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Sourcing Season: The Challenges of Organic

Our Cocoa Sourcing Manager, Jesse Last, is sharing his reflections from origin this #sourcingseason. Each spring, he criss-crosses Latin America and the Caribbean, growing our relationship with the people who grow our Direct Trade cacao beans.

The Guatemalan cacao farmers standing beside me do not apply synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. Most could not afford these agricultural inputs even if they wanted them, they explain. They are, and have always been, organic.

Farmers gather among the cacao trees to discuss issues facing their cooperative, including whether or not to become organic certified
"The farmers and I stand beneath a grove of cacao trees discussing organic certification."

Still, they do not have the certification. Certification costs money, as well as additional effort to conserve soil, keep written records, and meet other standards. And historically, the local cacao market never rewarded organic certification, or even product quality. Local buyers would pay farmers the same low prices, regardless of cacao bean quality. Like cacao growers from Latin America to Africa, these producers were trapped in an undifferentiated market plagued by low prices and high volatility.

Then, in 2014, a new buyer entered the scene. Founded by Emily Stone and financed in part by Taza Chocolate, Cacao Verapaz connects Guatemalan cacao growers with craft chocolate makers in the U.S. and Europe. The exporter works closely with farmers to improve bean quality in order to meet the chocolate industry’s highest standards. In return for their hard work, the producers receive a much higher price for their product.

Beyond exceptional quality, Taza Chocolate needs our producer partners to be certified organic. As a company, we believe in organic production, and when it comes time for our annual organic audit, it is not enough for us to promise that the farmers we buy from do not use synthetic chemicals. The integrity of the system requires that we prove it, which means the farmers from whom we buy cacao must as well.

Marlon Ac, the Managing Director of Cacao Verapaz, explains to farmers how to ensure that organic cacao beans are kept apart from conventionally grown ones.
"Marlon Ac, the Managing Director of Cacao Verapaz, explains to farmers how to ensure that organic cacao beans are kept apart from conventionally grown ones."

Back in the beautiful cacao grove, a middle-aged producer with a wide-brimmed hat explains his challenge: even with Cacao Verapaz offering to pay the cost of organic certification, Don Fernando will have to endure a three-year waiting period before he can sell his cacao as organic certified. Like the rest of the community, Don Fernando has never applied a chemical to his cacao trees. But a couple of years ago, a government program provided cacao seedlings to local farmers free of cost. The seedlings were not certified organic, but at the time, this did not matter.

Hoping to increase his production and improve his family’s life, Don Fernando planted the seedlings. And now, his decision to invest in the future means he must wait three years for his certification, despite needing to do all the additional work required to meet the certifications standards. “I am not against organic,” he explains, “but what sense does all this make?”

A week later, back at Taza Chocolate’s factory in Somerville, I am still trying to answer his question.

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