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TCHO New American Chocolate

TCHOSource: Empowering Farmers

A pivotal component to the TCHOSource program is to truly empower the farmers we work with, in country of origin. I recently had the chance to visit the Dominican Republic, and see first hand how our co-op partners are working to improve “farm productivity” — meaning how to get more cacao out of the same amount of land.

cacao blossoms, once pollinated will grow into a cacao pod

Theobroma cacao, the scientific name for a chocolate-producing tree, typically takes approximately 4 – 5 months to grow cacao pods (which are then fermented, dried, roasted and refined into chocolate). While quality and flavor are paramount to help raise farmer incomes and livelihoods, the challenge is also how to maximize both the output of the trees, and the sheer number of trees on their farm. But it can take years for a cacao tree, to grow and reach maturity from a seedling, posing a tough dilemma for cacao producers around the world.

Recently, as part of our USAID cooperative development grant with Equal Exchange, I was able to visit a few of the TCHO model farms in the Dominican Republic and experience first hand how they are working together to develop solutions.

The cacao producers/co-ops identified five farming management techniques to help them increase their level of productivity:

• Cacao tree pruning

• Shade management

• Applying compost and organic fertilizer

• Weed/pest control

• “Renovating” the plantations

Cacao farmers touring model farms with TCHOSource

The last method puts a new meaning to the term “renovation”. “Renovating” cacao tree plantations meaning they replace low producing trees with new, young trees — quite an innovative concept, but I couldn’t help wondering, “How?”

So I spoke with Doña Fermina, who owns a 20 acre cacao farm in the DR, and learned that there are two different methods they are testing out:

  • A grafting technique: where a seedling is grown in a nursery, and then attached onto already-growing tree, this technique gives complete control to the farmer to decide which genetic variety is ideal for them.
  • A basal chupon (“base sucker” in Spanish): a small offshoot is allowed to grow off the base of a mature tree, sharing the same root system. When the basal chupon is big enough, the old tree is cut down, allowing the younger tree to flourish using the already-established root system (this means the tree can produce cacao pods faster than a grafted tree and much faster than a tree planted from seed!).

Learning the techniques used by the farmers growing the cacao we use for our chocolate was an empowering experience! Not only was it interesting to better understand the advances being made on the ground in country of origin, but also to experience, firsthand, the founding principals of the TCHOSource program.


As part of TCHOSource, Katie Gilmer manages quality improvement projects at top-notch cocoa producers in Latin America and Africa, ensuring that TCHO gets the best cacao beans, year after year. She likes to travel (naturally!) and play ultimate frisbee.