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

 

 

 

 

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.

Hormigo Guitar IAF 4

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

Standard forestry vs agroforestry

Cacao in Cocobolo grove: Izabal Agro-Forest

Cacao in Cocobolo grove: Izabal Agro-Forest

Over the years I’ve had many conversations about the benefits and so-called disadvantages of agro-forestry, and I’ve found that people with a forestry pedigree tend to be skeptical.  The question always comes down to whether or not there is a financial or biological burden when double cropping land.  It’s understandable, as a forester you probably want to prioritize tree silviculture, so the idea that you may have to adjust your method so that the other crop coexist in a healthy way is a no-go for some managers.  To be clear, there are sacrifices.  In a monoculture your management is 100% oriented around the success of one species, there are no other considerations.  For example, you can plant your trees as intensively as possible, (1100+ trees per hectare), personnel can focus on one set of skills, and possibly there are other considerations.

But of course I see this from a different perspective, first and foremost I see agro-forestry in terms of risk mitigation.

Timber, agriculture, cacao, livestock, apples, papayas, they all have risks; the most common are disease, fire, natural disaster and market volatility, a farmers life is full of ups and downs.  Trust me I know.  But rarely do these risks affect crops in the same way, whereas fire may wipe out a forest floor crop like cacao, only a concentrated extremely intense fire could kill a hardwood tree.  Similarly, diseases, common in fruits and vegetables rarely affect trees in the same way, particularly hardwoods.  Market prices for any commodity will see good years and bad, but rarely across the whole spectrum.  And  unlike fruit crops, you don’t necessarily have to harvest your timber trees if there is a market lull, you can wait the bad prices out (and in the meantime they continue to grow!).  It has been been said before, as long as the sun shines and rain falls, trees grow.

The biggest disadvantage with timber investment is the long, (sometimes very long) wait it takes a tree to grow to a good, harvestable size.  For tropical hardwoods the time-frame is usually estimated between 20 and 30 years, depending on the species of course.  But therein also lies the beauty of the symbiotic relationship that a forest floor crop (like cacao or coffee) and a longterm tree crop:  One provides you the cash-flow to continue operations and receive income, the other functions as the life-jacket that provides a low-risk and historically reliable investment.

There are other factors as well of course:  A poly-culture will look and function more like a natural forest than a standard monoculture.    Agro-forestry is more likely to provide consistent, long-term, employment to community members, there are at least two streams of revenue and I should also mention that in a world where high-quality land capable of producing food is extremely limited, it’s just the right thing to do!

Mahogany & cacaogrove on my farm, Izabal Agro-Forest

Mahogany & cacaogrove on my farm, Izabal Agro-Forest

Hardwood trees with cacao understory - izabalagroforest.com

Hardwood trees with cacao understory – izabalagroforest.com