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

 

 

 

 

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

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Hormigo grain, Platymiscium spp.

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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

CoastEcoTimber

Corotu

Last week I visited Coast Eco-Timber’s new storefont in Panama City.  The founder, Alana Husby, is a fellow West Coast Canadian and fifth generation logger.  Like me, her grandfathers worked during a time of (seemingly) endless forests and timber abundance… that landscape of course has changed quite a bit and the timber/forest industry has had to change with it.  Alana has made that adjustment beautifully.  A few years ago she embarked on what she calls the most “challenging and unusual project yet, underwater logging in Panama.  When a concession in Panama’s Lake Bayano (owned by the Kuna Madugandi Tribe) was brought to her attention the fit between past and present came into alignment. Working with the indigenous tribe as well as her team of skilled divers and sawmill staff, CoastEcoTimber is delving deep to recover timber that has lay preserved in the underwater jungles of Panama since 1979”  In this way they provide their customers with spectacular historic wood.

It was great to see, firsthand, the beautiful pieces they are extracting from the lake.  Most of the species they seem to be finding are “lesser” known, at least in the international market but long used by woodworkers in Central America.  To my delight many of these species are the very ones slowly gaining acceptance as plantation woods (see pic below).  A few of these are: Zapatero (Hieronima alchorneoides), Amarillo (Terminalia amazonia), Almendro (Dipteryx oleifera), Cedro Amargo (Cedrela odorata) and others.  By offering these woods, (successfully) Coast Eco Timber is validating what we, native species planters, have believed for so long: that these woods are beautiful, workable and will one day fulfill a demand.

Photographs of Alana’s salvaged wood:

zapatero

Cedro Espino

Quira stump

Plantation Amarillo:

Plantation Amarillo - Las Lajas, Panama

For more info on CoastEcoTimber click here

 

 

An energy crisis

Late rains have caused an energy crisis in Panama.  Hydroelectric generators, as with most tropical economies, are this country’s main source of energy; so when weather patterns don’t hold up, the whole system falters: Schools have been closed, A/C prohibited during certain times of the day, public offices have shortened business hours, and rolling blackouts may follow.  People are angry.  A national group of engineers has demanded a government plan for alternative energy, parents are confused and don’t know what to do with their children, and in cattle country, ranchers are demanding subsidies for feed, the problem has affected everyone.

Deforestation means reduced evapotranspiration (evaporation of plants and soil) resulting in both a decrease in rainfall and changing annual rainfall patterns with unusually dry conditions

In a recent newspaper article describing the predicament, the ranchers complain of climate change, expressing frustration at their parched fields and demand government action.  The problem, however, lies at their feet and looking for a bail-out is like sweeping dust under the rug.  Long-term watershed management has to be a part of the conversation.

Latin America’s #1 driver of deforestation is the cattle frontier. Photo credit: Andy Berry

In other words THE essential ingredient for your operation (water), be it agriculture, forestry or ranching is directly dependent on natural forests.  We can assume this (water cycle) process, can happen 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’.)

There is simply NO conversation about the effects of deforestation on the water cycle.  Trees, brush and spores play an integral cycle in the tropical water cycle.  But because more pasture, means more cattle and more meat, (and therefore money) cattle ranchers will generally clear as much land as possible.  Right to the edges of their land.  It is no secret that the vast majority of deforestation in Central America is driven by the cattle frontier.    The process goes something like this:

1. Sell family plot

2. With the money, buy cheap land in remote areas (usually tree covered)

3.  Extract and sell all and any valuable lumber on property

4.  Burn

5.  Apply herbicide

6.  Introduce/establish hardy exotic grass for pasture

7.  Truck in cattle

8.  Make 2, maybe 3% annual profit

There’s a saying here: “A cattle farmer lives poor and dies rich”.  This isn’t because cattle eventually become profitable, it’s because of land-value appreciation.  And its true, cattle ranchers occasionally end-up owing significant real-estate.  Recently, while pitching an environmental restoration project to a cattle ranching association, a colleague of mine posed the question: what would your land be worth without water?  Unanimously, they all agreed that it would be worth close to nothing.  Interestingly they all understood, from firsthand experience no-doubt, that forested areas have more water and more rain.  The idea then is to convince them that if they can each allocate a small percentage of their holdings to conservation, particularly along waterways, that there is tangible economic upside.  I wrote about this concept in an earlier post.  Its an uphill battle I’m sure, but based on the receptive conversation I think these situations do make people reconsider their role climate change .   Conversation about drought, particularly in the tropics, must include reforestation and conservation.  Governments would do well to incentivize cattle operations that conserve forested areas or employ forward thinking silvo-pastoral systems instead of exacerbating the problem by buying them transported feed, or subsidizing beef.