Harvesting Cocoa: The First Big Step Towards Quality

After a long season of working in the hot sun, farmers throughout the world anticipate the harvest. The harvesting of cocoa signifies the end to a hard season’s work, and farmers are able to literally see the fruits of their labors. The cocoa farmer is no different—he looks forward to the bi-annual harvest that colors the cocoa plantations with cocoa pods in the multitudes of different colors that decorate the cocoa trees as if it were Christmas.

Unlike most food crops, cocoa trees are capable of producing cocoa pods throughout the year. Even so, there are two primary harvests each year, which usually coincide with the advent of the rainy seasons.  Harvesting cocoa often brings entire villages together where everybody pitches in to create a successful harvest. The fall season, the largest, centers on November, while the spring season centers on April. In areas where the climate is drier and the rainy seasons are not as significant, cocoa trees will produce pods throughout the year in more abundance, thus providing an almost perpetual harvest.  Even so, since the primary harvests are during the rainy seasons, harvesting cocoa usually occurs twice a year.

Red cocoa pods all ready for harvesting

Red cocoa pods ready for harvesting.

Since cocoa trees are generally propagated through the use of cuttings and grafting instead of by seed, it is not uncommon for many of the trees within a plantation to be clones of each other. This makes cocoa harvesting easier. Besides allowing the farmer to control the flavor of the cocoa on the plantation, the use of cuttings and grafting assists the farmer in one other very important way: when all the cocoa trees have essentially the same genes, the cocoa pods on the trees will ripen at approximately the same time. This also makes harvesting cocoa pods easier because there is a more well defined harvest period.

In the more frequent case where the cocoa trees are of mixed heritage throughout the plantation, the cocoa pods throughout the plantation will ripen over a much longer period of time. The color of the cocoa pods may only be used as a general guide to the ripeness of the cocoa. A much better guide is to tap the cocoa pod. When the pod is still in its unripened state, the beans are packed tightly within the pod. When stuck, if the cocoa pod gives off a deep, hollow sound, the cocoa beans are no longer packed within the pod but are loose, a sure indication that the pod is ripe. Like many farmers, cocoa farmers over time get to know their plantation very well. They will even learn in which order the trees on their plantation ripen and their color when ripe; and with this skill they are able to harvest the cocoa pods more quickly.

The number of pods that a cocoa tree will bear depends on the variety of tree as well as the tree’s age. Cocoa trees do not start bearing until they are approximately three years old. During the first few seasons the number of pods on each tree is limited. Each year, the tree will produce additional cocoa pods until it reaches its peak of productivity at between ten to twelve years of age.

Ripe cocoa pod ready for harvesting.

Ripe cocoa pod ready for harvest. Baby undeveloped cocoa pods can be seen.

Cocoa trees are very fragile. When harvesting cocoa, great care must be taken to be gentle with the cocoa trees.  Cocoa trees fragility is one of the reasons why cocoa trees need “mother trees” to protect them, since they are easily broken by the wind or burned by the sun. Care must be taken during cocoa harvesting to protect such fragile trees. When harvesting cocoa, the farmer must be careful not to damage the “eyes” on the tree from which the cocoa pods grow. From these eyes, future cocoa flowers emerge, and afterwards, new cocoa pods. When an eye is damaged through the action of wind or careless harvesting, it becomes infertile, and no future cocoa pods will emerge from that site.

To keep from damaging trees during harvesting, the workers will pick the cocoa pods on the trunk and lower branches by using a machete, knife, or pruning shears. The remaining cocoa pods high in the tree are picked using a special knife on the end of a long pole. These knifes are made of high grade steel and are kept very sharp. Many have sharp hooks on them so that the farmer is able to reach in between cocoa pods to cut out the ripe ones. When harvesting cocoa, it is a delicate task to remove the pods high in the tree without damaging the cocoa flowers or any cocoa pods that are not yet ready for harvest. The farmers become very talented with these hooks, and even when the cocoa pods are very high in the tree, they are able to remove the pods without damage to the tree.

When harvesting cocoa, the pods are first split open and the beans removed. Then the beans scooped out. Some farms use an automated pod-cracking machine. However, since there are only around thirty beans in a cocoa pod, it takes a lot of work simply to haul the cocoa pods to the machine to have them cracked. For this reason, these machines are quite rare; most farms and workers choose to open the pods near the tree from which they are harvested.

Cocoa Harvesting Part 1
Cocoa Harvesting Part 2

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