- NEW SERIES! RUNNING A TREE TO BAR BUSINESS: PRIME CACAO – THE INSIDE STORY
- STARTING AND DEVELOPING THE BAHIA CACAO BUSINESS
Tuta and Juliana Aquino are Brazilian natives that own and run a Cacao Origin located in the State of Bahia-Brazil, where they produce speciality 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 with a factory in São Paulo-Brazil. Baianí has a line of bars that is constantly expanding 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.
In Part 1, I shared a bit of our family history, heritage and how a spark got us into this business around 10 years ago. Let’s move forward on how this all developed.
Our state of Bahia had suffered tremendous losses due to the criminal introduction of the Witches’ Broom fungus in the cacao farms back in the late 1980s.
Fazenda Santa Rita was no different from all farms in the region. My father-in-law, Gaby, had been forced to fire his entire 30-person crew of collaborators and adopt a 50-50% crop-sharing system with 7 “partners”.
For over 20 years of no investment and only harvesting what the cacao trees would produce on their own, this property was in bad shape, its infrastructure in shambles, barely paying the necessary minimums in taxes and harvesting less than 1/10th of the original 75 metric tons it once produced yearly. It was no longer a viable agricultural business.
In retrospect, we have to consider that the decades of the 1970s and 80s were some of the best times for cacao in Brazil, both in productivity and prices. It is so difficult to think that in the late 70s, the commodity price for cacao reached a peak of over US$5,700/per ton! In the mid-80s and 90s, as the world’s yearly production increased, prices went down, and the witches’ broom hit our region. These combed factors made this a formula for the failure our families lived through.
Trying to create a business model, back in 2012 or even nowadays, projecting a profitable business format in our state of Bahia, based only on a property exploring the land with cacao as mono-culture, is frustrating.
This made me think that we needed to find alternative ways to make ends meet and not potentially throw away all that was built in the 25 years of my father-in-law’s life at the farm.
We started by hiring a qualified agro-technician that was familiar with the “new” varieties of cacao available. These supposedly had more resistance to the Witches’ Broom fungus and were also more productive. They became known in the region by way of research that started by the farmers themselves in the late 1990s by just observing individual trees that showed consistency in resistance and showed productive results, all within their own orchards.
And then, by replicating these individuals genetically through grafting, they could observe a wider response. The more formal study and research that determined which were, in fact, good for release as potential genetic material to be used by all farmers in Bahia, was conducted by CEPLAC, the Brazilian cacao agronomical institute responsible for research and development of the cacao.
So, in 2013 we started working on recuperating Fazenda Santa Rita’s orchards by way of returning them to the 1.000 to 1.100 cacao trees per hectare density, the ideal and recommended for our Agro-forestry system, called Cabruca. Out of the total remaining area of 70 hectares of cacao, we decided to “re-populate” about 35 hectares with some of these new varieties. Grafting was our first choice since a lot of the trees in these orchards were adults with very solid root systems, and the topography in the chosen areas was easier to manage.
Since our initial focus was productivity, the recommended “big winner” at the time was the CCN51 variety, so we chose it as the first one to be introduced in larger quantities of grafts.
The next step was to create a Clonal Garden where we introduced ten other different varieties with batches of 10 to 20 grafts of each, so we could observe and analyze their adaptivity over the next 3-4 years. In the orchards, we also incorporated the routine cacao farm activities like removing the shoots, weeding, pruning and controlling or reducing the excessive shade. The next step was to create a nursery with a capacity for 4.000 seedlings and set a goal to plant that many new trees every year.
A quick note on how humbling the experience of working with agriculture and its timing can be. For those who don’t know or realize, a cacao tree, when planted from a seedling, will start producing its first fruits after 3-4 years. Throughout this period, we tend to it ( I like to call this period “nursing”) by providing fertilizers, shade, water, and sunlight, conducting constant pruning, weeding and fending off any infestation of insects. Between the 5th to 6th year, depending on the variety, we finally get full production from these trees. Nature provides us with one of the most incredible exercises in patience and resilience I know!
Fast forward to 2015…We realized our efforts would require some time to bear fruit, literally, and I’m not one to sit and wait without being active and doing more. In comes the Bean to Bar movement on our radar.
Bean to Bar Chocolate was familiar to Juliana and me from our eventual visits to the USA and finding these “types” of bars and their options on speciality market shelves. But the one thing I noticed was the lack of Brazil as an origin of cacao in the bars we used to buy. There were none!
This sparked my curiosity and prompted my determination to find out why. After a bit of research, I understood that most of the origins of beans used by the Bean to Bar makers in the USA were from countries that had a history of sensory values in their cacao and a tradition in defined post-harvest protocols.
Although Brazilian bulk cacao was always sold at a premium in NY and London for its quality, since farmers fermented their beans and looked after minimizing defects, they were never looking for better sensory results. In general, there was no demand from the local market nor from exports for better-tasting cacao. Hence, no tradition was created to study or improve the flavours of Brazilian cacao in general.
Brazil’s own Amelonado variety, our Pará-Parazinho, originally introduced in our region of Bahia back in the late 1700s, had been steadily substituted in farms and orchards by several Trinitario varieties, with larger bean sizes and always focusing on increased productivity.
We quickly understood that the quality of Brazilian Beans was an issue for Bean to Bar makers in the USA and elsewhere too. So, I saw in the USA a big potential market for good quality Brazilian cacao beans, being an uncharted territory.
The Bean to Bar movement in Brazil, back in 2015, was barely starting, and the ecosystem that could give it the necessary support was non-existent. The focus of the very few craft-quality cacao farmers based out of Bahia had always been European countries, where some chocolatiers had been buying small quantities of beans from Brazil.
And while all the new activities were going on at the farm level, with some major investment into the run-down infrastructure, buildings and basic equipment and the adjustments with hiring some workers, we were also researching the Bean to Bar market in the USA. We dove into websites, searched the internet for references of craft quality cacao, visited speciality stores in the US where we bought more special bars, studied the history of the movement and detected the major “players”, in an effort to understand this newfound world for us.
In this period, Juliana had also taken interest in gastronomy and enrolled on a 2-year course at a reputable college in São Paulo, where she got a degree as a chef and developed some sensory skills that became very helpful later on in our businesses.
The popular expression “being at the right place, at the right time” is how I like to explain how we managed to move forward so fast. I must humbly say that our focus, attention to detail, and a non-negotiable high standard of quality were also key factors in our project.
We must also thank all the “good energy” that surrounded us in this journey and especially all the incredible persons we ended up meeting, became friends with and helped us make creating our history so joyful. Can only be grateful to all of them!
In the third and last part of this article, I will tell you a little more about all these new cacao and chocolate friends, how we set some far-fetched goals for our Vale Potumuju Cacao and, finally, how Baianí came to exist.