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Sustainable cacao farming in Chantaburi province, Thailand

Cacao farming and sustainability.
When it comes to the push for sustainable production, the cacao plant can play an important role due to its ease to grow and environmental benefits. While in the beginning, soil may need to be elevated to protect the roots, once grown, the plants are easy to maintain being both drought and flood resistant. If farmed sustainably cacao is beneficial for the environment for several reasons. Because the pods cannot always survive the use of pesticides or chemicals, farmers are encouraged to use organic farming practices. This is especially the case if the goal is to grow what is considered ‘premium’ grade cacao. Premium grade cacaos are the ones used to make chocolate bars, anything less is used for other products like cocoa powder and are sold at a lower price. This gives a strong incentive for cacao farmers to use organic farming practices.

Adding to their environmental benefits, cacaos are a perennial crop, meaning unlike annual crops they do not need to be replanted after each harvest, growing back automatically. Without the need to be replanted, cacao can reduce amount top soil loss and ecological damage that is caused whether through water erosion or damaging slash and burn techniques seen with the planting of forest encroaching monoculture annual crops.
Case study: Suriya Farm Chanthaburi province, Thailand
Khun Suriya Chaisutti and his wife have been planting cacao in the Chanthaburi region for over 9 years now, being one of the first of a new generation of farmers to do so. 30 years ago Thai farmers also tried to get into cacao production however according to Khun Suriya, these efforts failed due to a lack of proper marketing and social media, which he partly attributes to Suriya Farm’s success. As of late Suriya says he is seeing a boom in cacao faming in the Chanthaburi with him estimating that there are now up to 500-1000 rai of cacao farming in the province.

Suriya Farm grows a mixture of durian and mangosteen along with their 300 cacao trees. Because the farm focuses on growing premium grade quality cacao, chemicals are not used to aid the growth. And while some are still used in their farming of durian and mangosteen, Suirya is actively trying shift away, reducing the amounts used overtime.

Cacao pod at Suriya Farm, © WWF Thailand 

On average it takes a cacao tree two years to bloom. However, in Suriya’s experience, at this two year mark the plants can only be harvested once every three months with an average yield ranging from one to four kilograms per tree. Now however, at nine years, Suriya has to harvest twice monthly or risk the pods rotting.  Each month Suriya can expect an average harvest of five kilograms per tree, but this can be as high as 20.

Suriya Farm rents an area behind a gas station where they set up a fermentation area with fermentation boxes and a green house dry the beans, which they then sell domestically and internationally. One of Suriya Farm key international partners is American based Parliament Chocolate who uses their fermented beans for their bars.

Fermentation boxes, ©​ WWF Thailand

Greenhouse where Suriya dries fermented cacao beans , © WWF Thailand

Fermented beans however are not the only source of income Suriya Farms achieve from the cacao trees. They also use the leaves to make disposable plates, and once dried out the cacao shells – which are dried along with the fermented beans - becomes hard and can be fashioned into bowls or cups. Both products can function as alternatives to environmentally harmful single use plastic and foam products, and promote better sustainable consumption practices, adding to the environmental benefits of cacao production.   

Disposable plates made from cacao tree leaf glued together with starch glue, © WWF Thailand

Suriya Farm acts as a middle man for other cacao farmers in their area, helping them get into the practice by providing them the with the cacao plants and teaching them the right methods, then buying their raw beans to ferment sell on. This network is achievable as cacao plants are relatively easy to grow. Farmers with existing experience will not find planting cacao difficult, as many of the skills are transferable.  Moreover, cacao can be grown in injunction with other plants; meaning farmers will not have to stop existing practices to focus on cacao, making them an excellent source of additional income. Suriya actually says cacao should only take up at most 60% of a farm, with remaining area being made up of other plants. Other than providing shade which cacao needs to grow, these other plants also play a big part in the flavour profile of the cacao.
Case study: Khun Phueng Chanthaburi
The second farm we visited was part of Suriya Farm’s network and belonged to Khun Phueng (ผึ้ง or Thai for bee) and her grandfather. Similar to Suriya, they also grow a mix of fruits along with cacao, what is different however is that the farm is organic. This decision to farm organically stemmed from Khun Phueng’s previous job as a safety engineer for Michelin. Organic farming is safer being not only better for the health of the farmers, but also better for rubber and cacao, both of which Khun Phueng grows on her large 1500 rai field down road.

Phueng next to a cacao pod, © WWF Thailand

Even though other crops Chanthaburi is known for, like durian, may lead to higher income, they also have additional costs. This is one of the reasons Phueng decided to start farming cacao. Another reason is because cacao are easier to maintain and harvest- needing less intensive labour – compared to many other crops, making them an ideal responsibility for the elderly like her grandfather.

Right next to Phueng grandfather’s farm is a large on-going dam project being built by the government on land partly sold and partly donated by Phueng’s grandfather. The dam will come in useful during times of drought, as it will create a reservoir for farmers in the region. However, already in the unfinished state the dam leads to flooding on the farm. Luckily, this only lasts a couple days so the flood resistant cacao can survive.

Government's dam project behind Phueng's farm, © WWF Thailand  

Phueng is currently working on developing a homestead and shops to sell produce on the land in order to increase the income from the sustainable cacao farming, however this will have to wait till the dam project is completed, as it is still uncertain how much land it will take up.
Potential causes for concern.
Even though the farms we covered are successful, there are many threats to sustainable cacao production that the farmers must overcome, including limited access to resources and an organised market place. Suriya admits due to the fluctuating demand and price of cacao, many are not able to rely on cacao farming as a sole source of income. Having to deal with these challenges alone can lead to significant issues and unsustainable practices.
This is where a network is beneficial. While in it’s current state cacao production may only be a form of additional income Suriya is able to help the farmers gain access to proper training, resources and a market place needed to maintain sustainable cacao farming.

Another issue that may hinder sustainable cacao farming is how many cacao famers around the world are living in communities struggling to meet Sustainable Development Goals. Without proper empowerment, the local community and economy will struggle to grow. Being part of a market place network provides the opportunity for community empowerment through the development of entrepreneurial spirit and skills amongst farmers. This is seen with Suriya Farm’s successful use of social media marketing to promote their premium grade cacao and with Phueng’s plan to expand beyond just farming into agrotourism with the homestead plan.

Evidently, Suriya Farm’s network does mitigate some of the major problems faced by cacao farmers, helping them earn additional income and have an improved livelihood. Unfortunately, even with the network in place, in its current state, cacao farming in the Chanthanburi province can still only act as an additional source of income. And this is true with cacao farming around the world beyond Thailand. Research suggests that on average less than 7 percent of the price of a chocolate bar goes to the producers. So while farmers like Suriya are taking steps towards the right direction, for sustainable cacao farming to become more successful, other SDGs must be met and a stable market place that does not take advantage of the farmers is needed.  
The FLR349 fund
FLR349 Fund is a fund that has been developed based on the King’s Philosophy of “Three Forests, Four Benefits” and the development of a value chain which could become a model for farmers living in watershed areas. The FLR349 Fund helps farmers turn their agricultural operation from forest-encroaching mono-agriculture with intensive use of chemicals into the “Three Forests, Four Benefits” agricultural system which helps to restore the environment by stopping the destruction of top soil. Farmers learn to grow perennial trees, fruit trees, vegetables and herbs in a mixed system that is sustainable, and which replenishes the soil. Such plantations function like carbon sinks and water reservoirs which make possible the production of diverse and safe foods for consumption. It helps to empower farmers and their community, helps to reduce their living expenses, and helps to keep them healthy. As a result, they can break free from the endless cycle of debt that has trapped many farmers in our current food system. This system is consistent with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Cacao’s need to be grown without chemicals and its ability to fit well into areas with other plants makes them an ideal plant for the FLR 349 Model.
chanthaburi dam project
Disposable plate made from cacao tree leaf, glued together with starch glue
fermentation greenhouse
Cacao Fermentation Boxes Chanthaburi
Suriya Farm Cacao2