing both subjects in an upcoming entry.

How much should I be paying for land?

How much should I pay for land?  As always, it depends.  In the past I’ve mentioned the rising demand for high-quality arable land, a finite resource in an age of infinite growth and consumption that will undoubtedly have an effect on farmland prices.  According to farmland.org, it is estimated that 1/32 of the worlds land mass is arable.  Moreover, much of this area lies in politically or geographically isolated areas.  In Panama, Nicaragua and Guatemala, where I have worked the last few years we have seen tremendous increase in farmland prices.  A recent report estimates farmland in Brazil has quadrupled over the last decade.  On the one hand, at least from a real-estate perspective, the upside could trump concerns about rising purchase and establishment costs, on the other we will face rising costs both as consumers and investors, meaning of course plantation costs, at all levels, will continue to rise.  In Panama we still find properties in the $2000 – $3000 per hectare range, however these are consistently in areas of isolated or difficult access or poor quality broken land.  Viable reforestation farmlands are fetching upwards of $4000, assuming medium to high scale hectareage.  Guatemala, a country with a strong commodity sector has seen a similar rise due to aggressive African Palm, Rubber and Sugar Cane projects.  It is reasonable to assume therefore that, particularly for small and medium scale forest investors, will see a significant drop in scale, due to higher per hectare costs.  One possible alternative is to revisit those cheaper lands..  Specifically, I’m referring to those lands that cost less due to soil and land conditions and will therefore be less appealing to industrial teak and agriculture investors.  Naturally, you can conduct an independent analysis of what exactly might growth on these “poor” quality soils, but it is likely that you will end up with a list of native species, naturally adapted over millenia, to local conditions.  Using hardwoods as an example, you can establish nitrogen-fixing species, to degraded areas and over time restore nutrient cycling and fertility self-reliance.  Pioneer species can also play an important role in degraded lands (I’ll write more on the subject next week).    The issue here is that there is a perception that plantation native species will garner less return within the 22 to 25 year rotation cycle expected of Teak.  Now, while I refute this perception, let us assume it is true simply because that’s what you may encounter.  The question is: do I ignore these cheaper lands, based on “teakability” or do I reanalyze how I might use, and likely improve, these lands?  In other words will I achieve my goals (whether financial, social or environmental) by ignoring degraded or deforested lands? or do I plant something that I know will grow well and in all likelihood produce something valuable?  Its the difference between doing nothing and making a sound investment.  My advice in a nutshell: let your property decide what grows best!

Site characteristics, like soil and topography, will make or break your plantation.

Site characteristics, like soil and topography, will make or break your plantation.