From Big Family Business To Cacao Farmer & Beyond

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It is the 1950s; your nation is impoverished and in the throes of recovery after WWII; nonetheless, there is the promise of land in the south.

After a three-year occupation by the Japanese, which was finally ended when they were expelled, the Philippines were left in a terrible situation. Agriculture was an option for escape from poverty for a significant number of Filipinos, and even now, the Philippine economy is highly dependent on the sector. On the other hand, some individuals wanted to live a life of farming, while others had no choice but to do so. When you’re one of multiple siblings but the only one who has your father’s name, sometimes that’s simply the way things are going to work out.

Ernesto Pantua Jr. spent the most of his childhood on the family farm. After completing his education in Luzon and seeing that there were not many opportunities for him, his father went to Minadano with his wife. They raised their children there, and many of them are still there now. Despite this, he did not pursue a career in farming by moving to the most fertile part of the Philippines. He was successful in business. The farm was one of his many investments, and even if some other aspects of his life were unsuccessful, he was able to fall back on it.

Now, after sixty years have passed, that plantation has developed into a significant supply of high-quality chocolate from the Philippines. You’ve probably already tasted their cocoa if you’ve indulged in a bar of artisanal chocolate that was crafted with cacao sourced from South Cotabato, Philippines. Ernesto Pantua Jr., who also oversees the production of various other lines of jams, juices, and goods based on coconut and cacao for Kablon Family Farms, is now the proud manufacturer of a number of different lines of these items.

I got the opportunity to stroll around the estate with Ernesto himself, also known as Tito Jun, who was there to narrate the narrative before I sat down to learn more about Kablon Family Farms. Prior to that, I had the chance to discover more about Kablon Family Farms. The property was purchased by his family in the 1960s, and they began cultivating it little by bit until the farm became the primary source of revenue for the household. The topography of adjacent Dole was also being developed at the same time as that of Kablon, but the end result of these two projects was substantially different.

“We have described this farm as an island in the middle of a sea of pineapple.”

Ernest Pantua Jr., Kablon Family Farms

South Cotabato may have seemed like a good investment opportunity to Dole despite the region’s lack of paved roads and farmland. However, things turned out well for the Pantuas as well since by the time the younger Ernesto finished from agricultural college, he was placed in command of an ever-expanding farm. This worked out very well for the family. It was expanding, and a significant part of that expansion was down to Ernesto and his elder sister making some astute decisions. They used to gather the pineapple peelings that were discarded by their neighbors and give them to the cows, but then Dole came along and made them stop because they recognized how much potential was being wasted.

The 1980s were a pivotal decade for the Pantua family since it was at this time that they made the decision to transition from conventional farming to organic agriculture in order to better compete with the nationwide decline in pricing for industrial crops. At the same time, there was a drop in demand for cacao and coconut oil since the United States was running an anti-saturated fats campaign and neighboring Asian nations were aggressively increasing their cacao output. Consequently, Ernesto and his sister established the first roadside fruit kiosk in the community.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that supermarkets in the Philippines got air conditioning, which enabled them to start selling fresh produce to a larger customer base and therefore expanded their reach even further. Over the following thirty years, a sequence of decisions that were both fortuitous and inspired led Kablon to extend its product line to include juices and jams that did not include any added preservatives and were often sweetened with coconut sugar. Ernesto was able to smuggle in their peppercorns and tablea when he and his partners were selling fresh fruit to the store. This allowed them to outsmart the competition by providing a higher quality product at cheaper pricing.

The cacao that was used to manufacture that tablea was one of the first crops that Ernesto’s father planted on the farm in the sixties. Tablea is a drink base that is made from ground cacao beans. Because it was a typical dish in Lagunas, the province in where he was brought up, he yearned to cultivate it on the property he owned in South Cotabato. After he had established his family in their new home, he carried on that custom by continuing to process cacao in the conventional manner of the area, which did not include fermenting the product. Do you have any idea when they started the fermentation process on their cacao?

It’s the 1980s, as you probably figured.

When viewed in the present, the farm’s breadth of offerings and level of commitment are almost too much to take in. At the main house, there is a large number of staff members laboriously cracking open roasted coconuts so that they can be used to make jams and pressed into oil. Tito Jun — after the long day we spent together, it feels wrong to call him anything else — is right there teaching me about the various types of coconuts and what you can do with them. He also showed me how to make coconut milk. Coconuts continue to be an extremely important crop in the Philippines, and the government there is even attempting to persuade coconut farmers to plant cacao trees on their property so that they can reap the economic benefits of growing both crops together.

In spite of the fact that Tito Jun’s family has been cultivating both on their farm for a number of decades, they had not really exported any of their products until just a few years ago. “In all honesty, it was my niece Estela who was responsible for exporting the beans,” he says. After touring the farm, Estela was motivated to investigate the possibility of marketing her uncle’s cacao in European countries. According to Tito Jun’s account, “the first shipment she had from us was 500 kilograms, and it was delivered directly to her place in London.” The moment the beans arrived at their home in London, her husband became irate because “their living room was full of cacao beans and smelled like cacao all over.” It should go without saying that the second shipment arrived safely at the warehouse.

“Hopefully she can really do something, not only for cacao beans of Kablon, but of the country.”

Ernest Pantua Jr., Kablon Family Farms

A long history of producing high-quality Criollo cacao can be traced back to both the Pantuas and the Philippines as a whole. However, in the 1980s, in order to compensate for the low prices, a lot of high-producing hybrid cacao from Malaysia was planted. This choice is something that farmers are still reckoning with today. Before not too long ago, Filipino farmers didn’t know much about the processing of cacao other than the way they’d always done it, which was to cut down the cacao as ripe as possible, then dry the beans.

Since the only cacao that could be grown on the islands was the delicate criollo variety, which is famous for its lack of bitterness and astringency, this was sufficient for many centuries. However, farmers are now experiencing difficulties since hybrid trees and the offspring of cross-pollinated trees tend to have a higher level of astringency. In addition to that, the majority of the demand for cacao is for organic beans that have been properly fermented, which are still not very common throughout the country.

In this regard, Kablon has a significant advantage because, beginning in the 1980s, the buyers of their cacao have required that they also ferment the beans, which was unusual for that era. Fermentation is an essential step in the process of flavor development in cacao, yet it is still one of the manufacturing processes that is poorly understood by the majority of people. Tito Jun and Estela have decided to hire a fermentation specialist in order to find out how to improve the quality of their cacao so that it can be sold on the international market. This is being done in preparation for the international cacao market.

They had started making cacao nibs and small chocolate bars some time ago, but despite fermenting the cacao regularly, the quality of their products had varied considerably over the years. Tito Jun couldn’t figure out why his beans’ flavors were so inconsistent, and he was left scratching his head as a result. The team at Kablon (and also over in London) is optimistic despite the fact that the new protocols are still being tested and will only be implemented gradually.

There has been a significant amount of ground to cover, but with the assistance of Zoe, Estela, and a large number of Philippine farmers, the reputation of Philippine cacao is beginning to spread beyond the islands. Soon, there will be no longer be a cacao shortage in the Philippines as a result of the initiative taken by the government to multiply the amount of cacao grown in the country over the next few years by a factor of 10. Tito Jun desires for other Filipino farmers to have the opportunity to process and sell their high-quality cocoa for profitable pricing both inside the country and on a global scale.

However, the Pantua family is also interested in ensuring that the quality of any cacao that is shipped out of the Philippines in the foreseeable future is up to the family’s exacting standards. They want farmers to be able to learn how to care for cacao throughout its life and then earn a living wage commensurate with that knowledge. They believe that if they are successful in establishing the Philippines as a source of high-quality cacao now, it will pave the way for the local industry to continue expanding in the decades to come.

It seems to me that they’ve already made a significant amount of progress.