Supporting Cocoa Farms and Families: Boron for Better Crops and Profits

:: Sunday, July 30, 2017 :: Posted By Weng Kee Ch'ng
Chocolate is universally loved in a variety of forms, from hot chocolate to candy bars to artisan truffles. It’s long been popular in Europe and the United States, and now growing chocolate consumption in the Asia-Pacific region is causing a surge in cocoa demand. Yet even as their market expands, Indonesian cocoa farmers are challenged in a variety of ways, and many have seen their incomes plummet.
The Community Solutions International (CSI) program Cocoa Care is providing training and resources to help Indonesian cocoa farming families turn their farms into profitable, sustainable businesses. U.S. Borax is collaborating with Cocoa Care, farming families, and the International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI) in field trials to study the role of individual nutrients including boron in cocoa yields and understand how to make the best use of this supplement.

Indonesian cocoa farming families face numerous challenges, cumulative effects

There are about one million cocoa farmers in Indonesia. The vast majority of these smallholder farming families are struggling to make a living due to challenges including:
  • High rates of pests and disease
  • Aging trees
  • Poor soil management
  • Insufficient agricultural knowledge
The crisis hit hard in 1999, when the cocoa pod borer spread through the island of Sulawesi and then to other islands in the Indonesian archipelago. The cocoa pod borer infestation resulted in the loss of about 40% of the crop. Farmers have been slow to rebound from the devastation.
Although it’s possible for a productive cocoa farm to yield up to three metric tons of cocoa beans per hectare per year, on average farms in Sulawesi yield only 500 kg (1102 lb) or less per hectare per year. Because yields have steadily decreased, Indonesia’s cocoa farming family incomes have declined more than 50% over the last decade. For some families, it’s not worth staying in the business.
All of the issues farmers face can be addressed, however, given the right information and resources. For instance, although scientists have long known about the importance of adequate soil nutrition, most Indonesian cocoa farmers are not currently using fertilizers to supplement soil nutrients taht are used by the crop.
Cocoa Care is helping cocoa farming families in Sulawesi reverse the decline in yield and profit by providing education, resources, and support.

Helping farming families boost productivity and profit

Cocoa Care addresses the full picture of a cocoa farm, from agricultural training to business management education to funding to help cocoa farming families get their businesses back on track.  
Farmers and their family members who are intimately involved in farming are trained in Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) for cocoa farms. Topics include soil nutrition, integrated pest management, and pruning. In addition, family members receive training in business management topics, such as financial management education that helps them plan how to save for and invest in measures such as soil management and regular farm maintenance.
Farmers also receive deliveries of necessary farm tools, fertilizer, compost, high quality cocoa tree seedlings, and other valuable farming resources. Altogether, the combination of training and tools can help farming families more than double their cocoa-derived incomes over the course of two to three years.

Improving long-neglected soils

Proper soil management is a prerequisite for healthy plants and optimal yields. Soil management and nutrition contributes to increased pest and disease resistance.
According to Cocoa Care, many cocoa farmers in Indonesia have not sufficiently managed the health of their soils. The soil neglect has created nutrient depletion, which is compounded by waterlogged soils and the runoff that is typical in Indonesia’s tropical climate and heavy monsoons. 
Cocoa Care helps farmers build better drainage systems to prevent water logging, which causes pest, disease, and root issues. Cocoa Care, farmers, and partner IPNI conduct field trials to reveal the best nutrient plans for Indonesian cocoa farms. From this engagement, they also help farmers learn how to replenish their soils by recommending and suppling the correct commercially available boron-boosted  NPK multi-nutrient fertilizer blends and compost. 

Cocoa Care and U.S. Borax: Collaborating in on-farm field trials

Conducting on-farm field trials is invaluable because the trials show the effects of the specific farming environment, with all of its natural variability, on crops. Because the data gathered is highly relevant to the local area, the results are more likely to be reliable when the trials are applied to an entire farm and disseminated to other farms in the region. It’s also significantly easier to share the knowledge gained through on-farm field trials with the participating farmers than if the trials were conducted at a university or elsewhere.
Cocoa Care is working with more than 50 cocoa farming families who have opted in to the trials to build cocoa fertilizer recommendations for the region. The trials demonstrate the impact of nutrient supplementation on crop yields and also show the relative impact of individual nutrients on yield. During field trials, participating farmers are involved in the field trials and are able to see the results and impact of various interventions. The farmers then spread the knowledge they have gained with other cocoa farmers, deepening the impact of the program.   
U.S. Borax is supporting a three-year field trial program with Cocoa Care, IPNI, and 15 farmers in the Soppeng District of South Sulawesi. The trials will reveal the potential impact of applied boron on cocoa yield and quality and help support understanding of the role of boron in the sustainable management of cocoa farms.
If boron deficiency is not addressed, for example, boron-deficient cocoa trees exhibit pale, twisted and brittle leaves, stunted branches, bark splitting, incomplete cocoa pod formation, and seedless fruits. In such cases, boron supplementation can lead to healthier trees and higher yields.
According to Cocoa Care technical advisor Noel Janetski, it’s unlikely that many of the cocoa farmers have experience with boron, so the trials will be very informative.
U.S. Borax values its partnership with Cocoa Care and the small family farmers in Indonesia, and looks forward to continuing this relationship in the future.


U.S. Borax, part of Rio Tinto, is a global leader in the supply and science of borates—naturally-occurring minerals containing boron and other elements. We are 1,000 people serving 650 customers with more than 1,800 delivery locations globally. We supply around 30% of the world’s need for refined borates from our world-class mine in Boron, California, about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Learn more about Rio Tinto.

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