Cacao is a crop that has been included in the annals of Philippine history. The country was rediscovered by Ferdinand Magellan in 1521 but it wasn’t until in 1670 that the most sought-after cacao seeds were brought to Manila as a gift. Spanish mariner Pedro Bravo de Lagunas planted the seeds in San Jose, Batangas.
Climate conditions in the country turned out to be perfect for cacao cultivation. In fact, all three major types of cacao varieties are well suited: Criollo (prized for its rarity), Forestero (the backbone of cacao production globally), and Trinitario (a hybrid of Criollo and Forestero).
In the 1950s, commercial cacao farms were established and cacao beans production expanded into an industry in the following decade as processing facilities were put up by a group of Filipino investors. The industry began to take-off in the mid-1980s as more investments were poured on commercial farms and on grinding facilities.
However, the growth of the industry ceased when the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform took effect in 1988, which resulted in the breakdown and redistribution of the commercial farms into small farm units. In addition, the outbreak of the cacao pod borer pest was unchecked causing some plantations to be wiped out and abandoned.
Most of the cacao trees were grown mostly in Mindanao. The Department of Agriculture reported that the area planted to cacao in 1990 was about 18,388 hectares, with most of the crops growing in Davao, Zamboanga peninsula, North Mindanao, Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and Caraga.
By 2006, the area further declined to less than 10,000 hectares. During this period, production fell from 9,900 tons to about 5,400 tons, with two-thirds of the production coming from Davao region alone.
Staged a comeback
But like Phoenix that rises from the ashes, the cacao industry staged a comeback, thanks to a program funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) implemented by the Agricultural Cooperative Development International and Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance (ACDI/VOCA), an economic development organization that fosters broad-based economic growth, raises living standards, and creates vibrant communities.
Filipino farmers have started growing cacao in their farms once more. One of those who championed cacao production is Valente “Val” D. Turtur; in fact, he is called the “cacao king.”
Valente D. Turtur, the cacao king of Davao region. (Henrylito Tacio)
Turtur, the first chairperson of the National Cacao Council, never thought of becoming a cacao farmer himself. He was working with the government at that time with the agriculture office and was tapped to conduct training on cacao growing.
“Two things prompted me into cacao farming,” he said in an interview. “First, I was asked by one participant during a training which I conducted if I have my own cacao farm. Right there and then, I decided to go myself into cacao farming to avoid the embarrassment of being asked again.”
On the second reason, he said: “I found the potential of cacao not just for production but also for postharvest processing which I am currently doing – the chocolate making.”
It was a decision he never regretted. “I used to grow vegetables in our backyard as a trial but I found vegetables to be highly-perishable crops,” he said. “Thus, I shifted to cacao farming.”
Turtur believed in the saying that you cannot share with others what you don’t know. “Practice what you preach,” he explained. “Besides, I was one of the members of the pioneering cacao-based organization in Mindanao.”
He is referring to Cacao Industry Development Association of Mindanao (CIDAMI), a non-stock, non-profit organization whose members are cacao farmers, nursery operators, cooperatives, traders/exporters, processors, input providers, and members of the academe.
Turtur’s farms are located in Catalunan Grande and in Tamugan, Marilog, both in Davao City.
This is Turtur’s cacao farm in Catalunan Grande. (Henrylito Tacio)
“The first thing to consider when growing cacao is the environment such as soil type, temperature, rainfall and elevation,” he said. “Thus, it is important to have the soil analyzed first to be able to know nutrients richness and deficiencies, and be aware also if there are existing fruit trees in the area.”
Turtur commenced growing cacao in his farm in 2014. “I started earning income after three years from planting,” he said. “Cacao trees will start to bear fruits in 18 months from planting but it’s only after three years that I started earning.”
During the first cropping season, he harvested an average of 300 grams of dried beans per tree. Subsequently, he harvests an average of 500 grams of dried beans per tree per year.
“We used to suggest producing at least two kilos per tree but with the escalation of prices of inputs, it has to be three kilos of dried beans per tree per year to be profitable,” he said. “Cacao tree’s genetic expression is 3.5 kilos, hence three kilos is attainable.”
According to him, his cacao trees bear fruits every now and then and he harvests every two weeks throughout the year.
“Food of the gods”
Cacao (which literally means “food of the gods” and is known in the science world as Theobroma cacao) is highly prized because of its beans. Because of their intense bitter taste, they have to be fermented to develop the flavor. After fermentation, the beans are dried, cleaned, and roasted, and the shell is removed to produce cacao nibs. The nibs are then ground and liquefied, resulting in pure chocolate in fluid form: chocolate liquor. The liquor can be further processed into two components: cocoa solids and cocoa butter.
Only 50% of the cacao Turtur produces is sold while the remaining 50% is utilized in making tablea. (Henrylito Tacio)
Pure, unsweetened chocolate contains primarily cocoa solids and cocoa butter in varying proportions. Much of the chocolate consumed today is in the form of sweet chocolate, combining chocolate with sugar.
“The artisan chocolates being produced locally are already competitive with the internationally-known brands in terms of taste and quality and the packaging,” Turtur said.
The Davao region is recognized globally for the brand Malagos Chocolate, which won seven international awards in 2019. Auro Chocolates, another multi-awarded brand, is noted for its bean-to-bar process.
But the price is the clincher.
“The price of local chocolate products is a bit higher than the commercial chocolates found in the shelves of the supermarkets,” Turtur said. “While few are producing fine chocolates, there are still a lot of local chocolate processors who are doing the traditional way of making tablea and chocolates by using non-food grade materials.”
Talking about the international market for local chocolates, he said it’s a “highly complicated business.”
That is why he prefers to sell his dried cacao beans domestically, “primarily because of a promise to local chocolate processors that I will help supply beans,” he said. “Most local chocolate processors in the country were inspired to engage in the chocolate making business after we conducted training for them. They started the business with the assurance that we will help them in the supply chain. Thus, it is somehow a moral obligation on our part.
“Secondly, the buying price of the domestic market is comparatively competitive with the export market, plus less logistic cost such as export permits,” Turtur added.
Tablea and sikwate
He said he processes around 50% of his dried cacao beans for tablea (a ball or disc of ground-up cacao beans) and chocolate, while the remaining beans are sold to the chocolate makers in Luzon and Visayas.
To retain its aroma, the cacao beans must be properly fermented and dried. (Henrylito Tacio)
Some of the tablea are processed into hot chocolate drinks called sikwate, which he selld in his sikwate houses in Catalunan Grande and Tamugan. “It has been my dream to set up a house of chocolate (balay sikwate),” he admitted. “I grew up in a town where sikwate was part of a morning grind. Most folks drank sikwate regularly as they believed it gave them a healthy long life.”
Turtur opened his Balay Sikwate at the height of the pandemic. (Henrylito Tacio)
It came to pass that Davao was not spared from the pandemic that hit the country in 2020. “It was during the pandemic that I saw an opportunity to open my sikwate business along with native delicacies when all establishments were closed and where people look for some place to chill,” he recalled. “I realized that selling hot sikwate is more profitable than selling cacao beans or dark chocolate, and it is still doing fine now.”
Turtur is very optimistic about the future of cacao in the country, particularly in the Davao Region, which is considered the cacao capital of the Philippines. “Chocolate business, especially artisan chocolate, will flourish in the coming years because more and more people are becoming health conscious plus the fact that most locals have developed a mind set to buy local products.
In the past, Filipinos would always ask for chocolate pasalubong from balikbayan relatives. “Recently, it is the other way around,” he said. “Filipinos abroad will ask for local chocolates, especially from Davao, to be brought or sent to them.
“In fairness, artisan chocolate produced by our local processors are also globally competitive as far as quality is concerned,” he continued. “I just hope that more and more chocolate houses offering sikwate will open in the local market.
“As to the cacao beans, the price is on an upward trend,” Turtur reported.
Although Turtur encourages other farmers to go into cacao farming, he said that to become successful they need to start first with proper training. “Unlike coconut or banana – where farmers can just plant them in their farm and return only when it’s time to harvest – cacao farming is very different,” he explained.
“In cacao farming, I always tell farmers to frequently visit the farm and check the cacao trees,” he said. “The cacao trees will not produce good fruits or pods if they are not well-managed. The old saying, ‘Pag may itinanim, may aanihin, (If you plant, you will reap)’ does not apply well in cacao.
Harvesting of cacao is done every two weeks. (Henrylito Tacio)
“In cacao, the saying should go this way: ‘Pag may itinanim, may ipu-pruning, bago may aanihin (If you plant, you’ll have to prune before you reap).’ Pruning is done frequently. It may be laborious but it is a key to productivity,” he further said.
In the training he conducts, he always shares a Bible verse about the parable which highlights pruning. It is written in John 15:2, which stated: “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, for branches that have fruits, He prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.”
As for those farmers who are already into cacao farming, he suggests that they go into diversification. “That has been our advocacy to farmers – to diversify,” Turtur stressed. “The market is so fragile and demanding; we do not know what it wants now and in the future.
“The advent of global warming and climate change could alter the behavior of pests which can affect the plants and their productivity. Basically, we advocate for a coconut/banana-cacao intercropping considering that Mindanao is practically coconut- and banana-based farms.
“The coconuts and bananas serve as the partial shades for cacao which during long dry spells the production of cacao will not be hampered,” Turtur went on to say. “For open areas without any coconuts, we encourage farmers to plant bananas – be it cardaba or lakatan prior to planting cacao.
After training, Turtur usually gives planting materials to those who are interested. (Henrylito Tacio)
“Or, they can also plant vegetable crops like eggplant and okra during the early vegetative stage of cacao trees along with bananas. Once cacao trees are already productive, farmers can replace the vegetables with ginger, which can be planted in a sack under the cacao trees.”
As the cacao trees are already fully-grown in his farm, he raises free range chicken under the trees.
Like most agricultural crops, cacao is not free from pest infestation. He cited the cocoa pod borer as the most prevalent in the region. “This type of insect can affect cacao production by more than 50% if not properly addressed,” he warned. “The high cost of inputs such as pesticides prevent farmers from controlling the infestation of pests which affect farm productivity.”
Turtur asked the government to fully support cacao farmers if they want to produce high quality cacao beans. Right now, the urgent needs of cacao farmers are farm inputs (fertilizers and pesticides).
“Only [a] few cacao farmers can afford to buy (expensive) fertilizers and pesticides,” he stressed. “Those who cannot buy will just simply leave their cacao farms as it is, thus productivity is compromised.”
Non-availability of water during the dry season is another problem cacao farmers face. “Irrigation is necessary, especially during this time of global warming,” Turtur said. “Smallholder farmers cannot certainly afford to set up an irrigation system; it’s only the government that can do it.”
He believes it’s the time now for the government, through the National Irrigation Administration, to provide irrigation systems to other crops other than rice. Otherwise, he joked, the government should rename NIA to NRIA or National Rice Irrigation Administration.
When asked for his final statement, he said, “Farmers nowadays should start transforming farming as a business and not just as subsistence farming for there are other basic needs to be met. As a business, farmers must invest not just for human capital but also for financial capital.
In order to be successful in cacao farming, Turtur again reiterated the three basic elements: pruning, fertilization, and pest prevention. “These three basic elements will be in futility if the farmer does not apply and adapt it, and all these entail money. Thus, invest well and be an agripreneur.”
Quoting words from the Bible (II Corinthians 9:6), he reminded: “Remember this: whoever sow sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sow bountifully will also reap bountifully.”
Photos by Henrylito D. Tacio