Reviving Puerto Rico's Cocoa Farms, Centuries After Hurricanes Destroyed Them | KUOW News and Information

Reviving Puerto Rico's Cocoa Farms, Centuries After Hurricanes Destroyed Them

Mar 1, 2017
Originally published on March 2, 2017 1:07 pm

The dream of reviving Puerto Rico's chocolate tradition took root in Juan Carlos Vizcarrondo's mind years ago.

He's always been obsessed with flowers and trees. As a boy, he planted so much greenery in his mother's backyard, there was hardly room to walk.

But in his thirties, he started planting cocoa trees, with their colorful pods full of magical seeds. "Something told me, just keep planting, because nobody has it! It's so strange, nobody has it!," he recalls.

Centuries ago, there were whole plantations of cocoa trees here in Puerto Rico. The climate is perfect for them. But a series of hurricanes wiped out much of the island's agriculture in the early 1700s, and cocoa farming never recovered. Most cocoa now is harvested in places where labor is cheaper, like in West Africa.

But you can still find cocoa trees growing wild in the Puerto Rico's hills, with yellow and purple pods, shaped like miniature footballs, sprouting from trunks and branches. Vizcarrondo went looking for them, and found a few.

"Once I had the pods in my hands, I was so impressed," he says, and the wonder is still audible in his voice. "I started opening them and sucking on the pulp, and that was delicious. I started drying them out in the sun."

He tried grinding up the beans to make his own chocolate. The result tasted terrible at first. Nevertheless, he persisted. Over the course of a decade, he learned how to ferment the beans, how to grind them, and temper the resulting chocolate.

"Finally, people told me, 'Ok, I like it now! I'm starting to like it!' That's where I said, ok, this is interesting," Vizcarrondo says.

Eight years ago, he set up a little company called Loiza Dark, making chocolate just from beans that he grows on his own farms. His "factory" is just three small rooms alongside a highway near the San Juan airport. He sells to local restaurants, specialty shops, and takes some orders through his web site.

Lately, though, the idea of home-grown Puerto Rican chocolate has found an influential new supporter: Eduardo Cortes, who runs a family business called Cortes Hermanos, which just happens to be the biggest chocolate producer in the Caribbean.

His company's factories and farmers are mostly in the Dominican Republic, but "I was raised in Puerto Rico; I'm Puerto Rican, and I always wanted an opportunity to do what I like to do best in Puerto Rico," Cortes says.

Cortes sensed that opportunity one day in 2011, when he saw something odd: a truck full of cocoa pods on a Puerto Rican highway.

Cortes had never heard of anyone growing cocoa on that scale in Puerto Rico. "I stopped the truck and asked the driver where [the pods] were from," he says. "And he said that they were from a research station in Mayaguez."

The city of Mayaguez sits on Puerto Rico's western coast. Cortes didn't know it, but this is where the U.S. Department of Agriculture carries out much of its research on tropical crops.

Cortes got in touch with scientists at the research center and discovered that they had a huge collection of cocoa trees. Not only that - they'd just spent twenty years identifying nine new, highly productive varieties of the tree.

Cortes sensed an opportunity. He recruited a small group of farmers in Puerto Rico to grow these great new trees and make a high-end chocolate bar just from those beans.

"There's always going to be a little market for people who want to eat local chocolate, just like there is for coffee," Cortes says. "I know at least that is possible. And from there, maybe it becomes a little bit more [economically] competitive, who knows?" The new trees, he says, will yield three times as much cocoa as the average tree in today's commercial cocoa farms. Perhaps that will make up for the extra cost of labor in Puerto Rico.

One of the farms where the new trees are growing sits in the hills near Mayaguez. It looks more like a forest than a farm. But scattered across the steep hillside, in the shade of big trees all around them, I see lines of young cocoa trees, over a thousand in all. They're fragile-looking plants, just four or five feet tall. Most aren't yet producing any pods.

Jose Martinez Cruzado, who owns this farm and agreed to work with Cortes on this project, tells me that when he was a boy, he'd see wild cocoa trees in the hills. "And I'd say, 'Hey, I love chocolate, I'd like to grow cocoa one day in my life!'"

Cruzado doesn't depend on farming for a living. He's also a professor of engineering at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez.

"I'm doing this for the enjoyment, but if I get some money, I'll enjoy it a lot more!" he says, laughing.

Cortes has launched his new, premium line of chocolate, called Forteza. The bars come packaged in a distinctive metal box. Right now, most of them are still made from cocoa grown in the Dominican Republic, but as the Puerto Rican trees start producing pods, that should change.

Word of this new venture has spread. A couple of hundred other Puerto Rican farmers have called Cortes, out of the blue, asking how to get their hands on these new trees. All of them, it seems, want to help bring back chocolate-making on their own Caribbean island.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There's something irresistible about chocolate, possibly many things. Long ago, it was rumored to have aphrodisiac qualities. Recently, researchers have even linked a regular chocolate habit to a reduced risk of heart disease. And now people are falling in love with the idea of growing their own cocoa trees.

In Puerto Rico, no one has grown cocoa commercially for more than a century. But it's making a comeback starting with some Puerto Ricans who tried cultivating their own cocoa crops. NPR's Dan Charles has this story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: The dream of Puerto Rican chocolate took root in Juan Carlos Vizcarrondo's mind years ago. He's always been obsessed with flowers and trees. As a boy, he planted so much greenery in his mother's backyard there was hardly room to walk. But in his 30s, he started planting cocoa - in Spanish, caocao - a tree with colorful pods full of magical seeds.

JUAN CARLOS VIZCARRONDO: Something told me just keep planting because nobody has it. It's so strange that nobody has it.

CHARLES: Centuries ago, there were whole plantations of cocoa trees here in Puerto Rico. The climate is perfect for it. But hurricanes wiped them out, and they never came back. Most cocoa now is harvested in places where it's cheaper to hire workers, like West Africa. But you can still find the trees growing wild in the Puerto Rican hills with yellow and purple pods shaped like miniature footballs sprouting from trees and branches. Vizcarrondo collected them wherever he could.

VIZCARRONDO: Once I had the pods in my hands, I was, like, so impressed. I started opening them and, you know, sucking on the pulp. And that was delicious. I started drawing them out in the sun.

CHARLES: He tried grinding up the beans to make his own chocolate. It was terrible at first. But over a decade, he learned how to ferment the beans, how to grind them and temper the chocolate.

VIZCARRONDO: Until finally people told me, OK, I like it now. I'm starting to like it. So then that's where I said, OK, this is interesting.

CHARLES: Eight years ago, he set up a little company, Loiza, with a three-room shop along a highway near the San Juan airport, making chocolate just from beans that he grows on his own farms. His operation's tiny. He sells to local restaurants, specialty shops, some on his website.

But this idea of Puerto Rican chocolate recently has occurred to some other people, too, including a young man who runs the biggest chocolate company in the Caribbean. It's a family business called Cortes Hermanos. And the young man's name is Eduardo Cortez.

EDUARDO CORTES: I was raised in Puerto Rico. I'm Puerto Rican, and I always wanted, you know, to have the opportunity to do what I like to do the best in Puerto Rico.

CHARLES: One day in 2011, Cortes was driving down a highway in Puerto Rico just as he is right now telling me this story when something very strange caught his eye.

CORTES: I saw, like, a truck full of cocoa pods in the highway in Puerto Rico.

CHARLES: Cortes couldn't believe it. As far as he knew, there wasn't any cocoa in Puerto Rico. His company's factories and farmers are mostly in the Dominican Republic.

CORTES: I stopped the truck and asked them where the pods were from. And he told me that they were from a research station in Mayaguez.

CHARLES: The city of Mayaguez sits on Puerto Rico's western coast. Cortes didn't realize this is where the U.S. Department of Agriculture carries out its research on tropical crops. He got in touch with scientists there and discovered they had a huge collection of cocoa trees. Not only that, they just spent 20 years identifying nine new varieties that farmers around the world could grow, varieties that produce lots of good-tasting chocolate. At that point, Cortes hatched a plan. He'd recruit a small group of farmers in Puerto Rico to grow these great new trees and make a high-end chocolate bar just from those beans.

CORTES: There's going to - always going to be a little market for people that want to eat local chocolate just like there is for coffee. And I know at least that is possible.

CHARLES: We turn off the highway, climb into the hills near Mayaguez, and we arrive at one of the farms with the new trees. Actually, it looks more like a forest than a farm. But scattered across the steep hillside in the shade of big trees all around them, I see lines of young cocoa trees - fragile-looking plants just four or five feet tall.

JOSE MARTINEZ CRUZADO: Here we have about 24 growth of caocao.

CHARLES: This is Jose Martinez Cruzado, one of the farmers who's agreed to supply cocoa to the Cortes company. He tells me when he was a boy, he'd see wild cocoa trees in the hills.

CRUZADO: And I'd say, hey, I love chocolate. I would like to grow cocoa one day in my life, OK (laughter)?

CHARLES: Are you doing this for the money or for the enjoyment?

CRUZADO: Well, let me tell you. I'm doing this for the enjoyment, but of course if I get some money, I will enjoy it a lot more.

CHARLES: Word of this new venture has spread. About 200 other farmers in Puerto Rico have called Cortes out of the blue asking how to get their hands on these new trees. They all want to help bring back chocolate making on their own Caribbean island. Dan Charles, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAC SONG, "SIXTEEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.