In my experience, cocoa farmers have an incredible connection to the land on which they grow their cocoa.
The cocoa tree, an amazing tree, grows cocoa pods off the side of its trunk and branches. Each pod is shaped like a small Nerf football and holds about forty beans. The pods come in an amazing variety of colors—yellows, oranges, reds, greens, even white. The leaves of the tree are long, broad, and slightly woody, so when they drop, they create a thick carpet under the tree that crackles as you walk on them.
The trees themselves are very temperamental. Too much sun, water, or wind causes the tree to drop its flowers. Always growing in humid, moist environments, the trees are susceptible to a myriad array of diseases often caused by molds and fungi. Insects, too, play havoc on the trees. Burrowing into the soft bark and wood of these fragile trees for their next meal, they stress and often kill the trees. So despite the tree’s great beauty, growing cocoa is not for the faint at heart. And that labor of love, demanded by the trees, binds the farmers to their trees like no other bond between farmer and crop I have ever seen, though perhaps vanilla plays an even parley. (Vanilla is also a great labor of love. Vanilla must be hand pollinated one flower at a time, so that each flow produces only one vanilla bean. If the flowers aren’t pollinated by approximately ten a.m. in the morning, then the flowers drop.)
On one of my trips to Venezuela, I traveled to the Sur Del Lago area of Lake Maracaibo, an area legendary, for it is home to the white cocoa bean called Porcelana. This is the same cocoa that the early Spanish explorers encountered when they very first arrived in Venezuela in their ships. And for this reason, it is legendary, not just for its flavor but also for its role in history.
When we arrived, I was asked by my friend John whether I would mind visiting a cocoa farmer friend of his. Of course I was very open to meeting any cocoa farmers.
This cocoa farmer was special. In his late seventies or early eighties, he was incredibly pleased that we stopped by. Excitedly, he told us about his farm and his trees. By some standards, his farm perhaps needed a bit of work. New fermentation boxes would definitely have benefited his finished cocoa. Even so, he spoke with passion about his farm and his plans, and how much he loved what he did.
One of the most telling moments for me was when he said that he didn’t care what he was paid for his cocoa. Thinking this strange, I asked why not. He said: “I don’t care what I get paid for my cocoa. I will always grow cocoa no matter what I am paid. I love my trees.”
His commitment floored me. Here is a man living in what many would consider poverty, yet his love for his cocoa was far more important to him than the material things that many of us in the “modern” world feel are so important.
Time and time again, I have heard this same devotion from different farmers, expressed in many different ways. It always amazes me the deep connection the farmers have with their land and with their cocoa. Many farmers grow other crops, livestock, fish, or whatever else they can to bring in a little extra income. But no matter what they do, they always find a way to grow their cocoa—because they love their trees.
At Amano, we typically pay between 2-4 times the commodity price that the large chocolate companies pay. This is so that we can get the very best quality cocoa and it really makes us proud to be able to support farmers such as this one who deep down and in some fundamental way truly love their trees.