For the most part, cacao is grown by hand on family-run farms as small as two and one-half acres apiece. (See more about family life and economics on cocoa farms.)
One of the first steps in cacao growing is to plant the tiny trees. Most start off life in a fiber basket or plastic bag, as seeds from high-yielding trees. The seedlings usually shoot up quickly, and after a few months they are ready to be transplanted, container and all. They will need at least three—and usually five—years of pruning and pampering to produce pods filled with cocoa beans.
The delicate cacao tree prefers to grow far beneath the protective leaves of other trees. (Learn more about the cacao tree and its likes and dislikes.) It can grow in full sun, which can provide immediate financial benefits to farmers—but with substantial risks.
Fortunately, most of today’s cacao farms practice sustainable methods of growing cacao under the shade of taller trees.