Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Visit to Hummingbird Farm in Belize

The chariot for our farm tour - a cart pulled by a tractor
One of the highlights of my trip to Maya Mountain Cacao (MMC) for Taza Chocolate's annual Chocolate Week was a day trip to Hummingbird farm in the Cayo District of Belize. The trip was a last-minute addition to our itinerary after MMC signed a 10-year operating agreement with the current owner of the farm shortly before we arrived in Belize. It was a three-hour car ride each way to get from our base in the Toledo District to the farm in Cayo, but it was an incredible experience that became my most vivid memory from our trip.

Known as "Hummingbird Hershey" among the Belizeans, the farm was originally an 1,800 acre cacao farm owned by Hershey. It was the first commercial cacao-growing operation in Belize, and it was the most modern cacao farm in the world at the time it was created. It had a goal of becoming as mechanized as possible with an aim to produce 200 lbs of cacao per acre. As if to illustrate this point, our visit began while standing in front of the mechanical dryers that were used to dry the cacao after fermentation. Emily Stone, the Managing Director of MMC, said, "We'll get rid of those."

A mechanical dryer
Unlike the traditional Mayan farms that are filled with a multi-culture of fruits, vegetables and useful plants, Hummingbird Hershey was planted as an orchard with a canopy that wasn't very substantial. Picture an American apple orchard, and you'll get the idea. Rows and rows of neatly arranged cacao trees as far as the eye can see. While orchards are productive and efficient, the cacao tree prefers some shade with its sun. Cacao thrives in a dense jungle that includes lower canopy shade trees such as banana and plantains supplemented by higher shade trees such as rubber and mango.
Orchard rows are still visible after years of abandonment
MMC signed the operating agreement with the current landowner, who converted 1,400 acres of the property into a commercial citrus orchard. The remaining 400 acres are filled with the original cacao trees, which have been left to fend for themselves for a long time.

The operating agreement puts MMC in charge of rejuvenating the cacao trees, training the farm workers on proper cultivation and harvesting techniques, fermenting the cacao and selling it. MMC's goal is to ship the cacao from Hummingbird as a separate origin/estate cacao next year.

There's a lot of work to be done to get Hummingbird up to MMC's high standards. One benefit of the farm being inactive for so long is that the cacao was immediately eligible to become organic certified because it hadn't been exposed to fertilizers or pesticides in years. By the time we arrived, MMC had already begun grafting new seedlings onto the existing root stock to improve cacao varietals and harvests.

New seedling grafts are protected with dried palm leaves
We were in Belize at the peak of harvest so we saw farm workers sitting under trees in a pile of cacao pods, cracking open the pods and putting wet cacao into buckets. The buckets were collected and brought to the starting point of our visit, the area with the fermentation bins, sun drying beds, and those obsolete mechanical dryers.
Hummingbird farm workers cracking pods and taking out the wet cacao beans
Thanks to Pete, the intrepid botanist on our trip, we sucked on more cacao pulp that day than I've probably had in my entire life. Pete was picking pods off every tree he could reach from the tractor, cracking open the pods and passing them around. There was so much amazing flavor in the mucilage on those beans. The taste of the pulp was incredible - it tasted like an all-natural version of a Jolly Rancher Green Apple Candy.
Fresh cacao
By the time the cacao is ready for the premium chocolate market it may have a different name. The name "Hummingbird" is so associated with Hershey that MMC was brainstorming other names. Whatever it's called, I'm looking forward to tasting my first bar of chocolate made with Hummingbird cacao.

If you'd like to see more photos from our day at Hummingbird farm and my trip to Belize, join us this Tuesday, July 22, 2014 at 7:00 pm at the store for my slide show presentation.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Challenges of Making Chocolate in Hawaii: A Visit with Dr. Nat Bletter of Madre Chocolate

In advance of our free chocolate event with Madre Chocolate this Tuesday, 7/8 from 5-7pm, I spoke with Dr. Nat Bletter, one of Madre's co-Founders, about his unique route to becoming a chocolate maker and the challenges of making chocolate in Hawaii.

Nat has a very interesting background that almost screams "cacao". He received a PhD in Ethnobotany, which is the study of the plants people use for medicine, psychoactivity, construction and food. While Nat happened to be studying ethnobotany in a lot of places that grow cacao, such as Guatemala, Peru and Mali, he had no particular interest in chocolate.

It wasn't until a friend, Cameron McNeil, asked him to contribute a chapter to her book, Chocolate in Mesoamerica: A Cultural History of Cacao, that he developed his interest in chocolate. While he liked chocolate, he was reluctant to write the chapter because he didn't know anything about chocolate. Once the book was published, Nat had a lot of requests to make chocolate. He said to me, "My friends didn't care that I'd contributed a chapter to the book, they just kept asking me to make chocolate."

He began making chocolate in New York City using a food processor and a coffee grinder, and selling the chocolate at farmers' markets and holiday markets in the city. Making chocolate was still a hobby for Nat, so it didn't factor into his decision to leave NYC and move to Hawaii to pursue post-doctoral work. Hawaii, however, proved to be transformational. Nat met up with his business partner, Dave Elliot, and they founded Madre Chocolate.

Madre doesn't own a farm or cacao trees. It purchases cacao from other Hawaiian cacao farmers, and Central American countries. Why purchase cacao from another country when you have it growing on your doorstep? Growing cacao in Hawaii is an expensive and challenging prospect. Nat and Dave save the Hawaiian cacao for special single-origin bars and use the delicious, but more cost-effective Dominican Republic cacao for most of their inclusion bars.

While cost is one significant issue in working with Hawaiian cacao, climate is another.

Considered the "North Pole" of the cacao-growing region, Hawaii offers some interesting challenges for cacao farmers and chocolate makers. It's either too hot or too cold, depending upon what you're doing.

While Hawaii may seem downright tropical to those of us living on the mainland, it's relatively cool compared to most cacao-growing countries. Properly fermenting cacao is the most important step in developing good chocolate flavor, but fermentation relies on tropical heat and heat-loving bacteria. In most cacao-growing countries, cacao undergoes wild fermentation, building up heat and bacteria from its surrounding environment. Hawaii's relatively moderate climate means that the fermentation process needs to be helped along. In order to reach the temperatures of proper fermentation (115° to 120°), Madre innoculates the fermenting cacao with bacteria that can survive in higher temperatures. The bacteria they use are ones that cannot survive in the wild in Hawaii.

While too little heat is a problem for fermenting cacao, too much heat is a problem for making chocolate bars.

Processing chocolate requires a cool environment with low humidity. Temperatures in the 80°- 90° range coupled with high humidity make it tough to grind cacao and temper chocolate. This is true for chocolate makers in all cacao-growing countries, including craft makers such as Grenada Chocolate, Kallari, El Ceibo and Pacari. What makes it more difficult in Hawaii is the astronomical cost of electricity.

Hawaiian cacao is the most expensive cacao in the world. It's currently selling for $9-$10/lb. Compare that with the rate for commodity cacao from other parts of the world, which currently costs just over $3.00/lb. That's quite a gap.

What accounts for these differences in price? The costs of growing and processing cacao in the US are much higher than they are in the tropical countries that sell the majority of the world's cacao.

Inputs are "crazy" expensive, as Nat put it.

High electricity costs come into play in a number of ways. Grinding cacao is an electricity-intensive activity. Air conditioning needed for tempering and molding chocolate in a cool, moisture-free environment add to the electricity-intensive activity of a chocolate factory.

Labor costs in the US are significantly higher than other cacao-growing countries. US laborers are paid by the hour instead of by the sack of cacao, and their hourly pay rate is significantly higher. While it would certainly be better for cacao farmers everywhere if they were being paid by the hour, that's not how the market works at this time. The consumer is paying very little for a mass market bar of chocolate, keeping most cacao farmers at a subsistence income.

Madre uses a lot of fantastic, local Hawaiian ingredients such as passion fruit, hibiscus and ginger in their inclusion chocolate bars. Just like the Hawaiian cacao, these local ingredients are significantly more expensive than the same ingredients would be if they were sourced from a developing country.

There are a few things Madre is doing to try to mitigate some of its disadvantages. The Hawaiian chocolate community is a close one, meaning that many of the small-batch chocolate makers are working together to try to put their chocolate in a more competitive position. Madre shares resources with Lonohana and Manoa Chocolate, both craft chocolate makers carried at Chocolopolis. Madre currently roasts and winnows at Lonohana, and at one point they shared a roaster with Manoa.

Unlike some of the other craft chocolate makers in Hawaii, Madre doesn't farm its own cacao. While this means that Madre is at the mercy of local cacao growers for a very limited supply of beans at a very high price, it also means Madre has the advantage of being able to explore different farms and produce chocolate bars that highlight the terroir of different farms on the island.

While making chocolate in Hawaii is challenging, it's wonderful to see the continued growth of the burgeoning craft chocolate community. Stop by Tuesday evening to meet Nat and to taste some of America's own chocolate, from bean to bar.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

How to Make Mayan Drinking Chocolate

Eladio Pop's Daughter (l) and Wife (r): Our Drinking Chocolate Guides
One of my favorite parts of my trip to Belize with Taza Chocolate Week was an in-depth tutorial on how to make Mayan drinking chocolate. Drinking chocolate has been an important part of Maya life for centuries, long before the Europeans expropriated chocolate for themselves.

After touring the cacao farm of Eladio Pop, we sat down under his family's open-air, thatched-roof kitchen to watch his daughter make drinking chocolate.

Made with water, drinking chocolate takes advantage of a few, simple ingredients grown on the family farm. While this recipe is authentic, it's light on measurements. Everything our guide did was by instinct and eyeball.

Step 1: Gather your ingredients

The Mayans use just a few ingredients in their drinking chocolate.
  • Cacao (lightly fermented - 10-20%)
  • theobroma bicolor -  a relative of cacao, theobroma bicolor grows in pods on trees and looks extremely similar to cacao. It has a very mild taste that's similar to raw peanuts, and it's difficult to find, even in Belize. The farmers refer to it as "white cacao", not to be confused with the criollo phenotype of cacao.
  • Allspice
  • Boiling water
  • Black pepper (ONLY for pregnant women about to give birth)
Step 2: Roast the cacao with allspice & theobroma bicolor, turning the beans so they roast evenly

Step 3: Separate the cacao from its skins by lightly crushing

Step 4: Winnow by tossing the nibs and skins and letting the air blow the skins away

Step 5: Grind cacao nibs into a paste on a metate. Use a heat gun to warm the metate if you're not in a hot, tropical climate.
Me (Lauren) grinding cacao on a metate. Notice Pete licking his fingers.

Step 6: Put a handful of cacao paste into a preserved calabash gourd and add a small amount of boiling water. Mix vigorously with a fork until a paste forms.

Step 7: Put the cacao paste into a pitcher and add about 1 liter of boiling water. Stir vigorously.

Step 8: Pour the drinking chocolate into a calabash gourd and drink as-is or add sugar. Enjoy!

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Review of MOHAI's "Chocolate: The Exhibition"

Chocolate: The Exhibition
June 14 - September 28

A number of years ago The Field Museum of Chicago put together an exhibit about chocolate and cacao. I never had the chance to see the exhibit while it was open, so I was excited to find out that Seattle's Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) would be hosting a traveling version of the exhibit, which opened this past weekend and is in town through September 28.

I went on opening day, prompted by the energetic Samantha Reynolds, a customer of ours who has become a good friend. 

Samantha and I spent about an hour touring the exhibit, and it was definitely worth the time. It begins with an excellent depiction of the necessary growing conditions for cacao, including features on the animals that spread the seeds, and the midges (insects) that pollinate the flowers. There's even a midge specimen in a glass case with an arrow pointing to it, in case you mistake this tiny insect for a piece of dust. This is the best illustration I've seen of growing conditions and forest culture for cacao.

The exhibit continues with the human uses of cacao, beginning with the Mayans and the Aztecs, followed by the adoption of chocolate as a beverage by Europeans, its transformation into chocolate bars and the growth of mass market chocolate. While there's a nod to the very difficult and complex sourcing issues facing the world of cacao today, the exhibit does not go into depth in this area.

The exhibit does a very good job of telling the story of cacao and chocolate in both the ancient and the modern worlds. I recommend a visit.

As someone immersed in the industry, I already know a lot about chocolate and cacao, so I wondered if I'd learn anything new. I did.

My "Aha!" Moments
While I know a good amount about the history of cacao in Maya and Aztec lands, a distinction between the uses of cacao in their cultures became clear to me from this exhibit.

I'd always believed that only the wealthy could afford cacao. What I learned from the exhibit is that this is true for the Aztecs, but not for the Maya. Cacao was enjoyed by the rich and poor alike in Mayan lands. The Maya grew cacao in their backyards, just as I saw them doing in Belize. Every Maya family has trees and cultivates cacao for their own use.

In the Aztec regions, however, cacao was reserved for the elite and the wealthy. While the Aztecs consumed cacao, they had difficulty growing it because of the arid climate where they lived. Their traders would head to Mayan lands and pick up loads of cacao to bring back to sell or trade. It was used as currency in Aztec culture, and it was the purview of the rich.

Another fun fact I learned: saucers were invented to keep chocolate off of clothes. Who knew?

Overall, the exhibit was great. There were a few areas for improvement that I hope the MOHAI will address before the end of the exhibit.

What I'd Like to See Changed
First, the feature on Seattle-area chocolatiers and chocolate makers was very limited and excluded many that are an important part of the fabric of the Pacific Northwest's vibrant chocolate community. Seattle has earned recognition in the international community because of the diversity and strength of its chocolate culture. MOHAI chose to focus on six chocolatiers and chocolate makers in the area, but excluded many, including Chocolopolis, who have had an impact on Seattle's international reputation for chocolate expertise. I contacted the staff at the MOHAI to share my concerns, and they've graciously agreed to meet to discuss ways to involve other community members in the conversation about Seattle chocolate.
Second, the aroma. Have you ever walked into a gift shop that features chocolate-scented candles? The same overwhelmingly artificial chocolate smell is being piped into this exhibit. While I applaud the museum's attempt to make this a truly sensory experience, the smell is unpleasant.

Third, an inaccuracy that was mentioned multiple times in the exhibit. While discussing the invention of milk chocolate by Daniel Peters & Henri Nestle, the exhibit said that they invented milk chocolate by adding "condensed milk" to chocolate. I don't think this is correct. I believe Nestle invented "powdered milk", and he and Peters added it to chocolate to create milk chocolate. Condensed milk would not have worked because of its water content.

Pick Up a Seattle Chocolate Map
Kudos to Brian Cisneros of the Northwest Chocolate Festival for working with MOHAI to put together a take-away map that plots all of the chocolate stores in Seattle. The map is great if you're interested in visiting the many chocolate stores within the city limits.  It does not include some wonderful stores and makers outside of the city limits, but it's a fantastic start.

Next Up: How to Make Drinking Chocolate Like A Mayan
The exhibit reminded me of my on-the-ground experiences in Belize, where I had the opportunity to see drinking chocolate made by Mayans using traditional methods that date back centuries. I'll share recipes and photos of them making drinking chocolate in my next post.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Challenging Road to Self Sufficiency for a Fairtrade Association: TCGA Part II

TCGA Office: "Fairtrade guarantees a better deal for Third World Producers"  

I'd like to pick up where I left off at the end of my last blog post. As part of a group visiting the Toledo Cacao Growers Association (TCGA) in Punta Gorda, Belize, I had the opportunity to hear a first-hand account of life in a farmers cooperative from a member farmer, Mr. Justino Peck. One of the challenges that became apparent during our discussion with Mr. Peck is the TCGA's struggle to become self sufficient.

Despite its status as a Fairtrade-certified organization, the TCGA is heavily reliant on grant funding, mostly from foreign organizations. This was an angle to fair trade I'd never considered before. When I think of fair trade, I think of farmers earning enough to live a better life. I hadn't considered that their association might not be self sufficient.

A View Inside the TCGA
The TCGA is a non-profit that was formed to support farmer members in marketing their produce. Its goal is to promote the growth of the industry, and to provide a sustainable source of cacao for the market. It also has the goal of trying to provide a stable income for cacao farmers, not one that fluctuates wildly with the commodity price of cacao.

The cacao farmers of the Toledo District have two cacao harvests a year. There is a criollo harvest that begins in October, and then a harvest of hybridized plants from Costa Rica that can last from January to June. Mr. Peck pointed out that climate change has made harvests unpredictable. Some years the harvest continues all year. This was not the first time I’d heard a Belizean farmer mention climate change, which surprised me. I’d always thought of it as an academic discussion that happens among more developed nations. I'd heard climate change mentioned by cacao farmer Eladio Pop, by Cotton Tree Lodge's Gardener, Armando, and now, Mr. Peck. This was a good reminder that no one knows climate change like a farmer.

Mr. Peck said that the farmers are not at full cacao production capacity because they also need to sell corn, beans, rice and other foods to make a living. While this forced crop diversity means they produce less cacao, it brings many important benefits. It's good for the environment, it's good for income stability, and it's good for the farmers’ families, who always have enough to eat. I have to give credit to Mr. Peck for a quote I have used in more than one blog post, “The Maya people are poor by cash statistics, but they’re rich in food.”

The Association has four full-time employees including a Manager, a Compliance Officer for Organic and Fairtrade, an Accountant and an Administrator. All of them are in tiny cubicles in the building we visited, which was a chemical storage facility before the farmers switched back to organic farming practices.

Mr. Justino Peck in the TCGA warehouse
The Challenging Road to Self Sufficiency
While Fairtrade certification brings some transparency and accountability to the purchase of cacao, it's an expensive program to implement. In most cases, small holder farms band together to create an association or cooperative that implements Fairtrade standards. This creates administrative costs for the association in the form of employees who certify and audit for Fairtrade compliance. There are also fees to become and remain a Fairtrade-certified organization. It's an expensive prospect.

The TCGA has a long way to go before it can cover these costs solely through the cacao harvest. Let me illustrate this for you.

The TCGA produces 50,000 pounds of cacao a year from 1,180 farmers. Mr. Peck told us that in order to become independent, the TCGA needs to produce 500,000 pounds of cacao a year. That's 10x their current cacao production, an enormous gap to fill.

Something dramatic needs to happen to the TCGA if it's going to reach its goal of self sufficiency. Its business model needs to evolve and it needs to innovate. In the meantime, the TCGA takes a lot of grant money from outside organizations to help fill the funding gap.

Grant Funding and the Odd Priorities it Creates
So who is providing these outside grants to the TCGA? Non-governmental organizations (NGO's) and governmental agencies including USAID, HIVOS (Dutch-based organization in Costa Rica), the Inter-American Development Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the Fairtrade Foundation.

It was interesting hearing about the projects that some of these organizations have funded.

One of the best examples of the skewed prioritization that can happen when you’re receiving funding from outside sources is the example we saw while visiting the TCGA offices. Mr. Peck said that their office building was built by a project in 1993, but the TCGA still doesn’t own the building. Just this past January, the Ministry of Agriculture said it would grant a lease to the TCGA that would eventually enable the TCGA to purchase its office building. When we visited, the TCGA still didn’t have a copy of the promised lease from the government.

At the same time, Mr. Peck showed us the artist's drawings for a demonstration farm and Maya Cacao Museum that was going to be built a few miles from town. This lovely artist's rendering showed a Maya-pyramid-like building with orchards around it. While I'm not entirely clear on the timing for this new venture, it seemed like it was happening in the near future. Given the difficulties the TCGA is having in becoming self sustaining, I was surprised at the prioritization of this project. I had to conclude that the museum was being funded by an outside organization who had put up funds specifically for this project.

This left me with a number of questions about how projects get prioritized. Despite the best of intentions of outside organizations, is this project the best use of the TCGA's time and energy? Is it the best use of foreign resources?

The TCGA does not have ownership of its own offices, but it’s going to build a beautiful demonstration garden and cacao museum for the tourists to visit. While that might have some impact on the local farming community, producing more of their fabulous cacao would likely have a larger, faster impact, and help them get to self sufficiency faster.

Facing a Competitor
Let me turn back to the 1,180 farmer members of the TCGA who are going to have to produce 500,000 lbs of cacao a year for the TCGA to become sustainable. There's a wrinkle that developed recently. Not all of those 1,180 farmers are selling their cacao to the TCGA. Now they can choose to sell their cacao to the TCGA or to its competitor, Maya Mountain Cacao (MMC). This makes it even harder for the TCGA to become self sufficient.

MMC Fermentation House
If you read my blog post about MMC, you'll know that it's an innovative cacao purchasing company with a triple bottom line. Maya Mountain Cacao is purchasing cacao from the same farmers as the TCGA. While the TCGA administrators see this as a bad thing, I believe it's a good development.

MMC offers farmers a choice, and it brings new energy and a spirit of innovation and competition to the game that will help take the farmers to the next level. In the long term I think it will be a good thing for the farmers. In the short term, I couldn't help but sympathize with Mr. Peck's grave concerns. The TCGA has been working for many years to become self sufficient, and this upstart shows up and makes it even more difficult.

In the meantime, the TCGA and MMC are learning to collaborate on small initiatives. There's room for both groups to exist, and the rise of a scrappy competitor has forced the TCGA to become more nimble and innovative. For example, MMC purchases wet cacao instead of dry cacao. This enables MMC to control the fermentation, resulting in the kind of consistency desired by craft chocolate makers. The TCGA used to purchase dry cacao from farmers, leaving the fermentation process up to each farmer. Now the TCGA purchases wet cacao and controls the fermentation. This approach enables them to better meet the quality and consistency requirements of craft chocolate makers, making them much stronger competitors.

Outlook for the Future
Not surprisingly, Mr. Peck said that the ultimate goal for the TCGA is to take the value-added route and produce its own chocolate. There are a number of farmers’ cooperatives in Central America who have taken this path, creating more stable income streams for their members. Cooperatives such as Grenada Chocolate Company (Grenada), El Ceibo (Bolivia) and Kallari (Ecuador) all make chocolate.

While some of these cooperatives have been successful at creating quality chocolate that can compete on the international market, some of them have failed. I've had to make the hard decision not to sell chocolate from a farmers cooperative because of its poor quality. It's a very tough decision because I'd love to help the farmers. But I'm not helping them by purchasing chocolate that isn't going to sell. They'll never have incentive to ensure their chocolate farming and production is of a quality that will be successful on the international market.
Craft chocolate maker located a few blocks from TCGA office

I have hope, however, when it comes to the TCGA. It has some of the best organic cacao in the world, produced using traditional Mayan farming techniques. Craft chocolate makers are flocking to the area to source cacao, creating a direct feedback loop between the farmers and the chocolate makers. The TCGA benefits from the information it learns from craft chocolate makers about their desired fermentation and quality levels. This knowledge puts the TCGA in a great position to make chocolate that will succeed on the international market. Financial independence, while difficult to reach, is possible.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The of Best Intentions Not Always Enough: The First-Hand Perspective of a Fairtrade Farmer

Toledo Cacao Growers Association Office
As a professed cacao geek, one of the most exciting outings of our chocolate trip to Belize was a meeting with the former Association Chair of the Toledo Cacao Growers Association (“TCGA”).

Sitting at a long conference table in a small room, we could have been anywhere in the world. But here we were in Punta Gorda, the capital of the Toledo District, meeting with someone from a Fairtrade-certified farmers’ cooperative. After years of doing my best to answer customers’ questions about fair trade, I was sitting in the same room with a member farmer from a fair trade group. My moment had finally come.

Our host was the former Association Chair from 1992-1997, Mr. Justino Peck, himself a cacao farmer. I really appreciated his candor. He wasn’t trying to sugar-coat his experiences or how he views the future. He was incredibly honest and forth-coming, providing us with a brief glimpse into the window of his livelihood.

He spoke incredibly eloquently about the history of the TCGA, offering an illustration of how difficult it is to be an organization dependent upon outsider funding. It was hard not to be sympathetic with this man and his fellow farmer members. Outsiders come in and tell them what to do, and then leave after just a few years. The farmers are left to their own devices after the projects end, a practice that has taught them not to rely on outsiders.

Mr. Justino Peck, former Association Chair

The Beginning of the TCGA: USAID Arrives in Belize

In the 1970’s, farmers in Belize were growing cacao mostly for their own use. In 1984 USAID came to Belize to work with farmers to encourage commercial cacao farming. It probably won’t surprise you to find out that Hershey was involved in this interest in Belize. Mr. Peck, a teacher by training, decided to leave his job in 1984 and begin planting cacao.

USAID ran this project from 1984-1989. They encouraged farmers to abandon their traditional organic methods and begin using chemical “inputs”, a.k.a., fertilizer and pesticides. They introduced the farmers to Hershey as a buyer, who offered better prices. After only five years, the project came to an end and USAID left Belize.

Mr. Peck pointed out that while a cacao tree may begin producing pods after 3-5 years, it doesn’t reach maturity for ten years. Planting cacao is an investment for the Maya, one that they expect to produce for 80-100 years. USAID left after five years, leaving the farmers high and dry before their plants had truly reached maturity. The farmers jettisoned the fertilizers and pesticides and returned to the organic farming rituals and traditions of their ancestors. While this was good for them in the long-term, the short term was about to get ugly.

Between 1990 and 1991, the bottom fell out of the cacao market. Prices went from $0.85/lb to $0.25/lb (they're currently at $1.32/lb dry). Most farmers looked for jobs in the citrus, banana or shrimp industries. Mr. Peck, however, stuck with cacao.
It all started with Green & Black's

Green & Blacks Purchases its First Fairtrade Cacao

Mr. Peck became the first chairman elected to lead the TCGA in 1992. When a contact at the Ministry of Agriculture connected him with a buyer looking for organic cacao, he felt it was important for the TCGA to bind itself to one buyer to try to prevent the farmers from failing. Based on the farmers’ past experiences with the volatility of the cacao market, he felt the farmers would be better off signing contracts with specific buyers. Without a contract, it’s the farmers who fail in a down market, not the buyers.

In November 1993 the farmers agreed to sign a 3-year, binding contract with Whole Earth Foods Company LTD, a Green & Blacks joint venture. The farmers were happy with the negotiated price, and it gave them income certainty, something they’d never had with cacao. They produced 16,000 pounds of cacao in their first year, which, while significant for them, was only a small fraction of the cacao used in Green & Blacks’ production of their Maya Gold chocolate bar. It was Green & Blacks first purchase of Fairtrade cacao, and it was the beginning of a good relationship for the TCGA.

In 2005 Cadbury purchased Green & Blacks, and then in 2010 Cadbury was taken over by Kraft foods (now part of Mondel─ôz International). This is when things changed. While Kraft still purchases a significant amount of cacao from the TCGA, Kraft does not offer the rolling 5 year contracts that Green & Blacks offered in the past. Like most large chocolate companies, Kraft negotiates the price on every shipment based on world market rates at the time. If it weren’t for the booming interest in artisan craft chocolate, these farmers would be back to square one without a stable income.

Chocolate makers and chocophiles outside TCGA office and warehouse
The Impact of the Craft Chocolate Movement

The craft chocolate movement around the world, and, particularly in the US, has had an impact upon the Belize cacao market.

When Maya Mountain Cacao (MMC) set up shop in the Toledo District in 2010, the TCGA was skeptical. Here was another outside group that the TCGA didn’t expect to stick around. During my stay in Belize I heard that the TCGA had discouraged farmers from selling to MMC, telling the farmers that MMC wouldn’t be around for long. Given the track record of outsiders, can you blame them for saying this?

Fast forward four years, and MMC is going stronger than ever and expects to be around for a long time.

So what’s different? There’s been a fundamental change in the American chocolate market. American chocolate lovers are becoming chocophiles. They’re learning to appreciate single-origin chocolate made from organic, fine flavor cacao that has been well fermented, and they understand that with this increase in quality comes an increase in price. Demand for organic fine flavor cacao can only be expected to continue to grow.

I considered sharing this thought with Mr. Peck, but I decided I wouldn’t. After his experiences with outsiders leaving, I decided he and the other farmers would need to figure this out for themselves through personal experiences that would only come with time.

Stay tuned for Part II of the story of the TCGA. Next week, The Challenging Road to Self Sufficiency for a Fairtrade Association.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Organic Cacao with a Triple Bottom Line: The Very Tasty Story of Maya Mountain Cacao

Me and my neatly raked piles of cacao on the drying beds
at Maya Mountain Cacao
I returned from my week in the jungles of Belize inspired by the story of Maya Mountain Cacao. A for-profit, socially responsible company, Maya Mountain Cacao brings the craft chocolate movement directly to the doorstep of small-holder cacao farmers. The farmers earn more for their cacao, and the craft chocolate makers earn direct access to a consistent supply of some of the best cacao in the world. It enables direct trade to flourish among even the smallest craft chocolate makers. It’s a wonderful win-win situation that benefits everyone involved and is a model for the future of fine flavor cacao.

My introduction to Maya Mountain Cacao (“MMC”) started when Mark and I arrived at the Cotton Tree Lodge on our first day in Belize. Located on the grounds of the lodge, MMC’s fermentation house, drying beds and seedling operations are steps from the cabanas. The grounds are dotted with cacao trees everywhere, and guests are encouraged to pluck ripe pods from trees and partake of the juicy, sweet cacao pulp inside.

Me and Carlos covering fermenting cacao w/banana leaves
Photo courtesy of Bryan Graham, Fruition Chocolate
We were also invited to spend as much time as we’d like at the fermentation house.  I helped MMC’s Carlos and his team move fermenting cacao from the 2nd of three bins to the 3rd and final bin. I had my arms up to my elbows in hot, sticky, wet fermenting cacao, helping to shove beans from the bottom of bin two to the top of bin three while breaking up clumps of beans with my hands. Carlos pulled out his machete to cut long swaths of banana leaves to use as a covering to help build up heat in the boxes of fermenting cacao. We carefully covered the tops of the fermenting piles to ensure there were no “peeping beans”, as Carlos put it. Then I headed to the drying beds, where I learned that the majority of the day is spent raking beans to prevent them from getting moldy. Beans ferment for six days and get moved twice during that process, which means that moving the beans only happens every other day and only takes about 15 minutes. The rest of the time is spent raking.

What’s so special about Maya Mountain Cacao? There are a few things that make it innovative.
Maya Mountain Cacao's Triple Bottom Line & Partners

MMC is a for-profit, socially responsible company with a triple bottom line that focuses on social, environmental and financial measures of success. Its approach to the business of fine cacao is one that
Alex Whitmore at Hummingbird Farm
encourages the farmers to act economically and make good business decisions. A key founding member of the company is Alex Whitmore of Taza Chocolate, a craft chocolate maker who knows exactly what craft chocolate makers look for in fine cacao. MMC’s ability to deliver cacao that meets the highest requirements of the craft chocolate movement is one of its competitive advantages, and is a major reason why it had a waiting list of 31 craft chocolate makers this year. There just isn't enough of this fabulous cacao to go around.

Emily Stone at Hummingbird Farm
Another competitive advantage is Emily Stone, MMC’s Managing Director and one of its original founders.

Emily was a shareholder activist in Boston in her mid-twenties, advocating for major corporations to “green” their supply chains. Just about the time she had tired of sitting behind a computer, she met Alex Whitmore of Taza Chocolate and Jeff Pzena of the Cotton Tree Lodge, who had formulated a plane for Maya Mountain Cacao. Two weeks later, Emily was on a plan to Punta Gorda, Belize. Four years later, she’s never looked back.

I first met Emily at a chocolate makers’ brunch at Dandelion Chocolate in San Francisco last January. Emily introduced herself and told me how excited she was that Mark and I were joining Taza’s chocolate week in Belize in March. We had a great conversation, and after she walked away, another chocolate maker approached me. He said, “You don’t understand, Emily controls the Belizean cacao market.” I have to admit I thought that was a bit of hyperbole. Until I saw Emily in action in Belize.

Emily is a force of nature. She’s smart, eloquent, politically savvy, and she knows how to build consensus. Her background in grassroots organizing has been an incredible benefit to her ability to make MMC a success. We arrived the day after the annual farmers meeting. Not only did Emily speak at the meeting, she read her speech in both dialects of Maya spoken by the farmers, Q'eqchi' and Mopan Maya. She has a sense of adventure, which is important when you’re traveling around the jungles of Belize, and now Guatemala (MMC just set up a new operation in Guatemala), and she’s not afraid of anything. I had moments of envy, wishing that I had such gumption at her age.
Gabriel Pop, courtesy MMC

It would have been difficult for MMC to be successful, however, without Gabriel Pop, son of the illustrious Eladio Pop, and the fourth founder of MMC. As a local cacao farmer and former Field Director for the Toledo Cacao Growers Association, Gabriel had the relationships and credibility that were necessary for MMC’s success. He believed in MMC’s mission and made the first key introductions by organizing buying days in villages where he knew farmers would be receptive.

One more aspect that makes MMC an innovative company in the Belizean market is its focus on fermentation practices and purchasing wet cacao from the farmers. Traditionally, Belizean farmers would ferment their own cacao and sell it for a dry price. By purchasing wet cacao, MMC controls the fermentation process, resulting in consistent fermentation rates geared towards the craft chocolate market. This brings a level of consistency to a batch of fermented cacao that isn’t possible when farmers are individually controlling the fermentation of their crop.

What’s also really cool is that MMC enables small craft chocolate makers to purchase cacao directly in small quantities, something that has been next to impossible until now. It shortens the supply chain, eliminating the many layers of middlemen common in a commodity supply chain. Farmers are paid a more significant share of the final price for their cacao, and chocolate makers get more value out of their dollar by ensuring that more of what they pay ends up in farmers’ pockets. All of this encourages farmers to continue to produce cacao and to do it with quality in mind.
Me and Mark with Dahlia & Bryan of Fruition Chocolate
Bryan is on a waiting list for MMC cacao.

There are so many additional ways in which MMC has impacted its community. It has increased the acreage certified as organic, rehabilitated land from slash-and-burn agriculture, increased farmer income, improved availability of pre-harvest financing through microcredit, created jobs, and contributed to the emergence of new community leaders.

The team behind MMC has a number of exciting new initiatives that will increase the size of their impact in Belize and in Guatemala. While we were in Belize, MMC signed an operating agreement with the owner of the former Hummingbird Hershey cacao farm. MMC is rehabilitating the farm that was abandoned by Hershey years ago and is turning it into an organic cacao farm that will produce a significant volume of the quality cacao available in Belize. Guatemala is also on the agenda. As we left Belize, Alex and Emily were headed to Guatemala, where they recently set up an operation that has similar goals to MMC.

In my next blog post, I’ll share the story of the Toledo Cacao Growers Association, the Fairtrade farmer’s association set up in the Toledo District of Belize. While they were founded in 1986, the majority of their success came in the mid-1990’s when they began selling their cacao to Green & Blacks for the Maya Gold bar. It’s an incredibly interesting story, and we had the opportunity to hear it first hand from the Chair of the farmers association from 1992-1997. It brought to life the advantages and challenges faced by farmers' associations. I took a lot of notes, and I’m looking forward to sharing them with you.