Sweet like chocolate: the future potential of Australian cocoa production

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Chocolate pieces

For more than a decade AgriFutures Australia has been supporting investigations into the development of a stable cocoa industry in far north Queensland.

Now, they’ve funded the five-year Australian Cocoa Strategic RD&E Plan (2022-2027) | AgriFutures Australia – which offers the platform for an essential first step for the emerging industry to grow.

AgriFutures Australia Manager Emerging Industries, Laura Skipworth said the time was right for further growth in the sector with consumer demand for chocolate and chocolate-based products growing steadily over the past 10 years.

“With Australia importing $699.3 million of cocoa and cocoa preparations in 2020, there is potential for cocoa production in Australia to increase over the coming years to replace some of the imported product with Australian product,” she said.

“We know that Australian cocoa growers cannot compete on price against small hold farmers from developing countries, so the industry relies on selling high quality cocoa beans into premium, niche markets.

“That’s something that’s already happening successfully in Australia, but only small-scale. We’re really excited to see how the priority areas outlined in the Plan are addressed to assist with that sought after industry growth and increased success.”

Key priorities identified

The Strategic RD&E Plan identifies three key priorities – profitable cocoa-growing systems; quality and differentiated Australian-grown cocoa for premium markets; and a thriving Australian cocoa industry. These are underpinned by seven strategies, from developing labour-efficient, high-yielding, and economic tree training and renewal systems, to disseminating information and fostering industry collaboration.

Cocoa producer and chocolate manufacturer Chris Jahnke is full of optimism they are achievable goals.

Entering the industry a decade ago, Chris and his wife Lyn, run Charley’s – a cocoa plantation and chocolate making facility – in the wet tropics region of far north Queensland.

“I’m not a farmer, but with my marketing and business background, I could see the potential in being involved in a product that was shifting to a premium market for customers wanting a better taste experience,” he said.

“Importantly, from a business perspective, chocolate needs no explanation. You don’t need to convince people to eat it or tell them what it is. Coupled with Australia’s clean, green image globally, it had a lot going for it.”

The power of education & advice

However Chris said the process of explaining cocoa production versus chocolate manufacturing can be a sticking point – and that’s why, as both a farmer and the Chair of the Australian Cocoa Council – he’s been intrinsically involved with the development of the new RD&E Plan for the industry.

“Cocoa isn’t saleable in its natural state as a crop, you need to do something more with it to make it edible – it’s not like a banana or an avocado,” he explained.

“However it’s critical that potential entrants to the industry don’t get overwhelmed or put off by that because there’s no need for the cocoa grower to also be the chocolate maker.

“There are plenty of chocolate manufacturers like me who are incredibly keen to purchase as much fruit as possible to meet the enormous domestic and overseas demand for Australian chocolate.

“The industry is very much in its infancy in Australia and it’s critical that as a sector we clearly explain what the cocoa industry is about, what it costs to get up and running, what the returns are going to be and what support is available.”

For Chris Jahnke, his support came from advice offered by the Queensland Department of Primary Industries (DPI) when he first planted cocoa in late 2012.

“We conducted months of research to confirm that tree to bar chocolate manufacturing was possible and the DPI were critical to us gaining that confidence to take the leap,” he said.

“Conditions in the wet tropics region are ideal for growing cocoa and there’s potential for around 1000ha of cocoa to produced in this area but at the moment there’s only around 30.

“10 years from now I’d like to see at least 500ha of cocoa growing in far north Queensland and the industry being recognised as a viable part of Australia’s agricultural sector.”

For more information about the AgriFutures Emerging Industries Program, visit Australian Cocoa Strategic RD&E Plan (2022-2027) | AgriFutures Australia

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