Malagos, Baguio District, Davao City, Philippines
This is the final week of our newsletter series “HCP in Action: Working Through the Pandemic with our Designees”, over the past couple of months, we have heard from a number of HCP Designee sites on how the Covid-19 Pandemic has affected their fine flavor Heirloom cacao farming operations around the world. It has been inspiring to hear the stories of perseverance, overcoming challenges, and new inspirations that have resulted from these trying times.
By purchasing incredible, unique, flavorful chocolate, you can support these farmers and farmer networks. You can find a list of retailers of Heirloom designated chocolate on the HCP website, Buy Heirloom Chocolate page, and support the HCP in continuing to discover new unique, complex, flavorful chocolate to experience, by donating today!
This week we are hearing from Rex Puentespina, Farmer and Chocolate Maker, Malagos Chocolate – owner of Puentespina Farms, HCP Designee #16 .
The Puentespina’s venture into cacao growing started in 2003 when founders, Roberto and Charita Puentespina, leased a cacao farm in Malagos, Baguio District, Davao City. A farmer at heart, Charita Puentespina rehabilitated the trees and soon after harvested the cacao pods. She now operates a 24-hectare cacao farm in Malagos and employs in-house farmers (These are farmers whose passion is farming but unfortunately do not have their own lands to till). She also partnered with around 100 neighbor farmers in the area to help promote sustainability in the community.
The Puentespina’s also built a training facility on the farm to teach farmers good cacao growing practices. They provide farm inputs & run an Extension Service to those who need further assistance.
Rex took some time to reflect on how the pandemic is affecting Puentespina farms, its training programs and the Philippines as a whole.
Rex with his mother Charita at the Puentespina Farm in Davao City, Philippines.
Q: How has the Pandemic affected your farm operations and programs?
A: Business has slowed down, but despite the ongoing pandemic the farm still continues to operate. In the coming months, we plan to develop new products for the mass market in order to respond to the decreased interest in luxury food. This will help us avoid difficult choices such as reducing our labor force.
Q: How has the Pandemic impacted the livelihood and Economy in your area?
A: With or without the pandemic, our daily operation continues on our farms albeit following strict social distancing guidelines. We actually started harvesting cacao last month.
Currently, it is the beginning of the low-peak season and we expect it to last another 2 months. The next harvest will be in November up until January 2021, which we call the high-peak season, meaning there is more harvest than what we are able to achieve now. Regardless of the difficulties we are all experiencing, we continue to strive to make our farm productive and continue to implement Good Agricultural Practice (GAP).
Across our different revenue generators at Malagos, farm tourism is definitely the hardest hit. Before the pandemic, our Tree-to-Bar tours were able to give guests first-hand experience of our processes. Tourism accounted for a substantial portion of our business. With that said, it will take a while for this to get back to normal since there are currently no domestic flights.
Q: What new challenges has the pandemic caused your operations?
A: The biggest challenge for us is logistics. At the height of ECQ (Enhance Community Quarantine), we couldn’t move our products from our base in Davao to our different domestic and international partners because there were simply not enough flights that could accommodate our deliveries.
Q: What is the current status of your operation today?
A: The farm is still operating and our chocolate factory will be 50% operational. The usual pod rot and pod borer infestation remains a challenge.
Q: Are you developing new opportunities to adapt to these new challenges?
A: E-commerce is a great way to remedy the reduced amount of sales from our traditional brick-and-mortar retail partners. Before the pandemic, the Malagos team had already capitalized on building a strong website and online store. We plan to boost this further and expand our reach. We also plan to develop products for the mass market to help mitigate what could be the effects of decreased global demand. Some may have apprehensions with this new addition to our product line, but even with mass-market items people can still expect Malagos Chocolate to produce high-quality chocolates that remain faithful to our standards.
I believe that our brand equity and the reputation of Malagos Chocolate that we’ve built through the years, from our markets overseas to the farmers in our locale, will see us through in these difficult times. People can expect us to still deliver high-quality products and to always adhere to fair practices while producing one of the best chocolates in the world, even in times of crisis.
How can you help support Heirloom Designees around the world during these uncertain times? Click the following link to our Buy Heirloom Chocolate page on our website, where you can find a list of retailers selling chocolate made from Heirloom designated cacao beans. With your purchase, you will enjoy extraordinary chocolate and support our Heirloom farmers.
In this week’s HCP Designee Snapshot, we are hearing from Erick Ac, Chief Operating Officer/Cacao Program Manager at BFREE, HCP Designee #11. The BFREE research/demonstration farm is located on a 1,153 acre private reserve that borders over 1,500,000 acres of protected tropical rainforest within the Maya Mountains of southern Belize, an area described as one of the least disturbed and largest continuous expanses of tropical rainforest north of the Amazon.
Erick Ac, Chief Operating Officer/Cacao Program Manager at BFREE
Jacob Marlin, BFREE’s founder and Executive Director, discovered a remnant population of wild cacao trees growing on the reserve over 20 years ago. In 2016, genetic testing done by the USDA/HCP determined that this variety is 100% pure Criollo parentage, grown and revered by ancient Mayan civilizations, and one of the few pure wild cacaos known to exist on the planet. As a result of this discovery, BFREE began a project to preserve and propagate this rare and wild ancient heirloom fine flavor cacao while investigating its economic, social, and environmental benefits.
Propagated from these wild trees, BFREE has over 15 acres of HCP #11 cacao growing in an agroforestry environment, where wildlife like Jaguars, Tapirs, Howler monkeys, Harpy eagles, and Scarlet macaws are ever- present. Since this designation, BFREE has become an active partner with HCP. As part of HCP’s work, we have been providing small grants to BFREE over the past two years to assist with nursery and farm development to propagate this rare and flavorful heirloom fine flavor cacao.
Erick has taken the time to answer some questions in regard to how the pandemic is affecting BFREE operations and its programs, as well as the country of Belize as a whole.
Heirloom Cacao Nursery at BFREE
In Belize, the government implemented actions starting in mid-March, when the first positive COVID-19 case appeared. After an initial outbreak, a total of 30 positive cases have been confirmed. Of those, there were two deaths. Starting in early March, the Belize Government took prevention actions in the form of laws including 6 feet social distancing, mandatory use of masks, an 8pm curfew, public transit restrictions, total closure of borders as well as the international airport, and closure of all non-essential businesses. Heavy fines and imprisonment have been levied on persons breaking the mandatory regulations. The strong measures taken by the Belize Government early on in the pandemic have virtually eliminated any further spreading, and Belize ranks as one of the best models for mitigation of COVID-19 in the world, and for months has been the only country in the Americas COVID-19 free.
Q: How has the Pandemic impacted your operations?
A: Operations at BFREE have been especially affected by:
Q: How has the Pandemic impacted the livelihood & economy in your area?
A: Many producers in the area have stopped attending their workplaces due to restrictions. Furthermore, there are many people who work in the tourism sector and currently this sector is completely stopped, without any activity due to the closing of borders, the international airport, and restrictions of crowding of people. Perhaps this is the activity most affected and with the greatest impact on the national economy and many local people.
Over 75% of all jobs in Belize are related to the tourism industry. Many of these companies may be going bankrupt and there is a high risk that many people will become unemployed permanently. Currently, close to half of the entire working population is now unemployed.
Q: What is the current status of operation in your country/region?
A: Currently we are partially operating, the field work in the nursery and farm continues, however, with many limitations to efficiently implement all the management protocols: lack of supplies, availability of equipment and materials, limitations on the mobilization of staff members to get to BFREE and go home. Visitation, research and field education linked to the cocoa program are completely closed, and the opening does not have a definite date and will possibly take the rest of the year.
BFREE Nursery Program
In 2018 and 2019, BFREE was awarded two HCP grants funded by the Lesley Family Foundation to support the preservation of their heirloom designated cacao.
The main objectives of the project is to conserve the genetics of criollo cacao and generate knowledge about its ecology and potential of production. The projects support the generation of data for mechanistic process-based crop simulation models for an ancient wild criollo cacao, which are useful tools for maximizing the efficiency of crop management ultimately improving profits to growers.
To learn more about the HCP designation process and BFREE program, watch our documentary on the HCP YouTube channel here:
Q: How has the Pandemic impacted your program rollout?
A: The program is operating, however, some actions included in the new grant with HCP and LFF, will be postponed due to the lack of purchase options for the necessary equipment, which could take until the restrictions are concluded and the companies start operations and shipping is more normalized. This situation delays the measurement activities in the field and laboratory, and it will be necessary to wait for another harvest period to continue with the tests and validations. Only progress can be made in developing protocols for testing and preparing the necessary infrastructure in the processing center.
Q: What new challenges has the pandemic caused in your operations?
A: Coordination of field activities are a challenge in the current farm, nursery and the implementation of new plantation areas, in addition to research in wild cocoa, because Erick Ac (Cacao Project Manager) is in Guatemala and the team at BFREE in Belize, which limits personalized training, follow-up of activities, monitoring and decision-making to implement the activities of the operational plan. The investigation of wild cacao is partially halted because the coordinator is not currently present in Belize and the coordination is remote, by chat or video calls, and through social networks.
Q: Are you developing new opportunities to adapt to these new challenges?
A: We are implementing strategies to adapt to the new conditions. Fortunately, the team went through a period of training and induction, prior to the arrival of the pandemic. These local capacities developed in the first phase of the project have allowed the program to continue operating to a certain extent.
We are looking for a communication strategy that will allow us to continue operating in the field and share the work being done and the results obtained.
With your purchase, you will enjoy extraordinary chocolate and support our Heirloom farmers.