La Siembra members, investors and partners visit Acopagro Co-op

“No no no, that one isn’t ripe. The first one you cut is, but leave that one,” explained Raul of Acopagro Co-operative while we harvested a bounty of cacao pods on the high rock farm in the Huallaga Valley of Peru.

Chocolate connoisseur and La Siembra investor Sunaina M compared the two ripe criollo ICS95 cocoa pods and asked, “How can you tell?”

“By the lightening along the channels,” continued Raul, pointing at the base of the ridges on the pod, “that’s how you know the fruit is ripe and the cocoa beans will be sweet and full flavoured. That’s how you get quality.”

Our day of harvesting and working alongside the farmer owners of the Shepte Committee of Acopagro Cocoa Co-operative in Peru has exciting and exhausting. The dozens of co-op members in the area of Shepte literally paraded us into town with welcome signs and a live band. Early the next morning, over three dozen of us crossed the creek to arrive at Strong Rock Farm, which is the name of the 7-acre plot of land farmed by Betty and Sam. The cocoa trees were heavy with ripe cocoa pods, with the deep maroon color of the ICS variety cocoa pods making an artful contrast to the bright yellows and oranges of the CN571.

Sam welcomed us to their cocoa tree farm, saying, “We are very lucky to have this piece of land, which we call Strong Rock Farm. You can see it’s up above the creek, so we have fresh water but we are high enough above it. We have kept a lot of original forest, the dark green part on the map, to protect the cocoa farm in the middle. And we are lucky to have you here for this (harvest) today. Shall we?” Our team of La Siembra customers, investors, and staff members, worked hard, scampering up branches and using pruning shears with our Peruvian hosts to carefully harvest some 600 kilograms of cocoa pods.

“Wow, you got a lot. We did too,” smiled Dana as she and Sunaina carried harvest pods to the growing communal mountain of cacao. “This is amazing. The farm looks so great. And even the band is still playing music for us.” After collecting all the harvest pods in a single area, our group of farmers and family members and Canadian travellers stopped to take a few fun photos and enjoy some homemade corn mead. Who knew that a hallowed out cocoa pod makes the perfect travel mug?

But our work was not done, and out came the machetes and hooked knives needed chop open the pods and carefully (but quickly) remove the cocoa beans. Circled all around the harvest, each of us paired up with a farmer member. The Peruvian farmer did the chopping and splitting, then handed the perforated pod to one of us to break open and remove the seeds. It was a vibrant and fast moving scene, with us only taking a second or two to pop into a mouth a fresh cocoa bean to enjoy the sweet creamy flavour of the pulp.

The quality control step of only harvesting ripe pods is followed by a quality control step of only taking out perfect beans. Although each pod holds 20-30 cocoa beans and needs to be emptied quickly, each farmer of Acopagro was adept at identifying underdeveloped or overripe beans and disposing of those.

“Thanks again to Camino for this wonderful experience,” noted Caisse Desjardins Director Antoine Lacasse. “It was great fun harvesting with Emilio and Mario and to see the care they take in growing and harvesting the cocoa.”

The selected freshly harvested cocoa beans then go into the next quality step, which is a fermentation step to develop the sugars and let the flavonoids in the bean. The chemical process the beans undergo is amazing. Yeasts on the moist cocoa beans being to interact with sugars on the fruit pulp, turning some of those sugars to ethanol. Bacteria then begin oxidizing the ethanol, converting it first to acetic acid and then to carbon dioxide and water. This step of the process generates heat, raising the temperature around and inside the beans. As the pulp breaks down (12-36 hours later) while the beans are heaped and wrapped together, the ethanol and other alcohols are caught in anaerobic conditions. These conditions accelerate the oxidization of the acetic acid.

But the oxidization halts the anaerobic stage and as the beans are turned and a larger percentage oxidize, the process switches to an aerobic process, ending the activity of lactic acid. Temperatures reach 40-45 degrees Celsius, accelerating bacterial fermentation and stopping the cocoa bean’s naturally tendency to sprout. By day three of the process, the cell walls of the bean begin breaking down, mixing together volatile compounds previous separated. Enzymes and oxygen breakdown proteins into amino acids and it is these chemical reactions that develop the chocolate flavour and colour.

“Each lot of harvested beans is identified by the member and by the farm location, then weighed and recorded for his or her account,” explained Acopagro’s Miriam Maza. “We keep track of that all the way until the warehousing and even the export stage, so you have complete traceability. Here, you can see special wood bins used in the fermentation process. The bins are made of a special wood that has no aroma and doesn’t absorb moisture or aromas, which is how we protect the quality of the beans.”

This chemical process is accomplished at the village level co-op collection center. Freshly harvested beans are wrapped in a thick tarp and kept dark. As the sugars begin to ferment, the increased heat accelerates the flavour development process. This process is measurable physically by slicing open a sample of beans, looking for deep rich brown colours (not violet) and cracks and channels formed in the beans. At this point of perfection, the beans are moved to a drying patio to get the beans down to a stable seven percent humidity.

The economics of chocolate are far from fair. Even low quality conventional chocolate candy sells for over ten dollars per kilo, which represents many multiples of the current world market prices of one dollar per kilo for cocoa beans and twenty-five cents per kilo for sugar. High quality organic fair trade chocolate does provide substantially more income to farmers. La Siembra ensures minimum fair trade prices plus organic premiums are paid to growers. The farmers we visited took an advance of over $2.50 per kilogram for their beans upon delivery. As owners of the co-op, they will also receive a year-end dividend for every kilo sold after then end of the year. The proud farmers supplying beans for Camino chocolate reported farm gate prices more than twice the world average. Nonetheless, that higher income is still a small percentage of the $25-30/kilo most grocery stores charge shoppers for Camino chocolate.

The quality analysis laboratory and central warehouse of Acopagro Co-operative is as impressive as the farms of Shepte. Designed, built and staffed with substantial resources and guidance from La Siembra’s US-based sister co-operative Equal Exchange, the laboratory provides a full spectrum of testing equipment. In addition to the physical analysis of dried cocoa beans for levels of fermentation and humidity levels, the lab also has micro-batch chocolate making equipment. Micro-lots of beans are roasted and ground, then subject to a blind sensory analysis by a four-person panel of trained engineers. The sensory training program and evaluation matrix were developed by Acopagro and Equal Exchange over a course of four years. “This allows us to know our beans precisely. And we know what our customers are looking for – maybe one wants a more earthier profile, another a more floral. We can get that to them,” explained Acopagro’s QC Manager. The exacting sensory analysis benefits farmers. As reported by Equal Exchange to USAID, Acopagro is one of the farmer groups that “have been able to create and market specialty offerings that have attracted new clients and allowed them to charge $2,367,099 in price premiums for flavour and fermentation profiles. ”

Acopagro’s General Manager Gonzalo Ríos expanded on the meaning of the co-op. “We have planted over two million trees. The idea is that now that we have some success in cocoa, there is still a lot to do but members know on cocoa. So what does the co-op do to improve their lives? We have two income diversity programs – a sustainable timber program and a hot pepper farming program. For the timber program, think of it as a savings account. If a member is 50 or 60 years old, then he plants trees for timber that will be ready in 15-20 years and he can harvest then and use that income when he is older. Younger members might plant a tropical hardwood that will earn a lot in 20 or 30 or 40 years when it is full grown.”

“It’s your turn to help with the reforestation project,” yollered Acopagro outreach worker Ivan. As the setting sun turned the mountaintops gold behind us, Ivan continued, “We have a surprise for you. Each of you pick a tree seedling, then with the help of a farmer, plant your seedling and then put in this sign with your name on it. We hope you come back in five or ten years to see how your tree is doing.” Our group was stunned silent by the thoughtfulness and graciousness of the activity that Acopagro had planned for us. We shared shovels (and hugs) with our hosts and planted out seedlings in what was an unforgettable experience.

The holistic and thoughtful approach of Acopagro members to growing their cocoa trees and their co-operative is inspiring. All the participants from La Siembra were flattered to have had the opportunity to work alongside those growers and enjoy their incredibly generous hospitality. We hope that in the coming year, we can welcome one of the farmer members of Shepte to visit our communities in Canada and continue building a fair trade community that puts small-scale farmers at the heart of everything we do.

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