Having relocated myself and my family several thousand miles to the middle of the Pacific to grow cacao, all just to make a truly local chocolate, I sometimes have to ask myself: why? Turns out there are a few issues that drive me, so just a quick end-of-year summary here, if only to remind myself:
The chocolate industry is famously opaque, and that’s just the way the big boys want it. If you check under the hood of any major chocolate manufacturer, the sad fact is that you’re going to find a large amount of pretty ugly information in there, ranging from the relatively moderate (trade imbalances, tariff issues, commodity power plays) to the truly hideous (forced labor, exploitative pricing, insecticide exposures). Even some small craft manufacturers can get a little tetchy when you dig into their supply chain. Our efforts here in Hawaii are aimed at creating in miniature an alternate model–a genuinely 100% transparent process, where visitors and customers examine the inner workings for themselves, without relying on third parties.
The bulk of commodity cocoa relies on freebies from nature to stay cheap. Naturally, these freebies aren’t actually free, but come at a significant long-term cost, usually in the form of deforestation. We’re repurposing heavily abused ex-sugar land, and attempting to bring it into a new and genuinely viable balance. One way we’re working on this approach is through agriforestry–planting Mahogany and Koa as our windrows. Both of these attractive hardwoods deliver excellent carbon sequestration and the Koa has the added benefit of fixing nitrogen, helping to build long-term soil health and nutrition for our cacao.
This is probably true just about anywhere, but especially here in Hawaii rural families have mostly come to consider farming something you do when you have no other options. You may be stuck with it, but you raise the next generation to get the hell out. It’s very important to me personally that we begin to reverse that notion, and so my own decision to become a farmer is strongly driven by my desire to raise my daughter with the thought that working with the land is a noble endeavor. It may be hard and very risky work, but I hope that she’ll always look on farming (in whatever form) as a legitimate and valued choice.
I’m obsessive enough to want control over processes that as a chocolate maker you rarely really have. Verticalizing this particular food is extraordinarily challenging, given the breadth of knowledge required just to get results up to a minimum standard, but there is no substitute for enjoying a truly local and delicious chocolate that you know you grew, fermented, dried, roasted, ground, conched, tempered and molded yourself. We’re finally reaching that point now, and I can’t wait to share the results with you all soon!
Hau’oli Makahiki Hou, everyone, and all the best for 2012!