|The chariot for our farm tour – a cart pulled by a tractor|
One of the highlights of my trip to Maya Mountain Cacao (MMC) for Taza Chocolate’s annual Chocolate Week was a day trip to Hummingbird farm in the Cayo District of Belize. The trip was a last-minute addition to our itinerary after MMC signed a 10-year operating agreement with the current owner of the farm shortly before we arrived in Belize. It was a three-hour car ride each way to get from our base in the Toledo District to the farm in Cayo, but it was an incredible experience that became my most vivid memory from our trip.
Known as “Hummingbird Hershey” among the Belizeans, the farm was originally an 1,800 acre cacao farm owned by Hershey. It was the first commercial cacao-growing operation in Belize, and it was the most modern cacao farm in the world at the time it was created. It had a goal of becoming as mechanized as possible with an aim to produce 200 lbs of cacao per acre. As if to illustrate this point, our visit began while standing in front of the mechanical dryers that were used to dry the cacao after fermentation. Emily Stone, the Managing Director of MMC, said, “We’ll get rid of those.”
|A mechanical dryer|
Unlike the traditional Mayan farms that are filled with a multi-culture of fruits, vegetables and useful plants, Hummingbird Hershey was planted as an orchard with a canopy that wasn’t very substantial. Picture an American apple orchard, and you’ll get the idea. Rows and rows of neatly arranged cacao trees as far as the eye can see. While orchards are productive and efficient, the cacao tree prefers some shade with its sun. Cacao thrives in a dense jungle that includes lower canopy shade trees such as banana and plantains supplemented by higher shade trees such as rubber and mango.
|Orchard rows are still visible after years of abandonment|
MMC signed the operating agreement with the current landowner, who converted 1,400 acres of the property into a commercial citrus orchard. The remaining 400 acres are filled with the original cacao trees, which have been left to fend for themselves for a long time.
The operating agreement puts MMC in charge of rejuvenating the cacao trees, training the farm workers on proper cultivation and harvesting techniques, fermenting the cacao and selling it. MMC’s goal is to ship the cacao from Hummingbird as a separate origin/estate cacao next year.
There’s a lot of work to be done to get Hummingbird up to MMC’s high standards. One benefit of the farm being inactive for so long is that the cacao was immediately eligible to become organic certified because it hadn’t been exposed to fertilizers or pesticides in years. By the time we arrived, MMC had already begun grafting new seedlings onto the existing root stock to improve cacao varietals and harvests.
|New seedling grafts are protected with dried palm leaves|
We were in Belize at the peak of harvest so we saw farm workers sitting under trees in a pile of cacao pods, cracking open the pods and putting wet cacao into buckets. The buckets were collected and brought to the starting point of our visit, the area with the fermentation bins, sun drying beds, and those obsolete mechanical dryers.
|Hummingbird farm workers cracking pods and taking out the wet cacao beans|
Thanks to Pete, the intrepid botanist on our trip, we sucked on more cacao pulp that day than I’ve probably had in my entire life. Pete was picking pods off every tree he could reach from the tractor, cracking open the pods and passing them around. There was so much amazing flavor in the mucilage on those beans. The taste of the pulp was incredible – it tasted like an all-natural version of a Jolly Rancher Green Apple Candy.
By the time the cacao is ready for the premium chocolate market it may have a different name. The name “Hummingbird” is so associated with Hershey that MMC was brainstorming other names. Whatever it’s called, I’m looking forward to tasting my first bar of chocolate made with Hummingbird cacao.
If you’d like to see more photos from our day at Hummingbird farm and my trip to Belize, join us this Tuesday, July 22, 2014 at 7:00 pm at the store for my slide show presentation.