02/22/2013 13:13


Are you going to have a piece of chocolate on Valentine’s Day? All chocolate has a connection with a farmer, soil and water, a tiny insect, and special growing conditions.

Chocolate comes from the seeds of a cacao tree. The tree, now grown in the tropics worldwide, is native to South America. Climates found within ten degrees north or south of the equator, soil with year-round moisture, and protection from strong winds are needed to make the cacao tree grow and bear fruit.

The flowers and pods containing the beans grow directly from the trunk of the cacao tree. Recent studies indicate that midges, tiny flies that inhabit the damp, shady rainforest, play a crucial role in cacao pollination. The cacao flower, which is about the diameter of a nickel, is complicated in design, and the midge is the only animal that can work its way through the flower. These midges are not able to adapt to plantation-like conditions. Farmers growing cacao trees in the natural environment of the rain forest get the best results. As a result, 90% of the world’s more than 2012 estimate of 4 million tons of cocoa beans are grown on holdings of 12 acres or less with natural protection for the cacao trees and the environment.

The cacao trees, started from hand-planted seedlings, take about 3-5 years to produce the football shaped pods that take five or six months to ripen. Each contains about forty purplish, bitter-tasting, lima-bean-size cocoa beans in a lemon-flavored pulp about as dense as the flesh of a pear. Under good conditions, a single mature cacao tree produces an average of thirty to forty pods in a year from which can be derived three to four pounds of the chocolate which we enjoy.

Harvesting the beans requires hand labor. The yellowish ripe pods are cut with a machete from the tree trunk. Pods are split with a machete and pulp and beans are scooped from the pod by hand. The beans are fermented in their own pulp for up to six days. Then beans are moved into the sun and dried outdoors for up to two weeks. Dried beans are bagged in 100 pound bags and transported, often on foot, to a collection point to be shipped around the world. Manufacturers of chocolate products using modern machinery roast the beans and separate them into cocoa liquor, cocoa butter, and cocoa powder that are then combined with sugar and other ingredients to get the products we enjoy.

Remember with each bite of chocolate that it all began with a farmer in the tropics using lots of hand labor.

Information for this article is from the International Cocoa Organization website and the book, Harvest of Hope, 2003, by Phil Grout, SERVV International.


Della Moen, Earth Team Volunteer, NRCS/Stephenson Soil and Water Conservation District, an equal opportunity provider and employer, 02/06/13 (for publication on 02/09/13 in the Journal Standard, Freeport, Illinois) Della can be reached at info@stephensonswcd.org