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Working on a second sweet success

After selling the wildly successful organic Dagoba Chocolates to Hershey Chocolate, Frederick Schilling went on to spawn another, similarly conscious, organic and fair-traded commodity, using coconut and cocoa farmers — 14,000 of them — in Indonesia. 

Schilling, 42, is still in his beloved Ashland, marketing their many products, but his partner and co-founder Ben Ripple works in Bali, overseeing the largest organic growing operation in Southeast Asia, says Schilling, and doing it in four factories with 400 employees (seven are here) and growing 50 percent a year. 

Since 2008, Big Tree has been turning cocoa (pronounced kuh-kow) and cocoanut into a range of low-glycemic sweeteners you can cook with or buy off the shelve and substitute, more healthily, he says, for sugar, agave or stevia. 

Ripple is in charge of the growing part, seeking to ensure growers are able to do sustainable farming and get a living wage, says Schilling. 

Raw materials are shipped to the U.S. for manufacturing, then Schilling handles sales and marketing from his Mistletoe Road offices. Big Tree’s products are on shelves at the Ashland Food Co-op, Shop'n Kart, Food 4 Less and other stores.

They include jars of TRU-RA Cocao Powder and Sweet Nibs, packages of unrefined Coconut Palm Sugar, small packages of Coco Hydro Coconut Water Electrolytes and bottles of liquid Coconut Nectar, a sweetener. Products variously note they are vegan, organic, non-GMO and sustainable.

Schilling says the company, still privately held, is doing well and growing 50 percent a year. He sold Dagoba to the giant Hershey corporation in 2004 and, he notes, it’s still organic and still in Ashland. The capital from that sale went into creating Big Farm, and doing it with no investors.

“We have nowhere to go but up,” says Schilling. “Starting in 2008, the time of the crash, gave us time to think things out.”

Schilling explains that, in addition to creating a successful, profitable company, the partners have the socially conscious approach of “lifting 14,000 farmers out of poverty.” Coconut growers are among the poorest farmers of the region, he says. Big Farm’s income has increased by 250 percent already and it has established a good enough “global supply chain organization” that they are now being approached by non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

“We bring very healthy food to market. Agave is high fructose and stevia doesn’t taste very good. Our products don’t have those problems,” he says, adding that the sugar comes from the pure coconut flower blossom nectar. He brands the product “sustainable” because a coconut tree produces three liters a day. In addition to coconut sugar, Big Farm produces chocolate products — chocolate powder, chocolate butter and “chocolate chocolate.” Products are mainly marketed now in Europe and Australia. 

Their website is at www.bigtreefarms.com.

Reach Ashland freelance writer John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org.