Cacao Fellow, Mark Canti, Explains the Process of Adopting a Tree from the BFREE Farm:

By Mark Canti

Hello, my name is Mark Canti. I’m the BFREE Cacao Fellow, and I oversee the cacao adoption program at BFREE in collaboration with the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund. I’m always very excited when I learn that a new tree has been adopted from our farm, and I am eager to tag the newly adopted tree. 

I first create a personalized tag for the tree by engraving the adopter’s name or the adopter’s chosen honoree on an aluminum tag. Then I grab my gear, including the newly created tag, a GPS device, and my camera. Next, I need to select the perfect tree. I’m looking for healthy trees that have at least 70% shade and are at least 1-1.5 meters tall. Once the tree has been selected, carefully tie the tag to a tree branch and record the GPS coordinates. Finally, comes my favorite part of the process. I’m very passionate about photography, and I really enjoy the opportunity to photograph each tree. My dream is to capture wildlife such as a beautiful bird like a warbler when I’m taking each photo. I like that the pictures I take can help the new adopters feel as close to being on our beautiful farm as possible. 

I’m very proud to be part of the Adopt a Tree program, and I would like to thank everyone who has adopted a tree from our farm so far. I hope I have the opportunity to select and photograph a tree for you! 

If you would like to adopt a tree from the BFREE Farm, please visit the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund’s website and select HCP#11.

Adopt a Cacao Tree – HEIRLOOM CACAO PRESERVATION FUND (hcpcacao.org)

Celebrating Earth Day

Students from Keene High School in Keene, New Hampshire helped BFREE staff celebrate Earth Day by planting seeds. This is Keene High School teacher, Matt Brady’s, fourth trip to Belize and to BFREE. He is joined by fellow teachers, Christine Gillis, Monica Foley, and Jodie Ballaro. Their group was scheduled to come to the field station in 2020 but was cancelled due to the pandemic. They tried again last year with no luck. This makes us especially thrilled to host them in 2022.

In a BFREE interview with Mark Canti and Jonathan Dubon on Facebook Live for Earth Day, Matt described why he wanted to return. “BFREE is a really special place for lots of reasons. I’m really happy to be here to meet young people like you. People who contribute to the ecology of the area and are conservationists. That is very important to me, the way BFREE is set up to keep young people coming in from the area. This is why we keep coming back.”

In a surprising turn of events for dry season, it began raining at 9am during the student orientation. The rain continued throughout the morning and into the afternoon, but this didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. The students continued their orientation and tour of the facilities. After lunch, everyone divided into groups for service projects. Nine students helped with planting germinated cacao seeds in the nursery. An additional fourteen students helped at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center where they assisted in a project to improve the exterior fence. The remainder of the students supported the long-term large mammal research project by checking camera traps on the property.

We are grateful that Matt, Christine, Monica and Jodie worked so hard to come back to BFREE this year.

Creating Strong Rootstock for Heirloom Cacao

Grafting is the preferred method of vegetative propagation for cacao (Theobroma cacao). Grafting allows farmers to choose the qualities they want in their trees and reduce expenses related to sourcing cacao trees. But before a tree can be grafted, you must grow the rootstock.

This year our seeds are coming from Ana Maria farm in Guatemala to create our rootstock. This variety has been bred over many years to produce a strong and robust seedling that is fast-growing, can withstand drought conditions, and provides excellent rootstock for BFREE’s heirloom criollo cacao.

In Guatemala, pods are cracked open and the best cacao seeds are carefully selected. After that, they are disinfected for any possible fungal disease. Finally, they are germinated and are ready for transport. Ten thousand seeds will travel to Belize and reach BFREE today in order to be planted tomorrow on Earth Day.

Special thanks to Erick Ac for providing the cacao seeds and the wonderful photos!

New Cacao Operations Manager

Congratulations to Mr. Elmer Tzalam. He has recently taken on the new role of Cacao Operations Manager for Crioco Cacao, LLC. This is well-deserved promotion for Elmer. He has been a faithful employee to BFREE for over ten years.

Elmer Tzalam is Crioco Cacao LLC’s Cacao Operations Manager

Elmer began working with BFREE in June 2011 as the project’s first cacao farm worker. Prior to BFREE, Elmer received cacao training internationally with the organization CATIE. He used the knowledge gained in training to support the growth of the cacao trees at BFREE. For years, he nurtured the cacao and coffee trees in that original farm plot – now designated Block 1. When it was necessary to begin collecting data on the wild Criollo trees found throughout the property, Elmer took responsibility. He would hike deep into the forest, sometimes alone, sometimes with other BFREE staff or volunteers.

He is multi-talented and has many years of work experience prior to joining the BFREE team in 2011. Because of his well-rounded work history, Elmer has filled many roles at the field station. From supporting student groups, to maintaining the facilities, to delivering supplies, to training new cacao staff – he has done a little bit of everything and he understands how this field station works.

“Elmer has been instrumental in the development of BFREE’ cacao program since its inception,” stated Jacob Marlin, Crioco Cacao, CEO. “His extensive experience in the many cacao operations such as the nursery, the wild trees, the farm and with post-harvest processing make him invaluable to our agroforestry program.”

The cacao nursery at BFREE

Each year the cacao nursery at BFREE is restored and prepared for the new planting season. Any old plants or trees are removed and fresh liner is laid, the area is weeded and trimmed, and damaged poles are replaced. Additionally, the nursery was expanded to hold more bags and the irrigation system was modified for more efficient watering.

Soon after those preparations were made, came the task of filling thousands of nursery bags. Lucky for us, ARCC participants showed up just in time to help fill bags with a sand and soil mixture. Because of them, a huge job became much more manageable.

BFREE Cacao Fellows are assigned to the management of the cacao nursery, so Mark Canti has replaced Lenardo Ash as caregiver to the young cacao and shade trees. Once bags are filled and put in place, Mark waters and fertilizers the soil to prepare for seed planting. In the coming months, he will be responsible for ensuring the successful growth of the nursery trees.

Shade trees are just as important to this project as cacao trees, so both short-term and long-term shade tree seedlings are included. Therefore, five varieties of short-term shade trees were planted: Pigeon Pea, Plantain, Bananas, Erythrina and Madre de cacao. Long-term shade trees include Bribri, Jobillo, two species of Barbajalote, and Mahogany. We continue to search the property for other types of seedpods and saplings.

Testing sugar content in cacao

Cacao staff at BFREE are learning to harvest cacao pods when they are the sweetest. Last month, Elmer Tzalam and Mark Canti harvested cacao pods to test sugar content at different stages of ripeness. They carefully opened each pod one at a time. Then they scraped out several beans and place them in a mesh bag. They squeezed a few drops of juice from the bag onto a tool called a refractometer. Finally, they held the refractometer to their eye and looked into the direction of a bright light source. As a result, they received a reading of “degrees brix” which is the sugar content of an aqueous solution. 

One degree Brix is 1 gram of sucrose in 100 grams of solution and represents the strength of the solution as percentage by mass. Brix Refractometers are built to measure the sucrose content of a sample through refraction. These meters are capable of incredibly quick and accurate results and are used often in the food and beverage industries. 

The wild, heirloom criollo cacao at BFREE has never been grown in a farm setting. Therefore, the data we collect is new information to the cacao industry and is part of our efforts to characterize this ancient heirloom fine flavor variety. By using tools like the refractometer, we will begin to better understand the most desirable moment to harvest a pod.

Additional info about how Brix refractometers work

Traditional refractometers are handheld analogue instruments. They are held up to the light, so that it shines through the sample. The light is then directed through a prism and lenses onto a measurement scale. A shadow will be case on the measurement scale at the angle where total internal reflection occurs. Observing this shadow through the eyepiece gives the brix reading.

A special thanks to Skyler and Austin from the visiting ARRC group for their enthusiastic participation in this process.

Student Groups Return to BFREE After Two-Years

It is no secret that the global pandemic has significantly impacted travel. For BFREE, that has meant a drastic reduction in all types of visitation over the last two years from researchers, specialists, eco-tourists, to our annual Field Courses. However, things are slowly but surely changing, and we are ecstatic to have had our very first student groups back at BFREE since February 2020!

Nearly two years to the day since our last student group, we welcomed two groups from an organization new to BFREE, ARCC Gap Year Abroad. ARCC offers summer and gap year programs for students focused on community-driven and community-led sustainable projects around the world. The two student groups visiting BFREE alternated between 5-nights at BFREE and 5-nights on the Belize Barrier Reef. Each group was made up of ten students and two instructors. The groups volunteered with BFREE’s cacao agroforestry program supporting the growing nursery and painting signs for trees on the farm. Additionally, students learned to make chocolate from bean to bar.

Other highlights include being the inaugural guests to sleep in the newest accommodations at BFREE, The Hammock, exploring the Rainforest on a boundary line hike with Protected Areas Manager, Canti, and meeting and learning from all of the incredible and inspiring staff at BFREE.

These students are part of a 70-day program that will take them from the Rainforest to the Barrier Reef, to sea turtle restoration and surfing in Costa Rica, and finally exploring the Panama Canal over the next two months.

What an amazing adventure these students are on – wishing them all a safe and incredible trip!

Below are a collection of photos taken by BFREE staff and volunteers of both the ARCC GAP GROUPS A and B during their time at BFREE in February 2022.

Autumn Dietrich Completes 10-week Internship at BFREE

BFREE internship opportunities have returned since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. After more than two years of not hosting interns, Autumn Dietrich is welcomed with open arms to BFREE for a 10-week program from January to March 2022.

Autumn is no stranger to BFREE. She first visited on a Field Course as an undergrad with Western Michigan University in 2018. On a hike with Protected Areas Manager, Sipriano Canti, Autumn describes the experience as having changed her life. Impressed by the sheer scale of life that existed at BFREE, she hiked with her fellow classmates winding through trees, climbing embankments of creeks, and cutting through giant leaves. The hike led the group to the Ranger Observation Post on the boundary of BFREE and the neighboring farming village of Trio. Autumn’s excitement turned to dismay as she witnessed for the first time the harsh boundary line between a healthy and thriving forest and a large expanse of farmland. At this moment, she felt an overwhelming feeling that she wanted to help make a difference and help support protected areas. She knew she would come back to BFREE.

After graduation, Autumn applied to return to BFREE as an intern for three months, April – June 2020. At the time, we had no idea we would soon be facing a global pandemic. Determined not to give up on her dream to return to BFREE, Autumn’s postponed trip came to fruition this year when she traveled to Belize in January.

Autumn worked alongside BFREE staff during her ten-week internship, providing invaluable support. Her first week was spent documenting and assisting a research crew from Kutztown University. They are establishing a long-term experiment that quantifies the influence of Yucatán black howler monkeys on biodiversity and ecosystem function in Belize. She then assisted Cacao Fellow, Mark Canti on a large-scale survey of the cacao farm to determine the farm’s overall health. When not focused on collating the cacao survey data, Autumn assisted Housekeeping Manager, Ofelia Cus with preparing accommodations for visitors and BFREE Chef, Edwardo Pop in the kitchen.

In addition to supporting BFREE’s various conservation initiatives, Autumn, immersed herself in learning and experiencing Belizean culture. She was honored when Operations Manager, Elmer Tzalam and his wife Gina invited her to spend a weekend with them at their home in Golden Stream. Autumn loved spending time with Elmer and Gina’s two children, Esther (12) and Travis (9), and enjoyed a delicious homemade dinner of panades, a dish that’s similar to empanadas but with a Belizean and Mayan twist.

Living full-time at BFREE for ten weeks brings plenty of challenges. The remote location and intense heat are not for the faint of heart. However, Autumn not only thrived during her two+ months, but she also brought so much joy and laughter to the BFREE community. Thank you so much, Autumn, for your sincere dedication to BFREE’s mission and for being an incredible and loyal team player. We all look forward to seeing you amongst the giant ceibas again one day! 

Cacao Fellow, Mark Canti Illustrates Passion for Wildlife

BFREE Cacao Fellow, Mark Canti, continues to shine in various disciplines at BFREE. In his first year of the two-year Cacao Fellowship program, Mark has proven to be talented in cacao grafting and data collection. Though his focus is primarily on cacao, Mark has expressed that his interests are more than just agroforestry and that he is particularly fascinated and inspired by the wildlife that surrounds him while working at BFREE.

This week, Mark continued to illustrate his passion for wildlife, working through the weekend to support BFREE’s bi-annual Hicatee Health Assessment. Last year he participated in an online Wildlife Veterinary course offered by Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic (BWRC), and now he put some of the skills he learned from Dr. Isabelle to the test.

The 2022 Hicatee Health Assessments’ purpose is to determine the sex ratio of the captive-born turtles as well as collect growth data and review the overall health of a subset of turtles. Additionally, ultrasounds were performed on adult female turtles.

Donning his Hicatee Hero t-shirt, Mark fit right in with Team Hicatee and was an invaluable addition to the team. In addition to shadowing the veterinarians performing necropsies and endoscopies, Mark has helped with data collection, photographing the various activities, and supporting all of the other important aspects of the health assessment.