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Emily Gove

Power to the (Women) Farmers

In the fair trade world, farmers form the backbone of the supply chain and are essential partners for the businesses with whom they work. However, in discussions about farming, well-intentioned speakers on the receiving end of the supply chain tend to fit farmers into boxes, conjuring an image of “The Farmer” as a middle-aged (and in the U.S., white) male. This stereotype becomes a powerful representative for a diverse group, which actually includes all genders, ages, and races. Perpetuating the stereotype of the male farmer not only leads to generalizations, but also prevents the experiences of others from being shared and accepted.

The stereotype of farmers as men does not mean that women are less likely to do farmwork. Women have long participated in farming activities, and the FAO estimates that 43% of farmers globally are women (likely more, due to underreporting). However, a 2019 survey of U.S. farmers showed that women are less likely to call themselves farmers than men are, as they may take on tasks less associated with fieldwork, such as animal care, family management, and quality control. Professor Monica M. White attributes this tendency of gendering the farmer with capital ownership — white men are often the owners and operators of capital (farmland) to which other groups have been denied access. Those denied groups’ responsibilities, though essential to the successful operation of a family farm, are distanced from the farm and the capital it represents. Even women participating in fieldwork shied away from calling themselves farmers: women surveyed in the northeastern U.S. reported falling into the role of “farmer’s wife,” a descriptor they adopt even when doing field work and making important decisions about the farm. 

Even less is published on the experience of women in banana-producing countries, especially from the perspectives of the women farmers, themselves. The Equal Exchange banana team recently spoke with banana farmer Cecilia Manzanillas, of AsoGuabo cooperative in Ecuador, to hear her experiences and perspectives on farming and the key role that women farmers play. 

Cecilia Manzanillas stands with her family on her banana farm.
Cecilia Manzanillas stands with her family on her banana farm.

Having grown up in a farming family in Ecuador, Cecilia took over one hectare from her father in 2004, and became a member of the Asociación de Pequeños Productores El Guabo (AsoGuabo). She used her degree in business administration to run a successful farm business, and took on leadership roles on the Board of Directors of both AsoGuabo and the parish of Tenguel. Noting the care and mentorship from others along the way, Cecilia highlighted the importance of her family, who consistently supported and respected her personal decisions. Her father not only shared his knowledge about farming, business, and land stewardship, but also encouraged her to pursue what she was passionate about. 

Cecilia noted that in Tenguel, women’s roles have changed over time: 

[Before] the man would be involved in working in the field and running the actual agriculture, and women would have been in the house, or either doing the shopping, or watching kids, or doing the cooking. So now, that’s not the case anymore, women are also involved in fieldwork and agriculture directly. 

Cecilia and her father present bananas grown on their farm
Cecilia and her father present bananas grown on their farm.

Women are not only involved in fieldwork; they also take on roles in the community of Tenguel. In its early days, AsoGuabo had a female farmer as its president who paved the way for more female banana farmers to join as members of the co-op. Now, 40% of members of most community organizations in Tenguel are women, and five women serve on AsoGuabo’s Board of Directors. Tenguel’s inclusive community, which women have been shaping and reshaping over the years, has fostered the growth of a women’s collective. The collective extends opportunities to entrepreneurial women, while organizations like AsoGuabo invest time and resources in the professional development of their female members. Cecilia’s passion for accessibility and community development even led her to take an AsoGuabo-sponsored trip to the Dominican Republic, to meet members of CONACADO cooperative and exchange ideas about programming and women’s leadership. 

Women, Farming, and Empowerment

Cecilia’s advocacy for individual support and investment is not unfamiliar, but is rarely echoed in literature about women and farming. As I have left the farming world for a job in an office, and as I have researched this piece, it has been intriguing to hear armchair agriculturalists’ perspectives on what life is like for farmers, and women farmers in particular. How do they know what farmers need? Whose perspectives have informed what they say? And how, without hearing everyone’s perspective, have nonfarmers decided that it is their job to empower women in farming? Cecilia’s voice, and the voices of all farmers, are essential for dispelling myths and generalizations that tend to be propagated by those with less experience, who have the privilege of speaking on their behalf.

While fair trade as a movement works to build solidarity with producers and artisans, the power dynamics inherent in development and empowerment continue to call for a critical look at whose voices are heard. While landownership and gender roles present barriers to women farmers, talking about women as less empowered in some contexts risks taking away some of the power that they have on the ground, power that may not fit into the global North’s boxes. Women hold essential roles on family farms through the skills they have acquired, and have used these skills to claim local leadership roles. Agriculture continues to evolve, and these skills have often propelled women to develop entrepreneurial innovations for their farms as economies of tourism and “boutique” agriculture gain prominence. 

Caption: Cecilia poses outside the headquarters of farmer co-op AsoGuabo
Caption: Cecilia poses outside the headquarters of farmer co-op AsoGuabo.

Cecilia brought the issue to the foreground, pointing to inclusivity and investment in individuals as a foundation for equitable farms, organizations, and communities. Noting that historically, women in her area had been reluctant to take on leadership roles in her parish, she highlighted how the inclusive nature of her co-op was a platform for her to both invest in herself and use her leadership skills to give back to the community. As a leader, she sees not only the growth of her crops as a priority, but also the growth of people in her community:

Women, but also people in general, need to grow, that’s something that’s very important for oneself, you need to be able to learn and then to teach what you’ve learned, and have that be a constant exchange. And taking steps forward is something that’s a very beautiful thing, and going from being a producer to being part of a Board of Directors, and having people validate you as someone who has taken that step of growth is something that makes you feel very big.

Refusing to acknowledge gender as a barrier to her own career, Cecilia emphasized that when families and communities invest in and support individuals, those individuals will both flourish and continue the cycle by giving back to the communities who supported them. 

Cecilia representing AsoGuabo as board member at a local school and Fairtrade premium funding recipient
Cecilia representing AsoGuabo as board member at a local school and Fairtrade premium funding recipient.

Discussing fair trade, Cecilia reframed power dynamics at play, noting that the weekly income offered by fair trade partnerships was an opportunity for her to operate her farm more sustainably. Cecilia and members of her co-op saw the opportunity inherent in the fair trade model, and took that opportunity to market a premium product, and in turn invest in their communities. She emphasized how women can become agents of change:

“women are valuable, we are intuitive, we are entrepreneurs, we are economists. We don’t need to study the economy to be economists, we are financial in every aspect of what we do in our lives.” 

Through innovation and engagement, in bananas, agriculture, and beyond, women are an essential part of the Equal Exchange supply chain, and are innovators of the future of food. 

References

Brasier, K. J., C. E. Sachs, N. E. Kiernan, A. Trauger, and M. E. Barbercheck. 2014. Capturing the multiple and shifting identities of farm women in the Northeastern United States. Rural Sociology 79 (3):283–309. doi:10.1111/ruso.12040.

FAO. 2020. Women in Agriculture. United Nations. http://www.fao.org/reduce-rural-poverty/our-work/women-in-agriculture/en/

Frank, D. 2005. Bananeras: Women Transforming the Banana Unions of Latin America. Cambridge: South End Press. 

Hochschild, A. R. 1989. The Second Shift. New York: Viking. Print. 

Kimmel, M. 2011. The Gendered Society. 4th Ed. New York: Oxford University Press. Print. 

Kurtiş, T., G. Adams, S. Estrada-Villalta. 2016. Decolonizing Empowerment: Implications for Sustainable Well-Being. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy. DOI: 10.1111/asap. 

Leslie, I. S., J. Wypler & M. M. Bell. 2019. Relational Agriculture: Gender, Sexuality, and Sustainability in U.S. Farming, Society & Natural Resources, 32:8, 853-874, DOI: 10.1080/08941920.2019.1610626

Rosenberg, G. N. 2016. A classroom in the barnyard: Reproducing heterosexuality in interwar American 4-H. In Queering the countryside: New frontiers in rural queer studies, ed. M. L. Gray, C. R. Johnson, and B. J. Gilley, 88–106. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Seuneke, P., and B. B. Bock. 2015. Exploring the roles of women in the development of multifunctional entrepreneurship on family farms: an entrepreneurial learning approach. Wageningen University. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.njas.2015.07.001
White, M. M. 2018. Freedom farmers: Agricultural resistance and the black freedom movement. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Fighting TR4 at Your Grocery Store: A Consumer Action Guide

This is part 3 of a series from the Equal Exchange banana team, exploring the threat of Fusarium Wilt Tropical Race 4 to banana production and small-scale farmers in particular.  In Part 2, we discussed the particular challenges small-scale farmers face as they employ TR4 prevention techniques. This week, we travel to your grocery store, and look at how you, the consumer, can contribute to the fight against TR4. 

You might be wondering what YOU can do to help small-scale farmers confronted with TR4. Here are six actions to take.

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Buy fair trade certified bananas.

Purchasing bananas with the Fairtrade America stamp ensures that farmers received a fair price for their produce, and that an additional dollar per case went into a democratically managed fund, which producers put towards research, infrastructure, disease prevention, and education. Read more about how CEPIBO, one of Equal Exchange’s producer partners, is using premium funds for TR4 efforts here.


A person in a banana suit with a sign that reads "this banana protects farmers' rights"

Support research institutions.

Groups like Bioversity International and ProMusa have dedicated themselves to tracking, analyzing, and mitigating the effects of TR4. Supporting their work by reading and sharing their publications spreads awareness about the fungus and shows consumer prioritization of TR4 research efforts outside of sensationalist news coverage. 

Look for inner beauty.

With threats from both TR4 and changing weather patterns, bananas may not be as aesthetically consistent as they have been in the past. Quality may falter as producers work to stave off threats to their crops, and bananas that reach store shelves may have more blemishes and abnormal ripening patterns. By continuing to buy bananas, and appreciating that beauty is often only skin (or rather, peel) deep, you continue to support efforts to improve banana agriculture and the players across the supply chain working to bring them to your produce aisle. 

Watch your step.

The first fusarium outbreak is believed to have spread on the shoes of visitors to banana plantations. With a record number of travellers visiting tropical destinations, banana farms will be extremely vulnerable to fungal stowaways on the soles of your shoes. If you find yourself visiting a vegetable or fruit farm, do some homework beforehand to understand the risks to farmers and their produce, and scrub your shoes before and after to avoid the spread of disease. 

Diversify your cart.

If TR4 continues its spread, thousands of farmers will be affected, and their losses will ripple through the supply chain. At a grocery store level, this may jeopardize the reliability of the banana supply, which will fluctuate as farmers and shippers race to find solutions. Look for the country of origin on your banana labels, and do an online search to find other agricultural products from those countries. Some farmers may diversify their crops to protect themselves from total losses, selling supplemental products like cacao, avocados, or ginger. Support these products with your dollar, as well as other banana varieties that may start to appear on store shelves.

Mobilize.

Join the Equal Exchange Citizen Consumer network, which connects consumers to a group of passionate individuals seeking to make a change in the food system. This group organizes events and campaigns around key food issues, working to raise awareness and support of small farmers and agricultural rights at home and abroad. Your voice is just as powerful as your dollar.


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References:

2019. Bananas and avocados. Fairtrade America. http://www.fairtradeamerica.org/Fairtrade-Products/Bananas-and-Fresh-Produce

N.d. Banana genetic resources and management systems. Bioversity International. https://www.bioversityinternational.org/research-portfolio/banana-genetic-resources-and-management-systems/?L=0

Vézina, Anne. 2020.  Tropical Race 4 – TR4. ProMusa. An initiative of Bioversity International. http://www.promusa.org/Tropical+race+4+-+TR4#Efforts_to_address_the_threat_of_TR4

Locals Only? How to Live Your Values and Still Eat Bananas

The modern grocery basket is a true symbol of human innovation. Its contents span continents, offering a taste of all things weird and wonderful, at a convenient arm’s reach for the avid shopper. For many, it symbolizes feats of industry and an ostensible abundance of choice. Yet for the conscientious consumer, filling this grocery basket can be an agonizing task – as we sift through terms like natural, organic, and sustainable and try to decide which product really means it, we each develop our own rules for being “good” shoppers. We place our faith in labels like fair trade and USDA organic, and strive to buy food that is local, whether that takes the form of commitment to food grown in one’s state or within a radius of 100 miles.

Growing up on a family farm, I was lucky enough to have local food available to me every summer. Readers may be picturing a Kingsolverian Eden, or perhaps a blog photo of an influencer sitting serenely amidst sunflowers. The reality is, of course, far less glamorous: days could be spent getting intimately acquainted with corn borer worms, searching amidst dozens of boxes for one rotten tomato that you can smell but can’t find, or explaining to the inquiring customer that everything really is grown right here, pointing outside to the cornstalks and pantomiming the passage of time with the explanation of when peaches will be ready. Life at food mile 0 was not perfect, but it was the embodiment of local.

A young woman and an older woman with baskets of ripe tomatoes.
The author and her grandmother sort tomatoes at the family farmstand. (That’s the author eating corn in the picture above, too!)

I now work at Equal Exchange, importing produce from over 2,000 miles away, a distance that might shock the steadfast local eater. I have had to rethink the meaning and importance of what makes food “good,” and confront the myths that have surrounded the locavore movement as it has become more popular. There are few laws that regulate “local”:  the 2008 Farm Bill sets the limit to local at 400 miles from a product’s destination, while the Food Safety Modernization act sets a stricter limit of 275 miles. The original locavore movement is still stricter; its founders originally set local to 100 miles. With no official label, non-local products may still tempt shoppers with pastoral scenery and artistic hints that their products are from nearby.

Bananas are not local. They do not come from within 275 miles of my family’s farm. In fact, they come from about ten times that distance. However, this does not mean that they do not align with locavore values. To navigate the mysteries of the modern food system, we may better promote the vision and values of the locavore movement by confronting the theories that have upheld it.

A smiling woman in gloves and hairnet applies stickers to fair trade bananas
Vanesa is a member of the packing team employed by small farmers in Ecuador. Here she is putting the Fairtrade label on bananas.

Theory: “Eating locally supports local communities.” 

Eating locally, ideally, keeps money flowing through a community, in turn ensuring that those in the community continue to benefit from it. However, not all companies that are geographically close to a shopper are small farms, nor are they guaranteed to continue to cycle profit through a community. Some grocery stores or food companies may be owned by a holding company, and obligated to remit money back to their parent company. Others may have reached such a massive scale that they are focused on national and international growth, sacrificing sustainable practices along the way.

Shopping to meet this tenet of the locavore ethos is never simple, but taking a follow-the-money approach enables shoppers to support products that share their values. And this is where bananas come in. Buying EE bananas from a local food co-op not only keeps money cycling through your community, but also ensures that communities of farmers in Ecuador and Peru are receiving a fair price for their products, which then keeps money flowing through their communities, as well. In a way, eating fair trade bananas gives you a local eater two-for-one, and you support both your community and the cooperative community of farmers that grew the fruit. It may not have been grown physically close to your co-op, but it creates an interconnected network of solidarity between communities.

Women in hairnets and aprons pose near a giant frying pan.
Mujeres Emprendedoras Tengueleñas – The Women Entrepreneurs’ cooking school in Tenguel. The school teaches local women cooking skills, and provides catering services to groups throughout the community.

Theory: “Eating locally has a smaller carbon footprint.”

According to Mike Berners-Lee, a professor at the Institute for Social Futures at Lancaster University, bananas are truly commendable for their small carbon footprint, weighing in at 80 grams CO2e (160g/lb) per fruit when you factor in its travel time and the agricultural processes behind it. This number may be even lower in 2020, as many maritime organizations have committed to lowering fuel emissions, committing to fuels and vessels that are safer for the environment.

Compare this 80 grams per banana with 3.3 kilograms CO2e for a pound of strawberries (imported by plane or greenhouse-grown out of season will have the same sized footprint). Local meat would be still higher, at about 19 kilograms CO2e per pound.

Luckily for banana lovers, many fruits and vegetables have particularly low footprints because they are eaten raw, dodging the steep toll that a quick fricassee may have on the net emissions of the fruit. Sustainability pundits estimate that for cooked products, transport weighs in at 6-7% of total emissions, while cooking is closer to 11%, and production is an astonishing 81% (W. Wakeland et al 2012: 225). It is in production that bananas, particularly sustainably-grown bananas, gain their edge. They are already in a natural greenhouse, taking advantage of the heat and humidity of their local environment, unlike a local year-round greenhouse which creates emissions by trying to simulate bananas’ natural environment.

Use locavore values as a guide – locally AND globally.

Being a sustainable locavore requires, like many things, that you ask questions of your food. The following questions may not always lead you to purchase a local product, but they will enable you to think critically about the items in your grocery basket and choose items that are socially and environmentally valuable.

  • Where is it from?
  • How does it get here? (things that take boats tend to have lower emissions)
  • Where does the money go when I buy it?
  • Is it in season?
  • Did it need to eat other foods to grow?
  • How much do I need to cook it? How processed is it?


Sources:

Berners-Lee, M. 2011. How Bad Are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything. Vancouver: Greystone Books.

National Agricultural Library. Mailboxes, Mom and Pop Stands, and Markets: Local Foods Then and Now. US Department of Agriculture. Web. https://www.nal.usda.gov/exhibits/ipd/localfoods/exhibits/show/food-locality/local-distance

Pollan, M. 2001. Naturally. The New York Times. https://michaelpollan.com/articles-archive/naturally/

Wakeland, W., S. Chollette, and K. Venkat. 2012. Food Transportation Issues and Reducing the Carbon Footprint. In J.I. Boye and Y. Arcand (eds.), Green Technologies in Food Production and Processing, 211 Food Engineering Series. New York: Springer Science + Business Media, LLC.