Many of us are strongly drawn to fair trade, organic chocolate. But what do we know of the farmers who produce it?
As part of one of the partner visits during the Oikocredit International Annual General Meeting in northern Peru, it was a unique and enlightening experience to see every step of the Cooperative Norandino process, from the cacao tree to sacks of cacao ready for export to North America and Europe.
About 70 kms and a 2 hour bus ride from the Piura, is Palo Blanco, a tiny town way off the beaten track. The day had begun overcast, but it was burning off, and the sun was already hot.
The Cooperative Norandino centre for the town has large cement slabs for drying the coffee, decent toilet facilities, and a team of confident local men.
After mutual greetings and a prayer, we were escorted on a 20 minute walk to the cacao farm of Miguel Rivero, one of the 33 cooperative members in that village. The cacao trees were about 6 to 8 meters high. A surprising thing for me was that one tree can have buds, flowers, small cacao pods, bigger ones full sized ones and ripe ones! Because of this, harvesting is more or less year round in this region.
We were given an excellent and clear description of the farming. The cacao is organic, and the farmers have training in the use of compost and other natural nutrients for the trees, and also management of the quality of fertilization by specific local bees. There are different varieties of cacao ‘almonds’, and each farmer tracks production by tree. They propagate the best ones, and largest pods. Grafting is one technique, if a tree is strong but does not have the best quality fruit.
Sr. Rivero stated it very simply: the trees need to drink, and so irrigation provides adequate water, and they need to eat, and so we provide compost and good growing conditions.
With large, sharp machetes, several ripe pods were cut open, and we all sampled the pulp that surrounds the cacao ‘almonds’.
Everyone who spoke to us demonstrated professionalism and knowledge of their business and product. It was inspiring to be among the local experts who actually begin the process of producing excellent organic chocolate.
Each landholding is quite small, and as they are divided among children, the size continues to decrease. This is a significant problem, since there is no more land to use in the area. Where possible, in addition to the cacao trees, other food crops are grown among the cacao trees, including bananas, star fruit and oranges, mostly for the farmer’s own use. At some point, with further division, the land holding will not be enough to support a family. Sr. Rivero’s told us that his two sons now drive mototaxis, but will probably take over the plantation when he retires.
Back at the Palo Blanco centre, the cacao almonds are dried in a fermentation process that includes periods drying outside on the cement, and then periods in wooden containers where the fermentation reaches almost 50 degrees. The process is carefully monitored and managed, to ensure the highest quality. Finally it is bagged and stored until it is taken to the processing plant in Piura.
We were given a sumptuous feast of local dishes, and later shown the oven in the ground, in which hot ash is placed, followed by the food, and then it is covered over and the sun finishes the job!
We retraced our steps to Piura and the large Cooperative Norandino processing plant. There huge stacks of cacao (and coffee) filled an enormous warehouse ready for export to Europe and North America.
One key component of the plant is the laboratory in the same building, which services Cooperative Norandino and also other sister coops in the area. There the professionals sample the cacao, and analyse the quality. The analyses then are fed back to the farmers, to help them to improve their product. The cacao specialist proudly explained the national and international awards that Cooperative Norandino has won with their chocolate – cacao from the Chulucanas region has won 4 times in a row! We had a chance to taste 4 samples of 100% chocolate (very bitter!) and try our hand at rating them!
The beauty of the day was that we followed the cacao from its source right through to the big bags ready to ship to the US and Europe. One of their customers is Theo Chocolate based in Seattle, and I can’t wait to try it!