The farm is where it all starts.  The crop of the cocoa farm is the cocoa pod.  The cocoa pod grows from the trunk of the cocoa tree and is harvested by hand.  Some cocoa farms are family run and the trees are growing in a jungle, between different species of trees.  Other farms are of the monoculture type where large amounts of land are cleared and cocoa trees are planted to make a cocoa plantation.

Short Closeup of Opening a Cocoa Pod

Watch this short clip to quickly see what the cocoa pod looks like.

Many chocolate makers buy their pods directly from smaller family farms while others come from larger plantations.  This video was made by a company that is focused on purchasing from the family farms.

Harvesting the Cocoa Pods

How to Grow a Chocolate Plant

This horticulturist clearly explains how to grow a cocoa tree and points out the fact that its normal to see brown leaves in the garden and in the forest.

Pruning

This video puts you face-to-face with cocoa farmers who demonstrate the importance of pruning the cacao trees.  You see how they use their tools to maintain their crop yields by proper pruning techniques to protect the health of the trees.  They explain how far apart each tree should be planted from each other. Proper pruning improves the air temperature and air flow around the trees. It’s a very comprehensive video that shows the hard work and problems that are always on the mind of a cacao farmer.

Preferred Climate

Cacao can only grow at tropical temperatures, and when shielded from the wind and unimpaired by drought. People have grown the tree under greenhouses far from the Equator; it requires a warmer temperature than either tea or coffee, and only after infinite care can one succeed in getting the tree to flower and bear fruit. The mean temperature in the countries in which it thrives is about 80 degrees F. in the shade, and the average of the maximum temperatures is seldom more than 90 degrees F., or the average of the minimum temperatures less than 70 degrees F. The rainfall can be as low as 45 inches per annum, as in the Gold Coast, or as high as 150 inches, as in Java, provided the fall is uniformly distributed. The ideal spot is the secluded vale, and whilst in Venezuela there are plantations up to 2000 feet above sea level, cacao cannot generally be profitably cultivated above 1000 feet.

Factors of Geographical Distribution.

Climate, soil, and manures determine the possible region of cultivation—the extent to which the area is utilised depends on the the farmer’s resources. The original home of cacao was the rich tropical region that lies between the Amazon and the Orinoco, and due to the demand for chocolate, it has spread from this region. Monkeys often carry the beans many miles— while humans, the master-monkey, have carried them round the world. First the Indians spread cacao over the tropical belt of the American continent and cultivated it as far North as Mexico. Then came the Spanish explorers of the New World, who carried it from the mainland to the adjacent West Indian islands. Cacao was planted by them in Trinidad as early as 1525. Since that date it has been successfully introduced into many a tropical island. It was an important day in the history of Ceylon when Sir R. Horton, in 1834, had cacao plants brought to that island from Trinidad. The carefully packed plants survived the ordeal of a voyage of ten thousand miles. The most recent introduction is, however, the most striking. About 1880 a native of the Gold Coast obtained some beans, probably from Fernando Po. In 1891, the first bag of cacao was exported; it weighed 80 pounds. In 1915, 24 years later, the export from the Gold Coast was 120 million pounds.

The Cacao Tree

Tropical vegetation appears so bizarre to the visitor from temperate climes that in such surroundings the cacao tree seems almost commonplace. It is in appearance as moderate and unpretentious as an apple tree, though somewhat taller, being, when full grown, about twenty feet high. It begins to bear in its fourth or fifth year. Smooth in its early youth, as it gets older it becomes covered with little bosses (cushions) from which many flowers spring. I saw one fellow, very tall and gnarled, and with many pods on it; turning to the planter I enquired “How old is that tree?” He replied, almost reverentially: “It’s a good deal older than I am; must be at least fifty years old.” “It’s one of the tallest cacao trees I’ve seen. I wonder—.” The planter perceived my thought, and said: “I’ll have it measured for you.” It was forty feet high. That was a tall one; usually they are not more than half that height. The bark is reddish-grey, and may be partly hidden by brown, grey and green patches of lichen. The bark is both beautiful and quaint, but in the main the tree owes its beauty to its luxuriance of prosperous leaves, and its quaintness to its pods.

The Flowers, Leaves and Fruit

Although cacao trees are not unlike the fruit trees of England, there are differences which, when first one sees them, cause expressions of surprise and pleasure to leap to the lips. One sees what one never saw before, the fruit springing from the main trunk, quite close to the ground. This is probably because the pod is so heavy that if it hung from the end of the branches it would fall off before it reached maturity. The cacao tree is in a continuous state of flowering and growing pods as, every day of the year, on the same cacao tree, you can find flowers, young podkins and mature pods side by side.  The flowers are so small that the first glance they are easily missed. The buds are the size of rice grains, and the flowers are less than half an inch across when the petals are fully out. The odorless, pink or yellow flowers are waxy. They can be pollinated by thrips and other insects. While self-pollination is the most common, cross fertilization occurs between the flowers on adjacent or interlocking trees. These graceful flowers are so small that you can walk through a plantation without seeing them, although an average tree will produce six thousand blossoms in a year.  Less than one percent of these will bear fruit. Usually it takes six months for the bud to develop into the mature fruit. The lovely mosses that grow on the stems and branches are sometimes so thick that they have to be removed, or the fragile cacao flower could not push its way through. Although the flowers are small, the leaves are large, being as an average about a foot in length and four inches in breadth. The cacao tree never appears naked, save on the rare occasions when it is stripped by the wind, and the leaves are green all the year round except when the young leaves are budding and red.

The Cacao Pod

The fruit, which hangs on a short thick stalk, may be anything in shape from a melon to a stumpy, irregular cucumber, according to the botanic variety. The intermediate shape is like a lemon, with furrows from end to end. There are pods, called Calabacillo, smooth and ovate like a calabash, and there are others, more rare, so “nobbly” that they are well-named “Alligator.” The pods vary in length from five to eleven inches, “with here and there the great pod of all, the blood-red sangre-tora.” The colors of the pods are as brilliant as they are various. They are rich and strong, and resemble those of the rind of the pomegranate. One pod shows many shades of dull crimson, another grades from gold to the yellow of leather, and yet another is all lack-lustre pea-green. They may be likened to Chinese lanterns hanging in the woods. One does not conclude from the appearance of the pod that the contents are edible, any more than one would surmise that tea-leaves could be used to produce a refreshing drink. I say as much to the planter, who smiles. With one deft cut with his machete or cutlass, which hangs in a leather scabbard by his side, the planter severs the pod from the tree, and with another slash cuts the thick, almost woody rind and breaks open the pod. There is disclosed a mass of some thirty or forty beans, covered with juicy pulp. The inside of the rind and the mass of beans are gleaming white, like melting snow. Sometimes the mass is pale amethyst in color. The beans emit pleasant odor resembling melon. When you pull out a snow-white bean, it is slippery. The outer white coating of the bean tastes sweet, something between grape and melon. Inside this fruity coating is the bean. From different pods you can take beans and cut them in two, and find that the color of the bean varies from purple almost to white.  After the seed has received special treatment (fermentation and drying) to obtain the bean of commerce, that it becomes brittle.

Botanical Description

Theobroma Cacao belongs to the family of the Sterculiaceae, and to the same order as the Limes and Mallows.  Botanists have described the Cocoa Tree (Theobroma Cacao) as a low tree with short-stalked, firm, brittle, simple leaves of large size, oval shape, and dark green color. The young leaves are of a bright red colour, and, as in many tropical trees, hang limply downwards. The flowers are borne on the main stem or the older branches, and arise from dormant axillary buds (Cauliflory). Each petal is bulged up at the base, narrows considerably above this, and ends in an expanded tip. The form of the reddish flowers is thus somewhat urn-shaped with five radiating points. The pentalocular ovary has numerous ovules in each loculus. As the fruit develops, the soft tissue of the septa extends between the single seeds; the ripe fruit is thus unilocular and many-seeded. The seed-coat is filled by the embryo, which has two large, folded, cotyledons. The two cotyledons, which form the seed, are not brittle when found in nature in the pod.  The pod juicy and fleshy.