At the cocoa farm

Ecuador is the top 7th cocoa producer in the world. Where and how is it grown? How do the fruits like? Can you be a cocoa farmer in Ecuador? Let’s go on a cocoa farm tour with Miguel, a fellow farmer.

The whereabouts

Miguel’s finca (finca is, in Spanish, a piece of land, a property where you can grow something) is located in Esmeraldas province, an hour drive from the city of Esmeraldas. It’s technically the coast, but the original flora there is similar to rain forest with less humidity.

The farm location
The farm location

The main advantage of the location is obviously the fact that plants grow rapidly. Miguel told us you can see how branches are longer and leafs are bigger just within few hours – it’s amazing! The coast area is a perfect place to grow cocoa.

There are – unfortunately but inevitably – disadvantages. First of all the temperature. How hot it is? Well, it’s difficult to say, as the farm is located far from a major city for which temperature records would be available. But it is hot. 🙂 Here you have the average temperature for Esmeraldas, the capital city of Esmeraldas province. Note that the farm is located deeper in the land, so you’ll need to add few degrees to it. Also, remember the temperatures on the graph are averages, which means in the midday it gets significantly hotter.

There are also venomous snakes and spiders, and a species of giant ant. The ant is not a life threat, but the bite hurts dramatically…

That’s why you have to be prepared not only for work, but also to just visit the place. Although it’s hot you have to wear overshoes (galoshes), a hat and have at least 2 liters of water with you… A mosquito repelent (preferebly with DEET) and sunscreen won’t hurt too. And machete! Don’t forget to buy one before the trip!

The beginners' jungle kit :)
The beginners’ jungle kit 🙂

How to prepare the land?

When you buy a land to grow something, what you typically have initially there is jungle. Jungle means a very dense, concentrated flora – it’s nothing like northern forests. It’s just a green wall.

So, what you first need to do is to grub the forest. This process typically takes 10-12 months. To do that you hire men from the nearby villages and they start the work.

What you do next is you make few announcements in the nearby villages that there is wood available at your land. The locals are very much interested in wood they can get for good price. So they pay you some money and they take the wood away.

What’s left – low quality wood, dry leafs, branches etc. – you burn. And after almost a year you’re ready to grow you plants.

How does a cocoa tree look like?

A cocoa tree isn’t very “tropical” by the first look. It’s a 2-3 meter high tree with long green leaves. Every tree has to have a free space around it – at least 3 meters of diameter.

The cocoa fruit is yellow or orange-red (depends on the kind) and it has spindle-like shape. The length is about 20cm (8 inches). Inside there are beans and that is how the cocoa powder (and then chocolate is made). The beans are covered with a white, soft membrane that can be eaten (it’s sweat and delicious).

There are basically two kinds of cocoa grown in Ecuador:

  1. Cacao nacional – which is allegedly more tasty and generally of better quality but you can only ripe two times a year.
  2. Hybrid kinds – which are of less quality but also less demanding and you can ripe many times during the year.

In the photos in this article and in the movie you see the hybrid types.

The business

For the first cocoa harvest you have to wait at least two years. This is the time needed for the trees to grow and start producing the fruit. But nobody wants to wait for the money that long, do they? That’s why in the meantime you grow less demanding plants, mainly papaya. You can also let the local people grow corn are whatever they need. In exchange they will do some work for you.

The good news is papaya grows very quickly and you can expect first fruits after 5-6 months.

After the harvest you have two options: you can just sell the fruits or the beans to cocoa producers. They will take care of cleaning and drying the beans. This options is less-work – less-money option. Alternatively you can dry it yourself.

When you drive through Esmeraldas you can see a sheets of fabric just laying at the road with cocoa beans on them. Looks like the roads are the best place to do it (maybe because they absorb heat quickly?)

There is still plenty of land to buy. If you plan on becoming cocoa farmer, Ecuador is the place to go! 🙂

And finally a summary movie. Enjoy!