Every other Monday, we’ll introduce you to a member of the Dandelion community through a Q & A. Stay tuned to meet our chocolate makers, café staff, kitchen team, producers, partners, importers, mentors, and everyone who helps make our chocolate possible. This week, we’d like you to meet Dr. Charles Kerchner, Ph.D, the man behind Zorzal Cacao—an innovative conservation effort and our source for Dominican beans.
Name: Dr. Charles Kercher, Ph.D
Title: Chief Troublemaker, Zorzal Cacao
Hometown: Boston, Massachusetts
Current address: Los Cincos de Guinneal
Favorite food: Italian
Q: I hear that Zorzal Cacao started as your Ph.D dissertation. How does that work?
A: It was mostly theoretical, trying to understand how to make conservation efforts for migratory birds more cost effective. You know, trying to answer the question: where is the biggest conservation bang for your buck?
Q: And where is it?
A: Well, conservation is traditionally done with government funding through grants, but those haven’t always been the most sustainable. In general, funding like that has provided about 25% of the real costs needed to finance protected areas in Latin America, and I think the private sector has a really unique opportunity to participate here because instead of surviving on donations, you’re giving and getting. It’s building a relationship.
Q: So, you’re growing cacao on the bird reserve?
A: Yes! About 150 acres of our 1019 are reserved for cacao production, and about 30 of those are in production now. We also buy from cacao farmers who live adjacent to the Reserve and share our conservation goals. And we just completed the construction of fermenting boxes and drying tunnels so so we can process our own cacao…
Q: How do you dry cacao with all that rain you get?
A: Well, we had to develop a few special techniques. We built 18-meter tunnels with big plastic covers and mesh screen beds elevated three feet off the ground inside. We structured the roof in a way that lets humid air escape, and when it’s really rainy, we use artificial drying techniques, powered by our solar panels or propane tanks, that shoots hot air over the beds of cacao. You want the beans to dry quickly enough that they won’t mold, but slowly enough that it lets the residual acetic acid from fermentation dissipate. That’s how you get a nice, chocolatey flavor.
Q: Let’s back up. How did you end up in the Dominican Republic in the first place?
A: Well, I initially came down with the Peace Corps in 2001 with a USAID grant to build fermenting boxes and build out an organic cacao certification program. I was working with farmers at the La Red cooperative, which is going through some restructuring right now. At the end of my Peace Corps service, I remember riding in the back of a red pick-up truck to my village and thinking there was an opportunity to create a business focusing on cacao and conservation. After the Peace Corps, I completed my master’s and doctorate degrees, focusing on conservation economics. Cacao production provides a unique opportunity to protect fragile ecosystems and create jobs for local communities. From a global perspective, there is a strong correlation between the cacao belt around the world (20 degrees North and South of the equator) and biodiversity “hotspots.” Thus, I came back to the Dominican Republic, because there was a unique opportunity to bring my academic knowledge related to conservation finance together with my practical experience in cacao cultivation and create a business. Given my existing connections and the focus on the Bicknell’s thrush, the Dominican Republic was an ideal place.
Q: Okay, now tell me about the birds.
A: It’s cool. The Bicknell’s Thrush is a songbird that migrates from Vermont to the Dominican Republic every year. It’s not the flashiest bird, but it has a beautiful song. It’s a good symbol for the link we’re trying to build between the hemispheres, between the public and private sector, and between business and conservation.
To be honest, it’s also easier to build momentum for a conservation-focused business if you pick a specific species to protect, even though we are really about building and protecting all kinds of biodiversity here.
Q: I heard something about a reforestation program too. You’re planting trees? We like trees.
A: Yep. We’re selling carbon credits to the chocolate makers who buy our cacao. The carbon offset project is registered with a third-party carbon standard called Plan Vivo. It is a reforestation project focused on restoration of biodiversity and bird habitat. One credit counts for one tonne of CO2. And everything here is solar powered.
Yes, everything. The lights, fans, TV, washer machine, pumps and refrigerator. Well, we need to buy the refrigerator…but we’re getting there.
Q: Sounds rustic. Okay, last question, and it’s a dorky one. If you could have coffee with anyone from history, who would you choose?
A: Eric Clapton, because he’s a rock star.