Founders Tino Cota (born and raised in California) and Australian Ruth Moloney met in Los Angeles in 2004 when we both worked as cocoa buyers for Nestlé, the largest food company in the world. Through our shared passion for mountain biking, a friendship was forged on the bike trails of Southern California.
In 2010, Ruth moved to New York to pursue a career in cocoa sustainability, while Tino moved to Chicago to trade cocoa for Barry Callebaut, the world’s largest chocolate manufacturer. When we were both laid off within a week of each other in 2015, we took our bikes on the arduous Trans American Trail from the Potomac to the Pacific. Somewhere in Wyoming, the idea of a new model of cocoa production came to life, and soon after an opportunity to work in Belize.
The food system needs repair. There is no simpler way to say it. We have both had the opportunity to work all along the cocoa value chain, from buyer/manufacturer, to supply chain management, developing sustainability programs, and setting up sourcing companies. Over the years, we saw that the challenges are much greater on the ground than in the corporate office. We realized that to solve some of the problems we saw first-hand while working for very large companies, we needed to be involved in the production process right from the beginning — to foster a different kind of growing and distribution process.
One of the biggest challenges for cocoa growers all over the world is “getting to scale.” The crop is mostly grown by small farmers who cannot make a living income from cocoa, but they lack alternatives. It’s hard to get to scale in a sustainable way if you did not get a proper education, do not have access to training, or finance, or good planting material – or even a buyer.
Our experience taught us that the kind of holistic and healthy system we envisioned at scale would need to be built from the ground up, starting with the plant genetics and the people interacting with them (farmers and scientists), through to the right equipment and distribution partners. We set out to foster a process of co-creation, learning about indigenous knowledge and practices closely tied to this land and its seasons, in dialogue with best practices that modern science has to offer. We now feel it’s time to walk the talk on the production end of the value chain: Growing cocoa and vanilla in a way that is sustainable for the land, the people – and future generations.
In 2016 Corridgeree Belize Ltd was established, named after Ruth’s family farm back in New South Wales, an Eastern state in Australia. In the local Aboriginal dialect, the name means “Round Hill” (our Belize farm is dead flat, but who said family tradition ever followed logic?) A 75-acre farm was purchased near Silk Grass in 2017, and cocoa planting began shortly afterwards.
Why Cocoa and Vanilla? Why Belize?
Cocoa and vanilla are two of the most seductive and mystical ingredients found in even the most basic of home cook’s kitchens. But most people don’t think about where these magical ingredients come from; they don’t think about the plants themselves – what they look like and where they grow. In Belize, both of these plants grow wild, and it’s not far from this part of the Caribbean that Europeans took cocoa and vanilla back to Europe for the first time. This is ground zero for where these crops first started.
When we first came to Belize, we saw cocoa being grown under conditions of extreme neglect – and somehow still thriving. So we started “bush bashing” into untamed farmland… looking for vanilla and cocoa plants was like searching for the Holy Grail (with machetes in hand, and swatting bugs). We saw that people were harvesting these crops for quick profit, and that the genetic heritage of Belize was in danger. We wanted to do something about it.
Wild vanilla in Belize in particular has incredible diversity, but the capricious nature of the plant means it’s not easy to grow commercially – leaving it especially vulnerable to being stripped from its wild habitat for quick profit. Part of the mission of our farm is to study and preserve the genetics of this mystical plant.
Most of our field and greenhouse workers come from nearby Silk Grass village. Our focus is to train our workers to equip them with skills that are taken for granted in the developed world, like problem solving, working in teams, time management and leadership. In return, we have learned a lot about our community, our farm and our environment — and how much more we have to learn together.