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What relationship do high quality, non-artisanal chocolate makers have with the cacao farmers/plantations?

And can such a general question even be asked?

I am thinking of companies like Amedei, Bonnat, Cluizel, Domori, Pralus to mention a few. I guess I am asking because I assume that in order to ensure high quality beans, these producers probably work fairly closely with the farmers, but I am wondering whether anyone on TCL can share knowledge about specific makers.

In addition, I am curious whether any of the above mentioned makers source cacao only from plantations, or also from cacao trees that grow among native rainforest species? And, can plantation cacao be free of added chemicals? Especially the more delicate species like criollo?

While I am at it (this perhaps taps into the strings that Clay and others have started about Fair Trade, how useful is it, etc...) do these direct relationships with the farmers result in decent prices for the growers? If yes, which companies?

I know that Shawn Askinosie, for example, works directly with the growers of the cacao he uses and the result is higher than Fair Trade prices and even profit sharing. How common is this among other high quality chocolater makers, especially well established ones in Europe? Is this data out there among fellow TCL members?

I ask all of this because I use various chocolates to create chocolate tasting experiences (and engage and educate people around chocolate) and I like to be able to fairly present the various makers and their strengths. As per Clay's suggestion, I will soon post an introduction to the work I am doing once life permits.

Thank you!


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I"m not exactly sure what the question is, however I will give some stats that will likely include an answer.

When beans are harvested, we install them in a fermentation box after measuring the volume using a regional standardized size of "2 arrobas". The box holds an amount that will result in 30kg of dried beans. Once fermentation and drying occurs, we weigh the resultant mass, which should be 30kg. All data is recorded throughout the process and summarized when the cacau is bagged. A perfect value for beans is "1" , indicating 30kgs in/ 30kgs out.

We use this practice to evaluate several things

State of ripeness when beans are harvested
Presence of a disease in the harvested beans
Presence of unwanted foreign material (leaves, pod husk, etc)
It also allows us to track individual area performance

The typical "break" or "gain" normally provides an evaluation factor of 0.96 - 1.05. i.e. we calculated at volume measurement 30 kg and received dry yield of 96% -105% of that value. These weekly numbers are used to track overall production of the farm, production of each designated farm area and performance of work done by the "manager" of the specific area.

When we began the volume/weight comparison it was not uncommon to receive 0.75 or 75% of the calculated weights. Our rigid controls moved our management level to a new level. Today, all our employees attempt to meet the desired number of "1". In addition to offering an excellent control we also have a device to reward "sector managers" for excellence.

If you are asking what is our total wet bean production for the farm, 2010 will likely be 45-55 tons.

Hope this helps, but if you have additional questions, let me know.

Jim Lucas
Clay - I'd agree with you that of all the certification protocols out there, FairTrade is the least attractive to the farmer. It work on the premise that they'll guarantee a minimum pricing floor ($1600/ton) plus a premium of $150/ton over whatever the base rate is. That figure is not seasonally/annually adjusted at this time. They'll only work to certify co-ops, so no work is done with individual farmers, and if you think of focal areas that certification agencies operate around, you can categorize them in 3 basic groups - productivity, environmental, and social. Of any certification protocol, FT focuses the least on productivity, and has a very, very high emphasis on democtratic decision making - the co-op as a whole determines what to do with the premiums they recieve, and payment is made directly to the co-op. The issues I have around that are no focus on productivity/quality improvement, inability to work with individual farmers, and no support given around how to invest the monies should that be desired.

UTZ as you mention is another program that is largely industry organized - not just Cargill, but many companies helped found this. On the above spectrum, it focuses heavily on productivity and quality improvements, with the notion that if you produce more of a higher quality, the economics will follow. One required component of this program is that higher yielding/disease resistant stock must be made available to the farmers to graft. If you sum the total of unsellable cocoa produced annually from all regions due to pest and disease damage, it's approaching a staggering 3 million tonnes (!). If you add into that amount the losses due to poor soil nutrition, it's almost another 2 million tonnes. That's 3x the total annual output of west africa as a whole, and west african produces approximately 70% of the total cocoa crop. Staggering losses at the farm level. Of course there are requirements around social labor practices, education, health care etc as well, but i'd put the primary focus at productivity. Child labor, as you mention, is a much more complicated topic that is not well understood by most, and an emotionally charged topic for all. Most journalism charging child labor are not really accurate, and highlight other issues. Cocoa farms are, by and large, family businesses. Much like the farm i grew up on, i had duties that i was assigned growing up. The difference is that i did them before/after school. In many origin countries, schools may not exist - or if they do, teachers may not exist. They are also payment based systems in many countries, so if by chance the school and the teacher do exist, if you don't have the money to pay for it, it doesn't much matter - you still can't send your child. Making eductional opportunities available and affordable is the primary driver to rectifying this. These situations represent almost the entirety of child labor reports. That's not to discount the fact that improper child labor does indeed exist - it's coming almost exclusively out of sub-sarahan africa - mainly burkina faso and mali - these are the poorest of the poor in our world, and it's not uncommon for families to sell their children as a support mechanism. Those children go into forced labor in a number of industries. Ghana has been particularly quick to rectify these types of situations when they're identified, but again, they're quite uncommon.

Rainforest alliance is another certification protocol whos focus is between that of UTZ and Fairtrade. They don't have a guaranteed minimum like FT does, and operate more on the premise that if you have higher quality stock, and can exhibit improvements in environmental and social issues, there's a premium you can charge - as of today, that premium is approximately $200/ton - although it does fluctuate. They focus very little on soil fertilitity or improved cultivars, but do embrace improved agricultural practices to increase production.

As you can see, there's no 'right' way. Issues are far more complex than I can address in a post on a forum, and i hesitate to even bring up the issue of labor above because of the potential for me to be misunderstood, knowing the difficulties in clearly articulating the reality and ensuring that readers in 1st world countries with vastly different cultures appreciate the scale and scope of the differences between 'here' and 'there'. Credibility in certification will be key in maintaining it's momentum, which will be key in providing incentives for farmers to continue to farm. Absent those incentives, they'll simply stop farming cocoa. On a recent cocoa trip, 100% of the farmers I spoke with said that they don't want this life for thier children. Clearly the status quo isn't working, and while certification isn't a short term solution, nor an easy one, I've very real examples of where it's making differences. If you as a farmer can increase your yield by 3 fold while simultaneously getting paid more, that's a life changing event for you. Undoubtedly there will be instances of noncompliance amongst certified locations - especially early on - and thats why each group has independant auditors evaluate certified operations annually or 2x/year. Finding nonconformances, however, should not stop the process as a whole from progressing, as doing so would simply force a reversion to the current situation, which is untenable. As nonconformances are identified, focus on rectifying them and improving the situation such that it doesn't occur again. Unfortunately, finding nonconformances has become somewhat of an obsession with some media. It allows them to tell an emotionally charged story, albiet one without all the details. A rising tide lifts all boats, and if we can restructure yield, education, labor, etc it will benefit all growers. Many people complain about current practices, very few people offer insight or effort as to how to fix it.

Jim - thanks. I'm trying to understand your yield. If you're saying you get 45 tonnes of wet beans per year, and in a previous post you'd indicated your planted area to be 23 hectares, if i'm doing this right you're getting an annual yield of almost 2tonnes/ha. I'm trying to get a better fix on the economics of your situation. If you're getting 2 tons/ha, that's actually very, very good yield - one of the best i've come across...
I enjoyed your reply but have a couple of questions or comments.

Your comment regarding cacau being given an advantage by growing under shade is not true. This myth has been advertised by ecological populist but in fact is the opposite. Cacau grown under "shade" suffers from low levels of light and produce less. The new cacau farms are being planned and installed utilizing irrigation and have zero shade. I have visited irrigated farms that are currently producing and have production levels eight or ten times our averages. They are also in production 12 months of the year rather than 6-8 months. In addition, the cacau grown under forest conditions are in competition for water and nutrition. I think it is safe to say the future of cacau lies with the new generation of farms. I do not have knowledge of a single new farm being planted under shade. As indicated by the accounts submitted in an earlier comment, the economics simply are not favorable for the ancient cacau farm style. Economics is changing the future of cacau and chocolate producers need to gird their loins for a new era. You are absolutely correct in your comment "Profits are the ultimate sustainability".

What is meant by ......"10% above the local market price" ? Who sets the local market price? In most cases the farmer has no control over setting local market price. This typically is set by a local commercial entity, not the farmer. To long cacau has been produced and sold to the highest bidder. I would submit that producers generally have not a clue what "cost to produce" means, much less sales that are based on cost plus a percentage of profit. This is clearly demonstrated if you examine the number of "investments" being reported by farmers and those being reported by an entity outside the farming community. If profits existed at the producer level, certification agencies would have absolutely no function at the farm level. The concept of placing responsibility for ecological correctness for pitttances paid is rapidly being ushered out. A new model of cacau production and sales is certain to play a role in all our lives.

Jim Lucas
I can talk about this from personal experience from my trip to Bolivia a few months ago where I saw examples of the wild Bolivian cacao trees covered with brooms. According to Volker Lehmann, the brooms proliferated when the trees were under stress (e.g., very dry conditions) and when the conditions causing the stress eased, the brooms just withered and died without, apparently, negatively affecting the trees.

This is just one example, but one that supports Samantha's assertion that wild cacaos are typically more resistant than their deliberately-bred relatives.

From what I understand going on in Brazil, they are discovering broom resistant trees - growing "wild" that have adapted without human intervention over the past 20 years.

I can also say, again from personal experience with the wild cacao in Bolivia that it's only necessary for the trees to get their start under shade. Once they've grown large enough to be productive they are hardy enough to withstand full sun. This work is being done, again, by Volker Lehmann, using seedlings grown from wild cacao harvested on the Hacienda Tranquilidad. Because Volker is not "breeding" the trees (just planting random seeds) he still considers them "wild" even though they're being deliberately planted. Just looking at them, the pods appears to be identical with untended trees growing in the chocolatale a couple of kilometers away.
I have no experience with "wild" cacau and it's characteristics but I have a full sack of experience with "witches broom". The description you provided for trees in Volker's farm are a small part of the fungal life cycle. The whole problem begins when an single spore of dried witches broom is deposited on an area of the cacau that is in new growth stage. The spore attaches and propagates into a green shoot, normally at the tip of a branch or junction of two branches. This shoot increases in size at a rate ten times that of the cacau plant. In fact the growth rate is so violent, it outstrips the cacau plants ability to provide nutrients and it "dies". The vegetation dies but a remaining part of the broom, very similar to a mushroom, contains millions of spores. When they are fully dried, the spore pod disintegrates into a broadcast of millions of additional spores. Wind is the principal mechanism of transport and does a very good job of inoculation. Although the disease does very little damage to the tree, other than utilizing gross amounts of nutrients, it also has the capacity of inoculating cacau pods when they are initially formed. That pod will develop into a normal size but will be discolored, normally dark brown spots and the beans are completely useless. A typical maintenance program in cacau is to remove the witches broom while it is still vibrant. Diseased pods are cut off the tree and discarded. I think the idea that it dries and falls off without harm is a bit optimistic. I would take a close look at the dried sections for spore pods.

Brazil cacau, particularly in the Bahia has been devastated by this disease. It arrived in the region in 1989 and since has been a billion $ headache to resolve. The most common solution for the problem has been the use of grafting techniques that utilize grafting material from trees that have endured the onslaught by natural selection. The Cacau Research Center (CEPLAC) and UNICAMP University have been working non-stop with DNA mapping to develop solutions. To date, there has been no silver bullet. If I could re-coup the costs I've experienced in the past 15 years of the "witches broom" battle, I would spend the remainder of my days writing books about Brazilian beaches and the merits of Brazilian bikinis.
I want to second this sentiment, this discussion is invaluable to me, especially since I have no experience growing cacao or making chocolate, but want to connect the people who EAT chocolate to the kinds of challenges that are being faced by cacao farmers and chocolate producers. Jim, thank you for sharing so much information on your farm and the struggles with efficiency and survival. This is exactly the kind of transparency I would like to see other producers sharing.

Samantha, thank you for sharing your knowledge, both in this post and elsewhere on TCL. I appreciate how thoroughly you answer all questions you address. And the depth of your knowledge.

Brian, thanks for your thoughts on direct relationships with the farmers and how this will perhaps automatically improve the results on both sides. You cited your company, what is your company? What kind of chocolate do you make?
Samantha - I've been reading here for quite a while, but only recently participating. Hats off to all of you who are doing something, i certainly wasn't implying that you weren't, and apologize if that's how it came across.


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