In our journeys to see our Cacao-raising partners in Ecuador, we’ve learned an incredible amount about picking quality Cacao, sustainable cultivation methods, and the plant genealogy that separates the good Cacao from the truly great. It’s truly amazing the depth to which an interest in a particular plant can open your world to so many different realms of knowledge. Natural slope drainage techniques that use gravity to accumulate precious water during the dry season? Sure, let’s talk about it for an hour! But the thing that strikes us continually whenever we visit is the wisdom of our partners. Beyond technical knowledge and very good Cacao, these men and women always bring our perspective back to center, reminding us of the simple truths we can lose sight of when running a company back in the US.
It is a difficult life farming in the forests of Ecuador, and Cacao is an especially fickle crop. To raise Cacao the way our partners do is a risky business because pests or a poor cycle of weather can seriously limit yields. When you are committed to not taking shortcuts—no pesticides, no GMO plants, etc.—you need to be versatile and live in rhythm with the land. As our partner, Jaime, puts it: “A farm is not a farm without diversity. Here, I have everything I need to have a nutritious diet. Bananas, yucca, chickens, citrus, and, of course, Cacao. On the other side (North America), they raise mono-cultured land—that is not a farm.” If one crop has a poor year, you augment your diet with more of another. If prices at market fall for an item, there are others to sell. The lesson here is that we humans are naturally versatile and adaptable creatures when we live close to the land. Even when we can’t live close to the land—I’m typing this from a New York City window, for instance—this is a vital thing to always hold in our hearts. Everything is changing all the time. Keep your center, but stay flexible—just like Jaime.
Given the flux of farming and the world in general, these Cacao producers also remind us of the necessity for mutual aide. Nobody makes it alone. Of course, this enterprise of ours was founded on this tenet, as we saw Cacao bringing people together in positive community and wanted to explore that. But in a post-pandemic world of electronic communication and increased social distance, we sometimes need to be hit over the head with these simple truths to prioritize them. As our partner Onofre explains, “my family runs this farm, but we do many things as a community. We have a partnership with (other farms in the area) and we process the Cacao together. We share the work of fermentation, drying, and all of this. We share our knowledge, and we learn more together. It helps advance everyone in the community.” It is these sentiments that remind us to not only cshare our knowledge and capacities with others in our community, but also constantly learn from others, as well. If we are going to get through these tumultuous times of climate change and social upheaval, we can only do it through mutual work.
In all of this, we have to ask ourselves, “okay, we have our needs met and we have a support system, but what is the greater purpose?” Perhaps this is not a question that plagues everyone as much as it plagues me, but in the face of these grand and complicated shifts in our world, I think it’s percolating in the collective consciousness much more. We enjoy serving our community; we really enjoy when someone reviews our Cacao and shares that it has had a positive impact on their daily life; and we are ecstatic when we serve a new customer their first Cacao drink at our Kingston, NY café and their reaction is, “oh my, this is incredible.” These are all moments, but they are a shared experience that culminates in one truth: the purpose is people. Life’s satisfaction is fundamentally about doing for others. As Jaime puts it: “I enjoy my work because I can taste my way through the farm. Every pod has a different flavor, and it’s a joy to savor them fresh…but it makes me very happy to think about the person who will also taste and enjoy that Cacao on the other side of the world. To me, it means a job well done. My life here is this land, this Cacao. Through that, I share my life with them.” Ultimately, Jaime’s words are the reason for Cacao Lab. We share our lives in partnership with these men in Esmeraldas, in Manabí (Ecuador). And when we sip our morning Cacao, we often think about Jaime and our other growers—their wise words, our misty mornings with them out on their lands, and their communities, whose passion we can taste in every sip.
Next time you take your day’s first sip of Cacao, remember Jaime, Onofre, and all the other people on the other side of the world who are smiling at you. Smile back and enjoy.