If cacao trees only thrive 20 degrees north or south of the equator, why doesn’t Puerto Rico have any industry? Every year I wondered this as I made my way to west-coast Rincon where my parents winter. I’d check out the latest on cacao production there hoping to find a farm nearby. During a visit to the agricultural research center in Mayaguez a few years ago I learned that Puerto Rico has an interesting cacao story (see my blog post “At The Foot of a Cacao Tree“). In the 17th century a hurricane wiped out most of the cacao crop and it was abandoned for easier-to-grow sugar cane and coffee.
Thanks to the Puerto Rico Cacao Project, farms are cropping up again and Juan Echevarria is leading the way. He began to grow cacao on his family’s farm when he found some 17th century prized criollo trees on the land. I was thrilled to visit his Hacienda Jeanmarie a few weeks ago, walking among healthy cacao trees growing in the shade of other crops, seeing the different species and colors of pods and gaining knowledge from this passionate, articulate and intelligent man.
Juan explained how he harvests, ferments, dries and processes his beans in a traditional hand cultivated fashion. He is dedicated to teaching and assisting others with the goal of eventually building a working cooperative that connects small organic cocoa farmers in Puerto Rico to the fine chocolate industry through direct, transparent relationships.
Historically cacao farmers are impoverished because – put simply – the revenue they receive does not cover their cost of production. By removing middlemen, farmers increase their value and quality, creating a positive social impact to farming communities while delivering premium quality cocoa to chocolate makers. Juan is trying to drive this business model in Puerto Rico and to one day have his country recognized as producing some of the world’s best chocolate.
Taking advantage of Juan’s hospitality, I stayed and chatted long after the group on our little tour left. I sampled his 100% chocolate bar, a rich melody of rustic fruity chocolate flavor and left with enough to make a batch of truffles (a future blog post!).
I will go back to Juan’s farm again and look forward to witnessing the thoughtful growth of cacao production in Puerto Rico through his efforts. Another incredible experience, place and friendship made in my lifelong chocolate journey.