Far North Queensland: Cocoa Country

Far North Queensland: Cocoa Country

Fifteen years ago the first steps were taken towards Australia’s first and only integrated cocoa industry. Today it’s emerging as one of Queensland’s most innovative agricultural assets, making way for an entirely homegrown chocolate market.

The Industry Realised

It needed options that weren’t at the whim of west africa’s volitile economic conditions

Amid the troubling backdrop of a chocolate deficit, growing it locally makes sense.

In a stroke of good luck, tropical North Queensland is among only a handful of locations around the world suited to growing cocoa. Add to that, the fact Aussie farmers have a long tradition of producing high quality milk and sugar, and cocoa becomes the missing link in bean-to-bar production.

However, one thing Australia doesn’t have is the cheap labour available in Africa’s Ivory Coast and Ghana, where more than 70 per cent of the world’s cocoa is produced.

Cue eight years of research into the viability of a local cocoa industry, including hybrid yield evaluation trials across the country, investigations into clonal introductions, harvesting systems analysis and economic modeling.

Spearheaded by Cadbury Australia, a consortium called the Northern Australia Cocoa Development Alliance brought together government and horticulturists from Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia, with a lot of money poured into feasibility studies. The results were unanimous: cocoa grows best in Far North Queensland in the region bordering the Daintree Rainforest.

Cadbury decided the economics of an Australian cocoa industry suited family farming done on a co-op model rather than as a corporate enterprise.

Nonetheless, the company’s research director at the time, Barry Kitchen, was among many who knew the Australian industry needed options that weren’t at the whim of West Africa’s volatile economic conditions.

“In Ghana there are about a million cocoa farmers who live day by day picking pods and turning them into beans. They don’t make a lot of money because they sell it as a commercial product to the government,” Barry says.

“Instead, if we could prove it would work, Cadbury was happy to leave it as a legacy for the right people to pick it up and take it forward.”

As it turned out, Barry – after retiring from Cadbury – along with a few enthusiastic investors and a team of growers were exactly the right people to have a go.

Today, young trees are being nursed and maturing trees farmed on several estates bordering the pristine Daintree Rainforest. Barry is now chair of Daintree Cocoa, which owns Daintree Estates – the world’s first chocolate made from Australian-grown cocoa. He says a co-operative model, where growers are included as shareholders, has worked remarkably well, with a post harvest processing hub now set up in Mossman and more growers coming on board every year.

The move has enabled farmers, many of who are third and fourth generation sugarcane farmers, to diversify into cocoa growing and get a foot in the door of a completely new agricultural industry.

With no experience-growing cocoa – a crop requiring regular harvesting and constant maintenance – the farming community needed some guidance. A decade on, however, Barry says there are a lot of excellent producers who know what they are doing. And, the proof is the pudding: pod yield per hectare is on the up and up.

One of the country’s largest growers, director of Daintree Cocoa Laurence Marmara, expects production to ramp up to turn out more than 20 tonne of cocoa per hectare once his trees have matured. With around 100ha of plantings planned, Laurence is currently farming his initial 15ha, all without destroying any of the natural forest.

“I started planting the second lot of trees about 18 months ago and I’ve got flowers on them now, so I expect to be in production next year some time,” he says.

Laurence comes from a Sicilian farming family that has been growing sugarcane in Queensland for almost 50 years. Jumping on board the cocoa bandwagon early, Laurence got his start importing seeds from Papua New Guinea and selling the seedlings. Now, he expects to be supplying Daintree Estates with pods next year. With the help of a local engineer, Laurence has also been instrumental in developing an automatic pod splitter – the first of its kind in the world.

“As an industry we’ve faced lots of hurdles, not just biologically but also politically. But now we’re finding our feet and there’s a lot of innovation underway. It’s all part of an entirely new farming method; one that works in the rainforest and values environmentally-friendly ways to manage pests and to improve production,” he says.

Today, there’s even the Queensland Cocoa Industry Development Association Inc (QCIDA), complete with members and a charter to nurture best practices and sustainability, and to guide interested parties through the entire process from purchasing the seeds through to manufacturing the end product. The group met for the first time in March, with Barry saying the industry has high hopes for its future.

“The industry as a whole will work closely with the Federal Government’s Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation to strengthen and grow this new industry,” says Barry, who is also the president of QCIDA.

“Getting government on board isn’t the only way to progress, but it’s a sensible way to start.”

Australian cocoa is never going to solve the world’s bean shortage. The amount of fermented dry beans currently produced by Daintree Estates doesn’t come close to meeting local market demands. But it does allow those working with it to set their products apart from those found in the supermarket isles.

‘Differentiation’ is a word that is used a lot in marketing, whether it’s relating to products, ingredients or processes. And, for Barry, the Australian industry has a real opportunity to produce cocoa beans and chocolates that are unique in flavour and able to be traced back to the source.

“That’s what’s great about the story of origin chocolate. When you’re able to get chocolates from very defined origins or even some locations, not only do the genetics and makeup of the trees impact the end product, but also the earth itself makes a mark. The French call it ‘terroir; the earth and the environment that influences the final flavour,” Barry says.

“If consumers know the growers, or are aware of where they are and the conditions they operate in, they have a greater connection with the product. At the moment, a standard block of chocolate primarily originates from ‘commodity cocoa beans’ sourced from West Africa, or South East Asia. Millions of small cocoa growers in these countries are involved in this production.

“When you talk about Daintree cocoa, however, you might have beans from two to three different growers in neighbouring plantations. We can even go one step deeper and use beans from one plantation.”

That’s exactly what Daintree Cocoa has done with its Goodman Estate dark chocolate product. By isolating the beans, Barry says the flavour becomes incredibly unique, something chocolatier Christophe Verstreken has embraced in his Gold Coast business Belgian Delights.As a third generation chocolate producer, born in Belgium and classically trained in a European chocolate and patisserie college, Christophe wasn’t the obvious candidate to trial locally grown cocoa. Nonetheless, the chance to follow the ingredient all the way from seedling to the consumer was too good to pass up.

“We’ve been making our own chocolate from scratch since the mid ‘90s and then, like today, you could really only get the product in from Africa or Central America. So as soon as Barry contacted us, we were very interested in another option,” he says.

“We visited the factory, built up a relationship with Daintree Estates and decided to show them what we could do. For our dark chocolate, we can now get our hands on the cocoa nibs – the pre-product to the cocoa liquor that we were having to use previously.”

Christophe didn’t expect the product to taste so different to that on the market, but he’s not complaining.

“There is a uniqueness to it that only comes with small batches. It makes the end product very interesting. It’s also good to work with and isn’t too thick for the machines, which is important if it’s to be picked up in restaurants, bakeries and chocolate shops,” he says

“Personally, I think this is where the product has real value, within the industry rather than targeted at consumers through mainstream retail. Who knows, we might even get to a point where we see Daintree chocolate referenced on a menu the same way we see Hunter Valley wine or Maleny cheese.”

The product’s uniqueness makes sense when you think about its genetic background. The farmers are working with hybrid plants from seeds brought in from breeding stations in PNG and the clonal ‘bank’ from the UK. While the parent crops have all, at some stage, originated from plants in either West Africa or Central America, they have each gone through a number of unique breeding cycles, and are now their own hybrids. How Australian cocoa plants develop is now up to the growers, investors and governing bodies working out of Far North Queensland, and how they work together.

“It will always be a niche industry. If we meet again in five years time, I’m sure I’ll be able to tell you all about how it’s selling in Europe, the United Sates and in some parts of Asia. We already supply our chocolate to Belgium and, more recently, to China,” Barry says.

“The industry is in its infancy now, but just wait until it gets up off its feet. As a nation we love both home grown products and interesting products with a story. What’s going on in the Daintree ticks all the boxes… it’s the full package.”

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