Potong Tea Garden, Darjeeling, India
Did you know that tea is the second most popular drink in the world—second only to water?
Here’s another question: do you know that, even today, it is likely that the tea products lining your grocery store’s shelves—even those sold as Fair Trade—were sourced from plantations established under colonialism?
Tea cultivation and consumption originated in China. Global trade for much of the 1700s and 1800s was defined by foreign companies trying to gain a foothold in the profitable tea market.
The top four tea producing countries today are China, India, Kenya, and Sri Lanka respectively—and it is no coincidence that after China, the top tea producing nations are all former British colonies.
After the British East India Company lost a long-standing trade monopoly with China, British colonists introduced tea production elsewhere, beginning in India in the mid-1800s. Kolkata was established as the imperial capital at the heart of the tea trade. This period is referred to as company rule because the region was quite literally ruled by the foreign company.
As with so many plantation systems throughout history, cheap labor was essential to the scheme. British planters recruited labor from the most vulnerable populations through indentured contracts. Families were central to the recruitment strategy as they were less likely to leave the plantation; after all, it was where they both worked and lived. Employing entire families in such remote circumstances created an oversupply of labor giving owners an incredible amount of power over workers.
Despite more modern reforms, the colonial plantation system created a vast monoculture tea infrastructure so deeply rooted that it remains largely unchanged.
About 70 years ago, shortly after independence, the Indian government enacted the Plantation Labor Act (PLA), providing a host of protections to plantation workers which continues to have varying degrees of impact on the ground. While the PLA has been a very important advancement for tea workers, the majority of whom are women, there is still no opportunity for workers to have real power or control over the land or their livelihoods.
Tea workers remain deeply dependent on the plantations for all of their basic human needs. When tea prices fall below the cost of production, it is far too common an occurrence that plantations will be abandoned by the owners, leaving the workers and their families in dire circumstances.
Cara Ross, a Sales Director at Equal Exchange, recalls hearing from tea farmers who experienced this at the Potong Tea Garden in Darjeeling, a prominent tea growing region in India. “Overnight, workers lost not only income, but housing, food, healthcare and education,” Ross says. “The Potong Tea Garden’s history stands out to me as a clear example of the injustices of the colonial plantation model, which at its core is built upon the indentured servitude and dependency of workers.”
Equal Exchange is working to forge a different path for small farmers everywhere. As an alternative trade organization (ATO) we partner with small farmer organizations around the world to change existing power structures and build economic solidarity between farmers and consumers.
We’ve traded tea with democratically organized small farmer organizations for decades. While our tea program is still relatively small, we have leveraged our limited volume to support and strengthen a number of small farmer organizations in India and Sri Lanka in an effort to help them gain crucial market access and develop their democratic organizations.
Most of Equal Exchange’s tea partners are small farmers: they own just a few hectares of land and cultivate a mix of tea and other commercial crops like spices for export, as well as crops for their own kitchen. Through their democratic organizations, farmers can pool their resources and their harvests to trade at a viable scale.
All of this is made possible by two mission-driven organizations; Tea Promoters of India (TPI) and Biofoods in Sri Lanka. TPI and Biofoods assist the farmers with processing and export logistics as well as organizational development – because they believe the future of tea must be led by farmers.
Our partners at the Potong Tea Garden represent yet another alternative. After the previous owners of the plantation abandoned the business when prices dropped too low, the workers from the garden organized together. Potong’s 343 members now collectively run the tea garden. Potong’s members are revitalizing the land, introducing native plants and regenerating the soil and local ecosystem while running the garden democratically.
With so much tea still cultivated on plantations, Potong shows us that another path is possible: one that puts power in the hands of farmers through democratic control. This model could have profound implications for the wider industry in the years to come.
“I had the great privilege of visiting Darjeeling, India, in 2012 on an Equal Exchange delegation. The Potong Tea Garden’s history stands out to me as a clear example of the injustices of the colonial plantation model, which at its core is built upon the indentured servitude and dependency of workers. I will not forget the stories told by Potong workers of the period when they were abandoned by plantation owners when the garden was no longer profitable. Overnight workers lost not only income, but housing, food, healthcare and education. Today, Potong is now collectively run by the garden’s workers and their families, and even more importantly is serving as an exciting alternative small farmer tea model that is desperately needed to help transform the tea industry.”
– Cara Ross, Sales Director, Equal Exchange
On the market side, Equal Exchange has proven that alternative supply chains in tea are difficult—but they can work. With your support, Equal Exchange has been able to support our tea partners with incrementally growing purchases—representing a slowly but steadily increasing presence of small farmer tea in grocery stores.
In addition to buying more tea from our current partners, this year we are pleased to introduce a new partner: the Karbi-Anglong Small Farmers in Assam, India. The Assam region was the epicenter of the colonial tea trade and it is still fraught with labor injustices; many plantation workers still live and work in terrible conditions. We are proud to work with TPI in support of a fledgling effort to build a new small farmer tea project in the plantation-dominated region.
While Equal Exchange’s purchases of tea are important to our partners, our relationships with them goes far beyond commercial trade. Over the years, Equal Exchange has contributed funding to help Potong Tea Garden in their tea bush replanting efforts, replacing many of the bushes originally planted in the 1800s. And in 2017, Equal Exchange, together with our supporters, raised funds to help Potong through a challenging time. That year, Potong lost about 70% of their annual harvest during a 104-day shutdown stemming from political unrest in the region. Equal Exchange’s support helped farmers make ends meet despite the lost income.
Through good times and bad times, our futures as consumers are intertwined with the futures of small farmers. We are proud to celebrate 35 years of changing trade and more than 20 years of solidarity with tea farmers in India and Sri Lanka.
To build true alternative trade in tea, we need to do two things—and we need your help to do them. First, we need to continue to build a marketplace for small tea farmers. Secondly, we need to build awareness about the problems in the industry.
As an alternative trader, Equal Exchange is deeply committed to both of these efforts: we’re continuing to expand our tea program, and creating spaces for consumers to learn about where tea comes from and the people who grow it.
You can help by shopping for small-farmer grown Equal Exchange tea at your local co-op. And if you’ve learned anything from this article, share it with your friends, family, and neighbors—and encourage them to ask for Equal Exchange tea where they shop!
Thank you for your support as we continue to build a market for small farmers and work for positive change in the tea industry, together.
To stay connected with Equal Exchange and learn more about our tea partners, consider joining our community at: equalexchange.coop/getinvolved
The Mujeres Emprendedoras Delicias Tengueleñas share recipes created from bananas at different stages of ripeness.
Over the past year, we have had to adjust our lives to unexpected changes, and adapt to new ways of socializing, shopping, and eating. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us may have experienced shortages at local grocery stores, while others may have embraced meal kits and delivery services. We saw bulk products fade away as stores shifted to having nuts, grains, and even produce in individual boxes and bags. Shoppers wanted to feel protected, and single-use plastics were there to help them to do so. These changes to the way we shop had a major impact on what items stores carried – and on how those items looked.
Amidst the myriad changes to our lives during the pandemic, you may have noticed more bruised bananas. You may have seen these bruises in a grocery delivery bag in the early days of the pandemic. You may have visited a grocery store and steered away from bananas that looked grey, or examined a bunch of bananas with darkening tips and, careful not to be seen, snuck them back onto the shelf. You may even have stocked up on greener bananas and, after observing that they became a mottled mix of colors in your fruit bowl, attempted to return them to the grocery store.
You are not alone. Shoppers gravitate toward perfect-looking produce, for various reasons. Humans often seek out the best-looking foods instinctively: avoiding moldy produce has helped humans throughout their evolution. However, this sensitivity can also lead shoppers to avoid bruised, scratched, or misshapen produce, due to a perception that skin-level imperfections may compromise the quality of the fruit. A recent behavioral study found that “merely imagining the consumption of unattractive produce…negatively affects how consumers view themselves” and causes them to avoid cosmetically imperfect food. Some researchers point to marketing campaigns of fruit companies, such as Chiquita in the 1950s, which discouraged consumers from freezing bananas in an effort to sell more fruit as shoppers inevitably wasted fruit that they did not know how to preserve. Another consumer research study suggests that this aversion to uglier produce may be a result of cultural stigmas around aging. But beyond these analyses lies another factor: that we as shoppers have limited budgets, and are trying to make the best choices we can with the money we have.
One of the easiest ways to reduce our food waste, save money and cut carbon emissions is to choose older, less-perfect produce when we shop, and to find ways to save and eat foods in our homes that we might be tempted to throw away. Doing so has the potential to cut up to 250 lbs of food waste per person annually, or up to 83 billion lbs annually in the US alone! And how much money might we save if we embraced imperfections in our fruits?
One way to reduce food waste is to try to use bananas at every stage of ripeness. Bananas that are getting brown and spotted can be used for a range of recipes! The Green Festival recipe below was created by the Mujeres Emprendedoras Delicias Tengueleñas (Women Entrepreneurs of Delights from Tenguel), an organization supported in part by AsoGuabo co-op farmers in Ecuador.
The perfect recipe for your overripe bananas!
Recipe adapted from the Mujeres Emprendedoras Delicias Tengueleñas (Women Entrepreneurs of Delights from Tenguel), an organization supported in part by AsoGuabo farmers in Ecuador.
Freeze the bananas, then blend all ingredients until you have a delicious smoothie
FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) 2011. Global Food Losses and Food Waste: Extent, Causes, and Prevention, Rome: FAO.
Grewel, L., J. Hmurovic, C. Lamberton, and R. W. Reczek. The Self-Perception Connection: Why Consumers Devalue Unattractive Produce. Journal of Marketing Vol 83(1)
Koeppel, D., 2008. Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World. New York: Hudson St Press. Print.
Koo, M., H. Oh, V. M. Patrick. 2019. From Oldie to Goldie: Humanizing Old Produce Enhances Its Appeal. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research Vol 4(4). https://doi.org/10.1086/705032
The 2021 board of directors for AVACH posing in front of the warehouse in Querecotillo, Piura, Peru
Equal Exchange Produce strives to maintain long-term, stable partnerships with banana producer organizations. Our baseline requirements are specific: the fruit we import is Fairtrade-certified, organic, and exported directly by cooperative small producer organizations (SPOs). But there is more to developing a commercial partnership than requesting up-to-date certifications. The fundamentally social – and logistically complex – nature of food trade requires developing trusting relationships with people at every level of production. In the world as we once knew it, that meant a trip to origin including farm tours, face-to-face meetings, maybe even a toast to celebrate a new partnership.
So when the time came to complete an onboarding process in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, it took more intentionality from all parties to communicate exclusively online. Asociación Valle del Chira (AVACH), a 412-member SPO based in Querecotillo, Piura, Peru, set out with a remarkable level of integrity to create space for Equal Exchange to meet with diverse stakeholders and encourage transparency from all entities. Now, six months after the first U.S.-bound AVACH container embarked, Equal Exchange has had the chance to deepen these foundational relationships and meet some additional players whose work is crucial to get bananas from the farm to the ship. Equal Exchange Supply Chain Coordinator Johanna Contreras Manito recently spoke with a logistics manager, a pack crew leader, and a farmer-member who each represent integral pieces of the supply chain. Read on to meet them and learn about their experiences this year.
Santos Miguel Rojas Burgos, AVACH Export Logistics
There are many people working in different capacities to make an organization like AVACH run. In addition to 412 farmers and 200+ packing crew members, AVACH employs over 30 office staff members, who manage logistics, accounting, quality control, and business operations. Santos Miguel Rojas, who has been with AVACH for over 15 years, is one of those office employees. Miguel coordinates export logistics, which is no small job for a banana cooperative: once bananas are packed at AVACH’s warehouse, they are loaded into a shipping container and sent to the port to be loaded onto a steamship. That’s where Miguel’s expertise comes in: he receives orders, makes shipping reservations, and manages customs processes, among other responsibilities. On the side, he is an accountant, and also a banana farmer himself, owning 1.8 acres. The remainder of his time is spent with family.
The pandemic affected Miguel’s work, as restrictions and logistical challenges upended the stability of food supply chains and demand. It also took a personal toll for many at the co-op. Reflecting on the last year, Miguel said, “It completely changed our plans in every possible way… every member – farmers, packing crew, employees and board members – were all afraid of going to work.” AVACH, the community and neighboring organizations had to navigate ever-evolving limitations (curfews, police checkpoints and resource shortages) to continue business over the past year. Despite these challenges, they never stopped exporting, a testament to Miguel’s ability to adapt to unanticipated obstacles.
Junior Mena Rugel, AVACH Pack Crew Leader
When the fruit is ready on members’ farms, a packing crew comes to harvest, clean, and box it. AVACH employs 7 packing crews, each made up of 20 members. Each member has a specific role: harvesting from the plants, cutting the gigantic bunches into smaller clusters, selection, washing, labelling, treating the crowns with an organic solution,drying,and packing the fruit into 40lb boxes.
Most crew members live outside of Querecotillo, a mid-size city in the banana growing region of Peru. They meet in the morning and travel to that day’s destination in the countryside. Junior Mena Rugel is a pack crew leader, and has been working with AVACH for 10 years. He has been in a leadership position for the past two years, supervising quality and food safety. Since the start of the pandemic, he also now ensures that all measures are in place to guard workers’ health, a huge responsibility: “Before we start the work day, we meet to check in on how we are feeling – that each person feels healthy and well in order to work. If anyone feels ill…Valle del Chira [AVACH] has a doctor they can visit to screen for COVID. I make sure that every worker is protected and uses the PPE that is provided.”
Because the amount of work varies by the season, Junior also spends time working in his father’s rice plot along with farming his own 0.6 acres of bananas and a collection of livestock. When he’s not working with the pack crew he says he goes to work on his plot, spending Sundays with his wife and children. While spending weekdays with the packing crew and weekends with family offer some opportunity to socialize, Junior looks forward to the days when he can once again play sports with friends like he did pre-pandemic.
Efraín Seminario Valdiviezo, AVACH Farmer-Member
Efraín is 43 years old and lives in Santa Sofía, Peru, with his wife and three children. Farming has been his life’s work. “I would have liked to study a technical degree when I was younger, but now I am happy as a farmer, especially with bananas.” In the past, Efraín farmed cotton, rice, corn and pigeon peas, like most farmers in the region, but says prices were low and very volatile. In 2011, he joined AVACH where he makes a stable, annually-negotiated price for his bananas and has a voice in the organization. In recent years, he has become more involved in co-op leadership and taken a seat on the board.
A typical day in Efraín’s life starts at 5am with household chores, such as caring for his animals, while his wife prepares breakfast. After breakfast, the crew, consisting of Efraín, Jhan (his adult son) and two farm workers head out into the field. “We are childhood friends,” says Efraín of the workers, who are also his neighbors. Work lasts from 7am – 12pm, Efraín details, “Jhan and one of the workers focus on fruit care: placing covers, removing the flower, tracking the age and calibrating for harvest. I only do the deshije – that is when you select the banana plant pup that will grow and cut the rest. The fourth person cleans the field of old leaves to avoid pests. We all join him sometimes too.” At noon they break for lunch, and only the family returns to the field through the evening.
As a board member, Efraín was a part of the many meetings with Equal Exchange to learn about each other’s organizations.Reflecting on his work and the challenges of the pandemic, Efraín concluded, “Hopefully we get medicine soon, but it also leaves us with a good lesson to be close to family, to value the little that one has – just one life – and appreciate it as much as possible.”
For the Equal Exchange banana team, who has been working from home for a full year now, sitting behind a computer screen can sometimes mean feeling disconnected from the work we share. But even after a year of keeping our distance, there are grounding reminders that none of us exists in a vacuum. The opportunity to create a new partnership with AVACH, even virtually, is one such reminder. Speaking with our new partners for this blog was a chance to recognize that we share the same feelings of loss and isolation, but also of pride in our work. The next time you pick up an Equal Exchange banana, remember that it connects you to the many people whose labor produced it, harvested it, transported it, and so on, and like Efraín reminds us, don’t take it for granted.
Written by the Equal Exchange Banana Team, Johanna Contreras Manito, Angelica Hicks & Monica Foss
We’re excited to announce the start of a new initiative to support fellow independent food businesses in New England and around the country. For those who have followed us over the past several years, you know that the threat to small companies posed by massive consolidation in the food industry is something we have written and spoken about at length. Our Citizen-Consumer network has taken various actions around this issue. Now, we are taking concrete steps to go beyond our own products and collaborate with other independent, mission-driven brands.
Consolidation in the food system was already a problem, but the devastation of COVID-19 has accelerated the already-growing trend. For example, Amazon’s food sales more than tripled in the second quarter compared to the same period last year as consumers seek online alternatives to actually setting foot inside supermarkets for their weekly food needs. The U.S. economy seems poised for an asymmetrical recovery, with different sectors recovering at different rates. Big businesses are thriving, yet many independent companies have had to shut their doors forever. These small businesses are the ones that put people first, the ones that are responsive to their community. At Equal Exchange, we want to adhere to our fundamental values. That’s why we’re now making available for sale online a wider range of grocery staples that we hope will meet many of your needs while putting more food dollars to work.
In addition, COVID-19 has adversely impacted Equal Exchange’s sales. Think about even just one sector – places of worship, which have been largely closed down for much of the past year. The discouragement of large gatherings has challenged these institutions in many ways, of course, but one big effect is the restriction on traditional fellowship hours and weekly sales of Equal Exchange products. Church coffee sales alone are down more than 70,000 lbs compared to this point last year. We are hopeful that by making available even more everyday staples from independent food makers, more groups and individuals like you will see Equal Exchange as a go-to source for food, and in the process, help us build an alternative distribution system that is controlled by people, rather than big corporations.
This new initiative has brought us into contact with many interesting independent food businesses who have resisted market pressure to sell or merge and are finding ways to keep getting great products to their customers. We are pleased to share that some of the top-selling products of these companies are now available on our website. While we knew the folks behind some of these businesses before, many are new to us. As you explore the menu of new products, you will find different compelling aspects to each. From worker ownership to fair trade sourcing to sustainable agriculture to deep community roots, each presents great products and reasons to be in solidarity with Equal Exchange. We expect to continue expanding these offerings in the months and years ahead as we all build this alternative distribution network, together.
One final note on what you will find when you explore these new products. Consistent with the change we made with our own products last April, we are offering these products in larger quantities (cases or multipacks) in the hopes that our community network will continue to organize and order together — whether with friends, family, neighbors, or other community networks. We hope folks will share in volume which enables us to get these products to you in a way that is sustainable for us and our partnering brands. As always, we’re eager to help you think about the most fun and simple ways to share these purchases with others. Recruiting even just one or two other households can make for a successful way to engage in your community food system while supporting the kind of businesses we all want to see succeed. Join us!
In this update from Eunice Jijon Jarquin and Alyssa Melendez, learn about Equal Exchange’s fair trade avocado partnership with La Grama in Peru, and how co-op farmers are adapting to the challenges of an ongoing global pandemic.
It’s rare to find a person who doesn’t love avocados, or who hasn’t assisted in making avocados a coveted, yet accessible fruit. In 2001, the US per capita avocado consumption stood at around 2.5 lbs, or about five medium-sized avocados per person. That number tripled to 8 lbs per person in 2018 – that’s about 15 medium-sized avocados. This growing demand motivated Equal Exchange to build an alternative to the conventional avocado supply chain – one that places small farmers at the forefront and combats the need for large productions and unequal power structures.
Although around 80 percent of avocados are imported from Mexico, Peru gained recognition in 2018 as the second largest exporter to the United States (USDA ERS). In 2018, Equal Exchange partnered with La Grama to bring organic, fair trade Peruvian avocados to the United States and develop a year-round avocado program that stretched supply into May and June. La Grama is a Peruvian company that provides essential services for small-scale farmers, such as technical assistance, providing funds for certification fees, and creating access to the global market. La Grama and Equal Exchange hold similar goals of building a more sustainable and just food system that is conscious of the role of small farmers in the global marketplace.
La Grama had been working with organic avocados since 2008, and was inspired by the growing demand for fair trade produce, including bananas. Bananas are grown in a region just north of the avocado growing region in Peru. Through fair trade bananas, La Grama saw the benefits of this model for the local community. In 2017, they recognized this growing global demand as an opportunity to include small-scale organic, fair trade Peruvian avocado farmers in that market share.
Fair trade offers an alternative to the conventional avocado market, in which farmers have been subject to the whims of large plantations and intermediaries. Under these conventional standards, small-scale avocado farmers cannot compete with large-scale producers, who are able to afford a greater amount of land and water for increased production and yields. In comparison, according to the fair trade model, for every kilo of fruit sold, farmers are paid a fair trade premium in addition to the price of the fruit. The small farmer cooperative that La Grama works with was established just three years ago, and so far, the fair trade premium has served to strengthen the organization’s administration and fund technical assistance for farmers. Once the co-op is able to build a larger premium fund, it will go towards democratically selected local community projects. By prioritizing the management needs of the co-op, farmers have been able to focus on cultivating trade relations and becoming a resource pool for other farmers. Having a solid base has been essential in adapting to the new landscape that COVID-19 has shaped.
Peru is one of the worst-hit countries by COVID-19 in Latin America, and currently has the second-highest number of cases in the region. Despite the country’s lockdown, the agricultural sector has continued to operate. There are more challenges across the supply chain, including new protocols for safety precautions, social distancing, transportation, processing at the packhouse, and curfews that reduce working hours. Harvest planning has also been heavily affected by travel limitations for workers. Diego del Solar, Co-Founder of La Grama, says “Avocado farms located in relatively isolated places, where people have to travel from their hometowns to go to work there, have had big problems getting harvested on time.” These challenges have required farmers to adjust to a new normal, and La Grama is committed to supporting these farmers through this transition.
La Grama’s technical team has always been closely involved in the quality and safety of farmers and the products they produce. COVID-19 has reinforced this support: La Grama is providing training on proper hand washing techniques, providing masks, and ensuring social distancing between workers. All of these protocols had to be implemented rapidly to maintain the safety of all of the workers. Nevertheless, del Solar explained that during the first month of the lockdown, agricultural exports from Peru increased by 9% compared to the same period last year, which is largely explained by avocado exports.
The expanding year-round demand for avocados has provided an opportunity for the Peruvian avocado industry to fill in the gaps of supply. La Grama recognizes the potential for their avocado program and are working towards increasing their number of farmers and available volume. New farmers are joining the program each year, because of the various services and opportunities that La Grama offers, especially given their dedication and reliability. Several exporters have a business model of hopping from one product to another, pursuing new trends each time. La Grama chose a different strategy, de Solar sys, which is to work with the same products year after year, “deepening our knowledge and understanding of the industry, as well as our relationships with our farmers. That approach gives farmers the confidence they need to keep going forward and look at the future of avocados with optimism, and that allows us to grow consistently.”
Equal Exchange has also continued to deepen its knowledge and understanding of the industry, allowing us to double our Peruvian avocado volume this year. This is in large part due to our fresh produce team’s efforts to create the essential tools and resources to educate customers on best handling practices and sharing farmers’ stories. It takes a great deal of dedication and time to create a successful program. Both partners found each other at a crucial time in their development – Equal Exchange sought a partner who could complement our Mexican off-season, and La Grama looked to export organic, fair trade avocados to the United States. Together, both companies have proven successful in their efforts.
During these trying times, farmers continue to show their resiliency. Through the hardships of the pandemic, their efforts keep supply chains moving and keep our families fed. We are extremely grateful to have partners like La Grama, who are committed to uplifting small farmers, and we look forward to supporting their growth and mission for years to come.
Black Lives Matter. Equal Exchange stands in solidarity with people fighting for racial justice, against police brutality, and those bravely working to create necessary change. The horrific and senseless deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, David McAtee and so many others, and the uprisings these deaths have sparked, have moved so many of us to action.
We know that for many of us, as individuals, organizations and businesses, the regular daily routine has been disrupted. Protests and calls to action have swelled in many cities where we live, work, and have allies. We are choosing to take this interruption as an important moment to reflect. We reflect on our core values, and on the connections that thread us together.
Equal Exchange was founded on a vision of changing the existing power structures, to create more fairness, equity, access, and hope. The way we do that in the world is to connect small farmer communities to consumers and to use an alternative democratic structure in our workplace. But these are just two components of the complex and layered work that needs to be done to change power structures. These efforts counter the “normal,” commonly-accepted way of doing things. We stand committed to racial justice, countering the unfair “normal” way things regularly function at many levels in this country, those that systematically oppress people of color. We recognize this moment as an opportunity to speak up externally, as well as one to reflect and act internally. We are accepting this opportunity.
For us all to succeed, we must continue to fight for change together.
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. Kate Chess and Gary Goodman talked to him about how his business works.
Listen to our conversation on the first episode of Season 2 of The Stories Behind Our Food!
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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.
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.
African American farmers have surmounted all kinds of obstacles in order to keep their family land and make farming profitable. We talked to Shirley Sherrod about the radical structure of New Communities Inc. — the first community land trust in the U.S. — and their hard work over fifty years in the poorest, most rural counties in Georgia.
Visit New Communities at www.newcommunitiesinc.com to learn more, or contact Shirley Sherrod at (229) 430-9870.
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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.
Hello and welcome to The Stories Behind Our Food. I’m Kate and I’m here with Danielle and we are privileged and pleased to be here with Shirley Sherrod today, who is a civil rights activist, community organizer and a former Georgia state director of rural development for the United States department of agriculture. Thank you so much for taking the time.
Thank you and good to be with you today.
All right, so one of the reasons we’re recording this podcast right now is New Communities Inc. has an important anniversary coming up this October. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is?
Yes. it was 50 years ago that we came up with the idea of trying to develop a community land trust. And so here we are 50 years later using that model and others are using the model and we want to celebrate the first 50 years .
I mean, clearly there’s so much history on this land and so much history, 50 years of history within this organization. I heard some really amazing facts about New Communities that I want to share with our listeners who may not know what you do and what you have done. I’ve heard that it was the first community land trust in the U S and also that, you know, go ahead.\
I was going to say that’s exactly right.
That’s really impressive. I’ve also heard that it was at one time the largest tract of land owned by African Americans in the whole country. Is that one, right?
Yes, that’s correct too. The, on the original land, of course we lost it in 1985 but we had about 6,000 acres of land, which was about the size of the state of Rhode Island.
Oh my goodness. Wow. Wow. So how did that … tell me about, can you tell us about a little bit about the history of New Communities — and I don’t want to dwell on difficult topics, but also about how it was thwarted.
Yeah. So my work and I work in the area, started with the Civil Rights Movement. And one thing we realized as we were helping people to exercise their rights, many times we’d have people come into the meeting and they’d been kicked off the land they were living on. So we, from that we started trying to develop a solution to dealing with it because sometimes we get a whole family, at a meeting we had to find somewhere for them to live and so forth. So we actually sent a group to Israel during the summer of 1968 to look at how Israel was resettling its people looking at the kibbutz model and so forth. And they came back and we started meeting and decided to develop something where we could get land, hold onto it and not lose it. So that’s how the whole idea of developing a community, land trust, communal ownership of the land. So that we wouldn’t lose it.
Yeah. So what happened next?
Well, we faced a lot of discrimination, once we got our … we had a, we had — actually, we found the land. We had a one year option. We got a grant from the government to plan this community. But what happened was that local opposition surfaced and sometimes they would shoot at the buildings we were in. They started the political opposition to what we were doing. So that by the end of the year of planning where we had planned every aspect of this new community, where industry would be located, what kind of farming we would do, the kind of educational system we would have and so forth, and how we would live and work with each other. By the end of that year though, the government, OEO, the office of economic opportunity didn’t feel politically, they could actually give the major grant they had talked about giving. So we, we actually faced foreclosure for a couple of years and, and family got better financing around 1973 and we were farming.
What were you growing then?
We were growing peanuts, corn, soybeans, sorghum. We had a herd of cattle. We had the 75 brewed sour operation. We were known for the cured meats that we had. We grew lots of vegetables and and we worked in organized with farmers in the area to try to get them elected to committees that affected the farming in those counties.
The diversity and scale of this is just mind blowing to me. I mean, it’s so, so impressive and I don’t know, I mean I’m just stuttering here because I can’t imagine the organization that this must have required. And it sounds like there were a lot of people involved as well. Can you talk about how you came to be involved and who the other people were that were participating in this?
Well, my work, as I said earlier, it started with the Civil Rights Movement and it was after my father had been murdered. My father was murdered by a white farmer who wasn’t prosecuted, even though there were witnesses and I made a commitment on the night of his death that to stay in the South and devote my life to working for change. So that’s why — initially it was the Civil Rights Movement and then we moved on into economic development and trying to make life better for people who had recently been allowed to eat in restaurants or integrate schools or register to vote. You know, what was the next step? The next step was involved with trying to make life better where they were living.
And so I do a lot of organizing work with Equal Exchange and I’m hearing just around that there is a growing interest for racial justice specifically within food. And I was just wondering kind of, you know, you being involved in this work, what does collaboration look like with other organizations or other folks who are doing different but maybe similar work and maybe them looking at you as a role model because you know, you folks have been around for so long.
Well, let me say to you, without being able to collaborate with groups around us, and then especially with those who were not from this area, I can go back to legislation where we were trying to get a minority — it started out being a Black farmers’ rights group — rights legislation passed. It’s known as the minority farmers rights act now, but we had to look to white groups in the Midwest and in the North to help us eventually get that legislation passed. Now everybody’s benefiting from it now, but it was really because of Black farmers. I can also talk about the days when we couldn’t get into local markets and we had to look outside of the area. We partnered with Red Tomato and, and, and even Ben and Jerry’s ice cream company, actually arranged to buy pecans from, from our farmers to help with the problem of Black land loss. So without the collaboration and the help from group outside of this area, many of the things we’ve been able to do, we would not have been able to do in those earlier years. Things are a little different now. We get a little more cooperation. Back when I was trying to find a place to get pecans processed for Black farmers in the 90s, I couldn’t find anyone, even with us paying them to do them. But today that that has changed and New Communities, our project is able to actually contract out some of the value-added work that, that, uh, we, uh, we are doing.
So we talked about the, and then we talked about — Danielle just asked you about what you’re doing now, but what, what happened in between, when you lost these grants, when you were — I mean, I was gonna say a word that I probably shouldn’t say on air, but yeah. When you were the unfortunate, you know, when this discrimination happened and you lost the money that you had expected, then what? How’d you get to where you are now?
Yeah. So we had all of these major plans and couldn’t implement any of them because we didn’t have a way to, to get the financing to do so. But, so we started farming. Now, even with that, we couldn’t go to USDA for the loans that were being offered to other farmers, mainly white farmers. So we had to look to, again, organizations and groups outside of the area to get the financing to do the farming. And we were doing quite well. We could, we could from 1973 until the drought started in 1976 we could farm, we could make the money to pay the land notes and we could expand the farming operation. We couldn’t build the housing and do all of the other things we had planned to do, but we could hold onto that land. And then we ran into a drought followed by second year of drought. And it was at that point we decided we had to try to go to Farmer’s Home Administration to get an emergency loan. Like all farmers were doing. Well, what they said to us is, you’ll get the — the County supervisor said, you get a loan over my dead body. And we ended up having to complain to Washington. They sent people down to go with us to the local office to get the application. Would have been good if they had stayed to help us through that process because it took three years and three years with more droughts and not the proper input for the products was just too much. Now also in between there when we had the money and before the droughts, sometimes we would order liquid fertilizer and wouldn’t know until the crop was up that, that, that was something wrong with that fertilizer. It forced us to start pulling a sample from every delivery we had to the farm. Because many times we were not getting what we ordered. So —
so you were being sabotaged, is that what you’re saying? Like they’re sending you bad fertilizer on purpose?
Sending bad fertilizer on purpose and then even taking the crop in the peanuts for example, the grades would be much less than what we knew the grades we should have been. But what could you do? You have to try to work within that system. But anyway, when we got an emergency loan, it wasn’t what was requested. They would not find this irrigation for us and then they require a lien on all available assets. And once they got a lien on everything we had, then they could engineer the foreclosure. So in 1985, we lost everything and in fact they — our assets were worth about four and a half million at that point. They sold it to someone out of Atlanta for one million dollars and then three weeks later let him borrow 950,000 of that. Then he dug holes and pushed all of our buildings over in them getting rid of every trace of us on that property.
This is so disheartening to hear and I can’t imagine what it would be like to live through. That said all of this local opposition and you still feel these ties to Georgia, to the South. Can you talk about what that’s like?
You see when you –like I said earlier, I made a commitment to stay and I made a commitment to not just stay here, but to stay here and fight to try to make it better. So you work with people in those communities and you work with anyone else who can help make that make, make some of the changes that are needed in this area so that life can be better for all of us. And every now and then you find someone who’s, who’s from the area who also want to work with you to help make it different. You know, I ran into that one … I had a white farmer that come to me in ’86 to ask for help with saving his land. In the end I did that and then when I became state director of rural development, Breitbart tried to take that situation and turn it around to make it appear that as a government employee, I refused to help a white farmer. The help I gave to that farmer was 24 years earlier. But that white farmer — unlike many of the white farmers I’ve worked with through the years — stepped forward to say what I had done to, to help him and his family and save the day for me with that.
Gotcha. Wow. Do you feel like there are — to me this, this project has specific resonance for Black farmers due to land insecurity and all of the, the forces of discrimination and working against Black people, people of color specifically. Do you feel like there are young farmers coming up, young farmers of color who are interested in this work today?
There are, but a different kind of agriculture. That’s why it’s been so difficult to get young African American farmers interested. They saw what their grandparents and their parents dealt with, dealing with the system through the years and wanted no part of it. Now I have said to them all through the years, “you know, they have machines to pick cotton these days so you don’t have to worry about picking cotton.” But what I’ve pushed is — “you know, people need to eat so you don’t have the acreage to compete with the big cotton farmers, the big peanut farmers or the big corn farmers. But you can grow the food that we eat every day and work together to market that to people in your community, to people in other, say Atlanta, for example, or even to school systems that want to serve locally grown food.”
And that’s something people are, are excited about?
Yes. We, we have a group of women who are working — see, when I first started this work, back in the 60s, uh, it was the men who ran the farm. The women did a lot of work there but you didn’t really see them. But there are women who have stepped up and they, you know, they are farming. They’re young people. We are looking at developing an agro-tourism trail. So we looking at things that will actually help bring in more income so that those who are on the land and, and need to pay taxes and need to make a living there and those who want to try to come into the area and farm, will find a space to be able to do that .
Maybe — thank you so much for that. Maybe taking a step back to, the … obviously there’s such a rich and inspiring history of New Communities. What does the, how has the evolution of what New Communities used to look like and what it’s kind of transformed into now, because I’m kind of thinking are, what types of things did you grow then and what types of things are you growing now? And then also I read on your website that there’s a retreat center. And so I don’t know if that’s related to the agro-tourism, but that that does seem like an interesting way to kind of think about diversified income strategies. If, you know, there are challenges as a farmer and being able to compete with a really big market and big farms around.
Yes. So back in the, in the 70s, we, for example, we were growing three and four hundred acres of peanuts and you know, four and five hundred acres of soybeans. But we don’t have that acreage at this point. We have 1,608 acres. It’s a prime piece of property. So today we can’t do that large scale farming. And I’m not sure we even want to do it anymore. As I explained earlier, we’re trying to take our farmers into a different direction. So, when you go out to the property now, that we currently have, you will find Pecan Grove,when, when it was purchased, there were 85 acres of trees that were almost a hundred years old. We added another 115 acres to that, uh, of young trees. And you find satsuma oranges. Uh, this is a crop, as they found more and more problems with growing oranges in Florida that production is moving more into Georgia. So not only are we growing them, but we also having — bringing our younger farmers in and other farmers in to look at what we’re doing so that we can spread that around the region. We have, muscadine grapes. Our goal —
Are those the big ones. Are those, those really big, those big grapes? Sorry to interrupt you. I got excited.
Yes. So we have some for eating and our goal is to add another 12 acres for wine-making. So we eventually want to have our own wine. There is , we also grow vegetables from time to time. There is an 85 acre lake on the property. There are cabins on the property. We actually have a master plan. There’s about 600 acres of wooded land. We looking at that for recreation. With the cabins there, we arranged for people to be able to come and stay there. There is, we — our goal is to add more of them. Eventually it takes a lot of money for for that kind of thing to happen. There is a 13,000 square foot antebellum house on the property. This property was once owned by the largest slave owner and the wealthiest man in the state of Georgia. He had about nine plantations and this was one of them. He built, the original part of that house was built in 1851. It was restored many times over the years, but the last time around 1998. The previous owner actually developed a system for paying for fuel at the pumps. So he had lots of money and put $3 million into restoring. That house is used for lots of meetings and so forth now. And weddings, it’s a beautiful, beautiful place. Uh, we feel that racial healing — it had a bad beginning cause it was a slave plantation. We actually have an ad where 150 slaves from that plantation were sold at the courthouse steps here in Albany, Georgia on December the 29th, 1859. But we feel, we can use that plantation to, to help train Black people on our history. The fact that they could go from a slave began into descendants of slaves. It’s so much you can talk about and deal with on that journey to where we are now. We, when we first acquired the land, we had what we called blessing of the land ceremonies. We did it for three years where we brought in, , the Lower Creek Indians, Hispanics, Black, white, Asians, and, and it was so educational for everyone ’cause each group with would bring the blessing from their culture. And you know, people learn so much during those sessions.
Yeah, that’s really powerful. A lot of folks say the problem that we have as Americans is that we don’t talk about our racial history. White people don’t want to hear about the past and sometimes Black people don’t either because it’s so painful and there’s so much blame to go around. Do you think people who come to visit this plantation are ready to learn?
Many of them are. Some we’ve had just wanna come and see. You know, once we acquired the property, there were white people located locally who could not believe we had gotten it first of all. And, I’ve gotten comments so many times lately, they’ll say, “Oh, y’all keep the grounds so beautiful.” It’s as if no one expected us to keep the place up. When we first acquired it, we allowed a group that deals with abuse, child abuse and sexual abuse and soforth, to have a fundraiser there. And they told us they wanted to put a tent up, in the end, they didn’t. The affair was beautiful. They sat at tables and chairs in front of that antebellum house for 500 people. Well, I want you to know before it was over, the police came and they told me they had to come because that was the second time being called. Now we way out in the country and uh, the closest house is quite some ways away, but one of the neighbors actually called the police and he — you can even hear, there was a band and this was — when the police came, he saw out of about 500 people that are maybe 20 Black people there. And I think he was shocked, but I think the neighbor was trying to stop us from being able to have anything there.
A fundraiser for abused children, like who could be against that?
Right, right. And later when we wanted to get an area around that house rezoned, he went before the County Commission to talk against the re-zoning saying that — one of the statements he made was that “Charles Sherrod is living there like a Black king,” where my husband and I have never stayed in not one of the buildings on the property. We live about 15 minutes away, you know? And we’re not trying to build anything for ourselves. IOur work through the years has been for others here in this area.
I’m just really inspired by everything that I’ve heard from you so far and I’m just kind of going back to — to me land is power and for this land to have such a history of kind of being, you know, started during the slave trade to kind of the work that you’re doing now is just really inspiring and, and kind of symbolic of the evolution of kind of how far we’ve come as a society. And obviously you’ve talked a little bit about some of the challenges that you’ve gone through doing this work for years and years. I’m kind of curious as to what are your, what are you right now, what are your most pressing challenges? Consider kind of where you’ve come from to where you are now? Because I don’t think, I don’t think obviously the challenges are, are different than they were, but there are still lots of challenges, right?
Yes. And the way we acquired this property was through winning a lawsuit and the Black farmers — blended our case rather, and the Black farmers’ lawsuit. We were awarded about $12 million. Should’ve been much more when you look at the amount of land we lost. But we’ve used that to acquire this property and we’ve been operating for about eight years. You heard me say we added pecan trees, you know, 115 acres. We put irrigation in and we are doing all of the things we need to do to try to expand and, and move more into profit making ventures. That takes a lot of money and the money from that lawsuit can’t last forever. So that worries me. I have sleepless nights because there’s so much we need to do. There’s so much we can do to not just do for New Communities, but looking at the region, we actually try to work in a 14 county area, bringing farmers along and bringing others along to try to make a better Southwest Georgia. That’s what we’re about.
You lost all this time, you lost all this money and you got a little bit of it back, but you’re worried — if I’m just like, to recapitulate what you’re saying here — you’re worried that it won’t last for you to do the work that you want to kickstart here.
Absolutely. That’s, that’s, that’s part of the issue here, now. We need to, we need to –we are, we’re organizing for example, pecan farmers. In fact, there’s a meeting coming up in a few days. And so having a process in sight for them or trying to figure out how we can all process together, how we can add value to, to the product, how we can get into markets. When, when the President talks about tariffs on China, we knew we would be hit hard. And anytime there’s something that affects larger growers, you know, we get the worst of it. So just trying to maneuver through all of that and figure out how we can hold on to the land we have and have others hold onto the land they have so that we make a better life for all in this area. And this is like your poorest area of the state of Georgia. There are so many persistently poor counties here, but it’s your largest, agriculture, you know, row crop, vegetable production area for the state.
Are there a lot of small growers in the area still or are they mostly been taken over by these big farms?
Still a lot of small growers and many of them have — we’ve lost a lot of land. We have lost a lot of land as Black land owners who inherited land from former slaves who worked so hard to get it. But we still have a good bit of land. So just trying to help those families who are still holding onto it, figure out how to make some money so that they can continue to hold on to it, because there’s pressure all around to get that land out of the hands of Black people.
And how many farmers do you work with?
We have about — around a hundred Black farmers in the region that we work with. Yes.
Are you still — that’s good. That’s good to hear. What happened — I know New Communities originally was built around this idea of collective ownership and I’m sure that got disrupted in the course of this 50 year history. Where are you at with that now? Like who technically owns the land? And then also I’m curious about like, do you still have hope for collective ownership as a model for, for Black farmers or other farmers?
Collective ownership is the way to go. When we purchased the land, we had to put it into — it’s still in the name of New Communities and we still operate as a community land trust. It’s just that once we got the money, we had all of these legal people trying to help us put together what was needed for today. But we’ve never stopped operating as a community land trust. And —
So, why is it that this is the way to go? Yeah, tell me more.
Yes, it’s a way to go. You know, when we came up with the idea originally we came up with that because we had so many — you know, there was so much heir property owned by Black people and that was one way to lose it. So we — and then people would make foolish purchases and ended up losing land. So that’s, that’s exactly the reason why we came up with the idea of collective ownership and having it so that people could get a longterm renewable lease on the land where their home was built and so forth, and then work together. You know, I’ve, I’ve said the farmers through the years, “back in the day when my grandparents were working, even with them, they work together as a family. But when they were, when there was one person on the farm who felt he could make it on his own, maybe he could. But today that’s just not possible, especially when you own 50 acres or 30 acres or even a hundred acres. It’s just not possible for you to, to do the things you need to do to be able to make the money you need to make, to stay there working alone.”
Yeah. So it’s, it’s really amazing, all the commonalities that farmers around the world have. Farmers around the country and farmers around the world facing instability related to the climate changing, droughts, like what happened to you folks in the 70s? Finding ways to diversify income and figuring out that they have to work together in order to keep what they have. It’s just like, it seems to me like you were ahead of the curve on so many things and you’re, you’re such a great resource for other farmers.
Yeah. I think back to those early years, , as we were involved in — see, people are so used to just going and work on a farm, not making any, any decisions. Not having any say but that was different at New Communities. We operated with committees. For example, there was a Farm Committee and that we had a Farm Manager cause we needed someone to lead this, and everyone understood when we are out there working, that Farm Manager had the last say. But we had a Farm Committee meeting every Monday night and the members consisted of everyone who was working on the farm, plus three members from the Board of Directors. So you had a say for the first time in trying to use your ideas or to, to have some input and moving forward. It was so different for our people. That was hard for folks to get it, early on.
Yeah. You don’t just — you’re not just a laborer. You are a business person as well. And I can, I can really see that you have gotten that figured out. What’s going on now? What’s going to happen in the future?
Well again, we, we don’t have the landholding that we had, that we’ve had, but that place is a special place for everyone. So the training that, you know, we have to do production agriculture for New Communities, ’cause we do need to make money in order to be able to stay there. But we can’t let — we can’t do that in an area where there’s so much need and not think about others. So we are bringing everyone else along with us. We also see it as a place for racial healing. I can’t stress that enough. There’s a special feeling when you go out there on that property. That’s why I encourage people to come, you know, come and just walk those grounds. That place can be used to try to bring us together where we’ve been so separated in the past. And then young people, they have no clue of what their history is. We have to connect to the land again. And that’s one place where that can happen. And as we connect them to the land there at New Communities, we can also get them out into and, and on land in the region, in the area. You know, we can bring some pride back again to being land owners as my husband’s always saying, “land is power and all power comes from God.”
Yeah. Wow. Well, thank you so much for talking to us. Oh, another question I wanted to ask you is how can people get involved? If, if folks feel like this was as powerful as I feel like it was when they’re listening into this. , Equal Exchange is proud to offer pecans from New Communities. You can find them on our web store and buy them. But what, what would you say — people who are maybe not in the, in the Georgia area — what can they do?
We have a website and I’m sorry I can’t …
we’ll put everything in the show notes so we can give a link to your website there.
OK, and then, you know, a phone number. , it’s 229 … We use the Southwest Georgia Project phone number currently (229) 430-9870. We welcome, we need all kinds of help. We need all kinds of skills here and we want everyone, we want people from all over the country to feel this is a place they can come to and have an experience that they won’t have anywhere else.
So people can just give you a call?
Surely. Yes, yes. I’m here every day. You know what they say, I’ll be 72 and in November and I just didn’t think I’d still be working, but I have some new energy now.
Well you are just full of ideas and stories and it’s been such a pleasure to talk to you and I’ve learned so much. Really. Thank you for sharing the story with us.
Thank you, Shirley.
And happy anniversary.
Oh, thank you.
Thanks for listening to The Stories Behind Our Food, a podcast by Equal Exchange, Inc., 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 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.
Interview by Jennifer Pruess, Equal Exchange
Wrapping up Portland’s Early History, Diving Into Roasting, and Pondering the Future with Todd Caspersen
With Todd (Todd Caspersen, Director of Purchasing and Production), we reach the final stretch in our blog series concerning Equal Exchange’s early Portland history. We had a truly engaging conversation covering activism, inclusion, proposals, Portland’s coffee culture, and building a roaster. And not just any roaster, a 1986 Roaster Probat from Germany.
Todd: Have we met before?
JP: I think so, but it was briefly. I’ve been back to West Bridgewater, at company retreats, and up at SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) in Seattle. So, I think at one of those events, we have met.
Todd: How long have you worked at Equal Exchange?
JP: Over five years.
JP: Yeah! I started off in the warehouse here in Portland and then I transitioned into doing a combination of warehouse and customer service, then DSD (Direct Store Delivery) . DSD is what I’m currently doing. I also do demos and help with special events like hosting folks here in our office.
Todd: You’re the DSD for New Seasons?
JP: Yep! One of them. There’s three people on my team doing DSD to New Seasons Market, local co-ops, and stores.
Todd: That’s funny. I use to do the DSD there. Many, many years ago.
JP: Right after this interview I’ll be doing a full day of DSD at New Seasons. Anyways, that’s who I am. And for some context as to why I wanted to sit down and talk with you, since being here for the last five years and getting to know the many nodes of our company, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at Equal Exchange Portland and dig into our Oregon history. I think moving out West was a big deal for Equal Exchange at that time, similar to the decision of owning roasting.
There were risks involved with these decisions yet it was also an exciting time for the company. Luckily, there’s still plenty of people for me to connect with in this journey of revisiting our story. As I was talking to Tom (Thomas Hanlon-Wilde, Executive Director of La Siembra) and Wells (Wells Neal, Director, Equal Exchange West) your name popped up quite a few times. They recommend that I get your perspective on things and I agreed! Then from that initial conversation about Oregon, came the other story about how you helped to bring coffee roasting in-house with Beth Ann (Beth Ann Caspersen, Quality Control Manager).
So, here’s a typical first question: How did you get started at Equal Exchange? And what initially interested you about working out in Oregon?
When I was in college, I was a member of the Mifflin Street Food Co-op, which is in Madison, Wisconsin. I remember reading the Equal Exchange coffee bag and thinking huh, I bet somebody has the job that has to go buy coffee. I thought that that was pretty cool, I’m going to get a job like that. It didn’t even really occur to me to try and get a job at Equal Exchange. I just thought okay, I’m going to learn Spanish, I’m going to travel around and get a degree in Agriculture. Then I’m going to get a job doing something like these people must do. So, I did that, and then I went into the Peace Corps. I’ve known about Equal Exchange for a long time.
Then, I was living in California and my mom sent me an ad from a newsletter for the Resource Center for the Americas which was in Minneapolis and Equal Exchange was hiring for what they called an Organizer to work in Minnesota. I thought: great, I’ll go back to Minnesota. I’m originally from Minnesota, I’ll go back and I’ll live in Minneapolis. I applied for the job and I interviewed and whatnot. They said: “Great, we’re going to hire you, but we’re not going to hire you to live in Minnesota, you can come live in Massachusetts.” At that point I was sort of couch surfing in San Francisco so I said okay.
I went to Canton to work as a sales representative. I didn’t want to be a sales person, but my friends were like you need a job so just take the job and something else will happen after that. So, I moved from California to Massachusetts to work in the Canton office. I started in October of 98’ and by March of 99’ I was in Oregon. Right after I started there they had started the Oregon office, I think the summer after coming back from Nicaragua in 98’.
They were like: “Hey, we need more people. Do you want to go to Oregon?” That sounded like a great idea to me. I didn’t have any particular attachment to Massachusetts or New England. So, I moved to Oregon. That’s sort of my spiel about how I got started.
Move out to Oregon and do what exactly?
Do sales, do whatever basically. Go make Equal Exchange successful in the West. It was a great time, me and Tom. Tom rented an office in Gresham, which was a horrible place, but whatever. I could take the train into town and we just started selling coffee.
Describe a typical workday for you at that time.
We always had service calls. There was an existing customer base, so we would do all of the customer service for existing customers. Then we would do cold calls essentially to anybody and everybody that we could.
Right when I got out there, Wild Oats had been sold. We knew they were going to open a new grocery store chain and New Seasons was starting. We got Markets of Choice, it wasn’t called Markets of Choice, but we picked that up and we started doing DSD to the co-ops in Oregon. In the beginning, it was a bunch of sitting in the office, doing a bunch of calling people and taking orders, then processing those orders to get them shipped out from the east.
Eventually, to better serve the Portland area we were like let’s get inventory. At that point, I rented a house on Hassalo Street (Portland, OR) that had a big garage. I had a pickup truck and I would go to the UPS terminal on the north side of Portland. I would pick up pallets of coffee in my truck and take them to my garage. I would keep all of the inventory in my garage and drive around and distribute the coffee from my garage!
Really? Working like seven days a week then?
Six days a week. So, it was a lot of office stuff to begin with and then it was delivering stuff. Then we hired Roxanne (Roxanne Magnuson of Life Source Natural Foods) and the team got a little bit bigger. We hired Beth Ann (Beth Ann Caspersen, current Quality Control manager for Equal Exchange) but it was traveling to accounts, delivering coffee, cold calling people, and that was pretty much it. It’s not that much different from what folks do now it’s just bigger.
You just mentioned a few accounts you worked with back then. Do you remember what key accounts were back then?
We had Food Front Co-op (Food Front Cooperative Grocery), there were some grocery stores that weren’t New Seasons, and there were smaller grocery stores we’d deliver to.
We’d also go up to Seattle. Bulldog News was the first food service account that we actually landed. I was super excited when we got that. I don’t know if you know, but food service accounts are very difficult accounts to get, so that was a good one and we use to be at a restaurant called Higgins. They were slow food folks and we sold them coffee for a while. We had Marcos Café in Portland that we serviced, I think that’s still one of our customers.
Yes, Marcos Café is still one of our customers.
I also had the whole Southeast: California, Idaho, the whole nut out there. Tom and I were trying to open up stuff there for a long time. Those were busy days just dealing with the accounts that we had. Then when we added new things like New Seasons Market and Nakata (Town and Country). They were both building stores and growing fast…yeah, that’s a long time ago.
Sounds like things were really busy even to the point of needing more people than you had at the time. With that being said, what were some of the bigger challenges for Equal Exchange working in Oregon? Were people not really familiar with the company yet or the Fair Trade movement?
I mean it was just trying to grow a business, managing a business, adding people, trying to figure out what is good business and what’s bad business. Those years were years of high growth for Equal Exchange. You’d go around and tell people about Fair Trade coffee and they’d have no idea what you’re talking about. I mean, it was really the beginning of specialty coffee.
Those were sort of years of really aggressive growth. I think in 2001 we hit ten million dollars and so we were growing by millions of dollars every year. It was really just managing growth, customers, and volume. Getting stuff shipped out to us, where to put it, and what to do with it. Do we get a bigger space? Why are we living in Gresham?! Those kinds of things.
In the end, I decided that if we didn’t roast coffee then we couldn’t compete. If we don’t roast, this is going to be bad for us. There was no way that Equal Exchange was just going to let us build a roaster in Portland by ourselves. Everything was back in Canton (Canton, Massachusetts). I set out to convince everyone that we should do that and I had to move back to the East. Plus, I wanted to be closer to the green coffee and buying. They didn’t hire me to go come back and roast coffee. They hired me to go back and work in the purchasing side of things.
That was definitely one of my questions. Considering what a vibrant coffee culture we have in the Pacific Northwest with small batch roasting being a strong theme here, I’ve always wondered about what drove that decision to roast out East as opposed to the West.
It makes sense that roasting should happen where the green beans are landing. Especially with the operational undertaking of owning roasting and the space needed to do something like that on the scale that Equal Exchange exists on.
Well, the board, the management, everything was in Canton and no one knew how to roast coffee. It wasn’t a for sure go, but, basically, I was like if we don’t roast than this isn’t going to work. That was sort of my own personal agenda. I got hired to buy green coffee first and then once I was doing that I was working with Mark Souza (Procurement for Equal Exchange) and Rosario Castellon (former Producer Relations Coordinator for Equal Exchange as well as an activist during the 1970’s Nicaraguan Revolution), asking what are we buying and where are we buying it? It was also a lot of systems work.
You asked about challenges and I think those are some of the same challenges we have today: systems. How do we work systems? How can we improve systems? How come different people do things differently? Why do you fill out the green paper and what happens to the green paper? We spent a lot of time doing systems development stuff and while I was doing that, we were having someone else roast our coffee. Everything was going well, but it was clear to me that you needed to be involved with the coffee. There seemed to be a lot of money on the table that we could take by roasting it ourselves and it would just be way better and cooler to do it.
We put a proposal forward and that ended up turning into the Build, Buy, Roast Proposal. We were renting. We were like: “Can we rent and roast coffee?” We can’t roast coffee here in Canton and we were growing like crazy. What should we do? That led to buying the place in West Bridgewater (MA).
Aha! So that’s how you got that conversation started about bringing coffee roasting in-house and making the decision to do so?
Can workers of Equal Exchange still look at that original proposal? The Build, Buy, Roast Proposal?
I was looking for it on one of my computers. I have a couple old computers opened up, but I couldn’t find it on the computers that I have. I’m sure that Rink has it because he has a huge file cabinet and actually, the first proposal was called The Means of Production Proposal. Most of the argument was not economic it was more of including production workers in our coop. It was more of a worker owner coop democracy Marxist argument which turned into let’s go buy this because we’re going to make money, but that was the basis of the original argument.
Wow, interesting stuff! I love hearing about this. So, back to Oregon. What was the scene like then? The coffee scene and the Fair Trade movement in Oregon while you were working there?
When I first started it was really nascent. It was not like it is now right? You had your sort of food coops, grocery stores. There wasn’t Whole Foods, there wasn’t fancy grocery stores, there wasn’t cafes on every corner. It was more of what you would think of as traditional diners type coffee. There was a couple nice cafes, but nothing at all like it is now.
In that time, Duane Sorenson, the ex-owner of Stumptown (Stumptown Coffee) had just started Stumptown and was roasting in this little place. It was kind of a café but more like a little roastery and he was having a lot of success. You were just beginning to see the beginnings of people roasting with a lot of smaller roasters. The traditional industry was disaggregating and you were having a lot of smaller roasters start to pop up. Starbucks was beginning to acquire some of the bigger roasters and specialty coffee was becoming way more popular.
One of the big things that started happening was all of the drive-thrus (coffee stands) that’s still kind of unique to Oregon, the number of coffee drive-thrus. We had an account on the coast that was owned by these two women, Tom would remember what their names were, but that was all the rage. Coffee People was all over the place, that’s an old brand that I think got bought out, but I remember those little drive-thrus were really the hot ticket. I was looking around and I was like if you don’t roast your own coffee you’re going to have a really hard time competing or even just being real in the coffee scene. Watching Stumptown just really convinced me that we had to do this.
Portland has changed a lot for sure.
A lot a lot.
Switching over to the internal sentiment regarding bringing coffee roasting in-house, what was the general sentiment within Equal Exchange about being out in Oregon and branching out like that?
I don’t know, you’d have to ask them! I think people were excited about it. It was exciting to have another office in another place. We were growing all over the country really. I think it may have been a little bit weird to have us be out there and be worker owners. There was no Zoom meeting, you’re on the phone shouting through the phone, you’re sending faxes back and forth. In some ways, we were way more isolated and more of an idea. Like the whole West Coast office was like yeah, we got something out there, but you didn’t have the same level of communication or integration. We were just kind of out there doing our thing. We would check in with Rink or whoever it was we had to talk to and that was pretty much it. We weren’t really that involved with other people, it just wasn’t like that.
Were worker owner meetings happening regularly?
Yeah, there were meetings and you could go to board meetings, you could call in, it was just a very different experience you know?
I’m trying to remember how many people actually worked at Equal Exchange at that point. I think it was probably more like when I started, maybe 20 people in the whole thing. So, yeah, we had worker owner meetings, we elected board members. There was a lot less structure to everything. There was no real worker owner coordinator…now we’ve got committees and blah-blah-blah and processes, and all kinds of bureaucracy.
Are there any highlights for you with your work out in Oregon?
The Battle for Seattle! Which was a huge anti Free Trade WTO (World Trade Organization) protest. Do you know about that?
Yes, I was there too.
You were there too?
Yeah, the Battle for Seattle, man. I still have a teargas canister from that in our cupping lab! We also have one of the (protest) signs. We were giving out coffee in a church basement and we were a part of the whole riot. That was part of our messaging was that whole movement. We also brought coffee to the tree sitters in Eagle Creek. I climbed up to one of those tree sitting places, we were donating coffee to them at that time!
Those two things for sure and when we landed New Seasons Markets, Markets of Choice, and Vitamin Cottages. We were growing, it was a really exciting time of growth out there. It was fun! It was sort of Wild Westish in that way and because we were not here (Massachusetts) we were sort of free to do whatever we wanted. There wasn’t a whole lot of structure or supervision as long as we got accounts and took care of people. I remember the first August I was there, I made 350 cold calls!
Whoa! That is a lot of phone calls!
You’ve already mentioned this, but it sounds like you were the one to really get the conversation started around in-house roasting. So, how exactly did this conversation get rolling?
I moved back (Massachusetts), got involved in the green coffee purchasing side of things and just did that for a while, but I was pretty consistently thinking we have to roast coffee, we have to roast coffee, sort of beating that drum, talking to people saying: “We should do this, let’s do this.”
I remember the first day I got to Equal Exchange and I showed up and I asked: “Where is the roaster?” The answer was we didn’t have one. I couldn’t believe it! What? What do you mean you don’t have a roaster? It just seemed unreal to me and so when I came back I spent a couple of years just sort of talking it up and then eventually I wrote a proposal on it, on an electronic typewriter!
I can still see the thing typed out and called: The Means of Production. It was the proposal that we submitted to both the board and the worker owners. Eventually everyone talked about it and said it sounded like a good idea, but then it had to morph. We had to do more work and then it turned into Build, Buy, Roast which was a worker owner vote as well as a board vote.
It was a process. I think it took a little bit longer than a year before it was approved.
Who was working on the proposal with you?
We had a consultant named Willem Boot who runs Boot Coffee Consulting (of Boot Coffee Campus). He’s super well known now. He helped us speck out if you do x or y this is what’ll it’ll cost. He helped us come up with some economic scenarios and Rink was pretty involved in that proposal process as well.
I’m just sort of mystified with just the overall undertaking of a project and proposal like this. Especially considering that at that point, no one in the company really had much experience with roasting yet?
Well, we had Beth Ann. Beth Ann started working at Equal Exchange before I did and during that period Jonathan (Jonathan Rosenthal, co-founder of Equal Exchange) decided that she should learn how to cup coffee. She went off to apprentice with George Howell, who was a really well-known coffee guy back in the day who had these cafes called The Coffee Connection. That ended up getting sold to Starbucks.
Anyways, she apprenticed with him to cup and so she worked in his lab for free. She would roast his coffee, prepare the cuppings, clean it up, but she was an employee of Equal Exchange. It was kind of a weird arrangement actually, but we had a sample roaster. We did sample roasting and we had a little tiny lab with a couple of things. We were roasting coffee on a tiny scale. We still have the roaster that we started roasting samples on.
It’s not rocket science. It’s hard and there’s a lot to it. There’s a lot of science and a lot of alchemy to it, but people have been doing it for a super long time. I was convinced that we could do it, that I could do it and I convinced everyone else that it was a good idea. It was a big move, but it was fun and it was exciting and people wanted to do it.
Just like now. People want to roast coffee in the West. I mean, most of the people I talk to say that we should have a roaster here (in the West and owned/operated by Equal Exchange) because there is a physicality to it that is different than just moving boxes, when you’re engaged with the product. Even being a DSD Rep, you’re actually touching the product. If you’re just a sales person and you never touch a box or open a bag, you just sell it it’s just a theoretical thing, but when you’re actually involved in the chain it just has a different feeling to it.
Agreed. I recently took a trip to source and it had a similar impact on me. I felt like I could engage with the community at large concerning the supply chain, the farmers and producers that we partner with and in general, have a closer relationship with the products that we sell.
That being said, as a DSD & Demo Rep, I see that we still face steep competition because we are not a Portland centric roaster. Similar to how you were feeling when you were in Oregon observing that if we didn’t roast, we were going to have a hard time keeping our place in the marketplace. We can still be treated differently even when we are in stores every week merchandising product and building long-term relationships with our accounts piece by piece that the market we are advocating for depends on.
I think the thing about projects like roasting is that it’s big, it’s scary, and it’s exciting. So, once everyone is on board there’s this feeling when everyone is pulling in the same direction. It’s motivating, it’s galvanizing, it’s cool. We’re going to do this! It’s exciting to have a clear direction.
Like you said, there’s something about owning that part of the process. Logistically, it didn’t make sense for Equal Exchange to start the roaster in the West as it was so far removed from our products and production out East at the time.
Well, there was just no way that people were going to vote for me and Tom (to start roasting out West). There was just no way. It was too important of a move to just hand over to two kids three thousand miles away. They weren’t just going to write a check for however much the first roaster (was going to cost). I mean, I think the first project in the beginning was about a million dollars of stuff, maybe a little bit less. That just wasn’t going to be a thing (out West). I knew that to make it happen it had to be back here (West Bridgewater).
Right. Beth Ann mentioned that our roasters came from Germany? Tell me more about the process of acquiring the roasters and getting them running.
Once it (Build, Buy, Roast proposal) got approved, we had to go buy a building. There was a whole process around buying a building and a whole process around moving the workplace which is actually detailed in our bylaws about how far can you move, where can you move to. You can only move within a certain radius without a vote of who wants to move there. There was a whole internal process about where we were moving first.
Once we had the place, we hired some consultants who were mostly ex-Starbucks executives to sort of help us set things up, do the engineering work, get us permitted, stamped, improved, and help us decide which roaster to buy. We worked with Probat (Probat Burns Commercial Coffee Processing Equipment Manufacturer) and ended up with a traditional drum roaster. We thought that if we are going to buy a roaster, let’s not buy a cheap thing. I’m kind of like if we’re going to go buy a car, let’s buy a Mercedes not a Hyundai. We went out and bought the best roaster we thought we could buy and that turned out to be a 1986 Roaster Probat that was from Germany.
Probat brought it over, we got an old packaging machine from the York Pennsylvania Starbucks plant. So, our first packaging machine was a used packaging machine from York. And that was it. It seems like a big thing, but it really wasn’t. At that point you could walk into a coffee roasting company, say Stumptown for example, I think they had a small Probat and there they are roasting coffee. It’s not that complicated. And so we had a biggish machine and then a packaging machine which was actually more complicated than the roaster to some degree because it was sort of finicky.
The consultants came and we had a bunch of people bring the machine into the building. They set it up, plug it in, run all the gas, run the electricity, put everything together and then they left. I remember the first day Probat came. We went out for a week with the crew to California and roasted coffee at different coffee roasting places, had coffee roasting classes for a week, then we came back. Then everyone left. There we were with our machine and I remember we were all like: “Oh my god, what do we do now?”
We decided to roast a French roast. We turned it on and roasted a French roast, packed it up, and sold it! I can remember that day, turning the thing on. There were no consultants, there was no engineers, and we were like: “Let’s do it.” It was scary. Everyone thought we were going to throw it out or wreck it. I was like: “No, no, no, we’re going to sell this coffee.”
That’s a cool story to hear about the roaster landing and that our first coffee ever roasted was a French roast!
Sometimes when the worker owners bring proposals forward these days, it can be hard to tell what the general consensus is. Maybe because we are bigger, there’s more people and more insights. It’s nice to hear about a time when a proposal was brought forward that really brought together the worker owners and then went full steam ahead.
Well, we haven’t really done anything like that since. We have proposals about this and that, but not on spending a couple million dollars to go buy a building and machines. The kinds of proposals (now) are a different animal. Once people were in favor of the Build, Buy, Roast proposal it was exciting, it was a unifying activity. Plus there was a lot less of us right?
Right, around twenty or so worker owners?
We actually didn’t get the roaster running until 2005. So, I don’t know how many people worked at Equal Exchange at that time. It was more than 20, maybe 50 people. You’d have to ask someone else.
Well, it really was just a monumental moment in the history of Equal Exchange.
Those were the times. In those years where we had our first million-dollar month. I can remember when we had our first million-dollar month. I can’t remember what year it was, but I remember it was a big deal. That was exciting. Rob (Equal Exchange’s co-director) brought champagne and we toasted (the occasion). So, it was just an exciting time, those years from 1999 to 2009 were basically crazy mad growth, 25-30% a year.
Before NAV, we had Dynamics. In Dynamics, when I came back, there was a million of everything! So, the inventory, they just put a million of everything because we didn’t really use it, we’d do inventory by hand, you didn’t use it as an inventory system. It was just crazy, it was a whole different world back then.
As we move forward as a company from being Fair Trade Pioneers to Fair Trade Maintainers, so to speak, the movement has been established yet its intended standards have been watered down over recent years. With that being said, what current challenges do you think Equal Exchange faces as a company?
Well, I think the market is a big deal. The amount of money that is in the hands of our competitors is outrageous. Like the amount of cash that is flowing into coffee and especially the specialty coffee sector is just…you can’t even count the zeros, but staying independent and staying at the size we are or even getting bigger is really complicated. Most companies would have sold out by now and been a part of a much bigger conglomerate that buys shelf space and does all of that (Equal Exchange has a Never Sell Out clause built into the business model).
I think that the environment in which we are talking is really crowded with ideas and there’s a lot of competing ideas. To some degree our success is that we’ve been so successful that everyone talks about farmers and how close they are to farmers. You’ve sort of lost your north star to some degree because so many people are saying they’re doing what we’re doing whether they are or not, that’s another question. You’re not the only guy in the room anymore going: “Hey, I have organic coffee or what do you think about organic?”
This is a part of the whole artisan food, local…like all of that happened during this time and now it’s everywhere. You go to Panera Bread which is owned by the same people that own half of the coffee companies in the world and you get “artisan” this, “local” that. It just didn’t exist like that. Now, in that environment, I don’t think we’ve found that new something that makes us that different. We are different, but it’s crowded. The space is crowded and there’s a lot of money. It’s really hard to compete and it’s really hard to keep your place.
We haven’t really grown, particularly coffee sales, in quite some time. We’ve kind of been spinning the same hamster wheel. So, how are you going to go from six-million dollars and now we’re at, depending on how you count, call it 60-million. How are you going to get to a 100? Where is the magic bullet? I don’t think we know yet.
It’s a crowded space and there’s so many ideas in it now. Before, it was not like that. People weren’t talking about where their coffee was coming from, they weren’t talking about the environment, they weren’t talking about local roasters. Now it’s so hard, it’s just a cacophony of sounds. People are very hyper focused on this sort of weird fetishisms about coffee and consumption. I think it’s hard to be in that environment and not have a true north star.
If you ask: “What are we doing?” And you ask ten different people (worker owners of Equal Exchange), you’re going to get a lot of different answers. Before, I think it was much clearer. I think everyone had a more shared vision of what was happening and I feel like we’ve lost that a little bit.
Well said. There’s a lot of truth and challenges to dig into the material you just presented. On that note, we will wrap up the conversation here for now. Is there’s anything else you’d like to add?
I’ve really enjoyed this opportunity to meet with you. Thanks again for sitting down and chatting with me about the early days of Oregon and the birth of roasting at Equal Exchange.
Maftoul, or Palestinian couscous, makes a great vegan or vegetarian filling as it cooks quickly, absorbs additional dressings or sauces, and tastes great with any addition of herbs, vegetables, fruits nuts, or legumes. While I use the traditional Palestinian hand rolled maftoul using wheat, you can substitute any grain for this dish, like bulgur wheat or even quinoa for a gluten free option. You can also use spinach instead of swiss chard, or golden raisins instead of cranberries.
Recipe & photo courtesy of Blanche, feastinthemiddleeast.com.
Recipe & photo courtesy of Blanche, feastinthemiddleeast.com.
This month, we took The Stories Behind Our Food on the road. Danielle and Kate interviewed Igor Kharitonenkov of Bootstrap Compost at his home in Boston, where we checked out his garden and learned about all things compost!
Waste diverted from landfills: 4.5 million pounds
Compost created: 2.2 million pounds
Greenhouse gases offset: 3.2 million pounds
That’s the equivalent of 24,366 trees or 1,734 acres of forest land. Looking at the offset another way, it represents 1.6 million pounds of coal or 165,800 gallons of gasoline that were not burned!
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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. All right.
Hello. The stories behind our food is on the road this week. Danielle and Gary, our producer are being hosted right now by Igor Kharitonenkov of Bootstrap Compost. He’s the Co founder and chief operating officer. Thanks so much for joining us today.
Thank you for having me.
Thanks for hosting us and giving us pomegranate juice. Pretty awesome. I want to start out by asking you about your mission. Basically, I think composting isn’t super mainstream in the US. Why do you think that is?
Well, it takes a lot of time and effort to compost. You have to be genuinely interested in it to actually create a good nutrient rich soil. A lot of people try to compost in their backyard and what they do is they basically are just creating a mini landfill, because they’re just throwing food scraps, one on top of the other. you need a, you know, mix the compost, you need to water it. Occasionally you need to make sure it has access to sunlight so that all those microbes and macro and micro decomposers can have an environment where they thrive.
Yeah. I think you’re getting into this already, but if you can explain basically from a scientific perspective how composting works and how it’s different from a landfill.
Sure. Well, first of all, composting is a much better use of resources then than landfills are. according to the EPA, 14% of waste is compostable, but only 2.9% of that is actually composted. So we’re on average every day producing enough food waste to fill a stadium the size of Gillette, where the Patriots play full of food waste and that’s mostly going to the landfill. composting is good for a variety of reasons. first of all, of course you’re creating a, a soil out of it that can be used. It’s a nutrient rich soil amendment that can be used to grow and help grow and help create a really, a really positive sort of ecosystem for plants to thrive in. I put compost on my garden, you know, I have really beautiful Kale growing back there and tomatoes and it really helps create the proper kind of environment with the right kind of nutrients that a plant is supposed to have. But the other reason composting is so good is because of the fact that it actually offsets, greenhouse gases. So in a landfill, you are creating methane gas, methane gas. It’s, you know, we always say landfills are where food scraps go to die and methane gas is the byproduct of that. Methane gas is 14 to 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
Where does it come from? It’s just being like, it’s coming out of the piles of an uncompensated scraps?
You know, I’m not a chemist, but I do know that food scraps and other stuff that’s just sitting there and rotting creates methane gas.
But with composting, you’re flipping that, that food waste, you’re adding water, you’re adding naturally heat as added through that process. And I believe it’s a combustion reaction, but essentially you’re taking methane gas and you’re converting it to carbon dioxide, which again is 14 times less potent in the environments you’re actually offseting greenhouse gases by, by composting. Take this, for example, every pound of food waste that you can post, you’re actually offsetting around 0.9 pounds of, of greenhouse, of greenhouse gases. to put that into terms, every mile you drive, you pump out one pound of carbon dioxide. So essentially, you could offset your whole footprint. You know, by composting, say, you know, I mean you’d have to compost a lot of food and maybe change your lifestyle a little bit, but you could really have a zero waste kind of neutral greenhouse gas lifestyle with the help of composting. So…
That’s pretty compelling. I think a lot of people don’t see what they can do as individuals, but this, especially when you’re doing it on large scale as your businesses and we’ll get into that. It’s got, it gives me a lot of hope. That’s neat.
And I think going back to why don’t more people compost? Well it does take a lot of work. People are busy here in Boston. People don’t have the space to do it. oftentimes they don’t have the time to do it themselves. So services like ours, really help. I just read a statistic that said that of non– 72% of people don’t compost. But of those 72%, 67% say they would compost if it was, if there was a convenient way to do it. Now convenient is a relative term to some people, convenient might mean buying a tumbler and putting it in their backyard instead of having a pile. A tumbler is a device that you essentially spin and rotate. And over time, those food scraps, you know, you add your carbon sources, your, your nitrogen sources, your, your browns and your greens essentially for a healthy compost pile, you need both a lot of leaves and carbon sources, even cardboard or you know, paper materials like that. And then you also need your, your food scraps, your banana peels, your leftovers. So that might be, that’s easy for someone, for other people, that means actually having a service like Bootstrap. So recently I was in New York City for the community composting, conference. And there are businesses starting up all over the country. We were one of the original community composting operations in America. and we’re one of the biggest ones now. People really look up to us and we frequently, frequently get inquiries from places in Florida or Alabama or California, Oregon. Across the board. There are, you know, hundreds of companies starting now that are looking up to us and looking up and seeing that people are starting to become more conscious with their food waste. So many years ago we became sort of conscious about how we eat. More and more people are buying organic. More and more people are buying local. I think more people are into even gardening. and now that same kind of clientele that is shopping at Whole Foods and is really buying into kind of the values that what they stand for, what they put in their body. They also want to put back into the planet via composting. So we started serving Jamaica Plain. That was our initial neighborhood. We had a few dozen clients and now we’re, you know, out in the Back Bay with, you know, what I would consider a higher end clientele. You know, the people that can afford, you know, the lattes and you know, the Yoga studio classes and, and now they have a composting bin too. So that’s a really cool revolution that I’ve seen over the, over the time of this business is that we’re not just reaching kind of this niche audience of, you know, I don’t want to put a label on it, but people that are just really, into the environment. Now we have people that are into a lot of things, but they also are into the environment as well.
Yeah. Make compost. Cool. Make compost mainstream. Yeah, that’s right. Can you explain — I’m seeing the obstacles here. People want to do this, they already want to do this more and more, but they don’t necessarily know how to do it and they don’t have the space. So how do you make it convenient for city dwellers here in Boston?
Yeah. Admittedly I was one of those people that you were talking about earlier who by accidentally was making a mini landfill in my back yard. So I’d love to hear what, how it works for an individual
About starting your own compost pile or about signing up with Bootstrap?
Signing up with Bootstrap. Didn’t work for me. Right?
So if you are interested in composting, and again, if you don’t have the space or time to do it or maybe you’re not creating the kind of soil that you wanted to, you can sign up with us. And what we do is we deliver a five gallon bucket to your house. if you’re, if you’re a resident, we also provide commercial services as well. but if you’re a resident, you can sign up and we give you that bucket. You can fill it with …basically anything that grows goes. So we accept produce, we accept meat products, you know, and then we, and then we come by and based on your needs, we can come by once a week or once every two weeks and pick up that bucket, swap it out, give you a fresh, clean bucket. We sanitize, we clean and sanitize every single bucket. We put a nice little compostable liner around it, so it’s really smell free, it’s hassle free. And on the day of your pickup, you just place it outside on your front porch. We swap it out and you get to start again.
Do you have to do a lot of educating? Do people know what they can compost and what they can’t? Or has that been a problem for you?
\It hasn’t been a problem, but it’s sometimes a little bit of an issue with our commercial accounts. So we serve a lot of, a lot of offices for example. And that’s another movement where I’ve seen, you know, it used to be just Nature Conservancy or Series and now we have Puma and Uber and Lyft and just these big brand names that are now part of, you know, having composting services at their office. I visit them frequently. Toast Boston for example, is a huge growing company and they have so many compost bins and they fill them all up. it’s, it’s pretty amazing to see and it’s a huge impact because at an office you are potentially reaching thousands of people and educating them about composting. But sometimes things can go wrong because not everybody understands what to put in the compost Bin and what not to put. Or maybe they’re in a hurry and they’re just kind of like, you know, throwing it wherever and the first empty bin. With our residential subscribers, it’s not a problem. Again, it’s a volunteer kind of service. You don’t have to sign up for it. You can if you want.
They’re highly motivated already. They already want to do it. So they probably know more.
Exactly. Yeah. So they already know how to do it. Plus we send them, you know, like a little leaflet little flyer that says what you can and can’t compost. We, there’s plenty of Info online about, so, so people are, you know, if they’re, if they’re buying into it, they’re usually gonna follow the rules. Yeah. That being said, we have had, you know, a bucket full of diapers delivered to us once. Staying on the theme of poop, we once had a lady that was throwing her dog poop in the compost bin. So we’ve had a few weird incidents along the way, but 99% of those buckets are really just good food waste.
Yeah. So what is your personal area of expertise? I know you talked kind of being that bleeding heart environmentalist. What, what is your background and what gave you this idea and wanting to get into this?
That’s something I think about a lot. my background is actually in psychology and I moved to Boston to pursue a phd in neuropharmacology, which lasted all of eight months. I did not decided I did not want to, pursue on that career path and kind of be stuck in a lab and the academic environment just didn’t suit me. I think by nature I’ve always been a bit of a risk taker and a businessman, you know, I was that kid, you know, going around the neighborhood, mowing lawns for people, making a little money, shoveling snow, you know, any opportunity I could make a dollar, you know, like I tried. then after Grad school I kind of floated around. I did some media work for a little bit, I did some communications work, but my heart was always in, in the environment and how do we help the environment. So I, initially saw a flyer for Bootstrap Compost and I thought, hm, that’s a cool service. I want to, I want to be a part of that. And I profiled Andy in a video.
This is your cofounder, right?
Andy is, yeah, my co founder, and I, this was back when he had like, you know, 40, 50, 60 clients in Jamaica Plain. And after that video, he really liked the work that I did. I think the video had got a lot of views. so I did some more stuff for him for free and then he decided to, you know, take me on for a few hours a week just doing part time marketing. He needed help. He was doing all aspects of the business. and somewhere along the way I just kind of developed a business acumen for efficiency, for operations, for hiring, all these things that it takes to grow and scale a business. We now have 26 people working on our staff. we serve over 3000 clients. and all that took a bit of risk taking and a lot of management. And I guess over the years I’ve just realized that those are some skills that I have.
Bootstrap describes itself on its website as a social enterprise. What does that mean to you?
It means a lot of things. I have a whole hour talk about social enterprise and what it means to be a social enterprise. I’ve done talks at UMass and Tufts to a variety of students. I’m talking about social entrepreneurship. what it means to me is you’ve heard of the bottom, the triple bottom line. I mean, probably it’s the good for people, good for planet, good for profits. So I think that’s kind of like the basis of it. you know, for example, in house we invest in our workforce, so we give people above livable wages, we have health insurance, we’re now starting to unroll 401k plans. and we give bonuses and we always pay people and we put them on flexible schedules. We have several people who work remotely with us and they’re getting their job done and it’s treating each other with respect and treating each other with kindness, in house. So that’s what we do in house. outside of that we are big in the community. So we do a lot of education. We have a community outreach team that, is spearheaded by one of our employees who, together. Her and I designed a very robust K-6 sort of curriculum about composting a an hour long presentation essentially to that we can shop around and go to schools with and teach kids about, you know, the importance of composting, talking about soil health, talking about plant health, talking about some of these issues like the landfill stuff I was bringing about bringing, talking about, and methane and all that other stuff. And it really ties in a lot of like science, technology, math kind of stuff. We bring the worm bin too occasionally. The young kids really love the worms. They love to look into, you know, that compost bin. And we asked them to like find a, a warm egg or find a big worm finally. So we do a lot of that with kids. the service in itself is a social enterprise, I feel like because as I mentioned that offices, you’re reaching a lot of people and teaching them about, behaviors that are more favorable for the earth. the buckets out on the curb out on this front step make people wonder, Oh, what does bootstrap compost? They look it up to like, oh, composting made easy. Hmm. What’s that?
Yeah. If you look at their Instagram, you can see a lot of the buckets, but we’re talking about a branded bucket that has the name of the service on it. So people who see it will know right away. This isn’t just a random bucket. There’s a purpose for it.
Yeah, exactly. we hire, we hire folks with disabilities and they come into our warehouse through Triangle and they work with us four days a week. that’s something I’m extremely proud of that partnership and we’ve been able to keep it going now for I think coming up on three years. and it gives folks with disabilities a sense of purpose and meaning and an income, for a population that has historically been disenfranchised or misunderstood. And we love those guys. They come in and they just, they just, they just crush it. and then we have a community outreach team, which, goes back to the compost donations. We give out a lot of compost to community gardens. We just gave one a to a community garden that’s starting up in Chinatown. We delivered 20 buckets to another community garden. I can’t think of the name right now. but there’s a lot of compost that’s being given out. We have a budget. you know, we try to do 1% or more of our revenue goes back into causes we believe in. So not only do we donate compost, but we also do financial donations. So we’ve donated to the ACLU, the Hyde Square task force, among many other organizations that we believe in, that uphold the spirit of, you know, liberty and, and and, and doing something right.
It’s awfully efficient that you can advertise your own service and simultaneously be teaching people about good behaviors that are good for the earth. Even if they’re not, they don’t choose to go with Bootstrap, like, you can without feeling like it’s just an ad. You can talk about what you do and get new supporters. But also have people like really learn something useful that’s, that’s good for the world.
Yeah. It’s a win win. And we don’t try to be salesy. People come to us. We’ve grown tremendously this past year, especially in the commercial sector. And there’s just a little signup form or a little information form that people fill out and we get five inquiries a day, 10 inquiries a day of commercial clients who want to sign up with our service. So we’re just clearly getting out.
Can you talk about, we haven’t actually gotten to this yet. What happens to the food you pickup? What happens to the compost you make?
Yeah, so we work primarily with one farm where it gets turned into compost. They have, an in-vessel, system where they take the food waste and they put it into this giant sort of screener that is also, powered by I believe, diesel. and it runs for like a, I don’t know what the capacity is, but it’s massive. It’s the size of like a semi semi truck, like an 18 wheeler. and food waste gets put into that and they spin it around and they heat it. And within 24 hours, you have 90% finished compost. Actually 24 hours. Yeah. And the screener, the screen is actually able to separate, it’ll keep the like bad stuff in and the compost, it gets screened out. Then they take that compost and they put it into these large mountain sized piles. They’re not actually the size of mountains, but they’re pretty big. They’re probably the size of this house. so, and then that, that sits there and they come by with a tractor and turn it, you know, every, every couple of days. And, and we’ve tested their compost and it tests really, really well. in terms of testing low for heavy metals testing high for nutrients, we always test the compost before we, do our, you know, giveaways. so that’s one thing that happens. We work with another farm, which is much more agrarian if you want to put it that way. They just have a basic three, three, like it’s not a three bin system, but it’s like three areas.
Yeah. Three piles essentially. Yeah. And so they have one pile that’s like the act of pile where we would dump food scraps that gets turned in. The middle pile is when you’re no longer dumping, but it’s not fully finished than the last pilot’s to fully finished compost. So they have that kind of system would go there once a week. So they get maybe about, you know, a thousand pounds a week less than that.
And these farms are using the finished compost — other than what you donate, like you mentioned earlier that the compost — they’re using it for their food production?
So the first farm, they’re a commercial composting site. They sell the compost or they give compost back to us. And with our partnership they give us as much compost as we want, as, as much as we need to be able to do our donations to be able to, give back to our residents and even to do some sales. we mixed their compost actually with some of our own worm castings, which are, you know, the most potent kind of compost. So even just a little teaspoon of worm castings is enough for one plant. whereas with compost you’d want like a handful of compost for one plant. So we mix it in and we kind of branded as our own Bootstrap compost that we sell or give away or donate. But the other farm, they actually do use their compost on their crops.
Yeah. Cool. I’m seeing a lot of packaging, like food packaging recently that’s marketed as compostable anyway. Is that something that you can handle and do you have thoughts on that movement toward packaging food in compostable … I don’t know what it is. Bioplastic or something?
We can handle a limited amount. we’re fortunate enough that most of that stuff we, we don’t get a lot of that stuff. So most of our, I’d say 95 to 98% is food scraps. So we don’t have a lot of, compostable packaging that comes our way. My personal viewpoints on it are mixed. While it’s probably better than plastic. I still think it’s kind of contributes to a culture of a throw away culture, and a culture of waste. And, I’m not sure what even like what the ratios are for the amount of resources that you need to create, a compostable cup versus a plastic cup versus, so I probably need to do a little more research on that. But I do think generally speaking that it would be better if offices used, you know, people used water bottles or or plates like real plates and real forks and knives. But then again, I understand, I’ve been to some of these offices that have, you know, thousand employees running around with literally a cup of coffee in one hand, a laptop and the other. So convenience is a factor and it’s just something we’re dealing with. And I guess it’s better to have compostable plastics then than to not have them. But on the flip side, too many of those and farms can’t process them. And, and they have to go to digesters. And, and I know for a fact that that digester in Charlestown doesn’t accept, you can put them in, but it’ll grind them up and it won’t go into the slurry. It’ll just be thrown away with the stuff that’s, you know, that’s the byproduct. So it’s really hard to compost that stuff.
Ironic. But good to know.
Yeah, it is ironic.
I think another thing to think about, especially for a lot of our listeners is the individual behavior that we have and how that impacts what companies do. We have a lot of those compostable packaging now because it’s been demanded. You want the convenience, but you want, you know, the quote unquote environmentally friendly that turns out it’s not so environmentally friendly. And I think what I want to stress to our listeners and to individuals is to really own your individual behavior and how that impacts what companies do and that it’s important to buy whole foods. It’s important to buy bulk and your food and your grocery store. And when you buy packaged goods and you continue to buy packaged goods, that’s going to change the behavior of where you’re buying that. So, I don’t know if you have any thoughts on kind of how folks’ individual behavior kind of impacts maybe the way you do business and you know, the other folks you’re doing business with as well.
Well, it’s interesting you bring that up because 40% of our food is wasted across the board, whether it’s a restaurant, whether it’s a household. And that’s really sad because if food waste was a country, I believe it would be the second largest producer of energy and like the third largest use user of energy and the third largest user of water.
And that’s globally speaking, that’s not just the US but in the US it’s 40%. And you’re right. I mean it’s, it’s, it’s like, you know, don’t go to Costco and buy six heads of lettuce because it’s gonna cost you $3 less, you’re going to end up wasting three of those heads of lettuce. Yeah. If you’re buying it for your family, you know, I go to Costco, I’ve completely stopped buying the produce there because I realized that it’s just half of it just goes bad. And I’m, I’m part of the problem when that happens. So, you know, with produce, just be very careful and mindful of what you buy and how much you buy. sSo that does come down to individual decisions, individual behaviors, eat your leftovers, you know, if you’re at a restaurant, take it home, eat it for lunch the next day. Try to be creative about your cooking. Try to not order out so much and you know, eat, eat, eat healthy and eat well. Try to do some gardening if you’ve, you know, got the interest and start to really appreciate food more than what it takes to grow it because it’s not easy. And as far as the industry goes, I think we’re coming up with more sophisticated ways of food packaging. There’s a company out in California called Apeel and they’re coming up with an organic sort of, by organic, I mean plant based, plant based coating that you can put on produce, which increases the shelf life from say, you know, a banana that would go bad in three days to like seven or eight days. And it’s that those are little technologies that are going to go a long way in the future, that are going to help us reduce food waste because it’s not just that, it’s also grocery stores. It’s also, you know, in the transportation of the food. It’s also at the farms. So I’m talking about big, big systemic issues that we have with food waste. And we at Bootstrap always say like, we sometimes open up a bucket and we see like a perfectly fine potato in there. We always wonder like, why didn’t you just eat that? Like, or it might have like a little smudge on it that you could just cut off. So like people have this idea that they’re, and as much as I love Whole Foods, I think Whole Foods has contributed, the company, to like this idea of like shiny, happy food. Yeah. their produce is very high quality, but it’s also like, you don’t need the perfect apple all the time. Yeah. You don’t need to have the perfect tomato. okay.
Food can be ugly and still be good and tasty and nutritious. It’s interesting to hear somebody who’s in the compost biz say that actually it’s better to not have too much food than it is to compost the extra. Reducing the amount of food that you buy and eating what you, what you buy rather than buying too much and putting it in the compost. It’s not actually a zero emission solution. Anything that you want to cover that we haven’t touched on?
Yeah, I mean, one thing that I talked about, was, well, one thing that we didn’t really cover was the impact that Bootstrap’s had. And that’s something that I, you know, I’m really proud of. So since 2011, we’ve kept four and a half million pounds of food waste out of landfills. We’ve created 2.2 million pounds of compost through the process of composting. We’ve offset 3 million, 3.2 million pounds of greenhouse gases, which, that number is not just fictitious. You can go online. EPA has a calculator. you can go in and plug your numbers, how much you drive and you know, how much our vehicles are on the road versus how much we collect. That’s the number we have 3.2 and that 3.2 million of greenhouse gases offset is the equivalence of planting 24,366 trees. Or creating 1,734 acres of forest land. To put that in perspective, that’s slightly larger than if you were to combine the Back Bay, the South End and the Fenway neighborhood and turn it all into a forest. We’ve kept 1.6 million pounds of coal from being burned. Again, that’s an equivalency. or if you look at gasoline, we’ve, we’ve prevented 165,800 gallons of gasoline from being burned and that is the equivalent of taking close to 1700 trips from Boston to LA and a car hundred trip and a 30 mile per gallon car.
Wow. Yeah. I’m going to, for people who don’t process numbers when they hear them, I’m going to put these numbers on our blog as well so you can look at them. I think that’s really impressive and really speaks to the good work Bootstrap’s doing. Thank you so much for joining us, Igor. I’ve definitely learned a lot and I know our listeners will as well. And if you are in the Boston area, I hope you’ll, you’ll give Bootstrap a thought for your composting needs.
Thank you for your time. I loved having you guys here.
Thanks for listening to The Stories Behind Our Food, a podcast by Equal Exchange, inc 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 was produced by Equal Exchange with hosts, Kate chess and Danielle Robidoux and sound engineering provided by Gary Goodman. Join us next time for another edition of the Stories Behind Our Food.
Gram for gram, freekeh has more protein and fiber than steel cut oatmeal, with an earthy and nutty flavor that works in both sweet and savory preparations. While Palestinians generally add freekeh to their soups and chicken dishes, freekeh makes an excellent and hearty breakfast porridge. This recipe calls for cooking the freekeh in plant milk, and soaking the freekeh in advance quickens the cooking time. If the freekeh dries out while cooking, feel free to add more liquid, and stir occasionally to prevent from sticking the way you would cook a risotto. The dates and almonds from the farmers’ box add more sweetness, chewiness and crunch that pairs well with the freekeh. This recipe makes four servings, which you can cook and store to eat throughout the week.
Recipe & photo courtesy of Blanche, feastinthemiddleeast.com