Woodblock Chocolate puts farmers first

Working with small-scale farmers who grow cacao on just a few acres makes sense for Woodblock. Both sides benefit from having a relationship that keeps quality high.

Courtesy of Global Envision
An Oregon chocolate maker's story: How Woodblock Chocolate builds value from bean to bar.

Charley Wheelock founded Woodblock Chocolate with a commitment to trading fairly with cacao growers in the Caribbean Islands and South America.

That direct trade relationship – a deeply personal approach to business in which Woodblock builds relationships with the first rung on the value chain – is imbedded in the company’s DNA.

“The good you can do with cacao is awesome,” Wheelock says.

Woodblock Chocolate’s “factory” in southeast Portland, Ore., is small, but an upgrade from Wheelock’s kitchen, where he and his wife, Jessica, made their first chocolate bars in 2010.

When Global Envision visited Woodblock, Wheelock was putting some finishing touches on a batch of chocolate. Several workers folded wrappers around chocolate bars and talked over the hum of machines mixing the latest batch. The sweet smell of chocolate filled the cool room. 

For Wheelock, it’s all about the beans. There are very few companies that make chocolate directly from beans, rather than buying pre-made chocolate and remelting it, he explains.

Wheelock and his employees are involved in every step of the process: sorting the beans, roasting to perfect doneness, separating nibs from hulls, pouring the chocolate into molds and, finally, enclosing each rectangular bar in Woodblock’s blue and white wrappers.

Wheelock points out the century-old roaster that he uses to bring out just the right complexity of flavors.

“I’m always checking shell temperature,” he says. “There’s a flavor profile I’m going for.”  

Wheelock makes bars from each country that sends beans, creating "single origin" chocolate. He points out two batches of liquid chocolate – one from Venezuela and one from Ecuador – being stirred and ground by stone wheels. One is dark and thick and tastes rich with a slightly bitter bite; the other is lighter, smoother, and has a sweet, nutty finish.

From those first days of roasting beans, mixing cocoa with sugar and forming bars in their kitchen, the Wheelocks have kept the entire production process handmade. Their only ingredients are cacao and sugar – unless they add a final touch of large-grain salt to the top of the bars. The growing business sells most of its bars in local Oregon coffee and specialty shops, but it also sends bars to shops in 11 states and sells from its website.

Building relationships with cacao farmers allow the Wheelocks to have a touchpoint along every step of the process.

The operation got a big boost in 2011 when Wheelock took his first trip to meet with cacao farms in Trinidad. He contacted several local experts at the Cacao Research Unit at the University of the West Indies-Trinidad and Tobago, and flew down with hopes of meeting some farmers interested in building a relationship.

Wheelock’s friend, Gino Gasperina, joined him on the trip. The pair handed out chocolate bars as they visited the university and walked among cacao trees. They met with cacao experts and, most importantly, with farmers. When they found several farmers who were passionate about growing high-quality cacao, Wheelock arranged for the first shipments to be sent to Oregon.

The personal connections they cultivated formed a blueprint for Woodblock’s direct trade relationships, and the small farms have been the perfect fit for the company.

Small-scale farmers can ship a large portion, if not all, of their harvest to Oregon. The farmers then have a major economic interest in making sure they handle the beans well throughout the entire process, from harvest and fermentation to packing and shipping.

“We’re paying two to three times the commodity price,” Wheelock notes.

With more money coming in, the farmers can afford to invest in their farms and keep quality high.

Working with small-scale farmers who grow cacao on just a few acres makes business sense for Woodblock. Both sides benefit from having a meaningful relationship that keeps quality high and orders filled. The farmer gets stable demand at a premium price, and Woodblock can count on consistently high-quality beans making it to Oregon.

But building relationships takes time. As Woodblock Chocolate grew, Wheelock realized he couldn’t keep up the frequent trips south that allowed him to make and maintain direct connections to farmers. He needed a middleman. So he convinced Gasperina to set up a cacao importing business, Meridian Cacao, to help manage the relationships while Woodblock grew its chocolate production and sales.

When Wheelock and Gasperina find the right beans and the right people, successful relationships take root.

Gasperina continues to search for potential partners to his company’s selection of cacao flavors. He traveled to Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Honduras this past November to visit current partners and to lay the groundwork for new partnerships.

Wheelock and Gasperina see the relationships as a way to tie the whole process together, to move beyond a traditional buyer-seller format to something more involved and mutually beneficial.

As with any relationship, it doesn’t come without challenges.

Wheelock reaches into a large sack of beans and tosses them in his hand. “These sound a little wet,” he says.

Cacao is a complex crop. The beans are temperamental and must be handled carefully from start to finish. The farmers who work with Woodblock ferment and dry the beans right after the harvest to ensure the highest quality, but it can be challenging to get it just right.

Other problems can arise, too. Cacao absorbs the flavors of anything that’s aromatic, so it must be stored and shipped carefully.

“You can’t guarantee that it won’t be put next to limburger [stinky cheese] or something,” Wheelock says with a laugh.

It’s also difficult to fill a whole shipping container, which can hold about 20 tons of cacao, so Gasperina has formed partnerships with other small bean businesses, like green coffee importers, to fill containers.

Wheelock and Gasperina don’t have formal accountability processes that specify workers’ pay and conditions, but they get to know the farmers and their operations in a more personal way.

“We go down and visit each farm and get to know what type of people the farmers are,” Wheelock says. Those relationships build the accountability that assures Wheelock and Gasperina that workers are treated well.

Wheelock smiles when he recalls a visit by one of the farmers from Ecuador. The farmer watched the chocolate being made, and tasted the final products. When they visit the farms in Trinidad or Honduras or Costa Rica, chocolate makers often pose for pictures with an arm around the shoulders of a cacao farmer.

“I want to bring him back and take a picture on Mount Hood [in Oregon],” Wheelock says.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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