Navigate this article

Organic and Regenerative Cacao Principles

Ceremonial cacao begins with the communities that we work with to source our cacao. Unlike the majority of chocolate consumed globally, we don’t source from centralized plantations. We only buy from small-holder organic farms, typically 0.5 acre to 5.0 acres in size. To date we’ve sourced cacao from almost one thousand such farms. Sourcing from small farmers often living in indigenous communities allows us to have a far more wide-spread social impact than paying just a single plantation, and it supports and values traditional ways of life in a time during which many of the communities we work with are struggling with the influences of modern civilization.

Small farms such as the ones we purchase are stakeholders in the communities and ecosystem. As such we often find superior environmental stewardship on these farms, employing not just organic principles but regenerative permaculture principles that actually improve the thriving of the land over time, whether that is tending to watersheds, building topsoil, or increasing biodiversity. The cacao grown on these farms tends to be a locally distinct genetic varietal, sometimes with an heirloom designation, that our partners support with seedling propagation in small nurseries. Cacao is an understory tree, so it lends itself well to polyculture agroforestry systems that produce abundant food staples and simultaneously offer ecosystem services such as habitat and buffer areas to intact rainforest areas.

For “Fair Trade” cacao, this model is essentially unchanged except the cacao is sold with a 10% premium, and a separate paper trail is maintained. Often the supply chains for commodity cacao are so complex, that the chocolate company purchasing the cacao beans doesn’t even know and couldn’t figure out if it wanted to, who farms the cacao that it uses. This lack of transparency can lead to troubling violations of common sense ethics in the supply chain, like slavery and child labor. Fortunately this is typically addressed by the additional paperwork of Fair Trade, but you can see how the 10% premium paid for cacao quickly gets lost in the long supply chain. 

Some examples of the practices we’ve seen in action on our small farms include:

  • intercropping with banana, plantain, avocado, coconut, corn, coffee, ginger, cardamom, allspice, chili, achiote, calaloo, jippi jappa, and medicinals

  • improving soil with bat guano collected from nearby caves

  • inoculating soil with beneficial mushrooms from leaf cutter ant mounds

  • chop and drop pruning, leaving all locally generated organic material on the farm to improve soil fertility

  • opening cacao pods for wet cacao removal on site, so cacao pods can improve soil fertility

  • pruning according to the moon cycle, during the waxing moon, when the cacao tree is most dormant

  • managing cacao pod diseases primarily with pruning to allow sufficient airflow and sunlight throughout canopy

  • agroforestry crop planning to provide young cacao trees with more shade and older cacao trees with less shade

  • planting additional food crops such as plantain and banana to keep local animals contently munching and sparing cacao pods

  • planting habitat for pollinator species to thrive, and for general beauty

  • planting cacao trees on steep slopes in a diamond shape pattern, to maximize soil retention

Organic Certification Is Still Important!

From the beginning, we’ve been deeply committed to using organic certified cacao. While it’s easy to purchase uncertified organic and while there is much work to be done beyond organic, the certification remains a powerful safeguard to ensure the practices that we want to see implemented on the ground and in the supply chain. 

Some benefits you may not realize with certified organic cacao include crucial steps in the transport of cacao. Certified organic cacao is required to be shipped separately from other commodities, such as sacks of coffee or barrels of oil. The certification also ensures the cacao is not fumigated with toxic chemicals when it enters the country (unfortunately, cacao grown organically but not certified is almost always fumigated as a requirement by the USDA). 

There’s a lot to be done, especially at the farm level, beyond what the organic certification requires. That’s why we began this article highlighting the many amazing regenerative cacao growing practices that we’ve encountered (that are not required by organic). However, organic certification is still one of the best that’s out there, and the paper trail and care in processing it requires is extensive. We’ve seen that by creating demand for organic cacao, we are sending a market signal to cacao brokers to offer more organic origins, and we are supporting the upfront work of helping smallholder farmers get certified.