Tuta and Juliana Aquino are Brazilian natives that own and run a Cacao Origin located in the State of Bahia-Brazil, where they produce specialty cacao beans since 2016 with a small yearly production of 20 Metric Tons. Besides providing their Vale Potumuju beans to local Bean to Bar makers, they also started, in 2018, their own Tree to Bar brand (www.baiani.com.br/en ) with a factory in São Paulo-Brazil. Baianí has a line of bars that is constantly expanding line of bars and already earned several international awards. Their products are available in Brazil at their own store, e-commerce and local gourmet shops; in the USA and EU at specialty craft-chocolate retailers and specialized e-commerce.
Running a small Tree to Bar chocolate business has so many complexities and details that every day I wake up in disbelief about how we get around doing it.
But before I discuss and describe what goes into overseeing our two very distinct companies and operations, Vale Potumuju (our cacao origin) and Baianí Chocolates (our craft chocolate brand), let me tell you a bit about how we got into it.
Juliana Aquino, my wife and partner and I, have been at it at the farm for the last 10 years and although we are “cacao kids” having been born and lived in cacao farms as children and adolescents, our background and professional lives revolved around the music business, both in Brazil and in New York City.
We are natives of the state of Bahia, from the traditional region where cacao has been planted commercially since the late 1800s. My wife Juliana’s great-uncle Firmino Alves invited his best friend Ramiro Nunes de Aquino, my great-grandfather, to emigrate from the northeastern state of Sergipe to establish themselves in what is now the city of Itabuna. They were amongst some of the first families to arrive in search of better conditions of livelihood and development.
My grandfather skipped the “farm life” since he and all his brothers were sent to the “big cities” to become doctors, engineers, dentists and lawyers; the latter my grandfather Osmundo’s choice and career were spent in São Paulo, South America and Brazil’s largest metropolis.
My father, Affonso, an only child born in São Paulo, decided to move to the farm in 1960 with his new wife, my mom Dorothea. They lived in Itabuna for ten years, where my dad learned all about cacao and developed his inherited property, a 175 hectares farm, Fazenda Duas Barras, where I was born and lived up to the age of 9.
My parents and Juliana’s parents became best of friends, and our families frequented each other in this rural environment, always spending time at each other’s farms.
Juliana’s father worked with his brothers in a family enterprise that included farms, a timber business and car dealerships in the region of Itabuna. Being the youngest of the siblings, Gaby always had different and more humanistic views of the world. So, in 1973 he decided to part ways with his brothers selling his shares in the business to buy his own farm, Fazenda Santa Rita, a 350 Hectare estate located in the Arataca municipality, 50 miles south of Itabuna.
Juliana and I took different paths after my parents moved back to São Paulo as she went on to study in Bahia’s capital city of Salvador. Although we would always see each other on holidays and vacations throughout our teens, we went on to live our separate lives. But it was the music business that, in 1994, brought us back together.
I moved to NYC in 1981, where I studied Audio Engineering and started a successful music studio dedicated to the niche of remixes and “dance music”, working with major international bands, artists and singers. Juliana started her music career as a backup singer for some of Bahia’s most successful Axé-music bands, a very popular music style in the late 80s and 90s in Brazil. So now we had another “common ground” besides our Bahia heritage, family bonds and similar childhood. Our passion for music led to us falling in love and, in 1995, getting married in NYC, where we lived until 1999-2000, when we moved back to Brazil.
At this point, the cacao business in Bahia had been shaken by the criminal introduction of the Witches’ Broom fungus in the region around 1989-1990. This had a devastating effect on the region’s productivity and the whole industry of cacao in Brazil, also affecting the livelihood of millions of people, with close to 1 million direct jobs lost (more on this in future articles).
My father-in-law was one of them, with the productivity of his beloved farm declining from 75 metric tons/year to barely ten metric tons in less than three years, from 1992 to 1995. With a whole region in debt and with no production to make their properties viable as businesses, most farmers either were forced to sell or find ways to survive by radically changing the way they ran their farms. One option was to just harvest what was available and adopt a sharecropping system, where the workers were no longer employees and took half of what was harvested to also try to survive with this bare minimum. And this was the chosen path for Fazenda Santa Rita.
Depressed and with no alternatives in sight, my father-in-law passed away after a brain-tumour surgery in December 1999.
After coming back to Brazil, Juliana and I established our residency in São Paulo, where most of my family lived and where the opportunities in the music business were abundant. It was also where there were better schools for our two sons. But every Christmas holiday was spent in Bahia with Juliana’s family and with some shared time spent at my father’s farm. On these trips, we would visit Juliana’s farm, which is always a sad point in these trips. To see this once so vibrant and productive property in complete decay and abandonment was heartbreaking.
As the years went by and at every summer visit, Juliana tried to convince me to look into ways to not let the farm go to complete ruins. I was always reluctant! First, because we knew nothing about how to run a farm and second, having seen my father’s fruitless efforts for over ten years in trying to recuperate his farm from the devastation of Witches’ Broom scared me.
In 2012 a breakthrough came personified in Mr Veridiano Santos, our current farm manager and the original manager of the property for 16 years, dating back to when Juliana’s father bought the farm in 1973. Veridiano has always been almost a family member, very present in our lives even after leaving the farm in 1989 to try new jobs in São Paulo, where he lived for almost 20 years and was by then retired. He would come for visits and manifested the same sadness that Juliana had with Fazenda Santa Rita’s demise. So after a few meetings and plans that were moved a lot more by the heart than the brain, we decided to “fund” the return of Veridiano and his wife Bilíu to Fazenda Santa Rita to take over a slow recovery of the structures in the farm center and look into creative ways of managing the sharecropping contracts.
Again, may I remind you that Juliana and I are “cacao kids” but never had hands-on experience with running an agricultural operation. But there was something that sparked and ignited a fire inside of both of us. Maybe it was the longing for our special childhood times spent in the region, maybe the eagerness to make right again in homage to my father-in-law’s efforts, or maybe it was our families’ DNAs rooted in cacao and pioneering. May a combination of all of the above. I can’t tell you for sure, but we both fell in love with the farm, the region and cacao!
In Part 2 of this article, I will walk you through our start in agriculture, our mishaps, mistakes and learning at the initial stages of the farm. Also, our discovery of the Bean to Bar chocolate industry was a major turning point in our lives.
The heritage of cacao in or region of Bahia is immense, and there are several other stories within our history, some depicted in world-famous books written by Bahia’s biggest author, Jorge Amado. I’ll be sure to revisit some of them in future articles.