The Toledo Cocoa Growers Association (TCGA) maintains three buying depots. One at its headquarters in Punta Gorda, one in San Antonio and one in Mayamopan. Each depot received beans that have been fermented and dried. The TCGA specs are straightforward–box fermentation for six days with bean turn-over every two days and then sun drying until the beans reach the proper residual moisture, generally six days as well.
Quality control is also rather simple and quite different than the one I saw in Ghana. In Ghana, the COCOBOD checks the beans by poking a probe into the stacked sacks of beans, extracting a sample from various areas and the inspecting the beans. In Belize, there is no government agency and the quality control is done by TCGA employees. Since the amount of beans and the organization are so much smaller, it’s often times the boss himself who has to so the job.
I witnessed TCGA manager, Armando Choco, check the beans brought in by one farmer. He grabbed a handful from the bag, dropped the beans on the table and split them with a sharp knife. Some of the beans had the telltale purple hue that indicated under fermentation. Others were almost black, a sign of over fermentation. And then there were the ones that were OK. Unfortunately, the beans were all mixed up.
Armando explained the problem to the farmer who looked a little despondent. In the end, the TCGA bought the beans after all–“The man has traveled almost 60km. We can’t send him home with nothing. We won’t export the beans but we can sell them to local producers.”
The organic inspection is a bit more complex. After all, the organic label requires third pary verification. The third party in the case of the TCGA it is the Soil Association of the UK. Alvaro Pop, the compliance officer of the TCGA, met me at the San Antonio Buying Depot and explained the process. He and his extension officers visit at least 10 percent of the farmers each year and inspect their farms. At the moment that amounts to 104 farms. On each visit the agent inspects the farm, looks for tell-tale signs of chemicals that are not permitted and questions the farmer following a detailed questionnaire. The records are then compiled for inspection by the Soil Association. It’s a lot of paper work and Alvaro showed me the thick manual that he has to comply with.
But in addition to checking on the organic compliance, the extension agent also evaluates the fermentation and drying process and offers advice to farmers on how to improve their product. In other words, the inspection is more of an effort to encourage and support an overall approach to producing top quality beans.
Alvaro Pop indicated that the quality of the beans varies more than he would like. In general, the farmers that have been with the TCGA the longest produce consistently the highest quality. Newer members still need to be shown the ropes. Given the large increase in members in recent years, the TCGA has it hands full trying to impart proper growing, fermentation and drying practices. Alvaro’s wish was for more resources that would permit more extension agents to travel to outlying areas and maintain better contact with farmers.
In the meantime, the TCGA will experiment with more centralized processing. A new community drying area is just about to be completed behind the San Antonio Buying Depot and Alvaro anticipates that the TCGA may even venture into handling the fermentation centrally. Although he assured me that Green & Black was not exerting any pressure to encourage centralized processing, I know that makers of expensive chocolate generally prefer post harvest processing to be done centrally to ensure consistant quality.