Back from Ecuador & Peru!

We just returned from a very successful (and warm!) sourcing trip to Ecuador and Peru, where we visited two amazing producers: Costa Esmeraldas Cacao in Ecuador and Ucayali River Cacao in Peru.

Monica at Costa Esmeraldas farm

Our first stop was Costa Esmeraldas. Freddy Salazar and his family have more than two hundred acres of cacao trees on their farm south of town, where they’ve recently begun planting and propagating hybrid Nacional trees. Freddy took the time to show us around not only the farm, but also the brand new post-harvest processing facility where the beans are fermented, dried and packed for shipping.

A panoramic view of the farm.

Being on the farm was incredible. We’ve been to many cacao farms, but they’re usually much smaller – a few acres or less. This farm has hundreds of acres of cacao trees planted in row after row, with some very old and very large cacao trees in the mix. It’s located in a hilly area very close to the ocean, so from the tops of the hills there are beautiful, unobstructed ocean views.

Dan O’Doherty shows Monica a cacao shoot while Freddy Salazar looks on.

The Salazars are going to great lengths to increase their production of high quality cacao. This includes actively identifying their “super producers” (trees that produce more cacao pods than others) and grafting cuttings from those trees onto hearty root stock. They’re also improving infrastructure, which helps with post-harvest processing. For instance, improved roads ensure that cacao pods are put into the fermentation boxes on the same day they’re opened – an important factor in managing the rate of fermentation.

Tom helps “turn” a fermentation box at the Salazars’ new facility.

The new post harvesting facility is impressive. Designed by cacao whisperer Dan O’Doherty of Cacao Services, it allows the Salazars to more precisely control the level and rate of fermentation and drying, resulting in consistently high quality beans. The ergonomic layout also significantly decreases the amount of manual labor needed to move the cacao through each step of the process. For example, rolling drying tables are located directly beneath the fermentation boxes, so once fermentation is complete the beans just drop down to the table below (which can then be rolled out into the sun).

Drying racks, which are on wheels.

After spending time with Freddy and Dan in Ecuador we headed south to Pucallpa, Peru, which is located on the Ucayali River, close to the Brazilian border. It’s quite literally the end of the road – once you reach the river it’s impossible to go farther by car.

Pucallpa is home to the aptly named Ucayali River Cacao, which was started two years ago by Robin Jordan and Marcos Blichtein. Their goal was to provide a high quality post-harvest processing option to farmers in the Ucayali River region, and to accomplish this they built a state-of-the art fermentation and drying facility in the jungle near the port town of Curimana. As with Costa Esmeraldas, their facility was designed by Dan O’Doherty of Cacao Services, who also provided technical training and assistance with fermentation and drying protocols.

Monica keeping cool in the Ucayali fermentation area.

Prior to the launch of Ucayali River Cacao the only option for many farmers in the region was to dry their cacao without fermenting it first, which results in beans that aren’t suitable for chocolate making. Unfermented beans also sell for less than fermented (and especially well fermented) beans, which is one of the reasons why, in a relatively short period of time, more than four hundred farmers have begun bringing their beans to Robin & Marcos.

Preparing the drying area for the upcoming harvest.

The premium that Ucayali River Cacao pays for the beans is helpful to the farmers in many ways, not the least of which is allowing them to move away from growing coca, which for many years was one of the principal cash crops in the region. Robin and Jordan also work hand in hand with Alianza Cacao Peru, which provides farmers with training in sustainable farming methods, and assists with planting and grafting fine flavor cacao varieties. Together the two groups are making a measurable positive difference in the lives of farmers in the Ucayali River region.

A representative of Alianza explains cacao varieties.

One great example of the way Ucayali River and Alianza have had a positive impact on farmers is William. We took a two-hour boat ride up a tributary of the Ucayali River, the Rio Aguaytia, to visit William’s farm.

Heading upriver.

He and his family have several acres which, with Alianza’s assistance, they’ve begun planting with fine flavor cacao varieties. The additional income William derives from selling his cacao to Ucayali River, and his improved knowledge of post-harvest practices, has inspired him to begin making and selling his own chocolate. It’s this kind of value-add at origin that will help make a huge impact on the lives of farmers in the region moving forward!

William, Monica and Tom among recently planted cacao trees.

We’re very grateful to Freddy, Dan, Robin & Marcos for spending so much time with us on our trip. We had a great time, and learned an incredible amount about the economics of cacao in the Esmeraldas and Ucayali regions, as well as how those factors affect farmers and the local economy.

Heading home.

We’re very happy to be working with both Costa Esmeraldas Cacao and Ucayali River Cacao, and are excited to bring their cacao to market in our Ucayali and Esmeraldas bars, which will be available later this year!