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Raising the Bar on Chocolate

How a Kauai Cacao Farm is Changing the Chocolate Industry One Bar at a Time

When it comes to artisan foods and beverages, most people can easily identify a difference in quality and taste between a craft beer made by a neighborhood brewery and one that is mass-produced. The same is true for specialty coffee – it is easy to taste a difference and get a higher quality bean at your local roaster versus your local grocery store. From farmer’s markets to vineyards, neighborhood cafes to bakeries, we know the fewer steps there are between us and the things we consume, the better they are for our health and community. There is one specialty food industry where the connection between craft and quality is still fuzzy, but one family-owned cacao farm on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai is on a mission to clear it up and change the chocolate industry as we know it today. 

a man standing next to a tree with a cacao pod in hand. He is opening it with a machete.

Bittersweet Chocolate

Humans are hardwired to love chocolate. From its alluring aroma and decadent taste to its brain-boosting and mood-enhancing chemical compounds, it’s no wonder we choose chocolate as a steadfast companion in times of happiness and heartache. Americans devour more than 2.8 billion pounds of chocolate each year, mostly in the form of candy made by industrial manufacturers with mysterious supply chains and unethical sourcing practices. While the small-batch chocolate movement brings elevated products, flavors and ethical sourcing to the cocoa industry, in many cases, our favorite creamy confections, easily available on grocery store shelves, are paid for in poverty and exploitation. From the not-so-secret use of child labor to deforestation, poverty, and waste many unsettling practices plague the global cocoa market. 

Chocolate Today

Recently the dark side of chocolate production has been headline news. Just last month, the human rights advocacy group International Rights Advocates filed a federal class-action lawsuit against seven chocolate makers, including Mars, Hershey, Nestle, Mondelez, and others, alleging their complicity in the use of child labor. In December 2020, A spike in cocoa prices sparked tension between West African cacao farmers and American chocolate manufacturers. Farmers in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire claim Hershey and Mars changed their buying patterns and directly sourced cocoa from the exchange to avoid paying an agreed-upon $400 per ton “living income differential” aimed at bolstering farmer income.

At nearly the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments regarding Nestlé USA, Inc. and Cargill, Inc. v. John Doe et al. This case is a reparations claim by six former child slaves who worked for minimal wages in the cocoa fields of Côte d’Ivoire – the world’s leading producer and exporter of chocolate. 

This isn’t the first time major chocolate companies have found themselves in litigation over the use of child labor. In 2015, Mars, Hershey, and Nestlé faced federal class-action suits for neglecting to address alleged human rights abuses while portraying an ethically responsible image. Federal judges dismissed the case against Mars and ruled that neither Hershey nor Nestlé had a duty to disclose suppliers’ labor practices

a lydgate chocolate bar sitting on a table

Raising the Bar

How did we get to this point, and what can chocolate lovers do to resist the dark forces at play in the cocoa supply chain? Carla Martin, PhD., and Executive director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute, offers sage advice. “The cocoa and chocolate supply chain exists as it does because it was designed out of profoundly unequal systems of labor and production. At its very roots, the spread of cocoa and chocolate around the world have involved a variety of different labor abuses,” she said.

Even with signed protocols aimed at ending child labor and other abuses, the corporate top-down approach has been largely unsuccessful. Martin believes the key to solving the issue lies in a community-centered grassroots approach. “We need to know our farmers. We need to ask cocoa-growing communities around the world if they can stop these practices and what resources and support they need to be successful,” she said. 

Halfway around the world from the cocoa-growing coast of Africa, farmers in Hawaii are creating a new model for growing sustainable, equitable chocolate. They hope it may serve as an antidote to many of the problems that plague the global industry. 

Kauai Island VegetationA lush, tropical corner of Lydgate Farms on Kauai.

Hawaiian Chocolate Brings A New Hope

Once home to a booming sugar cane and pineapple industry, today Hawaii’s agricultural economy is mainly composed of a few large-scale operations and many small, family-owned farms. Located more than 10,000 miles from the West African cocoa-growing coast, the Hawaiian Island of Kauai is as unlikely a place as any to find a chocolate farmer, especially one on a mission to change the way consumers think about and enjoy chocolate. 

Will Lydgate, a fifth-generation farmer and owner of Lydgate Farms, is pushing the envelope of what’s possible in the cocoa value chain. “We wake up every morning and show the world that it is possible to grow exceptional chocolate and not participate in an unequal and unjust system,” said Lydgate. “By blending agriculture, tourism, and our deep care and concern for our human and natural resources in Hawaii, we can participate in and advocate for a completely different system for growing and making chocolate that is equitable, sustainable, and profitable,” he continued. 

young boy holding cacao fruit at lydgate farms, kauai, hawaii, usaLydgate Farms tour attendee

Unlike many of the cocoa-growing regions worldwide, Hawaii is part of the United States and is very accessible to U.S. consumers. In other words, you don’t need a passport to visit Hawaii and see precisely how chocolate is grown. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Hawaii’s ag-tourism industry was valued at more than 38 million dollars, with outdoor recreation and farm retail sales contributing more than 33 million dollars. So, how can one family-owned Kauai cacao farm change chocolate’s global supply chain? One visit to Lydgate Farms makes it pretty clear. 

“All kinds of people come to the Hawaiian Islands. If we can touch just 10-20% of our visitors with a quality farm tour and chocolate tasting experience, we will change the way people think about chocolate and its value,” said Will. “With the visitor traffic we hope to see in 2021 and beyond, we expect to make a profound impact on the buying habits of U.S. consumers in the next five to ten years. If we can raise awareness and educate consumers, we can raise the price people are willing to pay for chocolate and incentivize craft production in a way that will eventually hit the pockets of a farmer in Ghana or Cote d’Ivoire,” Will continued.  

Fermenting cacao beans at Lydgate Farms, Kauai, Hawaii, USAFermenting cacao beans

Making Change

Changing the chocolate supply chain won’t be easy. Still, other industries like wine and specialty coffee have proven that it is possible to change a product’s perceived value, fetch a higher price, and take care of the people who produce it. “Much like the use of slave labor in the U.S. before the Civil War, people believed it was the only way business could operate,” said Martin. “The same is essentially true for much of our cocoa sourcing today – there is a belief that the system won’t work any other way, but small farms like Lydgate are proof that it absolutely can,” she continued.

 “Today, no one would approach a winemaker in Burgundy and say to them that their production model doesn’t work and isn’t sustainable,” remarked Martin. “They have proven there is global value in the terroir of their goods and a production system that provides for their people,” she continued.

Ultimately, the demand for change has to come from both consumers and producers. Cocoa farmers must insist on a more equitable system while consumers, businesses, manufacturers, and governments do the same. We must ask cocoa-growing communities what they need and provide the support, rule on cases that require manufacturers to take responsibility for their supply chains and inform consumers about the unsettling practices in place today. 

lydgate farms chocolate tour guide addressing visitorsLydgate Farms Chocolate Tour

How To Help

It’s no single person’s responsibility to change a global industry, but fortunately, there are many things chocolate shoppers can do individually to participate and advocate for change. “At Lydgate Farms, we want to show people that the fewer steps there are between you and your farmer, the less likely it is there are sneaky or disturbing practices involved in its creation,” said Lydgate. “It’s time to start adding farm tours to your weekend and vacation itineraries when you can. Just like you would visit a winery in Napa or a weekend farmer’s market in your community, we want people to visit our farm and learn about the cocoa growing process from farm to bar,” he continued. 

Martin says that curiosity and critical research skills are every chocolate lover’s primary resource for mastering the art of resisting cacao’s dark side. “Chocolate labeling and terminology can be bewildering, but we all come with fine-tuned sensory equipment that can help us make good choices,” remarks Martin. “Let your interest guide you. Taste fine chocolate, read labels, research terms, and certifications to find out more about how your chocolate was made and where it came from,” she replied. 


a close up of a book

Chocolate labeled with sustainability terminology such as Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, and organic can help consumers determine and understand the chocolate’s supply chain. In contrast, terms like small-batch, specialty, and bean-to-bar can help consumers understand chocolate quality and production. On top of curiosity and research, Martin says that consumers can also advocate for change by voting, writing to companies and certification agencies, sharing information on social media, and educating friends and family about the cocoa industry.

If you’re ready to make a change in your chocolate shopping habits, check out Lydgate Farms online shop and these resources. 

Lydgate Farms Shop

Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute