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Views and opinions: Touring a cacao farm in Dominican Republic is eye-opening

Last week I toured Chocal-a Cacao, a women’s chocolate-making cooperative in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. I was on a six-day Carnival cruise when I decided to skip all of the fancy excursions and spend a day instead working on a cacao farm.

Knowing absolutely nothing about how chocolate is made ensured the entire day was educational; believe me, a lot goes into that delightful bite. Chocolate starts with a tree. The cacao tree takes three years from the time it is a seed until it produces its first fruit. The tree can then produce cacao pods for 60 years or more.

Each tree produces about 150 flowers, which may or may not make it to becoming cacao pods five months later. And that’s just the beginning of the journey that takes a somewhat bitter fruit and turns it into a form just about everyone loves.

I chose this tour because it offered me a chance to help someone. The excursion was much more than a “this is how we make chocolate” experience. I actually worked for the cooperative for about four hours. I helped plant 65 cacao seeds and was invited to return in three years to see “my” trees producing fruit. I also spent two hours bagging hot-chocolate mix.

The women who formed the organic production plant opened it as an agricultural tour experience. In exchange for a tour of how chocolate is made, the women get free labor for a few hours each time a cruise ship enters port. I think anyone who wants to think about their farm as a tourist destination would learn a lot from these women and how they have set up their company.

This was certainly not the most popular tour offered by the cruise line. There were only four of us who boarded the bus for the 45-minute drive up into the mountains. By comparison, an excursion to climb 27 waterfalls and jump off of each of them sold out and had hundreds of people climbing aboard the bus to that destination.

The van ride allowed our tour guide to give us an overview of what we would be seeing, as well as a look at the countryside that isn’t visible from the glittering ports. This did not appear to be an economically thriving area. Dogs and chickens ran the streets, laundry was spread on any surface available, and scooters and donkeys still provided many people with a mode of transportation.

And the drivers of the vehicles appeared to take their lives in their hands every time they got behind the wheel and drove the winding, narrow roads.

I was unsure if we would really get to “work” or if our work would actually help these women, but it appeared as if we actually were pitching in. Our first stop was the nursery where we met its manager. He did not speak English, but using our interpreter and sign language, we were able to understand that we would be planting cacao seeds.

Using organic soil, we packed the dirt into biodegradable black bags that were vented with holes to allow drainage. The cacao seeds were dredged through salt to keep ants from eating the seeds once they were planted. The four of us planted 65 seeds in 40 minutes and then toured the rest of the nursery.

The manager hacked open a cacao pod and we tasted the seeds, which are covered in a sweet, milky type of gelatin. The seed itself is bitter. There are a lot of steps from taking this seed to chocolate, and due to the language barrier I did not catch the entire process. But it is a long one and, for the most part, everything is done by hand with little automation.

Our next step was the production facility. When we got there we were informed the electricity was out and the generator was dead. The facility loses electricity daily due to a government rotation of who gets power when. That is why the firm has a huge generator – but on this day it was a lost cause.

This might have stopped many a businessperson, but not this group. They had to fill an order for 75,000 4-ounce bags of cocoa mix by 10 a.m. the following day. Because this group took out a government loan, part of their repayment process says once a year the farm has to produce enough cocoa powder to feed the poorest people in the country.

Cocoa and milk is the traditional breakfast in this area of the Dominican Republic, so the cocoa powder was important. The 75,000 order was half of the total they needed to produce to meet this obligation.

About 25 people had been brought in just to help fill this order, and everyone was sitting around tables outside filling bags with the cocoa powder. My tour group was given stainless steel flatware tablespoons, a handful of empty bags, and a large bowl of cocoa powder mix. We spooned the mix into the bags, put the bags on a tray, and when the trays were full they were carried away to be weighed and sealed.

Some of our bags had to be redone, as there was a language issue in terms of exactly how much power we needed to put in each bag, but once we got the hang of it things rocked along.

You might think this sounds boring, but my group and I had a great time, as we were able to talk as we worked. Everyone around us was doing the same thing and while I couldn’t understand the conversations happening, the sounds were those of merriment. No one appeared freaked out that there were four men standing around a dead generator or that they had this huge order to get out.

At lunch we were invited to participate in a dish of beans and rice with a chunk of pork in the center. It was delicious. My group of four bagged about 300 bags of powder in two hours (with a half-hour lunch break). We would have kept working, but we couldn’t miss our window to get back to the cruise ship before it left port.

It was an amazing experience and I would do it again. It certainly makes me wonder if more farmers here could find ways to get tourists onto their farms for more of a “hands-on” experience.