The Cacao Nursery
Where does Cacao grow and who are the farmers, the gardeners of the Cacao plant? What journey does the Cacao undertake, from the flower to the wonderful rich drink enjoyed in ceremony and ritual?
The Cacao Nursery is similar to other tree crop nurseries: it is designed as a temporary location for Cacao seedlings to grow into healthy young trees in a protected environment. This gives them a better chance at survival until they are ready to join a biodiverse forest.
“To me, there is something remarkably peaceful about contemplating the concept of the Cacao nursery, a place that is all about new life, growth and care-taking: where new Cacao trees are being born and kept safe, where tiny organisms are being cared for and properly nurtured so that one day, they will become full ecosystems in their own right.” –Gabriele Detschmann
Since Cacao is native to the rainforest, it loves shade and needs quite a bit of watering. When setting up a nursery for Cacao, it is therefore important to consider that the young cacao seedlings require ample shading, a moist soil (but not waterlogged), a comfortable temperature and protection from storm. The sheltered nursery at Sierra Divina lets about 80% of sunlight through with an average temperature of 24 ºC, it has easy access to clean water for irrigation, and it is protected from strong wind.
From Seed to Tree: Raising Cacao Seedlings
The raising of new Cacao trees at the nursery begins at the same time as the sowing of fast-growing shade plants, such as plantains. This process is normally started in May, four to five months before the rainy season so that the young Cacao trees are properly sheltered by their forest companions once they are ready for transplanting.
The Nursery Bed
Cacao seeds are selected and fermented for about three days before they are put in their nursery beds (bags or containers filled with a nourishing soil mixture). Once a day, the uncovered seeds are gently watered by one of the workers, preferably before sunset so that the seedlings are kept moist during the night. It only takes two to three weeks until the young trees begin to emerge.
The worker checks the seedlings regularly by hand and carefully removes the seed hull, in case it hasn’t fallen off, and to stimulate the growth of the plant. Once the first leaves appear, the seedlings are fed with organic fertiliser to provide them with the nutrients essential to healthy growth. Since young Cacao trees are still very sensitive to sun and predator insects, the workers also apply natural pest repellents made from chili pepper every three to eight days.
If you don't want to buy the seedlings from a commercial nursery, you can grow a seedling from a germinating cacao seed. This allows you to grow the seeds with the correct energy and intention and observe the entire process from seed to plant.
Permaculture Principle 1 · Observe & Interact
Permaculture designers use careful observation and thoughtful interaction to make effective use of human capabilities, reduce dependence on non‐ renewable energy, and consciously and continuously develop systems of land use and living that can sustain people through the era of energy descent. ‘Reading the Landscape’ to understand the pre-existing and often subtle but persistent patterns created by nature and ancestral use of the land, is the foundation of permaculture design. Designs should emerge from what already exists, rather than be an imposition on the land. With appropriate observation and interaction, we realise that nowhere is a blank slate for our designs. Everywhere has a history, and the proverb ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ reminds us that the process of observing influences reality, and that we must always be circumspect about absolute truths and values. –David Holmgren: The Essence of Permaculture
One of the Cacao Gardener's guiding principles is to observe and genuinely engage with the plant and the forest at all stages, and to make adjustments based on the feedback we receive. This has led the Cacao Gardener project team on a search for a sustainable alternative to plastic seedling containers. Like many other tree planting organisations and farmers, (black) polybags were used at the Sierra Divina nursery for the pilot project (and in most other tree nurseries). These plastic bags are now replaced by biodegradable and compostable containers (“Jiffy Pellets”) made from organic materials, like coconut. Unlike plastic bags, these containers can be transplanted directly into the ground – which means no waste and less stress for the young trees. As the Cacao forest in the Sierra continues to grow, so do we, hoping that eventually, each element within the forest ecosystem contributes to others and receives from others to thrive.
After three to five months (depending on the climate), the young trees are ready for transplanting. They are around 50cm tall when their life in the forest begins.
Choosing the Right Seeds
To start growing a Cacao tree, you will need beans taken from a ripe pod from another Cacao tree, the mother tree. The mother tree must be strong with a deep root system that communicates with all relatives beneath the earth, so she can hand over her wisdom to the following generation. This is the gift of the mother - strong roots.The pod is ripe when the beans are loose and rattle when shaken.
The native Cacao varieties of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, are called Criollo varieties or "white Cacao" because of the colour of their beans. The white Criollo Cacao used by the Arhuaco tribes in the Sierra Nevada has won several prices around the world for its sensory profile. Various trees with these characteristics were found mainly near hillsides and in places where agro-ecological conditions have allowed them to survive both climatic changes and human use of the land. This type of cacao is susceptible to pests and diseases when moved to other areas; however, when kept in its native habitat, it is very robust.
Fine & Flavour Cacao in Colombia
Colombia is a major cocoa producer, ranking tenth globally in total output. In 2021, Colombia produced 65,174 MT of cocoa with a planted area of 194,428 hectares. Colombia has 2.8 million hectares of land suitable for cocoa growth and is a major producer of fine or flavor cocoa.
While there is no universally accepted definition of fine or flavor cocoa, in 2018 ICCO developed a working definition that incorporates a variety of characteristics to define cocoa as fine or flavor cocoa, ranging from the genetics of the materials planted to how the cacao is processed.
Only 5 percent of global cocoa production is considered by ICCO to be fine or flavor cocoa. Colombia is unique in that its production primarily focuses on the Criollo and Trinitario hybrid varieties due to their flavor quality. Colombian cocoa exports have been classified by the ICCO as 95 percent fine or flavor cocoa, well above its South American competitors.
In 2021, Colombia exported 26,256 MT of cocoa, 68 percent of which were cocoa-derived products. Colombia exports cocoa to over 70 countries with the top five exporters in 2021 being Mexico, the United States, Ecuador, Belgium, and Peru. Since 2011, Colombia has increased its cacao bean exports by over 400 percent.
USDA is investing in Colombia’s cacao sector to boost its competitiveness in the global market and provide economic opportunities to farmers through two programs: Cacao for Peace (funded by USAID and implemented by USDA) and Cacao for Development.
– Source: USDA Report - The Colombian Cacao Industry - June 2022
Growing in Two Directions
When cacao seeds falls on the nutrient-rich forest floor, a beautiful, almost spiritual journey begins. Within the seed, a sprout comes to life that will first grow a root, then the plant. Sprouting cacao seeds reflect strength, expansion and growth, providing the newborn cacao tree with a nest of fertile nutrients. It seems like the cacao tree grows in two directions. The cacao bean nest remains attached to the plant for another 20cm until it is no longer needed, and falls off the side of the plant.
A Messenger of the Heart
Cacao grows in two directions at the same time, a deep tap root and synchronously into the sky. A seed of hope tucked into the dark earth, a magic bean rooting shooting.