Visiting Small Cacao Farmers in Peru

There’s nothing more rewarding then seeing your food, growing in a field before you. That special feeling it stirs inside—when you’ve planted this little seed, nurtured it, fed it, quenched its thirst, kept it warm, and guided its growth until that little seed becomes a plant that bears a bounty of food that nourishes you. If you enjoy chocolate as much as I do, you can’t just take a stroll out to the backyard and pluck your chocolate right off a tree; there’s a little more to it than that.  Recently I was given the opportunity to do just that. To take a trip to visit farmers in Peru that supply the cacao for Equal Exchange Chocolate Chips that you find here at the Co-op.

But let’s back up a little in this story, and let me explain a little about Equal Exchange. EE is a worker-owned cooperative based both on the East and West coast that practices true fair trade. They partner with small farmer cooperatives worldwide to simplify the supply chain between small farmers and consumers, focusing on providing small farmers with fair trade premiums on products like coffee, tea, cashews, mangos, and … chocolate. EE works to give the opportunity for all worker/owners to go on an origin trip within their first few years of employment and also offers origin trips to employees of consumer cooperatives they supply as well.

Back in June I received the offer to see if I would be interested in joining the next origin trip to visit the Oro Verde Cooperative in Peru and I jumped at the chance. Why? 1. I love chocolate … 2. The chance to visit these small farmers in person … 3. I love chocolate … It was really a no brainer. But boy was I not prepared for the impact this trip would have on me.

Opened cacao pod with beans in baba.

My first introduction to cacao was at our first stop, the Ecoperlacha Estate, founded by a former general manager of Oro Verde, Hiderico Bocangel. Along the shaded paths of his farm were different species of cacao trees, roughly the size of a small apple tree. The ground was covered with leaves that had fallen, now providing natural compost. The trees had cacao pods of all shapes, sizes and colors, and when opened displayed a wondrous site—multi-sized beans covered in a white mucous-like substance called baba. We were encouraged to taste by pulling out a bean and sucking off the baba. The flavor was nothing like I expected. We think of chocolate as a rich, sometimes earthy and sweet taste; the baba was like a fresh rush of key lime flavor.

Dante Chanahuana, Cacao farmer for Oro Verde

To further our understanding of all the work that goes into bringing a finished product to our consumers, we were partnered up with small farmer families for a homestay visit. This is the part of the trip I was the most worried about. I didn’t speak any Spanish, beyond just basic greetings, and our homestay families spoke the same basic greetings in English. But when grouped together it’s amazing how people can make communication work. The Chanahuana family shared their lives with us, their daily tasks, the struggles of farm life, and their pride in all that being a part of this cooperative given them. Dante showed us around just one of their farms, explaining the composting and disease and pest management practices that allow them to stay organic and for their fields to be productive. I could hear the pride in Dante’s voice as we looked out over just a small portion of the farm that was converted to timber, a retirement plan, he called it. There were so many amazing experiences on the farm that day, like watching 17-year-old Arnol climb a 30-foot tree to retrieve breadfruit for us to try. Funny thing about breadfruit, you don’t eat the fruit, just the boiled seeds, which totally tasted like bread. We of course harvested the cacao and slowed Dante’s whole day down. It took two of us about 30 minutes to fill one 5-pound bucket and Arnol about 10 minutes.  Walking back to their home through the lane Dante explained about farmers who had left Oro Verde because the middle men were offering just a few pennies more, but as time had changed many of those families were back—now having to start the three-year process of becoming certified organic again. Dante explained that the whole family was part of the Oro Verde cooperative, not just the farmer. We walked by some fields that had been burned and Dante explained about conventional farming practice and burning of the fields. Just listening you could hear how proud the family was to be farming organically, not introducing chemicals into their lives and food.

Dante harvesting cacao pods on the farm.

These are the types of conversations that come about because of a cooperative supply chain. Cooperatives like Equal Exchange and Oro Verde are welcoming hosts, fostering relationships between farmers and consumer cooperatives like ours. They help me specifically by providing this opportunity to share the story of these small farmers and all of the hard work they accomplish to bring their product to our shelves. The truly fair trade supply chain gives farmer cooperatives like Oro Verde resources to invest in the lives of their owner families, and allows these families to build better lives for their children.

Orfith collecting cacao beans on the farm.

What as consumers can we do to help? Just the simple choice of purchasing a small farmer grown chocolate product instead of a corporate brand makes a huge difference. The more we, as consumers, grow a following for truly fairly traded small farmer products, the more access to markets is granted to small farmer cooperatives. So you can do your part, and enjoy that chocolate chip cookie, and know that your one purchase can help a farmer improve a family’s life somewhere else in the world. 

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Emily Rogers

Emily Rogers is the Co-op's member education manager. Contact her at erogers at coopfoodstore dot com.

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