For many of us, February is a month filled with love…and chocolate. This month, we highlight social justice activist and top Equal Exchange supporter Susan Domey-Allen of UCC Norwell in Massachusetts. Susan recently shared their fair trade story and a variety of ways to reach out to others to ensure sure that purchases of chocolate don’t contribute to slave labor, human trafficking and injustice for cacao producers.
Susan says, ” The United Church of Christ (UCC) Norwell has been active in supporting Equal Exchange since when I joined the church back in 2007. We adopted a Fair Trade program within our Mission & Outreach ministry team and dove in feet first by attending advocacy trainings by Equal Exchange. We then volunteered to staff booths at local UCC meetings and functions locally and within New England.
We have gone from having sales roughly twice a year to sales every month and bringing in an average of $350.00 to $400.00/month. We have named our program the “Fairly Traded Initiative” and are now also getting more involved in community outreach. Volunteers have presented adult education forums within our own congregation, in other churches, and in forums while partnering with the UCC Norwell Human Trafficking Awareness Ministry Team. Here we explain the role of Fair Trade in association with human trafficking victims and survivors (both labor and sexual trafficking).
In the one-minute video, Susan explains how she educates her community about slave labor in the chocolate industry:
In 2016 the Fairly Traded Initiative started being a regular vendor at “Super Saturday’s” sponsored by the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ. In October of 2018 we presented a workshop entitled Fair Trade: God’s call to Consciousness–Shopping is Mission where the emphasis was on chocolate and educating on what “fair trade” products are.
To expand our community outreach and collaborate with other local churches, the Fairly Traded Initiative organized a Fair Trade / Local Artisans’ Market in the fall of 2017. That year we had 14 vendors representing a variety of global programs many of which represented some form of “fair trade.” In 2018 our second market had 20 vendors and received a full page write up in the local newspaper giving each vendor recognition. Well over 300 patrons attended. In 2019 we partnered with the South Shore Interfaith Coalition Against Human Trafficking to organize our 3rd Market. We had a variety of vendors, it was well attended, and our goal now is to have other churches or venues host the event.
2019 was a year of growth and expansion for the Fairly Traded Initiative. We had booming sales when we partnered with our Human Trafficking Coalition on the day of their forum in church. In February we wrote heart felt cards of gratitude to small farmers as well as highlighting NO child slave labor chocolates.
In March I attended the Fair Trade Campaigns National Conference in Chicago where I represented my church and my passion and commitment to Equal Exchange and justice. For July we partnered with New North Church in Hingham, MA to host a summer Fair Trade cheese & chocolate / organic wine & craft beer tasting. In October we worked with the Quincy Fair Trade Task Force to put on a Fair Trade Market at the UCC Wollaston Church and in November we hosted our own.
The Fairly Traded Initiative is taking a leap in 2020 to expand our outreach to the social media market and involve the global network. UCC Norwell has had a relationship with ASAPROSAR ( Salvadoran Association for Rural Health) a non-governmental health organization in western El Salvador for over 30 years. Our August delegation (which I have been a part of since 2009) spends time in the rural communities with the poorest people. Last year I spent time with many artisans who have utilized the Micro-credit program of ASAPROSAR to develop businesses. Today it is difficult to find a market for their products and they have no means to export them on there own. We are very excited to offer them this opportunity for global market partnership through an E-commerce website. This project would never have been possible if not for my long term collaboration with Equal Exchange and all of the people that I have met on this journey of “fair trade” advocacy.
UCC Norwell is proud to support Equal Exchange and be an active voice and advocate in the drive for justice along the food chain.”
Susan and her team are true activists and superstars in our eyes and we at Equal Exchange are proud to keep cheering them on!
Give your Valentine chocolate that skips all the bad stuff! Here’s what to look for:
There’s slave labor in the chocolate industry in 2020?
It may surprise you to find out that slavery and child labor can still be found in the supply chains of major chocolate companies. Cacao (the agricultural product from which chocolate is made) is traded on the global commodity market. The price has dropped abruptly in recent years. But consumer demand for chocolate — especially inexpensive chocolate — has not. When companies are paying less for the same amount of product, that creates a real problem for farm workers. Journalists who cover the chocolate industry have documented labor abuses, including child labor and forced labor. It’s especially prevalent in West Africa, where much of the world’s cacao is grown.
According to a June 2019 article in the Washington Post Hershey, Nestle and Mars could not guarantee that any of their chocolate was produced without child labor. Maybe you want to rethink giving that heart-shaped box of chocolates to say “I love you”?
How do you know if your chocolate has been produced without slave labor?
Most major corporations don’t advertise where their chocolate comes from and if the cacao farmers were paid fairly. In fact, we don’t hear them talking about it at all! So if you’re buying from one of the big guys, it’s not easy to answer that question.
We’re different. Equal Exchange works directly with small-scale farmer cooperatives in Peru, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Togo as part of long-term, fair trading partnerships. Equal Exchange’s products meet the strict standards established by the Fair Trade Federation. This includes no child labor or slavery. We’ve visited many of our farmer partners in person. We’ve met their families and know their names. We’re proud to connect you and your Valentine with their stories and their high-quality, organic cacao.
What is that again?
Soy lecithin is an emulsifier made from phospholipids and oil derived from soybeans. Many chocolate bars contain soy lecithin because it lowers chocolate’s viscosity and extends the shelf life. Soy lecithin is inexpensive. It’s a byproduct that’s left over after soybean oil is manufactured. Using soy lecithin speeds up the chocolate-making process. That makes it cheaper to produce.
Which chocolate doesn’t have soy lecithin?
ALL of Equal Exchange’s chocolates are free from soy lecithin. Instead of using emulsifiers or fillers, we conch our chocolate the old-fashioned way. We don’t skimp on high quality, organic and fairly traded cocoa butter to make delicious, soy-free chocolate. Your Valentine deserves the best!
How much sugar is there in some chocolate bars?
We know that consuming a lot of sugar isn’t in our best interest, health-wise. Did you know that a 1.4oz size chocolate bar from a popular brand that rhymes with “Glove” has 22g of sugar per serving? Give your Valentine a treat that isn’t a sugar-bomb.
What kind of chocolate is a good choice for someone who wants lower sugar but great flavor?
You can give Valentine chocolate that’s decadent but doesn’t contain mountains of sugar. Equal Exchange’s best-selling Organic Panama 80% Dark Chocolate Bar has 8g of sugar per 12 piece serving (1.4oz, or half of an Equal Exchange chocolate bar). And sugar isn’t the first ingredient on the label. One reviewer describes it as “velvety smooth, not overly sweet but rich and satisfying.” Another says the bar has a “very creamy texture and full-body taste for a very dark chocolate bar.” Other Equal Exchange chocolate bar choices that are lower in sugar include our 71% Organic Very Dark Chocolate (11g of sugar per 12 piece serving), 88% Organic Extreme Dark Chocolate (4g of sugar per 12 piece serving) and our 92% Organic Total Eclipse Dark Chocolate bar (3g of sugar per 12 piece serving). You can find the ingredients and nutritional information on each of our chocolate bars online, Just click on the product and scroll down past the pricing information.
We have a feeling your Valentine will be a different S-word – “satisfied” with the thoughtful and delicious chocolate you’ve chosen for them!
Is there plastic in your tea bag? What about trace amounts of bleach or pesticides? If you’re like most people, making yourself a nice cuppa at home probably involves a tea bag. You dunk the whole bag in boiling water and then allow it to steep until the tea is brewed. You remove and discard it when the tea is done — but it may leave behind more of a trace than you’d guess.
The earliest tea bags were sewn from cloth – usually muslin or silk. Today, they’re more often made from paper, which can be treated in various ways. And plastic tea bags are becoming more common, too. It’s easy to find out what’s INSIDE the bag – tea leaves, or herbs and flavorings. You’ll find a list of ingredients on the box. But manufacturers aren’t required to say how they make the tea bag or what it’s made from.
Have you seen plastic-mesh tea bags? Made with nylon and polyethylene, each bag is roomier than the traditional flat tea bag. What’s the problem? The plastic doesn’t stay put.
A study conducted at McGill University in Montreal showed that steeping a single plastic teabag at standard brewing temperature causes approximately 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion nanoplastics to be released into the cup (source). What happens to these tiny particles of plastic next? You ingest them – they enter your body along with the tea!
And when you throw away the tea bag, the rest of the plastic goes into the landfill. That’s a problem, too.
Maybe old-fashioned paper tea bags are starting to look like an attractive option. Paper is made from organic material — wood or vegetable fibers that don’t leave behind microplastics or nanoplastics. So far, so good. But a lot of manufacturers want the paper they use for tea bags to be white. They make that happen through a bleaching process.
Paper-makers use a chemical called chlorine dioxide to bleach pulp. It breaks down the substance that gives the fibers color, leaving the pulp white. Despite the claims of some paper manufacturers, paper bleached with chlorine dioxide is not completely chlorine free – chemicals called dioxins can still be found in the pulp. According to the CDC, chlorinated dioxins have been found in tea bags made from bleached paper at concentrations up to 4.79 parts per thousand (source).
Another chemical to watch for in tea bags is epichlorohydrin. Some manufacturers are treat their bags with this compound to make them stronger when wet — but it’s a carcinogen.
The tea bag isn’t the only potential source of contaminants in tea. Did you know that tea leaves are never fully washed between the harvesting and manufacturing stages of tea production? Tea is often planted as a monocrop and, if not grown organically, the plants are sprayed with intense pesticides. If the tea you buy is not organic, chemical residue may end up in the cup.
For an unadulterated cup of tea, make sure it’s organic. If you want the convenience of tea bags, look for toxin-free bags that are not bleached with chlorine and are made of natural fibers.
Equal Exchange partners with farmers who grow using organic methods. They use companion planting, natural pest deterrents, and composting to nurture the soil instead of spraying lots of pesticides. Learn more about our tea process here.
The paper in Equal Exchange tea bags is made from all-natural abaca, a fiber derived from a species of banana plant. Instead of chlorine bleaching, we use a process called oxygen delignification. Our tea bags do not contain epichlorohydrin, nor are they treated with this substance. We’ve chosen an organic cotton for the string of the tea bag. And it’s sewn together — there’s no glue or metal staple to give your tea a funny taste. Equal Exchange’s tea bags are dual-chambered, for a superior steep. Try our range of organic and fair trade teas in green, black and herbal.
You want tea in your mug – nothing else!
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Many of us who eat meat buy it at the grocery store. We don’t know exactly where it comes from or how the animals were raised. And local farmers who are using more humane and sustainable practices don’t know how to reach customers who care. With Walden Local Meat — a meat CSA — Charley Cummings set out to connect customers and farmers.
Learn more by listening to Charley on the first episode of Season 2 of The Stories Behind Our Food!
You can hear #StoriesBehindOurFood on:
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Everyday grocery store items like bananas, chocolate, coffee — these are global commodities. They pass through a lot of people’s hands on their way from the fields to your grocery cart. This is The Stories Behind Or Food podcast, the podcast where expert guests share insider knowledge about every step along the process. I’m Danielle Robidoux — and I’m Kate Chess — we’re your hosts.
This is Kate Chess and we’re recording today from Billerica, Massachusetts from Walden Local Meat headquarters. I’m here with Charley Cummings, the founder and CEO — and our producer Gary Goodman is here with me taking over some hosting duties today.
Nice to be here.
And Charley, thanks for taking the time to talk to us.
Super excited to have you guys.
So Charley, how does grass fed beef work in the middle of the winter? Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Great question. and it’s a beautiful day in New England out there right now looking out the window. so essentially it’s there are a couple of different things that can happen. So All of our beef are still a hundred percent grass fed and finished even in the winter months. So the way it works in the winter is you can actually graze in the pastures on a day like today where you don’t have a lot of snow cover, assuming, farmers have left that second or third cut of hay in the fields. And cattle can actually, in most cases even graze through a few inches of snow. I’m again assuming that nutrition has been locked in the field, and then outside of that, in this sort of harsher winter months, typically those animals are put on what’s called sacrifice pasture, that you’re not too worried about it trampling the mud and such, and fed cut hay. So it’s essentially the same diet. sometimes that hay is in the form of what’s called haylage, which is sort of partially fermented. But the same core product, it just gives it a little bit, a slightly higher energy value for the, the winter months. But that’s the short story.
Does a certain kind of hard winter make this more challenging? Or does that system that you described work all the time, every winter?
it’s a good question. It’s, it’s actually, it’s more difficult to get cattle to, gain weight, particularly on a grass based diet in the summer months than it is in the winter months. So it’s the heat that actually causes them to, not perform well. They’re sort of more tolerant of the cold, at least the breeds we’re talking about, which are typically like an Angus cross.
I would not have guessed that. That’s really interesting.
So you’re speaking about this very knowledgeably. Do you have a farming background yourself?
No. A couple of years back, gosh, now, like six years ago, my wife and I– well, let me go back a little further. So my then-girlfriend and I moved across the country, lived in San Francisco for a couple years, spent a lot of time in California’s Central Valley. I was in — at the time in the composting business. So that’s really where I got to know the agriculture, agriculture, world.
America’s salad bowl.
Yeah. So if you guys have ever looked at a satellite map of the U S there’s like this beautiful bright green neon Crescent in the Central Valley, and this is like the Grapes of Wrath. What was once the dust bowl? But it’s now one of the most agriculturally productive areas in the whole world and produces like, actually I was just reading the other day, it’s 99% of the world’s almonds. 80 — not almonds, I’m sorry. walnuts and about 80% of the almonds and then 40, 50% of pretty much you name the sort of cash crop category like tomatoes and specialty, produce and stuff.
Strawberries out there, right?
Strawberries, raspberries, yet and yet, It is sort of teetering on the edge of failure. So somebody turns the water off and that whole Valley becomes the Dustbowl again. And someone turning the water off is not just a, a figure of speech. I mean the water rights out there, really, really big problem. So anyway, I just found it really fascinating to be out there. I spent a lot of time with folks that had composting businesses there. And that was really my, first exposure to the industrial agriculture world. Of course, there’s a lot of protein produced in the Valley too. so a lot of cattle feed lots, a lot of, commodity pig farms. And if you’ve ever driven by one of these things, just like, the stench, I can’t imagine living within, you know, few miles of them. So that was really my entree into, into agriculture. so we ended up, we moved back East, New England is sort of home for both of us. We got married, she, two of us read a few books together that, maybe romanticize small scale New England farmering a little too much. and she decided she was going to work on a farm that summer after we moved back. And it was just, you know, going to be just this summer. And that just this summer sort of turned into, five years or so.
And this was both of you or just her at that point?
Just her, I still had a normal job. but, she was very much inspiring in that way. So That was really where Walden was born out of is seeing a lot of folks and meeting a lot of folks, by virtue of my wife who are in New England farming that seem to be doing everything right from the sustainability and animal welfare and a soil health perspective. But weren’t really in a position to start selling their products to the sort of main line distributor or anywhere else. so there was sort of a missing link there. so that was really, that was really the Genesis.
Yeah. And I think there’s an inherent irony. You have “Local” right in your name and you’re working with local farmers. And so if someone is to be a local farmer, they can’t expand too far or they won’t be local anymore. They’re going to be huge. So it’s like putting together lots of pieces for a lot of different farms.
Yeah, totally. I mean, I hope that that’s the one — well not the one. Hopefully that’s one of many things we’re doing that are valuable. but that feels like the primary one is like, you’ve got this really big complicated, fragmented supply chain of individual, family farmers. so I was just looking at these statistics the other day. We work with about 75 different partner farms. and the average size of those farms, is something like 250 acres. The largest of which is, maybe 2000 acres. And there’s, there’s only a couple that are over a thousand acres. So it’s, it’s really difficult to find contiguous acreage much larger than a thousand acres in the area.
Yeah. What is local? How do you define local?
Yeah. we talk about it as, States. So we work in New York and New England and we really don’t get to the Western half of New York, but that for us has felt like the most meaningful thing, to consumers as opposed to some sort of arbitrary. You know, radius. Just thinking about like, this is from my state or my region.
Yeah. That makes sense.
I realize I didn’t like really explain what we do or what the —
Yeah, tell us about your model!
So we work with, area farms that produce 100 percent grass fed beef, pasture-raised pork, chicken and lamb. we do a handful of other things like grass fed butter, eggs, and some ancillary products too. and we take those products to our member families that live from central New Jersey all the way up to Portland, Maine. And we sort of handle everything in between. So we sell our products in what we call a share program. So if you’re familiar with, like a vegetable CSA, we’re very much modeled on a similar type model. So we buy exclusively whole animals and then Break them down into the, into parts and pieces that are distributed amongst our member families in the form of a share. So you sort of get a different mix of cuts each month. Ah, so we do once a month deliveries and then there’s opportunity to add cuts as you like to your core share. Does that make sense?
That’s the short story.
But it’s a little different than like a traditional CSA, right? Because you are shipping it to doors, where a lot of times the CSA is, people might come and pick it up? I guess sometimes people get them shipped too…
Yeah. So when we, that’s actually, that’s a great point. So when we first started, my wife and I were in another meat CSA, in an adjacent farm to the one that she was working at and the experience was just ah, tough. Like we found it, for example, incredibly challenging to arrive between, I think it was like 10:00 AM and noon every other Saturday or something for the pickup. And I mean, we didn’t have kids at the time. We weren’t even that busy and it was just like impossibly difficult for us to remember to do that at that time. So it felt like a delivery was a really big deal to getting over that barrier. There were also a lot of issues we had with not just the convenience aspect of it, but the consistency of the product or the quality of the product. The cutting. And so it felt like there was, a need there because we had all these farmers that, would love to get their product out to more people, but for them, the marketing and distribution and inventory management and the customer service and all this stuff that we try to do, it’s typically not an area of interest amongst our partner firms and, and not really a core skill set either. So hence where we come in.
Yeah. Scale. It makes sense.
I mean, what would you say makes, like if you were to talk to the audience, what makes this better then like going into a supermarket and just picking up a steak? Like Stop and Shop or something?
Yeah, great question. So know I think, I think we’re trying to align around the idea that we are just trying to sell the absolute highest quality product you can buy. And to us that means it’sconsistent in terms of flavor and taste and, cut quality and all of that. And what allows us to make that promise is this direct relationship with local farms that are committed to the same ideals of sustainability and and, regenerative agricultural methods. so things like rotating animals through the pasture on a daily basis, being committed to the health and fertility of the soil. 100% grass fed and finished beef. So they’re not — no grain feed of any kind. There’s no manure lagoons at our pig farmers’ —
Good to know!
There’s no, there’s no, you know, waste disposal issues when you’re raising animals out in the pasture. So all of those things sort of add up to, a product that has a different nutritional profile, a different taste. And we think overall just sort of flat out a higher quality than a product you could find in the, in the grocery store.
And presumably like this is better for the farmer as well. Right? Like, working with you guys.
It’s definitely better than for the farmer. So, by way of comparison, the average farmer takes home about 10 or 11 cents of the retail dollar. And, and our farmers and butchers together take about 55 cents of the retail dollar, With the farmer being the lion’s share of that. And so it’s definitely better for the farmer. Our farmers too, they have restaurateurs all the time coming to them and saying, Hey, I’ll buy all of your sirloin steaks or all of your strip loins, you know, name your price. For the smart farmer, that’s sort of like a fool’s errand because they don’t, they don’t sell strip loins, they sell cows or pigs.
Right. What happens to the rest of the animal?
Exactly. So I mean that’s our whole business. We talk about sort of operationally, we’re whole animal in whole animal out. So the whole animal comes in one door and the whole has got to go out the other door. So we make a lot of effort to balance the whole carcass and do things like raw dog food and dog treats and different organ blends and such. and, you know, really try to maximize the value of all the parts and pieces and that helps to deliver more value to a farmers who in our view are again, really doing everything right from a sustainability and animal welfare perspective.
Do you think there’s a complete correlation between sustainability practices that are the best for the animals and the taste of the meat?
Oh yeah, totally. Okay. I mean, just anecdotally, I wish I could show you some pictures while we’re sitting here, but, I typically show them to people when they first join the company of like what an industrial pig facility looks like. For example, it’s sort of the equivalent of like, imagine what your health outcomes would be if you were basically just sort of couldn’t sit up from your couch and were fed potato chips all day. And so if you don’t think that’s the right sort of healthy environment for you to be in, why you would think that you would get good health outcomes from eating an animal that was raised in those conditions, is, yeah. Is is sort of anecdotal way to think about it. I think more, more sort of quantitatively, there’s a lot of good research out there, particularly on there carbon aspect of that. So White Oak Pastures is a, farm down in Georgia that is, sort of amongst the leaders in this sort of whole regenerative movement and they you know, recently did a super interesting third party study demonstrating that, when you raise animals regeneratively in this way, you actually from a carbon impact perspective, it’s not just better than conventional beef for example. It’s also better than all the sort of fake meat alternatives out there. And beyond that it’s sort of beyond this idea of, doing less harm. It actually has a net negative carbon impact. So these are activities that — that’s why we use and more people are starting to use the word “regenerative” because it’s not, it’s not the sort of old environmental axiom of doing less harm. It’s actually a net positive benefit.
Where does the net positive carbon come from?
Yeah, yeah. Good question. So, it’s in the carbon sequestration in the soil itself. So yeah, when you re when you raise beef in a feed lot, you need to feed them and they’re so, confined in a concentrated area that there’s no way you could grow enough food in the area that they’re standing to feed them. So you have to import feed from somewhere else. You also have to fertilize that, feed with something because we tend to grow it in monoculture. It’s corn and soy we’re talking about. So you’ve got to apply synthetic fertilizers. Herbicides and pesticides too. Make the yields make sense. So you’ve got a feed problem and then a fertility problem. And then also in these tremendously concentrated conditions have this waste disposal problem. So that’s where you get these manure lagoons that, you know, following Hurricane Florence for example, North Carolina is a big pig production state. These things overflow. Now you’ve got like — I mean, floods really suck, but toxic floods are like, great. Yeah. That’s like really bad news. so these things overflow. It’s a problem. So in a traditiona — I shouldn’t even say traditional because that’s giving it too much credit. In the industrial commoditized world, in a feedlot setting, you’ve got these three distinct problems that we look at and solve them each individually. We’re going to import the feed somewhere else to grow the feed. We’re going to use these artificial fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and to dispose of the waste, we’re going to develop our own really, really bad septic system right next to this feedlot. Compare that to grass fed, where you have an animal out in the pasture. So the feed problem is the pasture itself. They’re eating the feed, it’s available to them in the pasture. There’s no manure lagoon because the waste that they’re creating is immediately trampled back into the soil. And it’s what provides the fertility for the pasture, which is the food that they’re eating. So there’s no three distinct problems. There’s one sort of symbiotic cycle. And what breaks that cycle is when you keep the cattle on the same ground for too long. So it’s rotation through the pasture. Typically they’re moved every single day. That is sequestering the carbon in the form of the waste that they’re trampling back into the soil. Now where you get a huge benefit is where you put chickens in cows on the same pasture. Chicken waste is very heavy nitrogen. Cattle waste is very heavy carbon. That’s where you get this nitrogen fixing in the soil. And that’s where the, that sort of doubles the carbon sequestration impact. So we have a handful of farms that do multi-species like that and we’re trying to encourage more folks to do more of that. Whew. That was probably more than you guys wanted …,
No, it’s really interesting. I think that’s beautiful. What’s the — is there like — so you’re talking about whole animals in and whole animals out and that’s really great. Are there — I was interested when you talked about chefs approaching farmers and saying, we just want your sirloins. What’s the hardest part of the animal to deal with? Is there a learning curve for customers? Do you give them weird stuff they may not initially know how to appreciate that they have to figure out?
Yeah. Great question. So organs are typically — not typically are always excluded from the share. So there are folks that want that sort of stuff and they, they buy them separately. So it’s really on us to balance that sort of stuff. There’s also, another way to think about it as I’m on a typical beef carcass, that carcass is about 45% ground beef. People don’t realize it. It’s like half is hamburger. And our shares are not half hamburger. So we have a lot of interesting food service, like university partners that are big buyers of ground beef. That’s typically the challenge most people would say in the industry is, is the trim. And the reason is because the dairy industry, almost all of the ground beef you’re eating in the supermarket is from dairy cows.
Something I didn’t know.
Yeah, that’s a …
Fun fact. and so as a result, there is sort of theoretically more ground beef out there in the market then there should be, which means that I can get out the chalkboard and walk through the math if you really want to get into it. But it means that the ground beef on an average beef carcass sells at a price that is typically below the weighted average cost of the whole thing. So put differently, the middle meats pay for the whole operation. And you know, we’re not too dissimilar to … from that.
That makes sense. Yeah. Yeah. So you don’t fob this stuff off on your customers. You have other customers separate from your shareholders who take the organs off your hands and who buy the ground beef. You’re not going, you’re not going to have a situation similar to the vegetable CSA where you just get rutabagas for months.
Definitely not. Definitely not. That was something, you know, we really wanted to solve early on was how do you figure out a balance that, you know, sort of optimizes the whole carcass while meeting everyone’s preferences and such. And interestingly enough, I don’t know that I believed this was going to be true, but it’s largely true for, for every person that, you know, hates chicken breasts, there’s another person that loves them. Chicken breasts are an easy example.
Can you tell us a little bit about the actual operation itself. So the, the butchering and the packing and the delivery and how you get it to customers. And just a little bit about that process foryou guys.
Yeah. So, Typically we’ll have sort of rolling contracts. so we have a commitment for a certain number of animals per month. From what, you know, an active farm. We helped to coordinate the logistics of getting those animals to the slaughterhouse at the appointed time. And just to give you a sense of scale, so, a typical industrial slaughterhouse for beef for example, Might do anywhere from 10 -20,000 head in a single day.
Do they run 24 hours?
Typically they would, they’ll do two, they’ll do three shifts. So they’ll do two distinct shift in that cleaning shift. so yeah, a lot of those plants are, they’re not slaughtering 24 hours a day, but it’s open 24 hours.
Something’s happening 24 hours a day.
Relative to, you know, our local comparison, you know, our partner processors will max out at anywhere from, 20-50 head in a day. So just like a totally different order of magnitude.
Off by a thousand.
Yeah. Very different scale. Yeah. So that allows for quite a bit more individual attention for the animal, which we think leads to different animal welfare outcomes. And it also yields differences in cut quality. So typically in an industrial slaughterhouse you wouldn’t be breaking things all the way down to retail cuts. So it’d be shipped in primals and such. But there’s still a lot of messiness that can occur, right at that level that affects the quality of the final product. But essentially, you know, things are broken down. Our specifications brought back here to our fulfillment center. We sort of pick and pack out of here and then run our own delivery trucks out of here to all of our member families. The pick and pack side of that is crazy complicated in terms of, how the animal is balanced. So we have a handful of algorithms trying to balance th — you know, what comes in a carcass against everyone’s preferences and what they’ve gotten historically and all of that. so that’s, something we’ve developed over a long period of time that I think is like on the technical side of the things we do, one of the more interesting, and it’s because like I said, that the, if the core equation is whole animal and whole animal out, we got to get really good at that for a good customer experience basically. Yeah. So for example, if you got, I mean the idea of is working properly is if you got flank steak this month, you don’t get it next month and somebody who hasn’t had flank steak for a while is more likely to get it.
At what point did you need that? You started in 2014. Is that right?
We did a small pilot program of like 50 families in November and December the year before. But yeah, we opened at the public in 2014.
I’m just trying to imagine how this would work at a smaller scale than what you’re currently, so it makes sense to me now. But I’m trying to imagine you starting out and making all of this work.
Yeah. So I got this really smart idea that it didn’t make sense to pack the shares beforehand and I was just going to pack them in the back of the van. So I had this refrigerated van and then I would drive to these people’s houses and in their driveway or in some cases in like a inappropriate parking spot, blocking traffic. I would get into the back of the van and then sift through these boxes …
Trying to remember who had flank steak last week!
Yeah, exactly. And it’s all sort of written on wet paper that’s like, ripping. And I didn’t have a digital scale. I had like an analog fish scale with a hook. And so it would like you, you put, I would put the stuff in the bag and then hang it on the fish scale and then you’ve got to wait like 10 seconds until it settles on a weight. And then it’s like, Aw man, I’m half a pound over. I gotta start all over again. And it was literally like 20 minutes while I’m sitting in the back of this van. And so people would come out of the house, like knock on the door, like, is everything okay in there? And I’m like, yeah, it’s fine! Stay outside. I’ll be right out. So yeah, there was some mishaps, misdirection along the way.
Like, you’re not butchering it in the back of the bed. Right?
I mean, there was maybe a point at which I considered that too, but, you know, missteps along the way, I guess.
Where would you like to see the meat industry in 10 years since you’re a business that depends upon being local. I don’t imagine that you want to take over the whole country, you, but like, what do you think would be a good thing that could happen?
That’s a great question. I’d like to see, I’d like to see people eating less meat, But feel really great about the meat that they’re eating. And so in some cases, that does mean spending a little bit more, on a per unit basis. But keeping your sort of overall meat budget the same. And I think your dollar goes further, certainly from the farmer perspective and from the ecological environmental welfare perspective, if thought about in that way. So, the way we think about that in the region is maybe a little bit more ambiguous of just contributing to this agricultural Renaissance that’s going on in the region. I say this all the time. But the average age of farmers is declining in the region. The size of farms is declining.
Which yeah. In case people don’t know, in general, we’re hearing always about a trend of farmers getting older and older.
Totally, everywhere else in the country. That’s, that’s the case. And the number of farms is increasing. So this is the only region in the country where all those indicators are going in what I see to be there, right direction. So, you know, our, our vision is just to continue to build on this community of people that want to contribute to that. So, we think that this region of the country is uniquely suited to do that for the reasons I talked about in terms of the soil suitability and climactic suitability. And then you’ve also got this massive group of people that live in the surrounding metropolitan areas, that seem to be moving along the spectrum towards more local, more whole real foods. and so combining those two that’s sort of continues to be our vision of a more sustainably fed region. And then beyond the sort of medium term, there is definitely the potential for the Northeast to feed itself from a protein perspective. And so if we had to align around any sort of longer term grandiose vision, that would probably be it. It’s like, can, can this region actually produce enough protein to support, you know, the entire greater Boston area, the entire New York city, greater Metro area. Because we, we definitely think the answer’s yes.
I mean, is there anything else? I guess the only other parting thing is, is there anything else you want to talk about or say or any story you want to tell?
I think one, one area I didn’t touch on is just, yeah, one of the problems with the industrialized food system is that when you use your food dollars at the grocery store, the impact of those choices are somewhere else and on someone else. And they’re sort of out of sight and out of mind. And that disconnect causes a lot of problems, a lot of environmental problems, a lot of ecological problems. And frankly, regardless of your politics, a lot of political problems. Because in the absolute, you go too far down this spectrum and you end up with something that looks like Hunger Games, where you’ve got these rural sectors sort of toiling on behalf of this urban sector that, and there’s very few paths between them. And so that’s a core part of what we do is trying to better connect rural and urban. Because when you have that connection and you see the impact of your food dollars and the stories of the farmers that are working every day to produce the highest quality food that they can, you tend to make choices that better support the surrounding ecological environment. You tend to make choices that result in better outcomes from an animal welfare perspective. And it’s maybe to boil it down like you don’t, it was about, I don’t want to use a a bad word, but you know, you don’t, uh …
This is an R-rated podcast, we’re all adults here.
Okay. Well you typically don’t just, you know, go to the bathroom in your backyard. And so it’s the same situation of like, if it’s within your own community and there’s people you have a sort of, a sense of who they are, the impacts are just much closer to home and you sort of take care of it.
Yeah. You you feel like you have a stake.
Totally. And not to mention the fact that like, I think this is a really special part of the world. Attachment to place has always been really, really important to me and I’m sort of like a New Englander through and through and that makes it, all the more special for me to like try to build a business that’s impactful in the region. And I would love for people to share that appreciation for, you know, what, what this region is about and why it’s special relative to every other region in the world. And there’s a lot of things we do that I think that support that vision of, of New England’s future.
Thanks so much for spending this time with us sharing your expertise.
Appreciate it. Thank you very much.
Thank you guys for coming. Really nice to meet you.
Thanks for listening to The Stories Behind Our Food podcast by Equal Exchange, a worker owned cooperative. Love this episode? Please subscribe, rate and leave a review. Be sure to visit equalexchange.coop to join the conversation, purchase products and learn more about small scale farmers and the global supply chain. This episode is produced by Gary Goodman with hosts, Kate chess and Danielle Robidoux. Join us next time for another edition of the Stories Behind Our Food.
Do you really need another reason to include more chocolate in your life? Hosting a chocolate sale can help you earn money for your group while offering decadent, organic chocolate bars. In addition to making people very happy, you’ll also be raising awareness about the importance of choosing ethical, slave-labor-free chocolate. You’re only 5 steps away from a successful chocolate sale!
Chocolate is certainly a welcome offering any time of year, although we find that it works well to time your sale around chocolate-centric holidays where people are looking yummy treats and gifts. We recommend planning a chocolate sale near Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Easter or Passover, Halloween, World Fair Trade Day (May 9th), or during Fair Trade Month (October).
Pick a day you know a lot of people will be around. Once you have the date set, it’s time to let people know. To help you promote we’ve created posters, social media graphics and an e-newsletter template. List what payment methods you’ll accept so people will come with cash if that’s what you’re accepting. Here are some additional graphics that you can use to create your own promotional materials.
You can further educate potential buyers about how Equal Exchange’s fair trade chocolate supply chain is different than most by posting this infographic.
Setting your sale date will also let you know when you need to order from Equal Exchange to receive your chocolate in time. We recommend leaving at least 10 business days between the time you order and when you want your shipment to arrive.
Offer a variety that will cater to chocolate fans of different tastes.
For the dark chocolate lovers: Panama 80% Extra Dark Chocolate, Very Dark 71% Chocolate. Dark Hot Chocolate Mix
For those with a sweet-tooth: Dark Chocolate Caramel Crunch with Sea Salt, Coconut Milk Chocolate, Milk Chocolate. Milk Chocolate with Caramel Crunch and Sea Salt, Hot Cocoa Mix
For those with adventurous tastes: Dark Chocolate Lemon, Ginger and Pepper, Spicy Hot Cocoa Mix, Extreme Dark 88% Chocolate, Total Eclipse 92% Dark Chocolate, Coconut Milk Chocolate
Classic chocolate choices: Dark Chocolate with Almond, Dark Chocolate with Mint Crunch, Dark Chocolate with Orange, Hot cocoa mix
If you want to sell bite-sized dark chocolate minis, buy them in bulk and sell them for $0.25-$0.50 each. We even sell a chocolate mini packaging kit to make 35 small bags of minis that you can sell as a bundle.
Here’s our full wholesale product list so you can see all of the options.
Order online or call the order into our Customer Service Team at 774-776-7366 9-5 Eastern, Monday-Friday. The case unit of measure gets you 12 chocolate bars for $29.60 and cases of 6 cocoa canisters for $32. A vertical display rack is something to consider to neatly show your offering if you have a lot of chocolate to sell.
Because chocolate is a consumable product we’re unable to sell on consignment for safety and quality reasons. Purchase only what you are confident you can sell through before the best-by dates.
Choose some add-ons to liven up your display like posters, chocolate pamphlets, a sale poster and Power to the Farmer stickers.
View additional downloadable educational resources here.
When you buy by the case, each individual chocolate bar costs you $2.47. But you can charge $3, $4 or even $5 a bar depending on your fundraising goals. If you’re not looking to raise any funds but just cover the cost of advertising materials and samples, charging $5 for two bars makes the bars affordable for many people. You can even pre-bundle a variety of five different bars and sell them for a reasonable $15.
If you’re hoping to fundraise and reach a specific goal, here are some guidelines:
By selling each bar for $3, you’ll profit $0.53 per bar ($6.36 per case of 12). If you charge $4 a bar, you’ll earn $1.53 for each bar sold ($18.36 per case of 12).
Cocoas are $5.33 each when purchased by the case, so charging $7 is a fair price that leaves you a modest profit of $10 per 6 canisters sold.
Calculate how many cases you’ll need to sell to reach your fundraising goal.
Then use this handy product and price list template to input your specific sale items and the coordinating prices.
Based on your mark-up, you can figure out how many bars you can spare for sampling and still make your profit goal. When people sample something, they’re more likely to want to buy it! Put out tongs and a plate of bite sized pieces for people to try. Place the bars for sale right by the sample so people can find everything easily. Consider posting allergen information near the sample (ie, contains nuts, dairy, etc) for safety. Many of our chocolate bars are vegan, and all are gluten-free and soy-free.
Sampling will help you in another way — you’ll have conversations about what people like best and you’ll know what to order next time!
Set up a hot cocoa bar and sell customizable cups of cocoa
Host a chocolate and coffee pairing event
Give an educational presentation (<— under Video and PowerPoint) on how cacao is grown and why fair trade chocolate matters
Organize a chocolate tasting and end it with a chocolate sale
Why does the cup of Joe to-go you buy from that chain or local coffee shop taste so good? One reason might be the freshness of the beans. Those coffee shops serve a lot of coffee. The beans they use are ground every day and never have time to go stale. Freshness makes a huge difference in the taste of a cup of coffee.
If you’re brewing at home, whole bean coffee often delivers superior flavor. Why? When properly stored, pre-ground coffee stays fresh for just 3-5 months, but whole beans will last for a whopping 6-9 months. Order it in five pound bulk bags and grind just what you need, when you need it. You’ll taste the difference!
Equal Exchange roasts coffee at our headquarters and ships it out to cafes and specialty grocery stores all over the country – and to savvy customers. When you order directly from us, you’re getting high-quality beans that have just been roasted, not some batch that’s been sitting around at a warehouse. And there are lots of options to choose from!
Try an exciting single-origin or a new roast level. Or a fantastic new blend. Or even a limited edition seasonal from our Women in Coffee series. These coffees were created with cafes in mind, but you can enjoy them at home too, in bulk. The full range just isn’t available in our smaller retail packages.
The word “bulk” might conjure up a ridiculously giant package on the shelves of a buying club or discount store. But our bulk bags are five pounds – totally human-sized. Why buy that much? You’ll save money and waste less packaging.
Let’s do the math. Let’s say you like Love Buzz. You can buy a 2-pack of bulk bags for $89.00 for 160 oz of coffee. That’s 56 cents an ounce. If you buy a single 12-oz bag off the shelf at a store, you’ll likely pay between $8.50 and $10. That comes out to 70-83 cents per oz.
That’s not the only savings. Coffee needs to be preserved from light and air to stay fresh. That means an airtight bag with a one-way valve. Bulk coffee means fewer bags — one bag for every five pounds of beans, instead of six bags — so it’s a win for the environment, too.
To us, good coffee means coffee that’s grown by people who can make a fair living from their crop. We pay farmers a fair price, and we’re proud to share their stories – including innovations in their practices to involve youth in farming, preserve biodiversity, and diversify income to improve their communities. All Equal Exchange coffee, bulk or no, is fair trade.
Want the longest shelf-life and freshest taste? Preserve your beans from light, air and moisture. Read more about how to store coffee the correct way.
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No dessert celebrates the holidays, friends, and family quite like a pie! Equal Exchange’s chocolate supply chain coordinator, Laura Bechard, can attest to that. She grew up in the pie business and from an early age was rolling out pie dough, crimping crusts, and piping whipped cream at her family’s restaurant. The Norske Nook is a quaint family-style restaurant with several locations in Wisconsin. It thrives on the small-town crowd and its regulars who enjoy it for the comfort food and warm coffee. Over the years, it has gained quite a reputation for its stellar, homemade pies, and now attracts tourists and travelers who go out of their way to make a pit stop for pie.
A few years ago, the Norske Nook began using Equal Exchange’s Organic Baking Cocoa because restaurant owner Jerry Bechard noticed that it adds a richness and depth to their chocolate pies that couldn’t be tasted with conventional cocoa powder.
One of Laura’s favorite recipes from the restaurant unites her love of pies with her passion for sustainably sourced chocolate: Death by Chocolate. The chocolate cookie crust, chocolate cheesecake base, and chocolate pudding make a delectable triple threat.
This decadent pie is a chocolate-lover's dream. Organic baking cocoa and chocolate chips give it a depth of flavor.
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Love candy? When you make your own Fair Trade Almond Joys, you know exactly what’s in them. In the case of these delightful bites, that means almonds and chocolate that are fair trade and organic! Mimi Clark of Veggie Gourmet shared this vegan recipe, which uses brown rice syrup, a low-fructose sweetener.
Place each candy on a plate lined with waxed paper. Refrigerate until set, around 15 minutes. Or freeze. (You want to allow the candy to warm before eating — it tastes best at room temperature.)
If you enjoyed this recipe, try some of our other fair trade desserts! And sign up for our twice-monthly newsletter.
Have you ever worried about giving gifts that aren’t quite right? No one wants to hand out presents that recipients don’t really want or aren’t sure how to use. Why not try out this idea for sustainable gifts you can make at home? Tuck coffee beans into a festive, thrifted mug — the gift is personal, yet affordable, the mug can be reused, and there’s no extra packaging to throw away! (And you don’t need to be artistic or have crafting skills to pull this off.) Here’s how we did it:
First, pick out mugs from your favorite thrift shop or second-hand store. It’s a little like a treasure hunt. Think about the people on your list and try to find designs you think they’ll enjoy. And pick up a few extra mugs for those last-minute guests you aren’t expecting.
Place a clean paper filter in each mug and pour in whole bean coffee to fill. Equal Exchange sells our fair trade and organic coffee beans in five pound bulk bags. (Check out our wide selection here.) By splitting up a bag between many mugs, you use much less packaging — and you’re being thrifty, too.
Tie each filter closed with a ribbon to keep the beans inside. That’s it! You’re all done! But in order to make the gift seem extra-special, consider adding a gift tag. This is your chance to let the coffee-lover know what roast you chose for them and where in the world it came from. You might even want to mention that it’s fair trade — the people who grew this coffee make a fair living. They work everyday to improve their communities and green the environment. That’s a gift that’s pretty hard to beat! Learn fast facts about fair trade here.
When your friends and family receive these sustainable gifts, they can transfer the beans to an airproof container for storage. That will keep the coffee fresh until its ground, brewed — and poured back in the mug to be sipped. Looking for more coffee storage tips? We’ve got you covered.
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What if spice farmers had a way to sell their freshest and most unusual varieties for what they’re really worth? What if chefs and home cooks on the other side of the globe had access to spices they’d never tasted before — and the stories of where they came from? That’s the concept behind Burlap & Barrel. This month, we talked to co-founder Ethan Frisch to hear all about what this fair trade company is doing differently.
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Everyday grocery store items like bananas, chocolate, coffee — these are global commodities. They pass through a lot of people’s hands on their way from the fields to your grocery cart. This is The Stories Behind Our Food podcast, the podcast where expert guests share insider knowledge about every step along the process. I’m Danielle Robidoux — and I’m Kate Chess — and we’re your hosts.
Awesome, we’re here with Ethan from Burlap & Barrel. Thank you so much for joining us. We’re kind of just wanting to dive right in. I’ve met you a few times. I have heard through the grapevine some stories of an ice cream truck and maybe that’s where things began. Can you talk a little bit about that project?
Yeah, so, my current company, Burlap & Barrel is my second, food business and my second attempt to bring together food and politics and activism. My first was an ice cream cart in the summer of 2010 on the streets of New York city. I had been a pastry chef and the restaurant that I was working at closed. And, I decided to start an ice cream cart. with my current business partner — he and I worked together on that project also. It was an activist ice cream cart. So all of the flavors were inspired by revolutions and political movements and we donated 100% of the profits to support marginalized communities in New York city. And in particular, the Street Vendors Project, which is a street vendor advocacy group here in New York. We were selling ice cream on the street and we wanted to support other entrepreneurs who were also selling food on the street but maybe didn’t have the privilege that we had of being native English speakers and, and us citizens. So, so that’s what we did and we, we had flavors — all kinds of crazy flavors. We had flavors like 72% dark chocolate and port wine ice cream, which we served with brulee’d frozen bananas. And we had a, a blowtorch on the cart and we were brulee-ing slices of banana to order. And we had a, a masala chai ice cream. We had a Burmese, monk uprising, lemongrass, ginger — a lemongrass, mango and palm sugar sorbet. You know, we had all kinds of good stuff and, and, we tried to use ice cream as an entry point to talk about politics, but you know, sometimes that works, sometimes people just want to eat their ice cream and be left alone, which, you know, whatever their prerogative.
What was your favorite ice cream title?
My favorite ice cream title. So we tried to give them names, related to, to the, the revolutions or the social movements that we had based them on. Maybe my favorite one was a Dominican inspired ice cream float, which we called, las Mariposas. There were three sisters in the anti-Trujillo movement in the Dominican Republic, who sort of led a peaceful, mostly peaceful uprising against, his dictatorship. so we named it after them and they were called the butterflies, the mariposas. And it was a Malta float, so it was a Malta soda with a scoop of a sweet cheese and guava swirl ice cream that we had made. So that, that was, that was one of my favorites, sweet cheese guava. And in a Malta float. We also had a roast duck, a Chinese roast duck ice cream, which was definitely the, the weirdest one we did. It was our last, our last weekend of the summer, we wanted to go out with a bang. And so we did this — we got to roast ducks from, a Cantonese, a place in Chinatown that I really liked, and stewed them in milk and cream. In the ice cream base along with the Chinese five spice ingredients, which are actually pretty sweet. It’s ginger and cinnamon and star anise and Szechuan peppercorns and cloves. So it’s, it’s a very sweet blend of spices. And so it didn’t seem like such a stretch to push that flavor profile away from savory, which is where it’s usually applied into a sweet application. And to do it with a duck, that we, we cooked into the ice cream base. So when you took a bite of the ice cream, there were actually a little flecks of duck meat in the ice cream itself. So it was a really interesting flavor profile. I’d come from a Michelin starred restaurant. I had tried to bring this sort of, fine dining or very creative mentality of cooking to the ice cream cart, which is, you know, usually just like vanilla ice cream and sprinkles. And this was, this was trying to find another, another way to present ice cream.
And what happened next?
So, you know, it’s hard to run an ice cream cart on the streets of New York city after September. So we closed down the cart. I went to graduate school. My business partner, Ori, moved to San Francisco to start a startup in Silicon Valley. And I, from graduate school where I was studying international development, I w I moved to Afghanistan where I worked for a big nonprofit called the Aga Khan Foundation. I was working on an infrastructure project. We were building roads and bridges, lots of schools throughout very remote rural areas of North Eastern Afghanistan.
How’d you find your way back to spices?
So I lived in Afghanistan for a couple of years and it was really being there that I, I that I first realized how complicated and diverse the world of spices was. I had not thought about it before. I had worked at a really high end Indian restaurant in New York city. I thought I knew my way around a spice cabinet, but, but I just, I got to Afghanistan and started tasting varieties of cumin and coriander and saffron that I had never come across before. Some of that was through my travels within the country. I was spending a lot of time in the province in the far Northeast where, where this particular variety of cumin grows wild. But I also, I lived in a really nice house with a nice kitchen in a quiet residential neighborhood of Kabul. I was able to walk around and, and do my grocery shopping on a daily basis. And and there was a very cute little spice shop, a couple of blocks from my house that I would go to and have long conversations in my broken Farsi and their broken English with the father and son who ran the shop. And you know, they would pull out containers of coriander seeds. This is the coriander from this part of the country. And this is the coriander from that part of the country. And here’s the one that we got from India and the one that we got from Pakistan and the one that we got from Iran. And so being able to smell and taste those origins in spices in a way that I never had before was really exciting and got me thinking about this completely overlooked category in kitchens in the United States.
So I, I, you know, it started off just bringing stuff home to share with, with friends, with people in the restaurant industry, people I cooked with. Cause I, I just found these ingredients to be so compelling and had never tasted anything like them in the US and I, I just wanted to share them. So, I mean it was not, it was not a business in the early days. It was, it was me just bringing duffle bags full of cumin and saffron and almonds and, and all kinds of things home. and over the course of several years, I started to figure out what it would look like to turn that into more of a, a company, a more formal operation. And so that’s, that’s where we are today. The business launched about two and a half years ago in early 2017. I’d been working on it actively for several months before we sort of for– we formally launched and, and really for several years thinking through the idea, before we got anywhere close to being able to launch it. And in those early days especially and and now as well, thinking about other companies that have done similar work that have paved the way for this model of direct trade, in, in spices in our case, but obviously Equal Exchange being one of the first companies to do it for coffee, for cacao, has really has really paved the way for companies like mine to, to understand how to do this both on the sourcing relationships with partner farmers side, but also on the marketing side, how to build a market for a new version of a, of a food that people thought they knew, but really, really is just much more diverse and complicated than anybody realized.
I think there’s a lot to follow up on there, but I’m curious if you can give us just an overview of your scope right now. How many countries do you work in, that kind of thing?
We work with spice farmers in, I think we’re up to 12 countries now, total of about 150 farmers. Some of them we work with as individuals and some of them are members of cooperatives or other associations of farmers. Several of the spices that we import actually are not formally farmed. They’re not cultivated. They grow wild. The cumin I mentioned in Afghanistan. We get a wild sumac from Turkey. We have wild kelp, seaweed from Iceland. And, and really kind of coming in with a very high quality product, working with farmers who often have been growing something really exceptional for decades, but have never had an outlet to sell it — especially at its true value before.
Often they’ve been selling it into the commodity market where it gets mixed in with lower quality lots where, there’s just a lot of fragmentation and consolidation. A farmer sells to a truck driver sells to somebody with a warehouse or, a little shed in a, in the, in the nearby village and that person sells to somebody with a bigger truck and a bigger warehouse. And you have this essentially a funnel effect, very similar, I think to what you find in coffee and chocolate. A lot of smallholder farmers at the top of the funnel and a couple of very powerful exporters’ at the bottom of the funnel. And the farmers really have no idea where their product is going once it leaves the farm. They don’t have a whole lot of understanding of the economics of the supply chain beyond, beyond their portion of it. They definitely don’t know who, who uses it or how it gets used when it gets to, a kitchen in the United States. and they just don’t have a lot of control over how it gets sold or how it’s marketed. And so that’s really, those are the problems on the, on the farming side that we’re solving or we’re trying to solve, setting farmers up to export their own crops, doing all of the FDA registration, the food safety testing, the regulatory and logistical work that’s required to bring, food into the US for the first time. Most of the farmers we work with have never exported before, or at the very least, have never export it to the US before. And yeah, giving, giving farmers who have already been growing something really special often who have already been dissatisfied with the commodity market, who had been looking for a way to do some of what we are, we are working with them on but have not found an import partner to work with. And that’s, that’s — it’s really exciting. It’s really hard. It’s not that hard to find spice farmers, but it’s really hard to find spice farmers who are growing something exceptional and who have this kind of entrepreneurial orientation to begin with.
How do you go about doing that?
Yeah, good question.
How do you find those people?
That’s the fun part. I mean some of it is, is deciding where in the world we want to source a particular ingredient from and then going to that place and meeting farmers and hoping that we’d find the right, the right one or the right couple of people to work with. We did this in, in Vietnam earlier this year. We spent about a year planning the trip. And then we finally felt like we had made enough contacts. We had figured out enough specific information about where in the country we wanted to go. And so we went for a couple of weeks. End of February, beginning of March of this year. We — I had, I had read and heard about the best star anise in the world growing the Vietnamese-Chinese border. And so that was our first stop. We spent a few days with a few different people who, who kind of helped us out as guides. One was a local government representative, a ministry of foreign affairs officer whose job it was to bring in foreign investment into that, into that area of Vietnam. So she took us around and introduced us to a bunch of farmers. Another person, actually a really funny coincidence, I have a Vietnamese chef friend here in New York city, who happened to grow up in that part of Vietnam. And so she put us in touch with her sister who knew some farmers and we spent a day with her sister and had a beautiful dinner with her whole extended family and Skyped her into this dinner. She was in New York city. And we were in this little town on the, on the Chinese-Vietnamese border. So we really meet farmers in all kinds of different ways. Some of it is personal contacts, some of it is is through NGOs or, or local government offices. but, but like I said, the real challenge is not finding farmers but finding the right farmers, the farmers who are growing something really special and who want to work with us.
Yeah. Sometimes I feel like some of the distance and some of the many links of the supply chain have to do with the fact that local middlemen know the farmers and importers may not, and they may not have cultural competence and they may not have language skills. So you sort of have to — or you feel that you have to — deal with someone else instead of dealing directly with farmers. And I wonder how you get around those challenges.
Yeah, I mean I think you’re, you’re absolutely right. And I think in the, in the discussion of direct supply chains, it’s really easy to, to crap on the middleman, right? As someone who is not adding value and increasing price. And complicating everything for everybody. But, but we forget, right, that the middleman, the truck driver who pulls up to the farm and buys the farmer’s, spices or coffee or whatever it is, like they live in a community together. They’ve been working together for 20 years. There’s a deep relationship between those two individuals that is really easy to, to ignore or forget about from, from the distance, right. Sitting here in the United States. it’s easy to forget about that and obviously we can’t replicate that exactly. But, I think one of the things that’s enabled our business to, to exist at all is, is new communication technology, which didn’t exist 15 or 20 years ago or 10 or 15 years ago, even.
So, I mean, I can’t, I can’t drive the truck to the farm, but I can go and meet a farmer in person. I can maintain a relationship on WhatsApp or Skype or Facebook Messenger. I can send pictures of a dish that a chef has made in New York with the spice that they grew. They can send me pictures of, of the plants as the spices are ripening, they can send me pictures of their family. You know, we can have a real, a real relationship, a real, line of communication that wasn’t possible even just a few years ago. And so that, that has sort of become our proxy, for that, for the, the relationship that a farmer might have with a traditional middleman. And, and you know, Google translate is, is magic. I can have a conversation with a farmer in Vietnam. I speak no Vietnamese, he speaks no English, but using Google translate, we can, we can get our point across 75 or 80% of the time without too much trouble. And, and, being able to do that is invaluable. Both, both in being able to build a business around it, but also just to having a relationship with somebody who you previously would never have been able to connect with in that way.
That’s all super interesting. I guess I wonder too, if you’re kind of traveling to all these different places, star anise in Vietnam, kelp in Iceland, Turkey, is there any story or producer story that stands out to you that you’d like to share with folks?
Oh, so many. I mean, they’re … we work with a lot of individuals and they’re all really interesting and different obviously, but there is definitely a common energy, a common entrepreneurial hustle that I find that we show up on a farm. And this has been true in Tanzania and Vietnam and Indonesia and Guatemala and you know, regardless of language and nationality and culture and age often that the best, the best situations are when we show up on the farm. We present a farmer with, with our concept, with our business model. And they say like, what took you so long? I’ve been waiting, I’ve been waiting for you to show up for years. And, and we’ve had that reaction in a lot of different places. And, and it’s so exciting because, you know, there, there’s an energy on the supply side and I, and now hopefully there’s an energy on the demand side here. But there has never been a way for those two sides of the supply chain to talk to each other directly. And so to meet farmers, you know, I have this idea that maybe I could import things directly. So to meet farmers who had the same idea on the export side, on the supply side is really exciting. Someday we’re going to have a, a global spice farmer’s conference and we’re going to put them all in a room together and they’re all gonna love each other cause they all have this similar, this similar drive. and, and that’s what I mean when I say it’s easy to meet farmers and hard to find farmers who are, who want to work with us because, you know, I would say one in 10 farmers has been thinking about this idea is, is really excited about it. Most of them, the commodity market isn’t great, but it’s what they know. It’s reliable, it’s comfortable there, the relationships around it. And so for most farmers that we meet, they think our idea is funny and not really something that’s for them. So to be able to bring together all of the people who had been thinking about this and had no idea, right, they don’t know each other and they don’t speak the same language.
I mean, we work with a cardamom farmer in Guatemala, which is a whole interesting story in itself because cardamom is native to Southern India. It’s not a Guatemalan or central American crop, but it was introduced by German coffee farmers in the late 1800s as a parallel crop. it grows exceptionally well there. And most cardamom, I would say almost all cardamom in the United States is grown in Guatemala despite the connection or the association with India. he, he’s an indigenous guy. He’s a part of the Kʼicheʼ Maya group in central Guatemala, Alto Vera Paz up in the cloud forests. He didn’t finish high school. He, somehow has pieced together the only vertically integrated cardamom company in Guatemala. So he grew up working on other people’s farms, picking cardamom for other people. I saw that they were selling the cardamom to, to people with pickup trucks. So he, you know, he followed a truck. Nobody else did that or nobody else has been able to do that in the way that he has. He’s now in his mid fifties, so he’s been working on this for, you know, 30 something years. he owns his own farm. He owns his own drying facility, which is, which is challenging in cardamom. You can’t sun dry it both because it’s in the rainforests and not a lot of sun, but also because when you sun dry cardamom, it bleaches it and you want to hold a darker color. That’s part of the way that value is, is, is determined. So, he has his own drying facility and he, with a business partner, owns the export process. So, I mean he’s, he’s the only person in Guatemala who has, who has done this. I went last — actually a year and a half ago, with a journalist to write a profile of him and we must’ve talked to 40 or 50 people in the cardamom industry. Everybody from, farm workers on other people’s farms to a smallholder farmers to processors, dryers, exporters. And nobody else had come across someone who had built their own fully consolidated supply chain for this crop. and he’s, he’s a nutcase. He’s, he’s insane. As you would imagine, somebody who has, you know, one in 10 million has done this, this incredible thing. and I, and I love him and I’ve, I’ve been to visit him at least once a year for the last three years and we have a really a really close personal relationship as well as a business relationship.
But, but I mean, imagine the kind of person who looks at a system and says, I’m going to do something totally different. I’m going to throw it out the window and start from scratch. And, and that energy that, that hustle is just, is so exciting and something that I’ve had the pleasure of, of encountering in a lot of different places. Are you a nut case? I try to be. I mean, I mean I, yeah, like, you know, I, I looked at a spice cabinet and said, like what about all the other things? What am I not seeing? So if you go to the supermarket, it appears that there are a lot of different brands on the shelf, but actually, and this is true in a lot of, a lot of commodities and especially around, large corporate food, it appears that there is, that there are choices that are, there appears to be diversity, but actually it’s all coming from the same importers or exporters.
Almost all cinnamon that you buy is Indonesian. There are a couple of big export companies and a handful of big import companies. And regardless of the brand that you’re buying, you’re, you’re buying the same product. And then on top of that, you’re buying a product that’s, that’s really, really old. Supermarket spices are easily three years old by the time you buy them. And then you see, you know, we all have spices in our kitchen cabinets that we’ve been sitting on for for years. My, I think my grandmother has clothes that she’s, she’s had since 1982. you know, we have this, we have this supply chain that treats an ingredient as if it’s completely shelf-stable, which, you know, it’s a, it’s a plant. It’s, it’s not, it’s not shelf stable. Freshness is really important and not to say that you need to get it within, you know, a week of the harvest, but to, to know the harvest date of what you’re, what you’re buying and what you’re cooking with, to understand the, the trip that it took to get from the mountains of Northern Sumatra to your kitchen. and, and to make more specific decisions in the way that you might make decisions about meat or vegetables about what you want to cook with and how you want to use it.
How do you communicate that to customers? It seems to me like two things you’re doing really differently is working directly with farmers or farmer groups. That’s one thing. And then another thing is like sourcing really high quality spices and getting them fresher. And so there’s this big quality piece and then there’s potentially this sort of human rights piece. And I imagine different folks are interested in different parts of that. So how do you tell those stories?
Yeah, I mean those, those two sides of it go very much hand in hand. That by working with, with entrepreneurial, highly skilled farmers, we’re able to get a, an exceptional quality of product. And often something that’s too expensive for the commodity market that a farmer — you know, a farmer will grow a certain quantity of black pepper and it’ll fall into different quality grades. Just by the nature of that, you know, that’s how crops work. And, and often the, the top grade of whatever crop a farmer is growing, they can’t sell for a price that, that matches the value, matches the quality of that crop. And so first and foremost, we’re buying that. We’re buying the top grade, that highest quality product, that often farmers can’t sell into the commodity market. They wind up selling it locally. They wound up mixing it into other lots. But they’re not making — or at least previously, were not making, were not making money, proportionate to the value to the quality of that event crop. So that’s one thing. By working directly, by having these strong relationships, we get really high quality spices.
And then in terms of communicating it, it’s, it’s, it’s challenging. You know, some, some of our customers are professional chefs. The, the restaurants that we supply, they don’t care so much about the sourcing process. They don’t care that we’re a public benefit corporation and here’s our social impact at origin and that’s not their interests. They care about quality. So is this the best black pepper we’ve ever tasted? Yes. Done. Conversation over. But, but we have seen, I think in, in this sort of second wave of the farm to table movement, we have seen chefs start to think more about the, the non fresh ingredients that they’re cooking with. So whether that’s — you know, beyond the, the meat and the vegetables, but whether that’s wine and, and we’ve seen a rise in natural wines, biodynamic wines, whether that’s coffee and tea chefs wanting to know more about where those ingredients come from and spices are part of that conversation. But we also work directly with consumers. We have a, a website where we sell spices and ship small jars all across the country. And home cooks, actually in a lot of ways have, have been more adventurous than professional chefs. They’re not constrained by, what they have to put on a menu and, and food prices and making sure that they’re, you know, they’re making their margin on a dish. A home cook can buy a jar of spices for six or eight bucks and, and experiment and, and really get into it. And then as much information as, as they want to dig into, we have on our website or we have on our social media, our Instagram, in particular, background on, where everything comes from, who grew it. I really believe that food tastes better when, when you know where it comes from. And so being able to tell those stories to — whether it’s a home cook or a professional chef, if they’re interested, if they want to know, we have that information available for them.
Yeah, sure. And maybe a fun question. What is your favorite spice?
Oh, it’s so hard. My favorite spice, the answer will be different tomorrow, but, right now I’m really excited about, a couple of things we’re, we’re getting in at shipment of, I should say we just got in a shipment of this incredible cinnamon from Vietnam. It’s a variety called Royal cinnamon, an heirloom variety, grown, not in the major cinnamon producing region, but in, an older cinnamon producing region in the mountains in central Vietnam. that was the cinnamon supplier to the Royal court in Hue. These, these are from, these are 20 plus year old trees, really old trees. And as cinnamon trees get older, the, the intensity of the bark, which is what we’re eating when we’re eating cinnamon, increases. So you get really strong, sweet and spicy flavors. We went to visit a whole bunch of farmers earlier this year and got out of the car at one of the farms. We could smell them cutting the bark off the trees from probably a quarter mile away. It was like walking into a bakery with cinnamon buns right out of the oven. It was this amazing smell. But where, you know, we’re standing in the middle of a, a rice patty in Vietnam looking up the hill and there’s, there’s people pulling bark off the, off the trees up on the hill. And it’s really the most intense cinnamon I ever tasted. So that, that just, that just came in.
Another spice that I’m really excited about is a fermented white peppercorn, that we’re getting from a small farm, a family farm. A father and son operation on an Island called Bangka in Indonesia, in between Java and Sumatra. And black pepper, most people don’t realize, despite eating it every single day, black pepper grows on a climbing vine in little bunches like grapes. And there’s a fruit. So when you eat black pepper, you’re actually — the outer skin, what looks black, that wrinkly skin of the peppercorn is actually the dried fruit and it shrivels and dries up like a raisin. And so in, in really good black pepper, the fruit has a lot of flavor in itself. And so the spiciness is coming from the inner white pit, but there’s, it’s balanced by a sweetness and savoriness, from, from the dried fruit on the outside. On, on this Island, they’re famous for their fermentation where they use the sugar in that fruit to ferment the peppercorns. So they’ll pull the fresh peppers off the vine, they’ll tie them up in a woven sack and drop them in the river, stick them down in a river or a pond, sometimes some kind of natural pool, for a couple of weeks. And over the course of that two weeks, the sugars in the fruit of the peppercorn, ferment. And you’re left with a white pepper, which is just the inner pit of the pepper, but it’s picked up all of these funky fermented, cheesy yogurty flavors from that fermentation process. And I went to visit a couple of years ago and you can see the bubbles rising up from where they’ve dropped the sacks into the river. They’re really, they’re really fermenting underwater. And it’s, it’s the most amazing, umami savory fermented flavor. If you like yogurt, if you like stinky cheeses. This is, this is the stinky cheese of white pepper of pepper and it’s, it’s so cool.
I think you’ve sold me. Next time you come to Equal Exchange, I’m going to have to ask you to bring some of these things that you’ve talked about.
I think you sold everyone. I’m sure everyone listening to the Stories Behind Our Food at home is making a note to Google you guys and go to your website and take a look at what you’ve got.
Yeah, it’s a Burlap & Barrel.com we ship all over the country. We have, are we, I mean we supply a lot of restaurants, but we also have our retail sized glass jar, which is a standard spice jar.
Yeah, that’s awesome. I’ll be getting some myself. You’re such a great talker. You have so many great stories and a lot of that has to do with you having been to these places yourself and talk to these farmers. I wonder about the supply chain of information. This is something I think about because I do some communications for Equal Exchange. How do you — as you grow, you have people who are doing your Instagram, maybe who haven’t been to to Vietnam, you know. Like how do you, how can … you do a lot of things at Burlap & Barrel. You’re a busy guy. Your time is valuable. You’re not the only one who can be telling these stories. So how do you communicate to chefs and to home customers, the fact that you’re legit when you don’t have time — when the person who visits the country doesn’t have time to talk about this perhaps.
Yeah. Yeah, I mean it’s a, it’s a good question. And some of the places that we source from, I have not yet been to visit. And some places it’s more important to establish that personal relationship from the beginning. And in other places it’s less important. We work with a family producer of pimenton paprika in Spain. I’m going to visit them at the end of this summer for the pepper harvest, but that’ll be the first time I’m, I’m going. But you know, they’re, they’re a little more professional. They didn’t need as much hand holding as a cooperative in, in Tanzania or, or Vietnam, from the beginning. But, but I think really the goal, just like we’ve set up farmers to do their own exporting is also to set up farmers to do some of their own storytelling. So, being able to sit down with a farmer in, in whatever country I’m in, and scroll through my Instagram and say, here’s how, here’s the picture that I posted of you. Here are the pictures that I’m posting now of this experience of visiting the farm. we, there’s this, one of the things that I’ve, I’ve heard from almost every farmer that I’ve met is that they want to find more ways to add value at origin for themselves. And, and one of the ways to do that is to do some of the packaging and marketing of their own product. but, but it’s something that’s obviously, it’s really challenging. It’s marketing is really challenging for people in the United States, let alone for a farmer in Indonesia who is trying to speak to an audience in a country they’ve never been to, don’t speak the language. So, kind of showing farmers how I’m telling their stories, what aspects of their process I’m highlighting. You can’t obviously get into everything as much as I would like to. and, and then also, you know what I think makes their product special.
I’m not an expert in, in pepper cultivation, but I’ve been to pepper farms in a half dozen countries. And so I can talk to the farmer in Indonesia who is an expert in pepper cultivation and say, well, here’s what I saw them doing in Vietnam. And here’s what I saw them doing in Tanzania. And here’s some other ideas that you might be able to incorporate or learn from or contribute to. I take pictures of the tools that farmers are using in different countries to share them with my partner farmers in other countries. and so in, in Tanzania they were able to make, they have this in, in Vietnam, they, this really interesting knife that they’ve designed that they use to cut the cinnamon bark off the tree. So I took a picture of the knife, I sent it to the co-op in Tanzania and they were able to make a similar knife. So they were, they’ve been able to incorporate some, some of those techniques into their own process of harvesting the same or similar crop. So I think ideally we’d find a way for farmers to speak for themselves, to send us pictures, to send us stories to say, this is, this is the way I want my product, my spice, and my story to, to be, portrayed. And, and in some cases we do. I just posted a couple of pictures on Instagram a few days ago from our partner farm in Guatemala. He sent me, I don’t know, 45 pictures of, of, the harvest and drying of limes. We get a ground black lime, which is a really interesting ingredient. it’s, it’s a green lime, dried in the sun until it turns black and then ground into a powder, traditionally it’s used in a lot of, Persian and Iraqi cooking. But, it’s a very versatile ingredient. You sprinkle a little lime powder onto whatever you’re cooking. It tastes great. So he sent me 45 or 50 pictures of limes and a truck limes being dumped out of the truck, lines being spread out in the sun, the whole process. And so then I can pick a couple that I think tells the story succinctly and post those on our Instagram, but they’re his pictures. So trying to get farmers to do more of that, to represent themselves more is, is really the goal.
I find that so inspirational. That’s a real change that’s happened — used to be the Western traders had cameras and the people who were growing this stuff didn’t have cameras and you couldn’t share it by WhatsApp. And I think it’s great that you’ve kept up to date and are incorporating folks’ ability to tell their own stories.
Yeah, yeah. The rise of the smartphone, the rise of the camera phone, that’s, that’s really made this business, this model, this style of sourcing spices possible.
Thank you so much, Ethan. And before we sign off, I want to ask you about your podcast.
Yeah. I, I host a podcast on an internet radio station called Heritage Radio Network, which focuses completely on food. There’s about 30, 35 shows about different aspects of food and the restaurant industry. Ans our podcast, I — my cohost and I — have a podcast called Why Food and we interview people who have changed careers to work in food after having done all kinds of other things. We have, people who changed careers very late in their careers in their fifties and sixties. People who, you know, went to college, worked for a couple of years, realized that wasn’t for them and then went to culinary school and are now now pretty established, distinguished chefs. it’s a, it’s a really interesting cross section of the food industry because there’s so many stories within that, within that story of people who, who realized at some point in their life that their passion was food and they wanted to find a way to combine that with their career. And that, that has been my story. My cohost is a former attorney who’s now a baker. and and so we have all kinds of interesting people who have done really interesting things and have followed various ideas, passions, whims, hobbies, and, and come up with, with really interesting careers in food.
Thank you so much, Ethan.
Thanks for listening to the Stories Behind our Food, a podcast by Equal Exchange, a worker owned cooperative. Loved this episode? Please subscribe rate and leave a review. Be sure to visit EqualExchange.coop to join the conversation, purchase products, and learn more about small scale farmers and the global supply chain. This episode was produced by Gary Goodman with hosts, Kate Chess and Danielle Robidoux. Join us next time for another edition of the Stories Behind Our Food.