In the Dominican Republic, small-time farmers have banded together to grow some of the world’s finest cocoa. Taste it for yourself.
The air around the small, palm-thatched house is thick with the smell of red wine, but this is no vineyard. It’s the cocoa plantation run by José Nuñez: 96 acres of wide-leaved cocoa trees hanging on the steep, rich hillsides of the Cibao Valley in the north of the country D.R. Football-shaped pods are piled on the ground at intervals, and inside of them, surrounded by white pulp, are the cocoa beans. The pods have been cut down and sliced open, then left for pulp and beans to ferment, giving off the distinctive winey scent that is the smell of the cocoa harvest.
“We harvest the ripe pods in the morning,” says Nuñez, 49, whose farm belongs to Rizek, one of two private companies that, along with a large farmers’ co-op, account for 70 percent of Dominican cocoa exports. “Then we leave them fermenting in piles for trucks to take away.”
It wasn’t until after World War II that the Dominican Republic began exporting cocoa in any serious way. In the 1980s, a devastating price slump forced cocoa growers to rethink how they were approaching the business. Government and big industry players, with the consent of rank-and-file farmers, made a consensus decision: focusing on improved quality, they would retool a producer of high-end organic- and fair trade-certified cocoa.
It’s an amazing success story, but it isn’t over yet. The Dominican cocoa industry is vulnerable to increasing worldwide competition, falling productivity and what some people consider to be an over-reliance on the organic and fair trade certifications that first helped reverse its fortunes. Behind the scenes at the bustling cocoa processing centers, there’s a massive, ongoing effort among government, farmers, processors and shippers to keep the Dominicans ahead of the market. And with their relatively small size, adaptability and unique, private-public partnerships, many choco-professionals think they can do it.
“The Dominicans changed the cocoa industry,” says Goodrich, who purchases two-thirds of his cocoa from the D.R. “They’ve led the way, and when you visit a cocoa processing center or tour a cocoa farm you see that story unfold before your eyes.”
The first thing that strikes you is just how complex the operation is. From a Dominican treetop to the world’s top chocolate producers, a cocoa bean goes through a lot, and it’s all laid bare inside one of the dozens of cocoa processing centers that are scattered across the island’s lush countryside. During the two harvests, in spring and fall, beans are constantly arriving by truck, motorcycle and even horseback. The cocoa beans, the main ingredient in chocolate, are weighed and fermented in a three-step process in large wooden boxes. Finally, they’re dried in long, low, open structures. Only then are they — brown and almond-shaped — ready for shipment.
“It’s a fascinating mixture of science and art,” says Dary Goodrich, who works for American chocolate-bar producer Equal Exchange and tours Dominican chocolate plants frequently, an experience that is easily accessible to travelers in all corners of the country. “There’s an impact on quality if they don’t get the beans to the processing center right away,” he says. “Flavor depends on how they ferment the beans, and quality suffers if they don’t dry the beans right after fermentation.”
While these processes — key steps to making a cocoa bean ready for highend chocolate — are routine today, it wasn’t always that way. Just 20 years ago, most Dominican cocoa was harvested and left to haphazardly ferment on the plantations, or shipped without any fermentation at all. In fact, until the 1990s, the Dominican Republic, which accounts for just 55,000 tons, or 1.4 percent, of the world’s annual cocoa crop, was known as a supplier of standard or even substandard product. Since then, however, this tiny island nation has reinvented itself as the industry to capture the emerging market for organic goods.
“It’s amazing they could make this transformation,” says Clay Gordon, a chocolate expert and moderator of thechocolatelife.com, who frequently visits the D.R. to taste chocolate and meet with industry insiders, “but they are a small country, with relatively good relations between the public and private sectors.”
By fermenting and handling their beans with care, Dominican cocoa growers earned organic certification (which is granted by a halfdozen US and European agencies), indicating that their chocolate was grown and produced in an environmentally sustainable way.
Today around 80 percent of the D.R.’s cocoa output is certified organic, which represents an astounding 50 percent of the world’s organic cocoa market — a huge achievement for a country that produces just 1.5 percent of the world’s cocoa. That certification commands $100 more per ton than non-certified cocoa, according to Richard Falotico, who works for Atlantic Cocoa Company, a merchant in New York.
Around the same time they went organic, some of the island’s farmers started forming big cooperatives that could sell directly to the world market. The largest of these, CONACADO, went after the market for fair trade chocolate, whose sale is certified to benefit the farmer rather than a middleman.
Now, roughly 35 percent of the island’s output is certified fair trade. That cocoa can’t be sold for less than $2,200 a ton (which is a non-factor right now, with prices around $3,000, though it has made a difference in the past) and it comes with a $200 premium that is paid directly to co-ops like CONACADO. Ideally, this premium is invested to help farmers. According to Fernandez, this cooperative alone spends around $1 million a year on school supplies, aqueducts and investment programs for farmers to improve their plantations.
Still, some critics say these certifications do little to benefit farmers. “Is organic certification worth it for the producers?” Gordon asks. “If it were really worth it, all the cocoa in the world would be organic.” Others, like Laura Raynolds, professor of sociology and co-director of the Center for Fair and Alternative Trade at Colorado State University, who has studied the Dominican Republic, see tangible benefits. Raynolds says that without fair trade’s price floor and $200 premium, which has allowed co-ops to invest in cocoa processing equipment, many Dominican farmers would have gone bankrupt already.
According to Fernandez, productivity is the biggest challenge left facing farmers. “Most of the plantations are old, with older trees that don’t produce a great deal,” Fernandez says. “It’s hard for people to live a dignified life on what they can produce. As a result, their children don’t want to continue in cocoa, and moving forward we may have fewer cocoa farmers than we do now.”
Indeed, productivity has never been more relevant. Dominicans face increased competition from countries like Peru and Ecuador, which have been working hard to claim greater market share in organic cocoa. And, of course, there’s the ever-present threat of hurricanes, which can wipe out many cocoa farms, like the devastating Hurricane Georges did in 1998.
The average farmer cannot afford such improvements alone. CONACADO has been working to address this by using its communal money to grow new trees for farmers, and with a pilot program in which 1,500 of CONACADO’s farmers will receive small business loans to make improvements.
The big, private companies are helping their farmers improve productivity, too. Rizek, for one, funds a non-profit foundation — FUPAROCA — that helps rehabilitate aging and hurricane-damaged plantations and educates farmers about the financial and environmental benefits of organic farming. Massimiliano Wax, vice president of strategy and business development, says they are having some success.
That success is experienced firsthand on cocoa plantation and factory tours around the D.R., where visitors can see and taste the natural abundance of this island country. “This is an incredibly fertile country,” Wax says. “Consider that the D.R. produces enough food for its five million citizens, and there’s still enough for export.”
Up in the Cibao Valley, meanwhile, Nuñez is still harvesting the fall cocoa crop, cutting down the pods and piling them to ferment on the ground. Soon they will be carted away and turned into rich, dark chocolate. “I’m feeling good,” he says. “Around here, the people make cocoa into money.”
Most of the world’s cocoa is produced in remote and, at times, dangerous locations. So it’s a real treat that you can experience it firsthand in the Dominican Republic. Check out two of the country’s biggest producers offering behind-the-scenes tours.
LOCATION: Hato Mayor (67 miles from Punta Cana) or El Seibo (53 miles from Punta Cana)
TRANSPORTATION: Not included, but can be arranged
TRANSLATION: English available, French upon request
COST: $30 per person with lunch
EXTRAS: An overnight stay; horseback tours
LOCATION: San Francisco de Macorís (199 miles from Punta Cana)
TRANSPORTATION: Not included, but can be arranged
TRANSLATION: English and German available, French upon request
COST: $50 per person with lunch
EXTRAS: Tours of different lengths available