One of the things I most looked forward to during my training as a Peace Corps Volunteer was our cacao technical training- or, as I like to call it, Chocolate Week. Since generally even the most educated and experienced agriculture volunteers have little experience working with tropical Panamanian crops like cacao, we receive an additional week-long, in-depth training a few months after arriving to our sites.
Why the wait? Well, sometimes you just have to experience life and work in your site to know what types of questions you need to be asking.
Whereas the majority of Pre-Service Training is led by office staff, technical weeks during In-Service training are facilitated almost entirely by second year volunteers who have excelled in the main sub-project areas (Cacao, Coffee, and Rice and Fish Tanks). One of my closest friends, Zoe, is the National Cacao Coordinator and together we chose to host cacao week (heretofore referred to as "chocolate week") in my site due to the relative ease of transport and local technical support.
So what did we plan for our volunteer visitors during chocolate week? Nothing but five days of wonderful, chocolate bliss. Cacao volunteers have many projects working on both sides of the production chain ranging from farm planning to agroforestry techniques and finally (my favorite) chocolate processing and product marketing. Since the volunteers focused on the earlier parts of the chain during Pre-Service Training, most of our week was focused on the latter steps.
The first day we reviewed the most tedious agroforestry technique-grafting, and also taught the volunteers about pruning since the trees weren't quite ready to be cut back until now.
Grafting is a tricky technique that entails inserting a tiny part of a healthy tree into an older, lower producing tree. If and when the new graft sticks, you'll eventually cut away the old tree and leave the new one to grow and take advantage of the older, more developed root systems. This process can completely revitalize older farms, but is sadly hard to master.
Cacao flowers-The very beginning of chocolate!
To quote a Spanglish version of the 4-H motto, hay que (you've got to) "learn by doing." We took that to heart and threw the volunteers straight into the fire the second day by assigning them to plan and facilitate a Farmer's Field School for the producers in my site.
Lucky for them, Zoe had pre-planned most of an amazing work-day that taught farmers how to make GPS maps of their farms and take inventories of the hundreds (or thousands) of trees that they have. We had a very successful day and several other producers have already asked me to help with their farms next! I'm almost jealous of the baseline data my follow-up volunteer will be inheriting...
Following a long day on the farm, we all came back to my house for my favorite part of the week- the "Chocolate Bar!" We melted 100% cacao and dished bowls out to each volunteer who was then able to mix sweeteners (sugars, honey, and syrups), nuts, berries, and various other fillings and toppings to form their own chocolate bars (or lumpy balls, in our case).
To reward them for their hard work so far, we started the day off with a waterfall hike and homemade cinnamon rolls. While enjoying our treats, we talked about the upcoming year and made work plans for the cacao projects they wanted to accomplish in their sites.
After lunch, the volunteers helped out at one of my Baking and Business classes, where we made chocolate coconut cake and eagerly ate it while talking about the costs and potential profits of selling it.
Though my town has some pretty nice farms, we wanted to show the volunteers what an amazing farm looks like, so we made the "short" trip to Changuinola to tour a beautifully managed cacao farm. A 30 minute hike, 20 minute bus ride, 40 minute bus ride, and 10 minute truck ride later we arrived at the farm where we saw tree nurseries, exemplary grafting and pruning, and perfectly planned rows.
Since Peace Corps likes to work with host country governmental agencies, we also visited with our local branch of the ministry of agriculture to share our work plans for the coming year and talk about how we can work together to help local communities.
Finally we arrived on the last day of chocolate week and once again made the trip out of my site- this time to take the famous Rio Oeste Chocolate Tour and then to meet with COCABO, the local cacao cooperative that most of our producers sell to.
I was especially excited about the chocolate tour in Rio Oeste since it's both walking distance from my town (a long walk, but a walk nonetheless) and widely regarded as one of the biggest "must-do's" in the province of Bocas del Toro. Though we didn't learn anything new on the farm tour, it was neat to see how the information was presented to tourists, and I could definitely taste a delicious difference in their chocolates from the ones produced in my town. Since one of my community counterparts accompanied us on the tour, I'm excited to work with him in the future to determine which techniques and ideas we can implement for our producers as well.
A Ngäbe farmer and his cacao dryer
Hiking along the Rio Oeste Chocolate Tour
A Ngäbe woman demonstrating the traditional way of grinding chocolate by hand
Narciso, one of my most active community members, accompanied us on our tour
Everyone loves chocolate
The new volunteers - Whitney + Zoe and I after tech week
So now it's one for the books (and the blog)- Chocolate week 2015 was a delicious success.