Earlier this month, Mars snapped up the 485-hectare cocoa farm in Guayaquil, Ecuador, adding to existing research farms in Brazil and Indonesia.
Efficiency now the dominate theme?
Doug Hawkins, head of the agricultural practice at Hardman, told ConfectioneryNews: “The Mars acquisition of La Chola – at the very least – repositions agricultural efficiency as a dominant theme in the sustainability debate, which to date has been dominated by concerns about farmer welfare and not land use efficiency.”
He noted the deal was being hailed in Ecuador as “a landmark/turning point in the history of cacao in Ecuador, for the area of Cerecita and - I hope - for Ecuador's crown jewel: CCN-51".
What kind of cocoa is cultivated at La Chola?
La Chola primarily cultivates high-yielding cocoa variety Coleccion Castro Naranjal (CCN-51).
Hacienda La Chola was not impacted by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake that hit Ecuador on April 18. Mars expressed its sympathies for the families of those impacted, including some of its own team members who experienced loss.
“While there are some fine flavor varieties being farmed, there are also combinations of varieties that are not ‘fine flavor’,” Jessica Graves, director of corporate affairs at Mars Global Chocolate told this site.
The farm does cultivate some fine flavor Nacional cocoa sown with varieties of the Tropical Experimental Station (EET-96, EET -103).
It also has varieties of generation 500 (EET-544, EET-508).
High yields: 2 MT per ha
Graves called La Chola “one of the world’s leading farms for cocoa yield”.
According to Mars, La Chola annual yields are as high as 2.5 metric tons (MT) per hectare.
Hawkins said the average annual cocoa yield per hectare globally stood at around 0.4 MT.
He said there was “a way yet to go” before yields even at commercial plantations exceed 2 MT, but said some peak production at well-run Ecuadorian estates was around 2-2.5 MT per hectare – at a whole estate level. Hawkins noted that it is important to distinguish what may be achievable in trial plots and whole productive estates.
Industry experts predict CCN-51 has the potential to reach 3 MT per hectare.
Research investment, says Mars
“This acquisition is an investment in research,” said Mars’ Graves.
She said La Chola would allow Mars to bring its research to scale, helping it transfer knowledge to smallholder cocoa farmers to ensure "cocoa is a crop of choice for generations of farmers”.
Mars will continue to invest in West African cocoa through its Vision for Change program, she added.
A recent report by Hardman Agribusiness said future cocoa demand would be met mainly by a professional sector in Latin America as the industry shifts away from the “structurally blighted” West African cocoa sector.
Hardman questions Africa’s sustainability credentials
Hawkins said: “It would be interesting to know just how much money has been invested (by all the leading names) on a country by country basis in West Africa on sustainable cocoa production. Because the productivity per hectare indicators for the key producer countries do not indicate that much progress has been made.”
For example, he said number two producer Ghana produced 1m MT in 2010/11, but has reported declines every year since, and forecasts for 2015/16 are now trending down towards 700,000 MT.
“Ghana is important because it has been as much as 20% of the world crop. The serial disappointments in Ghana suggest that African smallholder production may not be sustainable in the narrow meaning of the S word, for a variety of reasons beyond purely agricultural ones,” said Hawkins.
‘Cards close to its chest’
He said it was open to debate whether Mars’ La Chola buy was undertaken principally to support the myriad smallholder farmers currently supplying 95% of the world crop or if it was undertaken to provide Mars with a model for supporting the development of the professional plantation sector.
“Whatever the reason, Mars will keep its cards close to its chest,” he said.
For more, see HERE for Hardman Agribusiness’ article on the Mars acquisition.