Is there plastic in your tea bag? What about trace amounts of bleach or pesticides? If you’re like most people, making yourself a nice cuppa at home probably involves a tea bag. You dunk the whole bag in boiling water and then allow it to steep until the tea is brewed. You remove and discard it when the tea is done — but it may leave behind more of a trace than you’d guess.
The earliest tea bags were sewn from cloth – usually muslin or silk. Today, they’re more often made from paper, which can be treated in various ways. And plastic tea bags are becoming more common, too. It’s easy to find out what’s INSIDE the bag – tea leaves, or herbs and flavorings. You’ll find a list of ingredients on the box. But manufacturers aren’t required to say how they make the tea bag or what it’s made from.
Have you seen plastic-mesh tea bags? Made with nylon and polyethylene, each bag is roomier than the traditional flat tea bag. What’s the problem? The plastic doesn’t stay put.
A study conducted at McGill University in Montreal showed that steeping a single plastic teabag at standard brewing temperature causes approximately 11.6 billion microplastics and 3.1 billion nanoplastics to be released into the cup (source). What happens to these tiny particles of plastic next? You ingest them – they enter your body along with the tea!
And when you throw away the tea bag, the rest of the plastic goes into the landfill. That’s a problem, too.
Maybe old-fashioned paper tea bags are starting to look like an attractive option. Paper is made from organic material — wood or vegetable fibers that don’t leave behind microplastics or nanoplastics. So far, so good. But a lot of manufacturers want the paper they use for tea bags to be white. They make that happen through a bleaching process.
Paper-makers use a chemical called chlorine dioxide to bleach pulp. It breaks down the substance that gives the fibers color, leaving the pulp white. Despite the claims of some paper manufacturers, paper bleached with chlorine dioxide is not completely chlorine free – chemicals called dioxins can still be found in the pulp. According to the CDC, chlorinated dioxins have been found in tea bags made from bleached paper at concentrations up to 4.79 parts per thousand (source).
Another chemical to watch for in tea bags is epichlorohydrin. Some manufacturers are treat their bags with this compound to make them stronger when wet — but it’s a carcinogen.
The tea bag isn’t the only potential source of contaminants in tea. Did you know that tea leaves are never fully washed between the harvesting and manufacturing stages of tea production? Tea is often planted as a monocrop and, if not grown organically, the plants are sprayed with intense pesticides. If the tea you buy is not organic, chemical residue may end up in the cup.
For an unadulterated cup of tea, make sure it’s organic. If you want the convenience of tea bags, look for toxin-free bags that are not bleached with chlorine and are made of natural fibers.
Equal Exchange partners with farmers who grow using organic methods. They use companion planting, natural pest deterrents, and composting to nurture the soil instead of spraying lots of pesticides. Learn more about our tea process here.
The paper in Equal Exchange tea bags is made from all-natural abaca, a fiber derived from a species of banana plant. Instead of chlorine bleaching, we use a process called oxygen delignification. Our tea bags do not contain epichlorohydrin, nor are they treated with this substance. We’ve chosen an organic cotton for the string of the tea bag. And it’s sewn together — there’s no glue or metal staple to give your tea a funny taste. Equal Exchange’s tea bags are dual-chambered, for a superior steep. Try our range of organic and fair trade teas in green, black and herbal.
You want tea in your mug – nothing else!
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Why does the cup of Joe to-go you buy from that chain or local coffee shop taste so good? One reason might be the freshness of the beans. Those coffee shops serve a lot of coffee. The beans they use are ground every day and never have time to go stale. Freshness makes a huge difference in the taste of a cup of coffee.
If you’re brewing at home, whole bean coffee often delivers superior flavor. Why? When properly stored, pre-ground coffee stays fresh for just 3-5 months, but whole beans will last for a whopping 6-9 months. Order it in five pound bulk bags and grind just what you need, when you need it. You’ll taste the difference!
Equal Exchange roasts coffee at our headquarters and ships it out to cafes and specialty grocery stores all over the country – and to savvy customers. When you order directly from us, you’re getting high-quality beans that have just been roasted, not some batch that’s been sitting around at a warehouse. And there are lots of options to choose from!
Try an exciting single-origin or a new roast level. Or a fantastic new blend. Or even a limited edition seasonal from our Women in Coffee series. These coffees were created with cafes in mind, but you can enjoy them at home too, in bulk. The full range just isn’t available in our smaller retail packages.
The word “bulk” might conjure up a ridiculously giant package on the shelves of a buying club or discount store. But our bulk bags are five pounds – totally human-sized. Why buy that much? You’ll save money and waste less packaging.
Let’s do the math. Let’s say you like Love Buzz. You can buy a 2-pack of bulk bags for $89.00 for 160 oz of coffee. That’s 56 cents an ounce. If you buy a single 12-oz bag off the shelf at a store, you’ll likely pay between $8.50 and $10. That comes out to 70-83 cents per oz.
That’s not the only savings. Coffee needs to be preserved from light and air to stay fresh. That means an airtight bag with a one-way valve. Bulk coffee means fewer bags — one bag for every five pounds of beans, instead of six bags — so it’s a win for the environment, too.
To us, good coffee means coffee that’s grown by people who can make a fair living from their crop. We pay farmers a fair price, and we’re proud to share their stories – including innovations in their practices to involve youth in farming, preserve biodiversity, and diversify income to improve their communities. All Equal Exchange coffee, bulk or no, is fair trade.
Want the longest shelf-life and freshest taste? Preserve your beans from light, air and moisture. Read more about how to store coffee the correct way.
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Have you ever worried about giving gifts that aren’t quite right? No one wants to hand out presents that recipients don’t really want or aren’t sure how to use. Why not try out this idea for sustainable gifts you can make at home? Tuck coffee beans into a festive, thrifted mug — the gift is personal, yet affordable, the mug can be reused, and there’s no extra packaging to throw away! (And you don’t need to be artistic or have crafting skills to pull this off.) Here’s how we did it:
First, pick out mugs from your favorite thrift shop or second-hand store. It’s a little like a treasure hunt. Think about the people on your list and try to find designs you think they’ll enjoy. And pick up a few extra mugs for those last-minute guests you aren’t expecting.
Place a clean paper filter in each mug and pour in whole bean coffee to fill. Equal Exchange sells our fair trade and organic coffee beans in five pound bulk bags. (Check out our wide selection here.) By splitting up a bag between many mugs, you use much less packaging — and you’re being thrifty, too.
Tie each filter closed with a ribbon to keep the beans inside. That’s it! You’re all done! But in order to make the gift seem extra-special, consider adding a gift tag. This is your chance to let the coffee-lover know what roast you chose for them and where in the world it came from. You might even want to mention that it’s fair trade — the people who grew this coffee make a fair living. They work everyday to improve their communities and green the environment. That’s a gift that’s pretty hard to beat! Learn fast facts about fair trade here.
When your friends and family receive these sustainable gifts, they can transfer the beans to an airproof container for storage. That will keep the coffee fresh until its ground, brewed — and poured back in the mug to be sipped. Looking for more coffee storage tips? We’ve got you covered.
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“Bean to Bar” is a concept you may have seen on your favorite chocolate wrapper. But if you live in North America, like I do, you might have trouble picturing the steps in between. Raw cacao goes through a huge transformation, and it travels a long way to do it. This summer, on a trip to the Dominican Republic to meet with our partners at CONACADO, I experienced some of that for myself.
The Dominican Republic’s National Cacao Commission estimates that the export of cacao brings $250 million a year into the country. All that cacao has to be processed, and that involves the work of many, many people. Indirectly, cacao provides 10-11 million jobs in the DR alone.
So, how do people — and cacao — get around in the Dominican Republic?
I flew with a group of Equal Exchange staff members into Santo Domingo, a modern city with a larger population than any other metropolitan area in the Caribbean. We traveled to our hotel by taxi. During the ride, the driver explained that because the price of gasoline was so high here, he’d had his vehicle converted to add a second fuel tank for natural gas. We passed through the city’s outskirts, seeing all kinds of traffic. A couple pulled their motorbike into a parking lot so the woman on the back could stretch her legs, flip flops hanging off her toes. Two men stood calmly in the bed of a furniture truck as it drove down the highway.
For longer trips, Dominicans often travel by guagua. These are midsize passenger busses that hold about 25 people. We spotted this one picking up passengers at the airport. A sign in the window read “Quedarse atras no es morir.” Literally, that means “to stay back is not to die.” A warning for others not to follow closely?
The capital is less than a hundred miles from the municipality of Castillo. A few days after our arrival in the Dominican Republic, we’d travel there to meet farmer members of the CONACADO cooperative’s Bloque Ocho. In some ways, this very rural area felt like an entirely separate world from the city. But we heard many stories from our hosts about the friends and family members who’d left home for economic opportunities in Santo Domingo.
To get around within the city of Santo Domingo, we used a rideshare app, just like we might have done at home in the United States. During one nighttime trip, we suddenly found ourselves staring at another set of headlights a few feet away. Another driver had ignored the one-way sign. There was no room for him to pass or turn around, but our driver stayed calm. Using only hand-signals, he helped guide the other car to reverse down the extremely narrow cobblestone street, backing around the corner into oncoming traffic. The whole situation was resolved without an accident and without any horn-honking, yelling, or recriminations — much friendlier than in Boston!
We made the trip to Bloque Ocho in a hired van with four rows of seats, tinted windows, and glacial air conditioning. CONACADO’s regional headquarters are located in Castillo. The highway that took us most of the way there was well-maintained, with two lanes in each direction. Outside the windows, we saw shaggy mountains, rice paddies and diminutive coconut trees in the fields, fresh produce stands and rugs thrown over fences to display them for sale. Our driver, Jairo, was a native of the region. This was helpful on the way to the homes of the families who generously hosted us. There, the going was rough, unpaved and badly rutted.
Several co-op members drew our attention to the quality of the roads. A few days before, when we’d visited the Ministry of Cacao in the capital, representatives there claimed that infrastructure development is a priority. But those good intentions didn’t always make it to rural areas. This is one of the advantages of being part of a farmer cooperative — this road, which passes right by some co-op members’ houses and plots, was improved recently with the help of CONACADO and fair trade premiums.
In the United States, we’ve got stereotypes about what kind of person rides a motorcycle — Hell’s Angels, biker babes and rebels without a cause. In the Dominican Republic, I saw everyone riding them. I spotted young women headed to school, uniformed police officers riding up to three on a bike, parents holding babies in their arms. At one point on the highway to Castillo, a man on a motorbike drove right toward our van, only swerving out of our lane at the last second. He had turned around to retrieve his windblown hat.
Chocolate comes from cacao, a tropical plant. Cacao pods in a rainbow of colors drip off the branches, or grow right out of the trunk! To the untrained eye, a farmer’s cacao plot can look like a patch of forest in its natural state. In true agroforestry practice, the trees don’t grow in straight lines, and they’re interspersed with many other kinds of plants — low groundcover, tall shade trees, and other kinds of food plants. In the Dominican Republic, I saw sapote and breadfruit growing alongside my hosts’ cacao — and I got to eat these fruits at their table.
Some cacao farmers live right on their land, but others farm plots that are a few kilometers away. Motorbikes are a great way to get around in rural areas. Many of the producers we met used them as transportation between home and field — including my host family. They live in Yaiba Abajo, an even more rural settlement outside of Castillo. Here’s a picture of Papo, the grandson of my hosts, posed on an older family member’s bike.
Farmers are pragmatists who use the best tools for the job. The people we met in Yaiba Abajo were as adapt with a cell phone translation app as they were with a machete. It seemed to me that their lives combined some of the best of old and new. My hosts used this mule to transport sacks of cacao from the field.
Like horse enthusiasts in the U.S., my hosts’ family members kept horses for the pleasure of riding. A highlight of the visit for me was a horseback ride on a dirt path that crossed and recrossed a beautiful stream dappled by sunlight through the trees. Our hosts’ grandsons led us past neighbors’ cacao plots, a handful of truly remote homes and a small church and bank kiosk, a pen with pigs snuffling in the dirt.
But life in a rural area doesn’t always seem idyllic to teens. And growing cacao remains a low-paid occupation that demands a lot of work. One of the young men said he was learning the skills he’d need to take over farming operations one day. The other told us about his dream of leaving the Dominican Republic to live in a city far away. This dynamic — young people leaving agriculture for different job opportunities or a more urban lifestyle — is common in the Dominican Republic. And it’s common in farming communities in the United States, too. It’s called generational turnover.
CONACADO is looking to the future in a different way. Each member farmer grows cacao on their own land, but the next steps — fermentation and drying — are done collectively, to ensure that the quality of the beans is consistently high. At Bloque Ocho, this happens at a CONACADO facility in Castillo. Trucks carrying raw cacao drive right onto this scale so the load collected from each farmer can be weighed. And CONACADO is investing in a centralized factory, where semi-finished chocolate products will be produced. When these value-added products are sold, farmers will get a bigger share of the profits — and more money will stay in the Dominican Republic.
The work we do is all about exchanges. I’m so glad I got to meet people who grow cacao, learn about their lives, and travel part of the route my food takes.
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You probably already guessed that. Co-op sounds like something positive — working together, hooray! Throughout history, people have organized with each other to achieve the goals that they share. But what does “cooperative” mean when applied to a business?
Our company, Equal Exchange, is structured as a worker cooperative. That’s inextricable from who we are – it’s in our mission statement. Why are we so proud that we’re a co-op? And what difference should it make to consumers like you?
Instead of being owned by a big global conglomerate, Equal Exchange is owned by its workers. We share in profits and losses, and we vote on big decisions, like whether to invest in new roasting equipment and who sits on our Board of Directors.
Small companies often get bought up by big companies. The employees – and even the original founders – don’t have much of a say in the direction the business goes. Making money for shareholders becomes the priority. That will never happen to us because Equal Exchange will never sell out! There’s a clause in our bylaws that stipulates that if worker-owners ever sell the company to another entity, we’d have to give away the profits — so there’s no incentive for us to consider it.
In the food industry, where increasing consolidation is the norm, independence is pretty rare. When you look at the grocery shelves, it may seem like there are lots of choices for shoppers. But in reality, all those brands are now owned by the same small handful of huge companies. (See this chart by Dr. Phil Howard for specific examples.) Many of the small brands were founded by people who cared about organic and fairly sourced food, just like we do. But the current owners have a different priority – turning a profit.
We’re proud to be different.
Equal Exchange buys coffee, chocolate, and other products from small-scale farmers who are members of cooperatives, too – producer co-ops. Individual farmers own their own plots of land. That gives them the freedom to do things their way, innovate and make independent decisions. But when scale is an advantage, farmers team up on bigger projects. For example, members of a co-op might ferment their coffee cherries together, or invest in research to investigate which varieties of cacao are most productive, or go in together to buy a factory that will produce value-added products. Each person in their co-op gets a vote and can run for a leadership position.
It’s important to make sure that the fair trade products you buy come from producer co-ops. Because of the rising demand for fair trade, some certifiers have relaxed their criteria. They now allow products grown on giant plantations with rich owners to be certified as fair trade. But a movement with the goal of empowering farmers needs to include them as decision-makers. Democratic organizations like co-ops do that. At Equal Exchange, we don’t think that’s negotiable. We continue to speak out about the dilution of fair trade. Read more here.
All cooperatives around the world practice seven Cooperative Principles. Perhaps our favorite is the 6th of these principles, which says that cooperatives should support other cooperatives. We want other co-ops to know we’ve got their backs! Equal Exchange buys the milk powder that goes into our Organic Hot Cocoa mix from Organic Valley, a dairy co-op in California. When we need something printed, we often use Red Sun Press, a worker-owned printing and graphic design shop in Boston.
Equal Exchange is one of the oldest and biggest worker co-ops in the US. We’ve learned a lot over the last 30+ years, and we love to pass that knowledge on to others. That’s why we share documents and tools with fledgling co-op businesses. We’ve also made financial investments in a number of other startup and mature co-ops.
Depending on where you live in the country, you might buy your Equal Exchange coffee, chocolate, tea and nuts at another kind of co-op! A food co-op is a grocery store that’s collectively owned by its customers. This model, called the consumer cooperative, first became popular in the 1970s.
At some food co-ops, consumer-owners work shifts at the store to keep the things running. At others, they serve on the board. In return, they may receive a discount or end-of-year share in profits. And by encouraging folks to shop locally, co-op stores keep money in the community.
Why is being a co-op such a big deal? While a conventional business might only be out to increase profits for shareholders, at Equal Exchange we’re accountable to everyone who takes part in the business we do. That includes investors, but more importantly, it includes the farmers who grow the food, the workers who process, package, deliver and sell it — and the customers like you who enjoy it.
Listen to a podcast episode about exactly why Equal Exchange will never sell out.
See a list of cooperative businesses that are part of the U.S. Federation of Worker Co-ops.
Learn more about the producer co-ops who are our partners.
Listen to a podcast episode about food co-ops, then and now.
Keep up with co-op news!
Grab a glass and listen in to our podcast guest Molly Madden of RedHen Collective, who joined Danielle on The Stories Behind Our Food to talk about our OTHER favorite beverage (after fair trade coffee and tea, of course.)
You can hear #StoriesBehindOurFood on:
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Everyday grocery store items like bananas, chocolate, coffee. These are global commodities. They pass through a lot of people’s hands on their way from the fields to your grocery cart. This is The Stories Behind 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.
So Molly, I’m really excited to have you on the podcast. Thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it. I definitely have been waiting to capture your sass since we met at the Co op event in California. I was kind of perusing your website a little bit and seeing some of your videos were really inspiring, especially the one that talks about kind of your why. I am just kind of think one of these quotes from the videos coming to my mind and I just really like you to speak to it and it just gave me chills when I heard it, which was like “I’m a woman and I’m asking too many questions.” And just the way that you said that in the video just really hit me and I just love to hear from your perspective a little bit about gender in the wine industry and kind of how that inspired you to do things differently with RedHen.
Thanks so much Danielle, for inviting me. The difference between working … I mean I had only worked for, for men, which is really common because most wine businesses are owned by men. But, when I suddenly like three years ago — or I guess four, almost four years ago — I had left my last, my last job working for somebody else and I suddenly found myself in the position where if I wanted to just like whip out whatever opinion I had, I wasn’t going to get fired.
It’s nice working for yourself.
Whoa! Sucks that it’s my job to find my paycheck now and not somebody else’s, but, but holy cow, it was so … and I realized that now that I am not working under somebody where like asking these questions and naming these dynamics, and naming my own fears and confusions and like compliances and complicitness and complacency. I realized that I’m in a position that very few of my colleagues in the wine industry are in, which is that I can say whatever I want and my boss isn’t gonna fire me.
It’s nice being your own boss.
That’s one of the nice things. But it comes with this really like intense sense of responsibility as well to finally say things that I never was able to say, when I was working for other people. and those are things talking about, it’s a lot of talking about economics. Interestingly, I’m talking about who’s getting paid and who’s not getting paid, how resources are moving around. And that is just like, it’s so blatant. It’s so obvious that that is breaking down around race and gender and legal status. But like can’t say that I couldn’t say that. And even in the parts of the wine industry that are like pressing against the margins and trying to expand our conversation, I think there’s a ton of fear. Even my own fear, like hearing the question — or hearing the prompt — to talk about “I’m a woman and I’m asking too many questions” …
Yeah. And like is there, is there a story to go with that quote? Right. Cause that’s, you know, something that I’m thinking about when I heard it, is that it’s different working for a cooperative, right? We, we both worked for cooperatives now and I remember when I first started working at Equal Exchange and having this feeling, oh, people want to hear what I have to say. They’re actually listening. My opinion matters here and people are actually taking the time to listen. Right. So that’s something that’s a huge difference in, you know, traditional corporate structures then cooperatives. But I guess like, I’m just not familiar so much with the wine industry. Right. And like the behind the scenes I think to the transparency and the wine industry versus maybe coffee has come far based on maybe where fair trade is taken things and folks are a little bit more familiar maybe with the process of coffee. But for me, the wine industry, it seems like when you go into a store and you’re looking at a shelf, everything looks like it’s independent, right? But it’s, it’s that facade of this illusion of choice. And so that’s something I’m kind of a bit in the dark about. So I don’t know if you could kind of delve into that a bit.
Well, you’re nailing it. The illusion of choice is, I mean like most of our, most of our grocery store shelves, it’s like, oh, there’s hundreds of different lines here. And it’s like, yeah, they’re pretty much owned by two companies, you know, and you’re, and you’re gonna have to dig pretty deep to find even who those companies are. Like those companies don’t want to be known. Philip Morris has an enormous … I mean tons of these wines that people drink every day that have cute little names that look like family estates and it’s like …
Totally, they all look like that. Like you just did picture, you know, like this expansive, beautiful picture ask view and you know, a little family working and you know, that’s obviously that’s not the reality. So I guess what kind of was your job before and where does that kind of sit in the wine industry and kind of like the process of it just for folks who kind of are coming in at just square one to try to wrap their minds around kind of the injustice?
Well, so my personal arc and into the wine industry … So I grew up in Montana, I’m in Montana right now, I’m on a farm. I got up at 6:30 this morning. God,farmers get up early, you guys. So, so early. People are always like, oh Molly, you love it so much. You should be a farmer. And I’m like, are you kidding? They get up way too early, right? I sell this stuff so I stay up late. But so I started, uh, started in the restaurant industry cause I grew up in a — my mom was a chef and a restauranteur and just really brilliant entrepreneur. She grew up in a tiny farming, ranching community. So like deep roots, deep relationship with local farmers and ranchers has always been part of kind of our family history, family culture. and so when she had the opportunity to start building a little restaurant, it was like, Oh, where do you buy food? You buy it from farmers, how do you find farmers there in your community? And so I came into wine through restaurant or hospitality, which is a really interesting, that’s another sidetrack, conversation to like put a pin in for another day. Because hospitality is such a fascinating intersection of like race and class and origin, like all under one roof, under one, like really intense, you know, in a two hour dinner. How many people are in there touching and interacting with the same food? and wines, I guess wine is, yeah, wine is that way because we experience wine through the hospitality industry. and so probably 15 years ago, I had, had just been doing everything, restaurant, restaurant, restaurant. It was my world. and I helped — i basically took over the wine program at my mom’s restaurant. The woman who was running it, moved on to another job and I was like, oh, that looks like fun. That’s like, I like language and travel and wine seemed sort of like sophisticated. And so maybe this will help me be a little more sophisticated and less of the country mouse.
Wine is totally sexy! I’m sexy. Wine’s sexy, this goes together, but, and, and so quickly, I was so lucky because there were a couple of sales reps, basically people who come in and bring their portfolios of wines to help the restaurants and wine merchants figure out what wines they’re going to sell. and I had one or two who were just like deeply passionate lifers. You know, people who had spent their entire career in the wine industry, love stories, love farmers, love teaching, really humble, really fun, such a gift to have those kinds of mentors. And so they just, I, I was, I was hooked and I wasn’t shamed and I wasn’t scared. And I really quickly realized that the kinds of wines I like are wines that come from farmers, which was — I mean technically, all wine comes from farmers! It’s made out of fruit, which requires photosynthesis and cultivating. But what I really loved was wine that was, that came from families, you know, and that came from in the same way that … like my family would, you know, last week my mom is at the county fair judging pie baking. And next week she’ll be picking up a 4H lamb that a kid raised and turning it into lamb burgers for the, you know, for the restaurant. And, and I want my wine to have that same kind of intimacy and closeness.
I was just thinking, you know, if you’re the average consumer and you know, there’s lots of kind of misconceptions, you’re kind of looking at the shelf and you’re kind of seeing all of it and seemingly from these small independent, you know, seeming families, right. You know, this person’s vineyard and kind of what, what do you think the biggest misconception is for a consumer in the wine industry when they’re kind of looking at a shelf?
Dang. I think you’re like, yeah, you’re right up on it. That these blahbity blah family vineyards and things with the tractor on it or it has a lady bug on it. It’s like all of this marketing and it looks so, it’s like, oh, well I guess that’s authentic. And I think, I, I’m always curious why we will ask certain questions about our, you know, smoothies or, or that people will, but we might, you know, our Kale, is it organic? Like did it come from the farmer’s market? like is this bread, is this GMO? And like some real critical high level questions about origins and, and then we get to wine and a lot of, I think the vast majority of us are just like sort of pass over it. We don’t know how to ask. We don’t even know how to ask those questions about wine or what questions we should be asking. And there’s this like aura of kind of magic about wine, which we’re like, well maybe it’s immune to bullshit. Like maybe wine isn’t, maybe wine is immune to being evil. I don’t know.
No, it’s, I mean, even for me, like I, I would say that I am definitely one of those people walking into a store and I’m like, it’s not in a box. I’m doing great. You know? So for meeting people, there, like, how do you demystify what wine am I supposed to buy? And then maybe follow up, what is your favorite wine, right? Wine made by farmers. It’s all made by farmers. But how, how is the consumer, do I buy the right wine if I’m not in California and I can’t buy RedHen? You know, what’s my rule of thumb or, or is there is no, or is there no easy answer?
Well actually, so the good news is, I mean, so much of what I like to do and what RedHen is trying to do is like de shame and de-etitify wine, right? Because like, oh my god, wine belongs to everybody? You know, wine is made by people and why it has been made by farmers for thousands and thousands and thousands of years for primarily their own consumption. Like, and then some kings and Queens got in on up this, they were late to the game. Y’All, wine is Fermented food, it’s like is a staple. I mean all, it’s like every culture around the world has some sort of fermented food that is like a signature of its culture. And I mean that in like a microbial culture. And I mean it in like a familial and culinary and language and climate and historical culture. And wine is that, and, and wine is like, I just like wanna break it down for people and be like, oh my God, it’s sugar that microbes found and started fermenting. You can have some too. Like, like we can go, we can geek out and we can get — because once you start getting into anything, whether it’s like, yeah, I don’t know, computers or jazz or wine or coffee, like, you know, you’ll go down the rabbit hole probably, and then you’d be like, Oh, you just always want to try something new. And, but like, that’s a natural kind of extension of your curiosity. It doesn’t, it doesn’t require you to be elite or like snobby or know at all or wealthy or something to just engage. To just drink fermented fruit, right? Like, so the first thing is just like drink what you like, and drink what tastes good. And like, if we can kind of try to shrug off all of the weird shame, which is deeply class and gender and race associated, like we don’t really get to name those things, but it all those are like the demons that come up inside of us when we’re like, oh no, I’m drinking boxed wine. What does that mean about me? Or Oh God, I’m like, everybody says they like dry wine, but this wine is kinda sweet and I kinda like it. Does that make me low class? Like, right. It’s just like, well listen, the great news about wine is that it is like, like fabulous and trashy, like at the exact same time. So just embrace it. Just be that and drink what you like, be curious. It’s not the end of the world. If you find something in it that weirds you out and you don’t want to buy it again, you’re fine, you know,. It’s still got alcohol in it, so it’s still gonna get the job done.
And then, I mean, and then the bigger question of like, well, how do I decide what to buy? Or how do I, when I walk into a grocery store, I get super overwhelmed cause there’s like this, this like choice, this collapse because there’s so many choices and, and I think that I should know the difference between all of these wines. And honestly, I don’t know if this is — if I’m cheating on this answer, but remember — and reminding people — that the more industrial the food supply chain, so it’s like if this is a store that has like, I don’t know if it’s Safeway or something, if it’s a store where there are similar stores owned by a similar corporation all over the country, what that means is that all the products in order to get to get on those shelves, have to pass through — have to be industrialized. So the short answer of like, which of these wines is the good one, like, or the sustainable one or the social impact one when I’m walking into Safeway is like …oh, the good news is none of them.
Oh God, I’m going to get in trouble. And it’s not 100% true, but it’s like, yeah, nine out of 10 of those you can’t, you can’t make, uh, a small family owned kind of like more intimate supply chain, economic, racial, gender justice. Those choices don’t really happen. They can’t really happen in these large corporations. Because of the way our economy has been structured, you basically have to give up all of those principles and practices in order to industrialize and be able to plug into the chain.
So maybe this can transition. How does that provide a really challenging environment for you who’s really trying to set yourself apart? And I know right now that you’re located in California, but that there may be other places that you could expand to, I know state by state, it can be a bit complicated, but maybe just speaking to how do I differentiate myself in this really challenging market because that’s something that’s something that Equal Exchange asks all the time and it is really challenging to tell a story. You know, you have a label and you have conversations with people, right? But how do you kind of set yourself apart I guess?
well, I think we’re like, we come up against, — this is such a fascinating question. I mean, red hand is grappling with it all of the time because we get, we’re presented with this sort of dichotomy or this binary of how to engage in this economy. You can either engage in this economy in a massive industrial scale where you know, it’s all about volume and like making the cheapest, cutting every corner, the cheapest choices you can, externalizing every single risk you, you sacrifice and compromise values and value and quality and impact in order to flood the market. You know, and you try to make up for it with expensive, sexy looking branding. Right? So that’s, that’s one element of that, right? And that’s one end of the spectrum. And then we get on and all those binaries like opposite, uh, framework or opportunity, which is to like be small and be independent and maybe be feminist, maybe be biodynamic, and be broke for the rest of your life and just not make any money. And bootstrap everything. and like not really build an economic legacy. Certainly not be able to –the word scale was such a dangerous word. It’s like, oh, how are you going to scale your company? it seems implicit in the question of scaling that you’re going to have to compromise or sacrifice, integrity and place specificity and like unique identities and unique climates and cultures in order to industrialize. Cause scaling is kind of commensurate with industrialization in our economic framework right now. And so this is such an interesting question cause RedHen looks around and sees a lot of people doing amazing work and those people are, we see people farming that are doing amazing work. We see wine makers doing amazing work. We see retailers and restaurants and little wine clubs and folks who are tiny and are — or pretty darn small, especially in the, you know, scale of things — or we see … and they don’t have any, there’s no framework or on ramp or kind of like blueprint for them to grow their impact for them to take up a bigger, to grow their pie in this economy, right? Without having to sacrifice their values.
And so part of what RedHen dreams about and is engineering and rapping on with these all of these different supply chain partners is how do we basically retrofit this industrial scale economy so that like high quality, high impact deep, like local, like identity preservation can happen. and it can somehow plug in to like, how do we plug into Costcos and Whole Foods and places where consumers are going and they’re certainly buying, they’re certainly looking for grass fed beef or you know, pasturing eggs or organic kale. How do we plug wine into that kind of a situation when wine in, it’s what makes it so magical and beautiful is that it’s so unique — that is when it’s not industrialized. Right? and so these are the, this is the conundrum and I actually think this is where the most exciting opportunities are because this is where we actually have to re-engineer, we have to restructure the way we create product and the way we bring things to market and the way we do marketing. because like what happens if we can take 25 of RedHen’s producers and they all make their own, you know, independent little wine labels that are their own family name and their own identity. But what if we create then in addition to that, a pool of wine that is sort of a, it’s almost a CSA structure or something where like each grower gets to put in, you know, annually from this one parcel and some years there’s going to have, they’re going to have a lot to put in, some years they’re going to have nothing to put in cause there was a hailstorm. but if we can structure the economics so that they can count on that income and then RedHen can count on that wine coming in, we can develop like a large pool of wines and they can all be bottled, with like that growers identity and story on the back of the bottle or the back of the can if this stuff happens to go into cans. But then the front label is all, it’s, it’s designed and streamlined to interface with corporations that normally could only work with, massive conglomerate and industrializing wine companies. and these are the kinds of, so these are the kinds of project innovations that we’re looking at. Where, how do we build grower equity and maintain like producer identity, and place identity and all of this uniqueness.
Right, because there’s both, all of these growers have this in common. These are all their values. But like you said, what makes them great is their uniqueness, the uniqueness of flavor, how they’re doing things differently on their farm. Can maybe, can you talk about, your favorite producer story maybe, and maybe give us a snapshot. Hey, these are the different types of growers I’m working with. This is like where they’re located.
I have a, a, so two, a couple, a couple of winemaker farmers. right. They’re not in RedHen’s — like they’re not, they have other representation, but they’re just like deep in our family and community. and they’re in Champagne and their names are Roland and Dominique and they, I was just so cool because this is husband and wife and they have two different, they each have their own independent, they produce their own wines and they farm their own vineyards. I mean, and they’ve seen, you know, work together and help each other and it’s like, okay, it’s your bottling tomorrow, I’ll help you with that. I’m pruning today, you’ll help me with that. But they really created this beautiful dynamic where they get to each kind of express their own story and they kind of focus on different grapes and they farm slightly differently and their wine making styles are slightly different.
That’s super interesting.
Oh, it’s so neat. Nobody, I like, so few people do that, to find this harmony where they can kind of like, they don’t have to collapse themselves together and Roland. It’s got a couple of like really fabulous giant doneys that he took me to meet. He’s very shy guy. They’re both like pretty kind of introverted folks. And, I actually surprisingly get along super well with introverted people. oh my gosh.
It’s like a balance.
It is, I love it. I crave it. so yeah, my last trip to Champagne a couple years ago was visiting with them and I got to go out and hang out with Roland’s donkeys.
I love it.
So great. He was like, you know, they do donkey therapy and France and I was like, ah, I got to come to France more. I’m not here enough. Awesome. maybe, yeah,
Maybe too, let’s return to our roots. Right. We met at a Co op conference. Can you talk little bit about whether being a cooperative was something that kind of just made sense as you started learning or was that the goal from the beginning?
I’ve definitely, I definitely stumbled into co-ops. not really knowing that that was even the language that was, I had no idea. Like what an enormous community or like kind of economic, political, like political, social, cultural foundation it was going to become for RedHen. you know, in the last couple of years I’ve started to discover what these kind of multi-stakeholder cooperative models can look like. and so now we’re like, oh my God, how can we bring our producers in as cooperative owners of this business as well? Like, it’s fantastic to do it. Equal Exchange does. And I mean like y’all are just like above and beyond. It’s not just like fair trade, right? I mean like, yeah, I, it just, it like people do not get it. People do not get the power of Equal — like the economic power of Equal Exchange’s model on so many levels. that your bar is just way above what, uh, like pretty much anybody and everybody else in the coffee industry is doing. and so RedHen like, oh my God, we want to get there were not just like paying, you know, a few pennies more a pound and calling it fair trade, but like, paying way above these market rates and doing it consistently and building these lifelong like intergenerational relationships with producers, with deep commitments and investing in their cooperatives and investing in them, transforming their farming for the better and paying them up front of the vintage. I mean, that’s, that is radical, which you guys are doing. and so RedHen is looking at that and then we’re like, yes. And you know, what if we can actually build, I mean, we all know that if our growers, they’re farmers, if they had $10,000 in the bank, they’d fix the other tractor, you know?
But they have fricking inventory, right? They have inventory in the bank, they have wine in the bank, which is also called the celler. So part of what we get so excited about is bringing in these like really brilliant, whether it’s like a securities lawyer or a or cooperative lawyers. And like, I mean, lawyers, lawyers, but all and like thought leaders and these kinds of, these systems engineers who are really specialized and they come in and sit down with us and they’re like, did you know you could do this? Did you know you could do this? Like, did you know you could structure an equity investment around property or it doesn’t have to be around money. We’re like mind blown, like wine could be an investment in this company. So we’re getting so excited about these are getting super creative with capital, getting super creative with engineering, kind of these supply chain flow leaks where it’s like, oh, how do we, we keep having these misses, we’re trying to get into grocery stores or when we’re trying to build these good partnerships. and I really just think that so many of those misses happen because we’ve like externalized all stakeholders. And when we internalize and when we turn stakeholders into shareholders and we internalize all of these different voices, all of these different players, I mean, obviously that’s going to be messy, but you’ve got the information you need.
No one talks about that. Democracy is super messy. Another thing too that I want to say is that for Equal Exchange. I think that what has been radical about us has definitely been our model, right? And you know, our product happened to be coffee, your product happens to be wine. So many times people will say, why? Why doesn’t Equal Exchange make this product? Why don’t you make this product? And I think it’s like, because we have friends like you are going to do other products, right? Like it’s about building this cooperative economy. So that’s another thing that I really like about cooperatives is that it’s about supporting each other and Equal Exchange isn’t going to make every product that would be the antithesis of what we’re trying to do in a diversified economy where everyone kind of gets a seat at the table, everyone gets a stake in there. It’s not a zero sum game. But I, I think that we could probably sit here and talk about this forever. I’m really happy that you were able to make it on with us. And I wanna leave with one fun question. what is your favorite wine and why?
Oh my gosh, that’s such a terribly hard question.
Fun for us. Difficult for you.
I mean cause the truth is I love so many different, so many different things and it’s kind of like you don’t have to either like spaghetti or birthday cake, you know, there’s my favorite wine.
Okay. Maybe top three.
Okay. Well I’m like, okay, what’s in my, what’s in the fridge? What’s in the farm fridge right now? but what did I, I brought like cases of wine up to the farm. cause farmers are really fun to drink wine with. and some of the things I’ve brought, I brought a bottle of Fino sherry, Manzanilla sherry, which is in the fridge right now. and it’s like this. So sherry, sherry is super confusing partially because there’s all these terrible, disgusting grocery store, bottom shelf cooking wines that are supposedly sherry. They’re not like — sherry is actually from this region in Spain. Like this incredible. Hundreds and hundreds of years of legacy. There’s sweet styles, there’s dry styles, there’s all this different stuff. And my favorite style there is this style called Fino. So it’s a white wine. A totally dry, like aka no sugar white wine that has been aged with all of like this. They’ve aged in barrels for years, up above ground and it gets this kind of like blanket of yeast grows on top of the wine. which contributes is like really yummy., biscuity bready kind of like sourdough bread and, and like almond’s flavors in the wine. It’s kind of like salty and savory…
I’m going to change my mind about sherry.
You gotta be careful. You gotta find the right one. But Fino sherry and specifically within fino, this like little micro category, this called Manzanilla, which comes from one particular little village. oh, that stuff is crazy good. Champagne champagne is like, it’s like once you start to love something so much, you actually wind up hating 90% of it. You know how that is. If you love musical theater, you hate 99 out of a hundred musicals. The more you love it, the more particular you are.
So champagne is that way for me. I’m like crazy about it. And the more crazy about it I get the more like it’s the more I only want exactly what I want. and then these days I am just like … last year we took a trip to Hungary, and I was like completely floored. There’s so many grapes there that it was just like, I don’t even know how to pronounce this stuff. Like lots and lots of white wines, some of these red wines that are really kinda light and, and delicate and like snap, crackle poppy. I just … so I’m always like wanting to kind of wander off the, the edge of my own known world and if I can’t pronounce it and if I can’t find it on a map, like yes, I’ll take it.
That’s a, that’s the role of them we’re bringing back to consumers. Awesome. Well thank you so much Molly. I appreciate you being on here. This was great.
Oh my gosh. Really Fun. Thanks so much Danielle.
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.
Iced coffee is a gift on a hot summer day, cool and delicious. And really, there’s no need to buy it at a coffee shop. Making your own means you’re taking a positive step for environmental sustainability — and your wallet. Plus, when you make your own iced coffee, you can customize the brew to suit your tastes.
The quickest way to make iced coffee is to brew it hot and then bring down the temperature with ice. First, prepare a strong cup of regular ol’ joe using your favorite method — a French Press, a pour-over dripper, your office’s single serve pod machine. It’s important to brew the coffee strong because the next step will cause some dilution. Pour the hot coffee into a glass of ice to cool it. The ice will melt – you may need to add more to your iced coffee before you sip.
That’s it! Voila! You’re done.
Get our general brewing tips for a better cup.
Is your iced coffee turning out too watery? Allowing time for it to cool in the fridge means less melted ice – and a less watery cup. For this method, brew a cup of coffee, or a whole pot. Next, let your coffee rest in the refrigerator — or even in the freezer — until its temperature drops. The cooler the coffee gets, the less it will melt the ice.
Once you feel coffee is cool, pour it over ice and get sipping.
Cold brewed iced coffee may seem like just a trend, but we’re pretty sure this delicious method is here to stay. Instead of using heat to extract flavor from the beans, the cold brew process utilizes time. That means you’ll need to plan ahead a bit.
The good news is, you can make this iced coffee at home without any special equipment. Cold brew is ridiculously easy! Just take coarse-ground coffee, add cold or room-temperature water and stir. Then allow the mixture to steep for at least six hours, or overnight. Finally, strain with cheesecloth or a filter. Ta da!
The magic ratio is 1:4 – four cups water for every cup ground coffee. The finished cold brew concentrate will be double-strength, so make sure to add equal parts water before you sip.
Learn to make cold brew from a barista!
• Use good quality coffee! To us, that means organic coffee sourced from small-scale farmers who are paid fairly for their work.
• What specific kind of coffee makes the best iced coffee? Anything you like hot will probably taste good cold. (French Roast fan? Try an iced French Roast. Prefer decaf? Make iced decaf.) That said, our coffee experts enjoy the fruity notes of natural process African coffees like Equal Exchange’s Organic Ethiopian and our special Cold Brew blend.
Read more about natural process coffee.
• Always use fresh filtered water, and make sure the beans you’re using are freshly ground. Your iced coffee will taste better!
• Like it sweet? If you’re using a hot-brewing method, try adding sugar before the coffee is cool. It will dissolve more quickly. If you’re doing cold brew, try adding simple syrup.
• Did you know you can coffee in an ice cube tray to create ice cubes that won’t dilute iced coffee? Genius!
• Utilize the power of science to cool your iced coffee quicker. Use a large container like a pan to create more surface area before putting it in the fridge. Or try a metal vessel to cool your iced coffee – metal conducts heat most efficiently.
Want to learn more about living that sweet fair trade lifestyle? Sign up for our informative biweekly newsletter:
Have you ever tried our fair trade Organic Earl Grey cold? Bergamot oil lends citrus notes to this elegant black tea. Serve it over ice with cream that’s whipped just enough to swirl with the tea in lazy curls. Nothing could be cooler.
Allow tea to cool in the refrigerator.
Why pay for a fancy scrub when you can make one at home using fair trade ingredients?
To make this scrub, we mixed Equal Exchange’s Palestinian Organic Virgin Olive Oil and ground Organic Coffee (both known for the antioxidents they contain) with brown sugar (for exfoliation). For little extra tingle, you can add a few drops of tea tree oil, too.
What else can you do with fair trade products? To find out, sign up for our bi-weekly newsletter.
Here comes the sun! On a hot day, it’s easy to make a refreshing beverage from fair trade and organic tea without turning on your stove, as long as you don’t mind waiting. Tea leaves will impart their flavor to water at any temperature – and a blast of sunshine speeds up the process. It’s so simple, we hesitate to even call this a recipe, but here goes:
This tea can be made with your favorite variety of organic black, green or herbal tea.
Fill pitcher or gallon-size canning jar with water.
Add eight teabags and leave in the sun to steep.
Wait 2-3 hours, until the tea is the color you prefer.
Sweeten with simple syrup, honey or agave and add lemon.
Serve over ice.
Want more recipes like this?
Experimenting with ways to eliminate those too-much-coffee jitters or sleep better at night? You don’t necessarily need to give up coffee. Decaf can be a satisfying substitute — especially when you choose a decaf made through an all-natural process that leaves the flavor intact.
Go-juice. Caffeine fix. Jolt of joe. Day-starter. Jet fuel. All these nicknames for a cup of coffee refer to properties that come from caffeine. But what is caffeine? It’s a substance that naturally occurs in coffee beans — likely the reason why humans domesticated the coffee plant in the first place. Speaking more precisely, caffeine is an organic compound, a stimulant chemically derived from xanthine. It temporarily blocks adenosine receptors in the brain and stimulates parts of the central nervous system.
So, caffeine is a drug — a legal and popular one. It wakes you up, makes you feel more alert. It keeps you up, staving off drowsiness. But what if you don’t want that?
If you’re trying to cut out caffeine, one option would be to simply stop drinking coffee. But if you’ve come to truly love the taste and smell of coffee, the way I do? If you appreciate the feel of a warm mug in the hand? If you look forward to the morning ritual of brewing a pot at home or sipping a cup in a cafe with a friend? Well, quitting can be hard to do.
A better option: you could switch to decaf.
Decaf gets a bad rap. Before I ever tried it, I heard lots of negative things about how it tasted. But when I decided to switch to decaf, I was pleasantly surprised. True confession time: I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between my old regular coffee and the new decaf varieties I tried.
One explanation for this is that the decaf I was drinking was high-quality coffee — 100% organic Arabica beans, sourced from farmer co-ops in direct trading relationships. It had been roasted by people who really knew what they were doing and it was freshly ground. The all-natural decaffeination process probably also helped. Still, I was surprised how little I missed what I’d always thought was an essential component to coffee.
When you think about it, though, there are all kinds of ways people modify coffee already. Many of us add milk or sweeteners or both. We serve it over ice. We experiment with different brewing methods. And we all have different sensory equipment — different taste buds, different receptors. Why not give decaf a spin and see what YOU think?
Equal Exchange’s decaf coffee is decaffeinated with a process called CR3 Natural Liquid Carbon Dioxide Decaffeination, first patented in Germany in 1970. Here’s how it works:
The use of carbon dioxide and water poses no risk to your health (think of carbonated water – it contains the same natural liquid carbon dioxide). This process removes 99.9% of the caffeine, yet leaves the bean and its natural oils intact.. These are the two reasons why Equal Exchange switched from offering Swiss Water Process in 1996 to the CO2 process — more caffeine is removed and the taste is fantastic!
Stay up-to-date with all things coffee.
This savory staple is great for picnics, barbecues, or an easy dinner on a warm night. Stop yourself from eating it all in one sitting — we think it tastes even better the next day.
This is the best version of the classic American pasta salad we've ever had. We used fair trade Organic Olive Oil from our partners at PARC in the West Bank in the dressing.
Boil the pasta in salted water according to package directions. Drain and allow to cool.
Cook bacon until crisp, then chop.
Quarter tomatoes and slice cucumber.
Dice onion into tiny pieces. Soak in cold water to reduce its bite. Drain well.
Mix pasta with vegetables and bacon. Salt to taste.
Blend all dressing ingredients and toss with pasta. Add more salt and pepper to taste.
In this Mediterranean-inspired recipe, smokey roasted eggplant pairs perfectly with a tart, creamy sauce while the sweetness of pomegranate seeds bursts on the tongue.
It’s a beautiful dish, too — testers here were in such a rush to eat, we had trouble snapping a pic that did it justice! Maybe you can do better …
We used fair trade olive oil from our partners in the West Bank to roast the eggplants. We also mixed it into the sauce. Za'atar seasoning and pomegranate seeds set this vegetarian side dish apart from the pack.
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Adapted from a recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi.
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Intro: 0:02 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.
Kate: 0:28 Danielle and I are here today with Cristina Liberati, who administers grants that support farmer cooperatives as they improve their quality, productivity and financial stability. Cristina deals with an astonishing variety of people, small scale farmers in a number of countries, plus agronomists, tasting professionals, folks who work for the u s government and more. And all of these people are working toward the same goals. Let’s hear more about how that works. Thanks for joining us, Cristina. Thanks for having me. Your job is clearly very complicated. How would you explain to a stranger what it is that you do for a living?
Cristina: 1:03 Well, I’ll start with my job title. I am the grant projects manager at equal exchange. So, what is the grant projects manager do at equal exchange? There’s really kind of two scenarios. One of them is your average come to the office, write emails, the usual have meetings. The other scenario is I’m in the field visiting with farmer cooperatives and, supporting educational workshops or giving workshops. All of this is related to managing this grant project that we have.
Kate: 1:39 Can you tell us about the scope of the grant?
Cristina: 1:42 Yes. So it’s actually, we, we have in the past had more than one grant, but the one that I’m referring to mainly is the USAID. So that’s the U S agency for International Development Cooperative Development Program. So it’s a multi year project where we applied for funding to do special projects with our farmer cooperative partners in three countries originally, Ecuador, Peru and Dominican Republic. And we work on lots of different activities related to strengthening our cooperative partners.
Kate: 2:21 Is there anyone else involved in this besides equal exchange?
Cristina: 2:29 So USA ID has many different funds. One of them being the cooperative development program. And within the cooperative development program we were one of nine, grantees. So some of the other grantees include the land o’ Lakes International Development Program. Another group called National Cooperative Business Association, specifically their arm that does is international projects called Clusa.
Kate: 2:57 Cool. Yeah, that sounds like so much. It’s kind of hard to wrap my mind around. What is it like, I guess we can all imagine sitting in an office and answering emails. Some of us might do that ourselves, but what’s it really like? Can you describe what it, what it’s like when you’re visiting producers in Ecuador or Peru?
Cristina: 3:17 Sure. well first Ecuador and Peru are, are fairly different, but sure. Yeah. My mainly in a project activity would involve, you know, flying down there and that always takes longer than, and then you’d like to thank, but oh, depending on where you’re going, I’ll take one or two days to get to your destination. At this point, you know, we’ve had such great relationships with our cooperatives that we can kind of call them up and say, I’m arriving at the airport at this time. Will you come pick me up? And they’re great about that. Usually pick us up, we’d go visit the offices of the cooperative and say hello. And, and one thing you kind of forget when you work in a US based office is physical contact is almost uh, discouraged. But if you go to Latin America and you are saying hello to someone, especially if you haven’t seen them for a long time and you don’t do the kiss on the cheek, it’s actually offensive. So there’s a lot of kisses and hellos. And how are you and this time of year happy new year, happy new year old lasts at least to like February.
Cristina: 4:30 Usually there’s some kind of meetings scheduled. If, they have a processing plant. Say if I’m going to visit NORANDINO in northern Peru, they have a coffee processing plant. We usually kind of tour the plant a little bit or do a little walk around as things change. We’ve worked on project activities to implement, you know, kind of new kinds of laboratory equipment in, in a co op like Nora and you know, and so want to see how it’s working, chat with staff about how it’s going, say hello to folks and then sit down and have meetings specifically around what was your work plan for the project this year, how’s it going, how can we support you? Is there anything we need to troubleshoot? Then you usually go for a nice leisurely lunch, uh, in a place like, uh, where NORANDINO is Savi Che is the most popular lunch and you know, that’s also, it’s a working lunch. You kind of continue to update each other on what’s going on. We try to provide as much information as we can about what’s happening on the u s market side or with equal exchange changes that are happening here.
Cristina: 5:40 And then, I’ll oftentimes you will have a field visit either the same day or the following day where you go visit with individual farmers. And again, it’s part of, it’s just going there and sitting and having a chat. And some facetime and you know, accepting graciously whatever find beverage they offer you. In Peru, sometimes it’s Chicho, which is a fermented corn drink.
Cristina: 6:09 I was recently in Paraguay and they offered us ted today, which is a kind of herbal concoction that they serve cold and you drink through a straw. But the generosity of our farmer partners is always astounds me and they’ll, they will give you anything they have and a lot of times they have beautiful fruits and things from the farm that they offer you as well. And then you know, if we implemented specific project activities with that farmer, we talk about that, you know, if they tried, uh, you know, a new Pr, uh, compost or went to a workshop around how to improve their pest management of the bugs that were eating their crops. So we, you know, we talk about that and how, how it went and what they, what suggestions they might have. So that’s, that’s in a nutshell that, that could repeat itself over a couple of days. And sometimes I go and we do workshops. If we’re workshop coming up in Peru to train more people in a capitalization, education program curriculum that we have so that we can offer that education program to more cooperatives in the future.
Kate: 7:28 That’s such a great picture of a sort of daily process of what this might be like. Thanks for that. Just like as a basic 101, what is a producer co-op in the context of Latin America?
Cristina: 7:42 Yeah, so again, Latin America is pretty large and produce our co op could mean a lot of things. My experience is mainly with coffee and get cow small farmer, producer, co-ops in Peru and Ecuador and Dominican Republic. So but given that, I think there are some generalizations we can make, the most essential function that these cooperatives provide is purchasing the raw product that the farmers are producing.
Cristina: 8:12 And a lot of times they’re aggregating it and providing a service of a postharvest processing they call it. So taking the raw product and turning it into a semi-finished product for export. So in the case of cacao for example, it needs to be fermented and then dried. And often you have better quality control and if you do that for many farmers at once versus the farmers doing individually. So the co op serves that function and also they’re the ones out there looking for international markets and clients and you know they serve as the face of the farmers in the kind of international market at the same also they invest some money back into the co ops and services for the farmers. Sometimes that takes the form of like a health campaign where they have an optimologist come and fit people for eyeglasses and or a lot of times it involves them hiring a agricultural technicians to go and support the work on the farms on a daily basis. Just those are just some small examples.
Danielle: 9:24 I have a question specifically on scale and how big some of these cooperatives are. I know you work in a few different countries and kind of what’s the range of how many families are in each cooperative. And I don’t know if you have any opinions on like is there a too big or what’s like the right size for how many family farms are in the cooperative? What your thoughts are on that?
Cristina: 9:51 Yeah, it’s a really interesting question. I work with cooperatives that range from a couple hundred producers up to almost 10,000. Wow. And there are, it’s a big one, although in, you know, there’s a cacao co op in Ghana that has I think something like 80,000 members, I mean massive. So it makes, uh, some of the 10,000 member Coopa Look, look small. I wouldn’t say that there’s a right or wrong answer here. I think that each scenario provides different challenges and also different benefits. So when you’re really small, oftentimes the cooperative is like a tight knit family for better or for worse. Right. So, yeah, and it makes sense like if you love your family, but you need a little space from them sometimes. And in those scenarios, often if you are introducing a new technology or a new idea, it’ll be adopted by everyone pretty quickly. And that’s, as long as it’s a good piece of information, that’s a good thing. On the other hand, there can be a lot of infighting and politics that the organizations don’t always mature to the level where they can handle that. And so I think you have a lot of vulnerability at that size sometimes. They also, you know, might not be able to access the same kind of markets that a larger co-op would because they just aren’t producing at a scale that some clients find efficient to buy from.
Cristina: 11:28 But you know, there are successful co-ops at every size, I think. And the larger co-ops you’re able to, they often develop into multifunctional businesses. So they’ll have an arm that does part raw processing. Like they might have a factory where they turn the cacao into cacao powder. They might have their own bank or credit union that serves the members, but also the rest of the community. The challenge with those large cooperatives I’ve seen is they often lose contact with their membership. And so that’s risky. Also, it’s sort of the opposite of a tight-knit family. You just have this loose aggregation of folks that it doesn’t really matter to them that they are a member of this particular co-op. It’s just the one that’s everywhere, you know, it doesn’t feel personal anymore. Yes. Yeah, yeah. To talk about individual farms now, the farms that make up these are the farmers that make up these producer co-ops.
Kate: 12:27 One of the aims of this program, it sounds like focuses on quality. What our issues are about quality when we’re talking about organic farming.
Cristina: 12:38 Yeah. I think issues with quality can range from organic to nonorganic. some of the challenges specifically with quality for organic farmers are they can’t use the same chemicals to combat like insects and different diseases that, conventional farmers are able to access. And so sometimes they can be much more success susceptible to those things and that will, of course, affect your quality and your productivity. On the flip side, I think organic farmers tend to have more diversity of, of product and of, uh, crops within their farm. And that from a flavor perspective and a variety of perspective is usually a benefit. And so, you know, I work in part in,it’s kind of like the specialty good cacao, area and you have more diversity and interesting flavors that can come from organic farms usually then it conventional farm in. That’s a generalization.
Kate: 13:54 When you say diversity, you mean like they might be planting more than one variety will have this of cacao or different kinds of things other than cacao as well or both?
Cristina: 14:03 Yeah. And cacao has thousands upon thousands of varieties and it’s one of the most complex foods on earth in terms of variety of flavors. There’s like 6,000 aromatic compounds. Weight might be 600 beyond that a lot. Yeah. I’m, it’s up there with wine and coffee and those other products that people really like to save her and look for a flavor notes and having a different varieties of cacao on one farm can give you more complexity of flavor and also other crops are going to interact and, have an impact on what people call sometimes terroir, which is the taste of a place or a unique flavor of a product.
Kate: 14:53 I’ve heard that before. Referring to other kinds of products like wine. What is … are farmers … Is this sort of coincidence or is it something farmers are deliberately working to develop?
Cristina: 15:06 Often it’s just a circumstance. You know, you inherit a farm that’s got a mess of varieties and it can be a challenge because if you don’t know, you know, what those, what the potential is of those varieties. It, you know, what good is it to you. And also in terms of farm management, sometimes the trees aren’t planted in rows. They’re just kind of scattered all over the place. They’ve been pollinated by who knows what. And you have, you don’t know exactly what varieties you have. So it can be messy, but if you know what you’re doing, you can really benefit from, from that diversity and complexity
Kate: 15:51 People on the consumer end. And certainly, people in the middle, people who are buying these commodities have sophisticated ideas about what qualities are desirable or what tastes delicious or what can get the most money. Are Farmers included in those conversations.?
Cristina: 16:43 We talked a little bit about wine a second ago and that is, is a crop where farmers are very often included in those conversations. The products that equal exchange works with and as of yet we don’t work with wine but someday maybe. Yeah. Here’s to that! The answer is no. Farmers aren’t always included in those conversations. I’d take, coffee has come a really long way in that aspect and Equal Exchange was really a pioneer in that movement to include farmer’s in conversations about quality. And my office mate is the green coffee buyer and she was just looking at hundreds of reports of quality analysis that they’ve done in our lab here that she’s bringing down to Peru to talk to the farmers. About next week. So this is very much an ongoing thing. And in it’s been a lot slower, that development, but it’s happening now and I’d like to think our project has played some part in that.
Kate: 17:17 Yeah. What are, what are the advantages, just to break it down, why would a farmer who’s really good at growing plants need to know how the finished product is gonna Taste?
Cristina: 17:28 So a product like cacao is the prices generally determined by the New York Stock Exchange and not by the quality of the product that they’re offering. And having some knowledge about the quality of your product gives you a voice and power in negotiations around its value in a way that many farmers typically have not been included in before or given before.
Kate: 18:00 So how does it work? How do they, how do they get included?
Cristina: 18:05 Good question. Yeah, I think, first and foremost starting to ask the question, you know, oh, I didn’t know I could, you know, that there was more than one price for cacao. Our work has focused on in the project, really collaborating with some of the star co-ops in our supply chain who had already made some advances in this area too. Generally work at the Co-op level, but we worked with TCho chocolate in San Francisco to, uh, install little mini-factories, which we call the TCho calls, flavor labs at the cooperatives so that they can process small amounts of the Ra or the fermented and dried cow beans into chocolate or with or without sugar. That’s the way that most chocolate makers evaluate the quality of a product and make decisions about whether or not to buy. But many farmers had never even tasted their own beans and chocolate form. And so,
Kate: 19:07 wow. I just want to stop and think about that. That’s crazy.
Cristina: 19:11 Yeah, it’s a, it is a little bit mind-blowing, you know. So just even the gotten of leveling the playing field with the tools that are available was, was a huge step. And then from there it’s really sitting down at, at the table and tasting together and Cho and equal exchange. And our farmer producers got together a few times a year and we’re tasting chocolate or unsweetened chocolate together and trying to see if we were coming up with similar flavor characteristics and qualities and from there developing written documents that would help people speak the same language when they were discussing their results. So we worked together on a tasting form for Cocoa. And you know, related things to help people have, have a universal tool to look at and speak the same language. Yeah, that’s really inspiring. It’s easy to see how that can make a big difference.
Danielle: 20:20 Can I ask one question, thinking about some farmers for the first time tasting their own chocolate, is there any kind of funny experience that you can think of a reaction to that and you know, folks being excited or, wow, I didn’t know that, you know, when I was growing, could, you know how it tasted? I don’t know. I’m just interested in that like kind of reaction that they might’ve had to taste their own chocolate for the first time. It seems like it could really cool.
Cristina: 20:48 Yeah. You know it’s really fun, but in fun in the way that looking, I’ve, I’ve been, I’ve been a participant in tastings like this also, but often what we would advise the coops to do, or they came up with this idea on their own was create a chocolate and unsweetened chocolate made from beans that were processed really badly and one that was processed really well. And right away the farmers can tell the difference in the flavor and the quality of off, you know, uh, fermentation changes the flavor dramatically and it reduces the bitterness and the stringency of the cacao. And so if you don’t ferment properly, you taste that right away and you just want to spit it out. So and on the other hand, it really good, good cow. That is the process. Well, even without sugar is going to taste really nice. And so I’ve, I’ve been at workshops where they offer, you know, kind of a good example and a bad example, but they don’t tell you. And the faces on the of the participants are just kind of priceless. And I, yeah, I’ve seen that many times. It’s, to be honest, but it’s a, it’s a really great educational tool and I know that some of the farmer co-op quality managers have taken the beans from a particular farmer back to that farmer and said, you know how you’re harvesting all those underwrite pods. Yeah, here’s what you’re giving us and we can’t sell this to clients or we get penalized for it. And once they taste it, they understand.
Danielle: 22:33 Kind of going off of that in regards to this project, how much of it is kind of producer-led? And do you kind of feel as though small scale farmers are either represented underrepresented and the scope of this and what are your thoughts on that?
Cristina: 22:56 Yeah, you know, it occasionally we get together with other grantees from the cooperative development program and every time we go to these meetings, people are kind of astonished by the, by the way, our project seems to work and I’m always astonished by the way their projects work. But they’re like, you give the money directly to the co-ops and then they do the work. I’m like, what are you doing? This is the cooperative development program. A lot of them work through third parties or consultants to deliver services to the Co-op, but never deposit the money directly to the ops themselves.
Cristina: 23:38 But I think we have the advantage of working with co-ops that are developed to the point where they’re able to export. I mean they’re, they’re fairly sophisticated in the world and the co-op world. Yeah. But we also trust them and they, you know, we have the good fortune of them often trusting us. And so we establish a very clear work plan in a very clear budget. And then we make deposits and then they have to send us receipts on all those deposits. And if they don’t, they don’t get another disbursement. They also know that it, that their performance on the grant affects the commercial relationship and our, you know, if they do really poorly on the grant, it’s not going to necessarily damage the commercial relationship, but it’s not gonna improve it either. So we, we don’t, we don’t, uh, use one to leverage the other and that’s not what I’m trying to say, but it’s, it’s like engaging with a family member on a business project.
Kate: 24:36 If one thing goes poorly than the other one, it’d be awkward at Thanksgiving.
Cristina: 24:39 Right, exactly. Yes. Well spoken. And so I think, I don’t know if that answers your question, but it’s, I would say yes, it’s, it’s very much producer led in the design and the execution and the ownership. And One, one statistic I can give you, cause we were just evaluating our project, is I don’t know many times when people look at what charity to donate to, they look at how much goes to overhead. And I actually calculated that equal exchange has taken of 100% of the funds available to us, 3% to execute this project. And 97% of the funds went directly to the co-ops or services that directly benefited the co-ops. And so I think that’s pretty good. Yeah.
Danielle: 25:39 Yeah. I just, just ask that question and I have an international relations background and a lot of times that would be something that folks were concerned about. People just kind of going in and having their perspective telling people how to do things, but having a different energy around it saying, no, actually, you know, this, it’s important for the involvement to be produced led and having feeling that feeling of ownership and control over your own projects and that changes the energy behind it to me. But
Kate: 26:08 yeah, you also alluded to the fact that we’re talking about very different countries here. Something that’s going on in Peru with, you know, cacao is going to be different from something that’s going on in the Dominican Republic. Do people in the cooperatives decide what’s important for their specific group?
Cristina: 26:29 Yeah. I mean it’s kind of a balance, right? Sometimes you learn about something that’s going really well and you want to be able to share that with, with a cooperative that’s having a different challenge, even if they’re in a different space. But it, wherever possible, we try to have the producers tell those stories directly to other producers rather than saying, well in, you know, use Becca, Stan, I saw they did this and you should try this. You know, it’s, it’s very different than bringing someone from Uzbekistan together with someone from Honduras to share that experience.
Kate: 27:04 Yeah, cut out the middleman.
Cristina: 27:05 Yeah. Well, and it just, it has more impact if it, if you hear it from someone who you can relate to in their experience and goodness knows they don’t grow any cacao in Uzbekistan.
Kate: 27:16 Yet.
Cristina: 27:17 But that said like producer co-ops around the world, tend to face some similar challenges or I mean, and we even find we have similar challenges as Equal Exchange. The worker co-op with some of our producer co-op partners. Like, how do you get people to run for the board? How do you get them educated to run for the board? This is a question that I see here and we were just talking about it today actually. And it, I’ll be talking about it with a producer co-op, the Banana Co-op in Peru that I’m visiting next week. Same problem.
Kate: 27:49 That’s great. Yeah.
Danielle: 27:50 Yeah. Even thinking about having a cooperative that are geographically dispersed and trying to still honor that connection of the members together and how that can be more challenging as cooperatives grow. And I know that’s a problem. And that equal exchange has that, you know, you would kind of alluded to before talking about the different scale of the
Kate: 28:11 yeah. Big Cops that don’t see each other that much, where farmers might feel isolated or less connected. Makes Sense. Yeah. Yeah. Can you talk about information sharing that seems to be an ethos of this program?
Cristina: 28:23 Yeah, I would say it’s an ethos of equal exchange to I and I, my colleague Beth Ann Casperson, who I think did a previous podcast, which everyone should listen to, is really, such a proponent of this and you know, in the coffee world, equal exchange has shared a lot of information about how we roast or how we work with our partner co-ops. And that philosophy I think works its way into many things that we do include this project. And so one area I already highlighted was trying to have producers share information with other producers. So we organized over 15 different coop exchanges through the previous project, bringing together all of the representatives from all of the cops in their project to talk about specific issues related to quality productivity or financial management of the co-ops .
Danielle: 29:20 And kind of thinking, taking a step back, thinking about a timeline. And you know, originally the project was supposed to be five years and it’s kind of had three extensions, right? So that’s a huge difference in longevity and creating a longterm relationship. How have you been because of these extensions? How have you been able to see some of the, of the project directly?
Kate: 29:44 And if I can jump in, what’s next?
Cristina: 29:46 Yeah, sure. the, the extensions of time, we’re kind of a blessing and a curse. I mean you, when you think you plan for a five-year project and then it turns into eight, sometimes you’re running out of ideas or you know, it’s at what point do your teammates from other cops go and work on other things. But on the plus side, I would say, you know, trees take a long time to grow. So I’m, and cacao trees planted from seed, we’ll take about five years to mature and eve if, so, if you start right away on a productivity project, you may or may not see the results at the end of your project term. And this project has allowed us to really see some of those developments in productivity. You know, we did a bunch of what they call model farms.
Cristina: 30:39 So you know, kind of demonstrative farms within certain areas of the Co-op that do all of the improvements to the farm and they are supposed to serve as, as a model for their neighbors at those, model farms. The productivity went up by, you know, on average in some places like 496%. Wow. And so being able to see that is really satisfying and then you’re able to really share that knowledge. And, and I think with this extension of time, we’ve been able to much more kind of systematically and intentionally create records and tools that we can then use going forward. And that hopefully, you know, in the spirit of sharing are available on a wide scale to whoever finds them useful. All of these are products that we’ve created or tools, resources are actually on the equal exchange website. So feel free to check out the cooperative development page —
Kate: 31:43 –if you’re planning to start a cacao farm yeah.
Cristina: 31:46 Or you want to learn how to taste chocolate.
Kate: 31:49 Yeah, all right. You’re speaking my language. Yeah, yeah.
Cristina: 31:52 And what’s next? Equal Exchange applied for and received funding for another cooperative development project that started in 2018 and we’ll go to her until 2023 or 2026 or who knows how many extents. Yeah. Yeah. That has to do with the government not knowing how much money to allocate at a particular time. Something that the shutdown is highlighting. Maybe they could use some financial management training.
Kate: 32:23 Great. Thank you so much, Cristina. You’ve been awesome. It’s really fun to talk with you and learn about what is going on.
Danielle: 32:32 Yeah. Thanks for chatting so much.
Kate: 32:37 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 equal exchange.co op 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 sound engineering provided by Gary Goodman. Join us next time for another edition of the stories behind our food.
Have you ever tried natural process coffee? If you have, you probably noticed a difference! Known as “naturals” in the specialty coffee industry, these coffees impart a heavy, expansive mouthfeel and flavor notes that are fruity and complex. Equal Exchange now offers natural process coffee — and fans of this style are devoted. But what makes naturals so distinct?
Coffee beans are the seeds of the coffee plant. Like other seeds, they’re found within the fruit. In coffee-growing regions around the world, farmers wait for this fruit to ripen. Once the sugars are fully developed and the cherries are mature, it’s time to harvest them from the bushes where they grow. But what happens next? That depends.
Often, farmers remove the pulp that surrounds the seeds. Because this is commonly done with water, the method is called wet processing. But in some cases, the de-pulping step is skipped entirely. The coffee bean is processed within its cherry. The result is dry-processed – or natural-processed – coffee.
After farmers harvest the cherries, they spread them out on raised drying beds or bamboo mats to dry, with the beans still inside the fruit. The flesh shrinks down, making the beans resemble large raisins. They lose moisture over the course of the drying period, creating a dense sweetness. The process may sounds simple, but it takes skill. Workers must carefully remove unripe or defective beans by hand. They must also turn the coffee cherries regularly so that they dry evenly in the sun. Once drying is complete, which can take anywhere from twelve days to three weeks, beans are put through a hulling machine. This removes the dried pulp, parchment and silverskin. The green beans are now ready to be roasted.
Natural processing is the most environmentally friendly method of processing coffee. Unlike with wet processing methods, there is no wastewater that must be evaporated in soak pits or filtered before it can be safely returned to rivers and streams. And when access to water is limited, as it is in many parts of the world, natural processing is especially practical. It makes sense that this method is very common in Ethiopia, where the coffee plant originated! Equal Exchange works with small-scale farmer partners at SCFCU, located in the Sidama region of the country, to source the natural process beans we use in our popular Organic Ethiopian coffee.
The success of the dry-processing method in Ethiopia has encouraged coffee farmers in other parts of the world to turn to natural process coffee, too. Experimenting with processing is a one way to improve quality. Farmers at the COMSA co-op in Honduras are leaders in innovation. They’ve discovered that beans from the same lot can sometimes garner a higher score on the Specialty Coffee Associations of America’s 100-point scale when processed naturally, as opposed to with the wet process. COMSA’s willingness to try new things and their commitment to quality results in a final product that tastes phenomenal! In Fall 2018, a limited-edition seasonal in Equal Exchange’s Women in Coffee series featured natural-processed beans from COMSA.
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