Harvesting cocoa beans is a time consuming and largely highly intensive manual labour activity where a large machete like knife plays a starring role. So, let’s cut to the chase!
In this blog post I’ve looked at how cocoa beans are harvested at the cocoa growing farms, how the farmer knows when to pick the cocoa pod and how the cocoa beans are extracted to be processed further.
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How long does it take to harvest cocoa pods on the cocoa farms?
It can take several weeks to harvest cocoa pods, depending on the size of the plantation and the number of workers available. As I mentioned before most of the cocoa pods harvesting is done manually and not all cocoa pods can be harvested at the same time.
Once the pods are ready to harvest, they are cut from the cocoa tree using a machete, and then the beans are extracted from the pods and left to ferment for several days before being dried and processed. The entire cocoa harvesting process can take several weeks to complete.
First step in harvesting the cocoa – cutting down the cocoa pods by hand
The pods containing cocoa beans grow right from the trunk of the cocoa tree. This means harvesting requires cutting down the ripe pods from the trees and opening them up to remove the wet, sticky, pulp like, white beans.
The harvesting of cocoa pods is done manually, by hand to prevent any damage to the cocoa trees and because it would be difficult to get any kind of machinery driving in between the cocoa trees.
What tool is used to harvest cocoa?
The most common tool used to harvest cocoa pods is a machete or a pruning hook too or other long sharp and large knife that allows farmers to cut pods and gives them control over the cut (so that the cocoa tree trunk is not damaged).
The pods are harvested manually by making a clean cut through the stalk with a well sharpened blade.
For pods high on the tree, a pruning hook type of tool can be used, with a handle on the end of a long pole. By pushing or pulling according to the position of the fruit, the upper and lower blades of the tool enable the stalk to be cut cleanly without damaging the branch that bears it.
Since there are only around thirty to forty beans in a pod, it’s all done by hand. This is because it would probably take longer to transport all the pods to an automated pod cracking machine. Also, because most cocoa beans are harvested in small plantations and farmers simply don’t have the resources for larger mechanised processes.
How do the farmers know when the cocoa beans are ready to be harvested?
The long-awaited harvest time is when plantation farmers get to find out if this season’s crop will yield good quality beans. If the pods are too ripe they are vulnerable to disease, or else the beans might start to germinate. However, if the pods are too green the cocoa beans may be of very poor quality because they are not aromatic enough.
Around harvested time, the sight of cocoa pods ripening is a truly colourful sight. Pods vary in colour from red to purple. However, the colour of the pod is only a general guide to gauging whether it’s ready to pick. Tapping the pod is a better way of testing if the pod is ripe or not.
Plantation farmers are looking to hear a deep, hollow sound when they tap the pod. This is a sign that the cocoa beans are lying loose within the pod and are no longer packed tight and in an unripened state.
The cocoa farmers need to check each pod on each cocoa tree as the cocoa pods can mature at different times.
Should cacao pods be harvested at approximately 75% ripeness?
Yes, cacao pods should be harvested at approximately 75% ripeness to avoid the loss of mucilage which is the source of sugar needed during fermentation.
Mucilage is a thick, gluey substance that is produced by nearly all plants and some microorganisms. It is a polar glycoprotein and an exopolysaccharide. It is commonly found in various plants such as legumes or seaweeds, and is similar to plant gums.
At what time during the year are chocolate beans harvested?
There are two main harvests a year which coincide with the rainy seasons; the largest, around November and then a second harvest in spring in April each year.
Cocoa trees do not start bearing beans until they are around three years old and with their most fertile period being between ten to twelve years of age.
How many pods does a cocoa tree produce in a year?
This very much depends on the climate and the cocoa tree maturity, but on average cocoa tree can produce 20 -30 cocoa pods.
Making sure that the cocoa tree is ready for the next crop of cocoa pods
Cocoa trees are very fragile and shelter under the canopy of larger trees for protection, as they can be easily damaged by the wind or burned by the sun. Not only that but when harvesting cocoa, the farmer must be careful not to damage the “eyes” on the tree from which the cocoa pods grow.
That’s because it’s from these eyes that future cocoa flowers emerge, and afterwards, new cocoa pods. If the eye is damaged through the action of wind or careless harvesting, it becomes infertile, and no future cocoa pods will emerge from that site.
Cocoa plants grow best in hot and humid conditions, either side of the Equator. That means a lot of sun and large amounts of rainfall as well. The Ivory Coast in West Africa is now the largest single biggest producer of chocolate but other areas where cocoa plants grow are across Central and South America and in Indonesia.
Everything from geography, to the plantation soil type, to the climatic conditions of the harvest have a big bearing on the beans and ultimately on the chocolate’s flavour.
Cocoa pods opening & extracting the cocoa beans
The cocoa pods are opened to remove the cocoa beans within a week to 10 days after harvesting. Much longer and the beans will start to germinate. Usually, the harvested pods are grouped together and divided either in or at the edge of the plantation.
This part of cocoa pods harvesting is again done by hand as each farmer picker needs to carefully open the cocoa pod with a long sharp knife, making sure that the cocoa beans are as little damaged as possible.
Sometimes the pods are transported to a fermentary before splitting. If the pods are opened in the planting areas, the discarded husks may be distributed throughout the fields to return nutrients to the soil, as a form of compost.
Further cocoa beans processing & fermenting
Once harvested, the beans undergo a two-stage process to prepare them for sale: fermentation and drying. How this actually happens is a subject for another blog! After this, they are put into bags for delivery and export.
So, that’s how cocoa beans are harvested. And what starts out life as a bitter, white cocoa bean eventually ends up tasting like it’s Greek name ‘Theobroma Cacao’ the nectar of the gods.
This blog post was originally written on 24 September 2017 and last updated on 10 April 2023