We journeyed across Nicaragua from the South into the mountains of the Northern department of Matagalpa in search of the best cacao beans we could find. As budding bean to bar chocolate makers, it was clear that the quality of our beans would be the most crucial element in our entire chocolate making process.
At first glance it didn’t look anything like what we had imagined a cacao plantation to be. We were struck by the bio-diversity, it was more wild rainforest than farm. The cacao trees seamlessly blended into a landscape full of plants and animals giving life to the term “food forest.”
When we’d arrive at a farmer’s home, we were consistently struck by how clean and organized they were. They shared with us a deep appreciation for the transformation taking place in their lives and are proud of their work stewarding rare cacao trees. There was a real sense of dignity about all of it.
We had a chance to behold what many fine organizations and people who came before us helped seed; we got to experience what we had read about so many times. We’re grateful to the indigenous people of the Northern regions of Nicaragua for their deep-rooted connection to this plant and to all the generations behind us who we continue to learn from. We’re grateful to the people at Ingemann Fine Cocoa who first came to Nicaragua in 2007 as bee-keepers, discovered one of those ‘best kept secrets,’ and have spent the better part of the last decade propagating heirloom cacao and providing micro-financing and extensive training for farmers throughout the region.
Ingemann serves as the access to market for more than 1000 cocoa producers, directly benefiting over 5000 workers and their immediate family members. With the producers more than 1,000,000 cocoa trees have been planted adding in the reforestation of Nicaragua. Responding to the ever increasing pressures of climate change, Ingemann has also launched the Adapta project which collects and analyzes hyper local climatic information enabling cocoa farmers and beekeepers to achieve greater resilience in the face of ever-changing landscapes. We appreciate Ingemann’s scientific approach to quality in production, propagation, and post-harvest processing. This approach has proven results; chocolate makers using Ingemann have won hundreds of awards over the years. For these reasons, and many more, we choose to purchase our cacao beans from Ingemann.
The history of this region is written in the landscape. We saw thousands of acres of former rainforest that had been macheted to the ground in order to make way for cattle, coffee, beans, and corn; all crops that were ‘supposed’ to yield great benefit and economic prosperity. However, the deforestation coupled with steep slopes and heavy rainfall resulted in soil erosion and dangerous landslides. The hidden costs of the extra inputs needed to sustain these intensive crops (i.e. fertilizers, seeds every year, fungicides, pesticides, etc.) was making this venture far less successful than anticipated. The highly volatile prices in commodity markets resulted in no income stability from year to year. The farmers were left with degraded soil, erosion & landslides, less economic opportunity, and they weren’t happy about it.
The Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund, a not-for-profit organization in collaboration with the United States Department of Agriculture, has recently designated the Northern region of Nicaragua as one of a few worldwide where the cacao tree originates. Cacao has been growing here for more generations than we know and has been an integral part of the natural ecosystem. There is no need for irrigation, fertilization, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, or any other intervention beyond light pruning; nature does the work. Cacao cultivation requires about half the labor of coffee, and can be harvested for 10 months of the year, roughly every week.
Farmers were largely unaware of the value in the cacao trees growing wild all over the region and they lacked the organization, information and equipment to engage this golden opportunity.
All trees being planted are local landrace genetics native to this region. The Cacao trees are interspaced with other indigenous species, helping restore the region to a more natural state. These cacao forests are incredibly biodiverse and create sanctuary for wildlife including bees and other pollinators. Cacao has become a medium for economic, ecologic, and social regeneration.
We decided to buy the first 100 pounds of raw cacao, direct trade. We loaded back onto the public transit and began our long journey south to the coast of Nicaragua to begin the exciting process of transforming beans into bars.