1) What has been the defining moment of 2018 for you in chocolate?
SB: 2018 marks the 20th year of my involvement in the cacao industry, or Theo-space (as I prefer to call it). 20 years ago, I was introduced to the rabbit hole that is cacao research and all of its associated adventures. Unlike many folks in this industry, I came to Theo not because of a childhood passion for chocolate or even an adulthood craving for it. Far from. Chocolate was, and still is, actually not the driving force for me at all. I came to the Theo-space because I needed a job, and I needed to work with plants at a deeper level. What I thought would have been 1 year of 'growing up in a research environment' turned in to 12 years of research, at my home university, across practically every aspect (pathology, agronomy, processing, product development) that aims to understand cacao, its inner workings, and its utilisation. Since leaving the confines of academia in 2011, I have found myself exploring deeper connections with the land, its plants, and its cacao stewards (Theo-stewards as I like to call them). I do so via knowledge sharing in the extension and training services that I provide to farmers both at home and more recently, within the Caribbean region. The defining moment of 2018 for me in cacao/chocolate? I'd have to say it lies in learning to appreciate the incredibly informative tool that chocolate is in opening the portal of understanding about cacao for both producers and consumers alike. I am deeply motivated by the genuine energy exchange that continues to take place when producers and consumers see and appreciate at a deeper level, just how much the final chocolate (or other value-added) product is greatly influenced by every action of the Theo-stewards, from soil-to-tree-to-saleable seed. My almost-daily work alongside our producers involves walking the fields and just listening to these stewards tell their stories about their trees, noting the subtleties of the soils on which they stand, paying attention to every companion plant in the Theo-space, observing every pod, tasting different bean varieties as we go along, monitoring fermentations with a level of attention and precision that was previously unknown to these stewards, discussing solutions to ongoing drying challenges and then tasting with them the chocolate that comes from the fruits of their very own labour. These all comprise my defining moment. In this way, I find myself sharing with the farmers the necessary toolkits that will allow them to truly embrace and own the processes in which their homegrown cacao then becomes a source of pride and better earnings that they had never before envisioned.
WT: What milestones are you grateful for this year?
SB: Two main events stand out for me this year:
1. Being able to ship for the second year, cocoa bean microlots for the Trinidad Microlot Project that Meridian Cacao Company (Portland, OR) initiated in 2016. This year's harvest was an insanely difficult one for everyone because of the terrible rains that plagued the early part of the harvest and, via disease spread, destroyed at least 60% of our yields in most cacao estates cross-country. Our microlot farmers battled against many odds for most of the season - especially major drying crises. But, we fought hard, and we fought together. And we did our best to get some beautiful lots coming from very diverse farms with incredibly diverse flavour profiles. Quite striking for such a tiny island! If nothing else, this year's harvest taught us a great deal about resilience, improvisation and teamwork. And for that I am eternally grateful.
2. 2018 also saw me start more knowledge-sharing initiatives across neighboring islands in my Caribbean region. I'd only ever dreamt of being able to work and share alongside farmers in our island chain. And this year saw not just one member country grant me the opportunity to exchange much-needed knowledge with its farmers and other industry partners, but three! These 3 countries (Jamaica, Guadeloupe, St. Vincent) represented very different circumstances, expertise and resources at the ground level. As a direct result of this, each one and its people taught me many new and fabulous things about the Theo-space, and the deep importance of understanding contextual challenges and solutions. Guadeloupe ramped the challenge up several notches by pushing me out of my anglophone comfort zones and gave me the chance to successfully execute my 2nd full in-French-only 2- week cocoa training programme there. As a young cacao researcher all those years ago, I was not even sure I would ever have the skill to read an entire cocoa article in French, much less teach the intricacies of cacao to native French speakers one day! I was deeply humbled, honored and empowered to just get on with the knowledge exchanges. Delightfully, my trainees brought a wealth of enthusiasm, complementary knowledge, experiences and general bien-être that made our training together totally memorable, and eternally shareable, experiences.
2) What's on the horizon for 2019, and what are you most looking forward to within your work and the industry as a whole?
SB: In 2019 I am hoping that the industry as a whole begins to truly wake up to (and act on!) the fact that cacao urgently needs to be de-commoditized if we are to truly be fair to the farming populations across the globe. There will be no sustainable advances in this industry if we do not pay due respects to the sources and caretakers of cacao. On a personal note, despite current (seemingly) zero clarity on actual projects to come, I remain deeply excited and encouraged, so I know that much adventure and learning await me in 2019. I want to continue encouraging among our producers, a greater willingness to re-integrate cacao into more diverse agri-spaces, so that we can truly encourage farming systems that are not only sustainable at an ecosystems-services level, but regenerative at both human and environmental levels. My core mission of course, remains the same: share, teach, learn, grow. It applies to me and to every farmer with whom I will work side-by-side, no matter where I find myself standing. I am also greatly looking forward to building my own expertise this year through some focused training programs that will allow me to return to a bit of deeper 'student life'. Adding new (or modified!) tools to my own toolbox will help me better serve the cacao communities that want to improve upon their own journeys with Theo and its much-needed companions in the agricultural space.