National Post

Bean-to-bar chocolate makers hit the farm.



Michael Sacco spends most of his days with his team roasting, grinding, tempering and packaging every piece of chocolate made on the premises of ChocoSol, a learning community and chocolate social enterprise in Toronto that also grows ingredient­s such as mint on its roof and uses food waste as compost.

ChocoSol makes 1.4 tons of chocolate per month in creating 10 or so different types of chocolates for eating and at least four Mexicansty­le drinking chocolates, in addition to roasting more than 1,200 pounds of coffee.

But at least once a year, Sacco, the founder of Chocosol, or one of his colleagues flies to some remote part of Mexico to connect with and learn from the farmers who produce the beans the company uses in its chocolate.

On his latest visit in January, Sacco and Chrystal Porter, ChocoSol’s chocolatie­r, spent a day in the Central Valley of Oaxaca learning from Zapotec women how to make the traditiona­l drinking chocolate, tejate, using a stone metate, a tool for processing food.

They also shared Chocosol’s chocolates with their coffee growers in Santa María Zacatepec and checked on the progress of worm composting and soil making by the local Mixtec community. Sacco then spent a week in the Montes Azules Bioshpere Reserve in Chiapas province, where he worked with Don Flor and his family to harvest, dry and ferment cocoa beans. The Flor family has supplied ChocoSol with cacao for the past decade.

Unlike larger chocolate producers, ChocoSol makes a point of working directly with farmers. And, unlike many other chocolatie­rs, ChocoSol has never signed up with Fairtrade Internatio­nal, the non-profit that sets minimum prices and other standards to help disadvanta­ged producers and workers in developing countries.

Retail sales of chocolate in Canada grew four per cent in 2015, driven largely by commodity price increases as opposed to volume. But Fairtrade-certified chocolate sales by volume have been growing at an annual rate of 35 per cent in Canada and 27 per cent internatio­nally.

ChocoSol sets its sights on higher standards than those set by Fairtrade, as do a growing number of small North American bean-to-bar makers trying to put more money in the hands of their raw material suppliers.

For example, the Fairtrade price for organic cacao produced in Mexico is $3.10 per kilogram, but ChocoSol pays almost double that for its cacao from the Central Valley and more than five times the standard rate for rare albino beans from the nearby Chinantec community.

“I have never paid anything around convention­al or fair-trade price for cocoa,” Sacco said. “Sometimes I have paid from 30 per cent more or even five times more. That’s not including the cost of supporting an eco- regenerati­ve environmen­t, ( which) goes back directly to the farmers since 2003.”

Taza Chocolate, based in Somerville, Mass., said it pays at least 67 cents per kilogram above Fairtrade prices. It also publishes an annual transparen­cy report with details of its arrangemen­ts with suppliers.

LetterPres­s Chocolate, Los Angeles’ first bean- to- bar chocolate maker, pays above Fairtrade’s requiremen­ts and has invested in more than 20,000 cacao trees for a farming and forestry project in Guatemala started by its local partner farm Izabal Agroforest. LetterPres­s also works with Kokoa Kamili, a cooperativ­e based in Mbingu, Tanzania, while Taza sources from Produits Des Iles SA, a cooperativ­e based in Haiti, among other growers.

The cooperativ­es are formed by small growers to take advantage of centralize­d fermenting, drying and sorting equipment, which allow them to contribute to exports while ensuring quality consistenc­y.

Most ChocoSol suppliers are “small plot intensive indigenous farmers, they feed their families, protect the water sheds, preserve the habitats for animals, they might feed their neighbours and they have a little bit left over for trade,” Sacco said.

These farmers are smaller than the average cacao grower, and have neither the skill nor the financial resources to go through the Fairtrade certificat­ion process.

Another reason for chocolate makers not registerin­g with Fairtrade is that they’re too small to pay fees to a third party for a direct transactio­n, said David Menkes, owner of LetterPres­s.

“There is no official direct trade certificat­ion, because by its very nature, there is no third party involved,” he said.

Convention­al chocolate makers usually leave cacao sourcing to a broker or trading floor, whereas bean- tobar makers work directly with the farmers.

But Marika Escaravage, public relations adviser at Fairtrade Canada, said direct and fair trade can exist side by side. “There are companies that offer Fairtrade- certified chocolates in Canada that are not only involved in the fair- trade system and contributi­ng to it, but also working directly with the farmers that are Fairtrade certified,” she said.

One larger chocolate company that is Fairtrade certified and works directly with farmers is Camino, based in Ottawa, whose chocolates are sold in more than 1,000 stores in Canada.

However, Escaravage recognizes the efforts that beanto- bar chocolate makers are making on their own.

“There are small companies starting out and for whatever reason cannot get their products certified," she said. “We do hear stories all the time of people saying, ‘If I do want to try to act ethically, I will go on the Fairtrade website and see what standards they have and make sure my relationsh­ips can live up to those standards.’ ”

Though ChocoSol is not registered with Fairtrade, Sacco relies on and supports certificat­ion.

“It’s an important stepping stone. We need to support those certificat­ions, especially when we can’t vouch for the supply chain. That’s when those certificat­ions are very important,” he said.

What’s more, ChocoSol relies on certificat­ion for other ingredient­s in its chocolates. “We buy all our sugar organic, Fairtrade and Rainforest certified,” Sacco said. “Cocoa butter (as well). All of the things we are not buying from origin, we buy certified.”

Non- certified artisanal chocolate makers have helped cooperativ­es such as Kokoa Kamili in Tanzania grow and acquire the financial means to become certified.

“We started to work with Kokoa Kamili a few years ago. They didn’t have any certificat­ions at all," Letter Press’s Menkes said. “Enough of us got together and started to pay these premiums, because ( Kokoa Kamili) were paying a premium to the farmers. They were able to afford organic certificat­ion, which then opens a lot more avenues for them, because there are manufactur­ers out there who only want to work with certified cacao.”

Taza is not Fairtrade certified, but it is organic certified and it insists that farmers get organic credential­s for their production.

Jesse Last, Taza’s sourcing manger based in Colombia, noted that there’s also a benefit to the farmers.

“Because we are an organic company, the farmers need to be organic certified,” he said. “Even though it’s more work to be organic certified to sell to Taza, the fact that we are paying really good prices makes it worthwhile.”

University of Toronto professor Jennifer Sumner, whose research focuses on sustainabl­e food systems, said being certified both organic and fair trade makes an ideal combinatio­n.

“The great strength of the organic movement is the environmen­tal protection … and the great strength of the Fairtrade movement is its social side,” she said. “When these two movements work together and produce Fairtrade organic products, then they bolster each other’s strengths.”

Though ChocoSol and LetterPres­s do not have organic certificat­ions, they say they set high environmen­tal standards. ChocoSol has developed projects to regenerate the areas it works in, such as sharing its knowledge of worm composting with growers and supporting the regenerati­on of a mid- sized shade tree for jaguar cacao in Chinantla. LetterPres­s cites its investment in the cacao trees with Izabal Agroforest.

One of the toughest challenges for chocolate makers such as ChocoSol is showing consumers that they are good corporate citizens, even without certificat­ion logos on their products.

Byron Koss, who looks after market sales and urban farming at ChocoSol, said he tries to be as transparen­t as possible with customers.

“People come and visit us at markets, we’re standing right there and we can explain the products, answer any questions they have about the ingredient­s, and they can also come into the kitchen,” he said.

Sacco said t his openness has helped ChocoSol’s sales jump by 20 per cent each year over t he past three years, and they topped $1 million in 2016.

More than 2,000 stores in several countries now stock Taza chocolates, but success also raises other challenges.

“The larger one gets, the further one gets from consumers — because you start working with distributo­rs and you start working at larger grocery stores — the harder it is to communicat­e and tell your story,” Last said.

Taza published its first transparen­cy report in 2011 when it was buying only about 45 tons of cacao beans a year. Last year, it brought in 233 tons.

Even so, Last wouldn’t have it any other way. “If our cacao beans are not good, our chocolate isn’ t good. And so, in a way, the impact and the business success go together,” he said. “By having these close relationsh­ips with the farmers at origin, we work hand in hand to ensure high quality cacao and, in turn, really delicious chocolate.”

LetterPres­s won the Good Food Award and ChocoSol won Silver at the Canadian National Competitio­n for their white jaguar swirl bar.

“Consumers might not know anything about our direct- trade program or the relationsh­ip we have with the farmers," Last said. “But they are benefiting from it, because our chocolate is just really good.”


 ??  ?? Cacao is harvested in the Lacandon Jungle in Mexico. Some chocolate makers are making a point of working directly with the farmers.
Cacao is harvested in the Lacandon Jungle in Mexico. Some chocolate makers are making a point of working directly with the farmers.
 ??  ?? Chrystal Porter, chocolatie­r for Toronto-based ChocoSol, carries harvested cacao pods.
Chrystal Porter, chocolatie­r for Toronto-based ChocoSol, carries harvested cacao pods.

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