This clonal garden is an important part of that strategy. In it there are over 100 clones that are being evaluated for desirable characteristics. Several promising performers have emerged from this process, and the research team has already selected those trees with the highest seed production. Candidates for hybrid production have also been identified. When the best performers have been selected and distributed nationally, this will greatly enhance the productivity and quality of Dominican cocoa.
Cocoa is a low-maintenance perennial crop that is an ideal component to a mixed agroforestry system. Mature trees occupy the space between three and five meters in the forest understory. These trees grow well in partial shade, and are ideally grown in mixed stands of coffee, banana, papaya, citrus, and other leguminous species. The overstory can be populated with mahogany, Brazil nuts, and other large, productive species.
The area below the cocoa trees can be used to cultivate taro, oregano, ginger, forage peanuts, mushrooms and other tropical, shade tolerant species. A cocoa plantation can also be used to graze animals like pigs, ducks, and chickens, which will consume fallen fruit.
The center is also studying the effect that cocoa trees have on soil organisms and nutrient recycling. They have found that cocoa plantations are highly efficient at recycling nutrients through leaf litter decomposition and assimilation. Because farmers have little need to use chemical fertilizers on this self-regulating crop, cocoa plantations are easily certified as organic, which has significant benefits on the international market.
Cocoa trees are pollinated by the midge, a small fly that lives in the forest understory. Fearful of harming midge populations, farmers are reluctant to spray their plantations with pesticides. Because of this, farmers must find alternative ways to combat pests and pathogens. The midge is yet another reason why cocoa is well-suited to organic certification.
When the farmer harvests the cocoa, he collects the cocoa fruit, breaks open each fruit, and extracts the fleshy pulp from inside. The seeds are then cleaned of the pulp, as seen in this photo.
In the Dominican Republic, the tradition of placing the freshly harvested seeds directly in the sun without fermenting the cocoa beans has negatively affected the reputation of Dominican cocoa. Unfermented cocoa is referred to as Sanchez cocoa. Sanchez cocoa is considered to be of poorer quality and therefore receives a lower price on the market. Though Dominican cocoa is of the highest quality, the lack of a post-harvest treatment has greatly reduced the market value of the final product.
This photo illustrates the fermentation process. There are four boxes, three of which are full of the fresh cocoa beans, the last box (not visible here) is empty.
Once the boxes have been filled with cocoa beans, they are covered with banana leaves and left to ferment for 48 hours. This anaerobic process occurs at a temperature of 45-50°C. After 48 hours, the empty box is filled, and the contents of each box are moved to the neighboring box. This movement allows for more uniform fermentation, and should be done twice to ensure quality.
Fermentation gives the cocoa beans a strong, pleasing odor, and also greatly enhances the flavor of the end product. Farmer’s that ferment their cocoa will receive approximately $4 more per 50 kilos; organic, fermented cocoa receives $6 more per 50 kilos. So while fermentation and organic certification require an initial investment of time and money, the long term economic benefit is significant.
Through outreach and education, Alejandro and his colleagues have made great progress encouraging farmers to ferment their cocoa. Their next great challenge lies in changing the market image of Dominican cocoa. They must convince buyers, processors, and consumers that the Dominican Republic does indeed offer high quality, organic cocoa.
Learn more about cocoa and chocolate by visiting the World Cocoa Foundation.