What if spice farmers had a way to sell their freshest and most unusual varieties for what they’re really worth? What if chefs and home cooks on the other side of the globe had access to spices they’d never tasted before — and the stories of where they came from? That’s the concept behind Burlap & Barrel. This month, we talked to co-founder Ethan Frisch to hear all about what this fair trade company is doing differently.
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Everyday grocery store items like bananas, chocolate, coffee — these are global commodities. They pass through a lot of people’s hands on their way from the fields to your grocery cart. This is The Stories Behind Our Food podcast, the podcast where expert guests share insider knowledge about every step along the process. I’m Danielle Robidoux — and I’m Kate Chess — and we’re your hosts.
Awesome, we’re here with Ethan from Burlap & Barrel. Thank you so much for joining us. We’re kind of just wanting to dive right in. I’ve met you a few times. I have heard through the grapevine some stories of an ice cream truck and maybe that’s where things began. Can you talk a little bit about that project?
Yeah, so, my current company, Burlap & Barrel is my second, food business and my second attempt to bring together food and politics and activism. My first was an ice cream cart in the summer of 2010 on the streets of New York city. I had been a pastry chef and the restaurant that I was working at closed. And, I decided to start an ice cream cart. with my current business partner — he and I worked together on that project also. It was an activist ice cream cart. So all of the flavors were inspired by revolutions and political movements and we donated 100% of the profits to support marginalized communities in New York city. And in particular, the Street Vendors Project, which is a street vendor advocacy group here in New York. We were selling ice cream on the street and we wanted to support other entrepreneurs who were also selling food on the street but maybe didn’t have the privilege that we had of being native English speakers and, and us citizens. So, so that’s what we did and we, we had flavors — all kinds of crazy flavors. We had flavors like 72% dark chocolate and port wine ice cream, which we served with brulee’d frozen bananas. And we had a, a blowtorch on the cart and we were brulee-ing slices of banana to order. And we had a, a masala chai ice cream. We had a Burmese, monk uprising, lemongrass, ginger — a lemongrass, mango and palm sugar sorbet. You know, we had all kinds of good stuff and, and, we tried to use ice cream as an entry point to talk about politics, but you know, sometimes that works, sometimes people just want to eat their ice cream and be left alone, which, you know, whatever their prerogative.
What was your favorite ice cream title?
My favorite ice cream title. So we tried to give them names, related to, to the, the revolutions or the social movements that we had based them on. Maybe my favorite one was a Dominican inspired ice cream float, which we called, las Mariposas. There were three sisters in the anti-Trujillo movement in the Dominican Republic, who sort of led a peaceful, mostly peaceful uprising against, his dictatorship. so we named it after them and they were called the butterflies, the mariposas. And it was a Malta float, so it was a Malta soda with a scoop of a sweet cheese and guava swirl ice cream that we had made. So that, that was, that was one of my favorites, sweet cheese guava. And in a Malta float. We also had a roast duck, a Chinese roast duck ice cream, which was definitely the, the weirdest one we did. It was our last, our last weekend of the summer, we wanted to go out with a bang. And so we did this — we got to roast ducks from, a Cantonese, a place in Chinatown that I really liked, and stewed them in milk and cream. In the ice cream base along with the Chinese five spice ingredients, which are actually pretty sweet. It’s ginger and cinnamon and star anise and Szechuan peppercorns and cloves. So it’s, it’s a very sweet blend of spices. And so it didn’t seem like such a stretch to push that flavor profile away from savory, which is where it’s usually applied into a sweet application. And to do it with a duck, that we, we cooked into the ice cream base. So when you took a bite of the ice cream, there were actually a little flecks of duck meat in the ice cream itself. So it was a really interesting flavor profile. I’d come from a Michelin starred restaurant. I had tried to bring this sort of, fine dining or very creative mentality of cooking to the ice cream cart, which is, you know, usually just like vanilla ice cream and sprinkles. And this was, this was trying to find another, another way to present ice cream.
And what happened next?
So, you know, it’s hard to run an ice cream cart on the streets of New York city after September. So we closed down the cart. I went to graduate school. My business partner, Ori, moved to San Francisco to start a startup in Silicon Valley. And I, from graduate school where I was studying international development, I w I moved to Afghanistan where I worked for a big nonprofit called the Aga Khan Foundation. I was working on an infrastructure project. We were building roads and bridges, lots of schools throughout very remote rural areas of North Eastern Afghanistan.
How’d you find your way back to spices?
So I lived in Afghanistan for a couple of years and it was really being there that I, I that I first realized how complicated and diverse the world of spices was. I had not thought about it before. I had worked at a really high end Indian restaurant in New York city. I thought I knew my way around a spice cabinet, but, but I just, I got to Afghanistan and started tasting varieties of cumin and coriander and saffron that I had never come across before. Some of that was through my travels within the country. I was spending a lot of time in the province in the far Northeast where, where this particular variety of cumin grows wild. But I also, I lived in a really nice house with a nice kitchen in a quiet residential neighborhood of Kabul. I was able to walk around and, and do my grocery shopping on a daily basis. And and there was a very cute little spice shop, a couple of blocks from my house that I would go to and have long conversations in my broken Farsi and their broken English with the father and son who ran the shop. And you know, they would pull out containers of coriander seeds. This is the coriander from this part of the country. And this is the coriander from that part of the country. And here’s the one that we got from India and the one that we got from Pakistan and the one that we got from Iran. And so being able to smell and taste those origins in spices in a way that I never had before was really exciting and got me thinking about this completely overlooked category in kitchens in the United States.
So I, I, you know, it started off just bringing stuff home to share with, with friends, with people in the restaurant industry, people I cooked with. Cause I, I just found these ingredients to be so compelling and had never tasted anything like them in the US and I, I just wanted to share them. So, I mean it was not, it was not a business in the early days. It was, it was me just bringing duffle bags full of cumin and saffron and almonds and, and all kinds of things home. and over the course of several years, I started to figure out what it would look like to turn that into more of a, a company, a more formal operation. And so that’s, that’s where we are today. The business launched about two and a half years ago in early 2017. I’d been working on it actively for several months before we sort of for– we formally launched and, and really for several years thinking through the idea, before we got anywhere close to being able to launch it. And in those early days especially and and now as well, thinking about other companies that have done similar work that have paved the way for this model of direct trade, in, in spices in our case, but obviously Equal Exchange being one of the first companies to do it for coffee, for cacao, has really has really paved the way for companies like mine to, to understand how to do this both on the sourcing relationships with partner farmers side, but also on the marketing side, how to build a market for a new version of a, of a food that people thought they knew, but really, really is just much more diverse and complicated than anybody realized.
I think there’s a lot to follow up on there, but I’m curious if you can give us just an overview of your scope right now. How many countries do you work in, that kind of thing?
We work with spice farmers in, I think we’re up to 12 countries now, total of about 150 farmers. Some of them we work with as individuals and some of them are members of cooperatives or other associations of farmers. Several of the spices that we import actually are not formally farmed. They’re not cultivated. They grow wild. The cumin I mentioned in Afghanistan. We get a wild sumac from Turkey. We have wild kelp, seaweed from Iceland. And, and really kind of coming in with a very high quality product, working with farmers who often have been growing something really exceptional for decades, but have never had an outlet to sell it — especially at its true value before.
Often they’ve been selling it into the commodity market where it gets mixed in with lower quality lots where, there’s just a lot of fragmentation and consolidation. A farmer sells to a truck driver sells to somebody with a warehouse or, a little shed in a, in the, in the nearby village and that person sells to somebody with a bigger truck and a bigger warehouse. And you have this essentially a funnel effect, very similar, I think to what you find in coffee and chocolate. A lot of smallholder farmers at the top of the funnel and a couple of very powerful exporters’ at the bottom of the funnel. And the farmers really have no idea where their product is going once it leaves the farm. They don’t have a whole lot of understanding of the economics of the supply chain beyond, beyond their portion of it. They definitely don’t know who, who uses it or how it gets used when it gets to, a kitchen in the United States. and they just don’t have a lot of control over how it gets sold or how it’s marketed. And so that’s really, those are the problems on the, on the farming side that we’re solving or we’re trying to solve, setting farmers up to export their own crops, doing all of the FDA registration, the food safety testing, the regulatory and logistical work that’s required to bring, food into the US for the first time. Most of the farmers we work with have never exported before, or at the very least, have never export it to the US before. And yeah, giving, giving farmers who have already been growing something really special often who have already been dissatisfied with the commodity market, who had been looking for a way to do some of what we are, we are working with them on but have not found an import partner to work with. And that’s, that’s — it’s really exciting. It’s really hard. It’s not that hard to find spice farmers, but it’s really hard to find spice farmers who are growing something exceptional and who have this kind of entrepreneurial orientation to begin with.
How do you go about doing that?
Yeah, good question.
How do you find those people?
That’s the fun part. I mean some of it is, is deciding where in the world we want to source a particular ingredient from and then going to that place and meeting farmers and hoping that we’d find the right, the right one or the right couple of people to work with. We did this in, in Vietnam earlier this year. We spent about a year planning the trip. And then we finally felt like we had made enough contacts. We had figured out enough specific information about where in the country we wanted to go. And so we went for a couple of weeks. End of February, beginning of March of this year. We — I had, I had read and heard about the best star anise in the world growing the Vietnamese-Chinese border. And so that was our first stop. We spent a few days with a few different people who, who kind of helped us out as guides. One was a local government representative, a ministry of foreign affairs officer whose job it was to bring in foreign investment into that, into that area of Vietnam. So she took us around and introduced us to a bunch of farmers. Another person, actually a really funny coincidence, I have a Vietnamese chef friend here in New York city, who happened to grow up in that part of Vietnam. And so she put us in touch with her sister who knew some farmers and we spent a day with her sister and had a beautiful dinner with her whole extended family and Skyped her into this dinner. She was in New York city. And we were in this little town on the, on the Chinese-Vietnamese border. So we really meet farmers in all kinds of different ways. Some of it is personal contacts, some of it is is through NGOs or, or local government offices. but, but like I said, the real challenge is not finding farmers but finding the right farmers, the farmers who are growing something really special and who want to work with us.
Yeah. Sometimes I feel like some of the distance and some of the many links of the supply chain have to do with the fact that local middlemen know the farmers and importers may not, and they may not have cultural competence and they may not have language skills. So you sort of have to — or you feel that you have to — deal with someone else instead of dealing directly with farmers. And I wonder how you get around those challenges.
Yeah, I mean I think you’re, you’re absolutely right. And I think in the, in the discussion of direct supply chains, it’s really easy to, to crap on the middleman, right? As someone who is not adding value and increasing price. And complicating everything for everybody. But, but we forget, right, that the middleman, the truck driver who pulls up to the farm and buys the farmer’s, spices or coffee or whatever it is, like they live in a community together. They’ve been working together for 20 years. There’s a deep relationship between those two individuals that is really easy to, to ignore or forget about from, from the distance, right. Sitting here in the United States. it’s easy to forget about that and obviously we can’t replicate that exactly. But, I think one of the things that’s enabled our business to, to exist at all is, is new communication technology, which didn’t exist 15 or 20 years ago or 10 or 15 years ago, even.
So, I mean, I can’t, I can’t drive the truck to the farm, but I can go and meet a farmer in person. I can maintain a relationship on WhatsApp or Skype or Facebook Messenger. I can send pictures of a dish that a chef has made in New York with the spice that they grew. They can send me pictures of, of the plants as the spices are ripening, they can send me pictures of their family. You know, we can have a real, a real relationship, a real, line of communication that wasn’t possible even just a few years ago. And so that, that has sort of become our proxy, for that, for the, the relationship that a farmer might have with a traditional middleman. And, and you know, Google translate is, is magic. I can have a conversation with a farmer in Vietnam. I speak no Vietnamese, he speaks no English, but using Google translate, we can, we can get our point across 75 or 80% of the time without too much trouble. And, and, being able to do that is invaluable. Both, both in being able to build a business around it, but also just to having a relationship with somebody who you previously would never have been able to connect with in that way.
That’s all super interesting. I guess I wonder too, if you’re kind of traveling to all these different places, star anise in Vietnam, kelp in Iceland, Turkey, is there any story or producer story that stands out to you that you’d like to share with folks?
Oh, so many. I mean, they’re … we work with a lot of individuals and they’re all really interesting and different obviously, but there is definitely a common energy, a common entrepreneurial hustle that I find that we show up on a farm. And this has been true in Tanzania and Vietnam and Indonesia and Guatemala and you know, regardless of language and nationality and culture and age often that the best, the best situations are when we show up on the farm. We present a farmer with, with our concept, with our business model. And they say like, what took you so long? I’ve been waiting, I’ve been waiting for you to show up for years. And, and we’ve had that reaction in a lot of different places. And, and it’s so exciting because, you know, there, there’s an energy on the supply side and I, and now hopefully there’s an energy on the demand side here. But there has never been a way for those two sides of the supply chain to talk to each other directly. And so to meet farmers, you know, I have this idea that maybe I could import things directly. So to meet farmers who had the same idea on the export side, on the supply side is really exciting. Someday we’re going to have a, a global spice farmer’s conference and we’re going to put them all in a room together and they’re all gonna love each other cause they all have this similar, this similar drive. and, and that’s what I mean when I say it’s easy to meet farmers and hard to find farmers who are, who want to work with us because, you know, I would say one in 10 farmers has been thinking about this idea is, is really excited about it. Most of them, the commodity market isn’t great, but it’s what they know. It’s reliable, it’s comfortable there, the relationships around it. And so for most farmers that we meet, they think our idea is funny and not really something that’s for them. So to be able to bring together all of the people who had been thinking about this and had no idea, right, they don’t know each other and they don’t speak the same language.
I mean, we work with a cardamom farmer in Guatemala, which is a whole interesting story in itself because cardamom is native to Southern India. It’s not a Guatemalan or central American crop, but it was introduced by German coffee farmers in the late 1800s as a parallel crop. it grows exceptionally well there. And most cardamom, I would say almost all cardamom in the United States is grown in Guatemala despite the connection or the association with India. he, he’s an indigenous guy. He’s a part of the Kʼicheʼ Maya group in central Guatemala, Alto Vera Paz up in the cloud forests. He didn’t finish high school. He, somehow has pieced together the only vertically integrated cardamom company in Guatemala. So he grew up working on other people’s farms, picking cardamom for other people. I saw that they were selling the cardamom to, to people with pickup trucks. So he, you know, he followed a truck. Nobody else did that or nobody else has been able to do that in the way that he has. He’s now in his mid fifties, so he’s been working on this for, you know, 30 something years. he owns his own farm. He owns his own drying facility, which is, which is challenging in cardamom. You can’t sun dry it both because it’s in the rainforests and not a lot of sun, but also because when you sun dry cardamom, it bleaches it and you want to hold a darker color. That’s part of the way that value is, is, is determined. So, he has his own drying facility and he, with a business partner, owns the export process. So, I mean he’s, he’s the only person in Guatemala who has, who has done this. I went last — actually a year and a half ago, with a journalist to write a profile of him and we must’ve talked to 40 or 50 people in the cardamom industry. Everybody from, farm workers on other people’s farms to a smallholder farmers to processors, dryers, exporters. And nobody else had come across someone who had built their own fully consolidated supply chain for this crop. and he’s, he’s a nutcase. He’s, he’s insane. As you would imagine, somebody who has, you know, one in 10 million has done this, this incredible thing. and I, and I love him and I’ve, I’ve been to visit him at least once a year for the last three years and we have a really a really close personal relationship as well as a business relationship.
But, but I mean, imagine the kind of person who looks at a system and says, I’m going to do something totally different. I’m going to throw it out the window and start from scratch. And, and that energy that, that hustle is just, is so exciting and something that I’ve had the pleasure of, of encountering in a lot of different places. Are you a nut case? I try to be. I mean, I mean I, yeah, like, you know, I, I looked at a spice cabinet and said, like what about all the other things? What am I not seeing? So if you go to the supermarket, it appears that there are a lot of different brands on the shelf, but actually, and this is true in a lot of, a lot of commodities and especially around, large corporate food, it appears that there is, that there are choices that are, there appears to be diversity, but actually it’s all coming from the same importers or exporters.
Almost all cinnamon that you buy is Indonesian. There are a couple of big export companies and a handful of big import companies. And regardless of the brand that you’re buying, you’re, you’re buying the same product. And then on top of that, you’re buying a product that’s, that’s really, really old. Supermarket spices are easily three years old by the time you buy them. And then you see, you know, we all have spices in our kitchen cabinets that we’ve been sitting on for for years. My, I think my grandmother has clothes that she’s, she’s had since 1982. you know, we have this, we have this supply chain that treats an ingredient as if it’s completely shelf-stable, which, you know, it’s a, it’s a plant. It’s, it’s not, it’s not shelf stable. Freshness is really important and not to say that you need to get it within, you know, a week of the harvest, but to, to know the harvest date of what you’re, what you’re buying and what you’re cooking with, to understand the, the trip that it took to get from the mountains of Northern Sumatra to your kitchen. and, and to make more specific decisions in the way that you might make decisions about meat or vegetables about what you want to cook with and how you want to use it.
How do you communicate that to customers? It seems to me like two things you’re doing really differently is working directly with farmers or farmer groups. That’s one thing. And then another thing is like sourcing really high quality spices and getting them fresher. And so there’s this big quality piece and then there’s potentially this sort of human rights piece. And I imagine different folks are interested in different parts of that. So how do you tell those stories?
Yeah, I mean those, those two sides of it go very much hand in hand. That by working with, with entrepreneurial, highly skilled farmers, we’re able to get a, an exceptional quality of product. And often something that’s too expensive for the commodity market that a farmer — you know, a farmer will grow a certain quantity of black pepper and it’ll fall into different quality grades. Just by the nature of that, you know, that’s how crops work. And, and often the, the top grade of whatever crop a farmer is growing, they can’t sell for a price that, that matches the value, matches the quality of that crop. And so first and foremost, we’re buying that. We’re buying the top grade, that highest quality product, that often farmers can’t sell into the commodity market. They wind up selling it locally. They wound up mixing it into other lots. But they’re not making — or at least previously, were not making, were not making money, proportionate to the value to the quality of that event crop. So that’s one thing. By working directly, by having these strong relationships, we get really high quality spices.
And then in terms of communicating it, it’s, it’s, it’s challenging. You know, some, some of our customers are professional chefs. The, the restaurants that we supply, they don’t care so much about the sourcing process. They don’t care that we’re a public benefit corporation and here’s our social impact at origin and that’s not their interests. They care about quality. So is this the best black pepper we’ve ever tasted? Yes. Done. Conversation over. But, but we have seen, I think in, in this sort of second wave of the farm to table movement, we have seen chefs start to think more about the, the non fresh ingredients that they’re cooking with. So whether that’s — you know, beyond the, the meat and the vegetables, but whether that’s wine and, and we’ve seen a rise in natural wines, biodynamic wines, whether that’s coffee and tea chefs wanting to know more about where those ingredients come from and spices are part of that conversation. But we also work directly with consumers. We have a, a website where we sell spices and ship small jars all across the country. And home cooks, actually in a lot of ways have, have been more adventurous than professional chefs. They’re not constrained by, what they have to put on a menu and, and food prices and making sure that they’re, you know, they’re making their margin on a dish. A home cook can buy a jar of spices for six or eight bucks and, and experiment and, and really get into it. And then as much information as, as they want to dig into, we have on our website or we have on our social media, our Instagram, in particular, background on, where everything comes from, who grew it. I really believe that food tastes better when, when you know where it comes from. And so being able to tell those stories to — whether it’s a home cook or a professional chef, if they’re interested, if they want to know, we have that information available for them.
Yeah, sure. And maybe a fun question. What is your favorite spice?
Oh, it’s so hard. My favorite spice, the answer will be different tomorrow, but, right now I’m really excited about, a couple of things we’re, we’re getting in at shipment of, I should say we just got in a shipment of this incredible cinnamon from Vietnam. It’s a variety called Royal cinnamon, an heirloom variety, grown, not in the major cinnamon producing region, but in, an older cinnamon producing region in the mountains in central Vietnam. that was the cinnamon supplier to the Royal court in Hue. These, these are from, these are 20 plus year old trees, really old trees. And as cinnamon trees get older, the, the intensity of the bark, which is what we’re eating when we’re eating cinnamon, increases. So you get really strong, sweet and spicy flavors. We went to visit a whole bunch of farmers earlier this year and got out of the car at one of the farms. We could smell them cutting the bark off the trees from probably a quarter mile away. It was like walking into a bakery with cinnamon buns right out of the oven. It was this amazing smell. But where, you know, we’re standing in the middle of a, a rice patty in Vietnam looking up the hill and there’s, there’s people pulling bark off the, off the trees up on the hill. And it’s really the most intense cinnamon I ever tasted. So that, that just, that just came in.
Another spice that I’m really excited about is a fermented white peppercorn, that we’re getting from a small farm, a family farm. A father and son operation on an Island called Bangka in Indonesia, in between Java and Sumatra. And black pepper, most people don’t realize, despite eating it every single day, black pepper grows on a climbing vine in little bunches like grapes. And there’s a fruit. So when you eat black pepper, you’re actually — the outer skin, what looks black, that wrinkly skin of the peppercorn is actually the dried fruit and it shrivels and dries up like a raisin. And so in, in really good black pepper, the fruit has a lot of flavor in itself. And so the spiciness is coming from the inner white pit, but there’s, it’s balanced by a sweetness and savoriness, from, from the dried fruit on the outside. On, on this Island, they’re famous for their fermentation where they use the sugar in that fruit to ferment the peppercorns. So they’ll pull the fresh peppers off the vine, they’ll tie them up in a woven sack and drop them in the river, stick them down in a river or a pond, sometimes some kind of natural pool, for a couple of weeks. And over the course of that two weeks, the sugars in the fruit of the peppercorn, ferment. And you’re left with a white pepper, which is just the inner pit of the pepper, but it’s picked up all of these funky fermented, cheesy yogurty flavors from that fermentation process. And I went to visit a couple of years ago and you can see the bubbles rising up from where they’ve dropped the sacks into the river. They’re really, they’re really fermenting underwater. And it’s, it’s the most amazing, umami savory fermented flavor. If you like yogurt, if you like stinky cheeses. This is, this is the stinky cheese of white pepper of pepper and it’s, it’s so cool.
I think you’ve sold me. Next time you come to Equal Exchange, I’m going to have to ask you to bring some of these things that you’ve talked about.
I think you sold everyone. I’m sure everyone listening to the Stories Behind Our Food at home is making a note to Google you guys and go to your website and take a look at what you’ve got.
Yeah, it’s a Burlap & Barrel.com we ship all over the country. We have, are we, I mean we supply a lot of restaurants, but we also have our retail sized glass jar, which is a standard spice jar.
Yeah, that’s awesome. I’ll be getting some myself. You’re such a great talker. You have so many great stories and a lot of that has to do with you having been to these places yourself and talk to these farmers. I wonder about the supply chain of information. This is something I think about because I do some communications for Equal Exchange. How do you — as you grow, you have people who are doing your Instagram, maybe who haven’t been to to Vietnam, you know. Like how do you, how can … you do a lot of things at Burlap & Barrel. You’re a busy guy. Your time is valuable. You’re not the only one who can be telling these stories. So how do you communicate to chefs and to home customers, the fact that you’re legit when you don’t have time — when the person who visits the country doesn’t have time to talk about this perhaps.
Yeah. Yeah, I mean it’s a, it’s a good question. And some of the places that we source from, I have not yet been to visit. And some places it’s more important to establish that personal relationship from the beginning. And in other places it’s less important. We work with a family producer of pimenton paprika in Spain. I’m going to visit them at the end of this summer for the pepper harvest, but that’ll be the first time I’m, I’m going. But you know, they’re, they’re a little more professional. They didn’t need as much hand holding as a cooperative in, in Tanzania or, or Vietnam, from the beginning. But, but I think really the goal, just like we’ve set up farmers to do their own exporting is also to set up farmers to do some of their own storytelling. So, being able to sit down with a farmer in, in whatever country I’m in, and scroll through my Instagram and say, here’s how, here’s the picture that I posted of you. Here are the pictures that I’m posting now of this experience of visiting the farm. we, there’s this, one of the things that I’ve, I’ve heard from almost every farmer that I’ve met is that they want to find more ways to add value at origin for themselves. And, and one of the ways to do that is to do some of the packaging and marketing of their own product. but, but it’s something that’s obviously, it’s really challenging. It’s marketing is really challenging for people in the United States, let alone for a farmer in Indonesia who is trying to speak to an audience in a country they’ve never been to, don’t speak the language. So, kind of showing farmers how I’m telling their stories, what aspects of their process I’m highlighting. You can’t obviously get into everything as much as I would like to. and, and then also, you know what I think makes their product special.
I’m not an expert in, in pepper cultivation, but I’ve been to pepper farms in a half dozen countries. And so I can talk to the farmer in Indonesia who is an expert in pepper cultivation and say, well, here’s what I saw them doing in Vietnam. And here’s what I saw them doing in Tanzania. And here’s some other ideas that you might be able to incorporate or learn from or contribute to. I take pictures of the tools that farmers are using in different countries to share them with my partner farmers in other countries. and so in, in Tanzania they were able to make, they have this in, in Vietnam, they, this really interesting knife that they’ve designed that they use to cut the cinnamon bark off the tree. So I took a picture of the knife, I sent it to the co-op in Tanzania and they were able to make a similar knife. So they were, they’ve been able to incorporate some, some of those techniques into their own process of harvesting the same or similar crop. So I think ideally we’d find a way for farmers to speak for themselves, to send us pictures, to send us stories to say, this is, this is the way I want my product, my spice, and my story to, to be, portrayed. And, and in some cases we do. I just posted a couple of pictures on Instagram a few days ago from our partner farm in Guatemala. He sent me, I don’t know, 45 pictures of, of, the harvest and drying of limes. We get a ground black lime, which is a really interesting ingredient. it’s, it’s a green lime, dried in the sun until it turns black and then ground into a powder, traditionally it’s used in a lot of, Persian and Iraqi cooking. But, it’s a very versatile ingredient. You sprinkle a little lime powder onto whatever you’re cooking. It tastes great. So he sent me 45 or 50 pictures of limes and a truck limes being dumped out of the truck, lines being spread out in the sun, the whole process. And so then I can pick a couple that I think tells the story succinctly and post those on our Instagram, but they’re his pictures. So trying to get farmers to do more of that, to represent themselves more is, is really the goal.
I find that so inspirational. That’s a real change that’s happened — used to be the Western traders had cameras and the people who were growing this stuff didn’t have cameras and you couldn’t share it by WhatsApp. And I think it’s great that you’ve kept up to date and are incorporating folks’ ability to tell their own stories.
Yeah, yeah. The rise of the smartphone, the rise of the camera phone, that’s, that’s really made this business, this model, this style of sourcing spices possible.
Thank you so much, Ethan. And before we sign off, I want to ask you about your podcast.
Yeah. I, I host a podcast on an internet radio station called Heritage Radio Network, which focuses completely on food. There’s about 30, 35 shows about different aspects of food and the restaurant industry. Ans our podcast, I — my cohost and I — have a podcast called Why Food and we interview people who have changed careers to work in food after having done all kinds of other things. We have, people who changed careers very late in their careers in their fifties and sixties. People who, you know, went to college, worked for a couple of years, realized that wasn’t for them and then went to culinary school and are now now pretty established, distinguished chefs. it’s a, it’s a really interesting cross section of the food industry because there’s so many stories within that, within that story of people who, who realized at some point in their life that their passion was food and they wanted to find a way to combine that with their career. And that, that has been my story. My cohost is a former attorney who’s now a baker. and and so we have all kinds of interesting people who have done really interesting things and have followed various ideas, passions, whims, hobbies, and, and come up with, with really interesting careers in food.
Thank you so much, Ethan.
Thanks for listening to the Stories Behind our Food, a podcast by Equal Exchange, a worker owned cooperative. Loved this episode? Please subscribe rate and leave a review. Be sure to visit EqualExchange.coop to join the conversation, purchase products, and learn more about small scale farmers and the global supply chain. This episode was produced by Gary Goodman with hosts, Kate Chess and Danielle Robidoux. Join us next time for another edition of the Stories Behind Our Food.
When you’re shopping for coffee, you will find that it comes in all kinds of different packages, including cans, vacuum packs and bags with valves. Each of these packages has its benefits and drawbacks, but the main goal is always to preserve the freshness of the coffee.
However, there are two types of packaging you will find most often on the store shelf: vacuum-sealed packages and nitrogen-flushed bags with valves. Which of these is better for maintaining the delicious, fresh-roasted aroma and flavor of coffee? Well, we’ll tell you. But first, let’s talk a bit about what we mean when we say nitrogen-lushed and vacuum-sealed.
Nitrogen is an inert gas that is both odorless and food-safe. It is also abundantly available. Roughly 78% of the earth’s atmosphere is made up of nitrogen gas, so it’s relatively inexpensive to produce. Nitrogen is also heavier than oxygen, the molecule that causes coffee and many other foods to go stale. So it turns out it’s a great gas to use to flush out oxygen from coffee bags that have just been filled with freshly roasted coffee. A quick seal of the bag with a one-way valve and you have a flavor- and aroma-saving package that will keep your coffee in great shape for when you’re ready to brew the perfect cup.
That’s a good question, for sure. Companies that nitrogen-flush their coffee use a one-way valve on these bags for one simple reason: Coffee off-gasses carbon dioxide for many days after roasting! If we seal the bag and don’t give the gas a path to leave, we will get coffee bag balloons, exploding your freshly roasted coffee all over the place. Nobody wants that. And remember we mentioned that nitrogen is heavier than oxygen? This is important because when all the carbon dioxide — which contains oxygen molecules — starts coming off the beans, it gets pushed out of the bag first. The fact that the valve is one-way means that oxygen can’t get back in.
When coffee is vacuum-sealed, manufacturers remove the air and, thus, oxygen from the coffee bag to protect the flavor and aroma of the coffee; this is the same goal as with Nitrogen-flushed bags. But there is one key difference. With vacuum-sealed bags, manufacturers need to wait for the coffee to off-gas before they vacuum seal the bags. It can take anywhere from 24 – 48 hours for coffee to complete most of its CO2 off-gassing, and during this time, the coffee is exposed to oxygen and going stale. Some manufacturers have devised ways to get around this, including roasting into large super sacs that have one-way valves that allow the coffee to gas off for a few days before being vacuum packaged, but this is the exception rather than the rule.
You can argue the merits of both processes for preserving freshness, but we think the nitrogen-flushed method is the clear winner. That’s why we use this method for our coffee packages. Your coffee gets bagged right out of the roaster, and the one-way seal allows all the freshness-damaging carbon dioxide to leave the package while keeping the aroma and flavor of the coffee in.
Not convinced yet? Next time you’re shopping for coffee, pick up one of each type of bag and taste to see which you feel preserves the coffee’s freshness better. Leave your test results in the comments below.
If you’re wondering about kind of quantities to order for your crowd size, here are some recommendations>>
For all options, view our full wholesale case pricelist
Shop online and choose the case pack unit of measure, or call in your order to our Customer Service Team at 774-776-7366 M-F 9-5 EST. We recommend leaving 10 business days for your order to arrive, but check with our team for a personalized shipping estimate. We also offer expedited shipping if you’d like to have things arrive more quickly.
Use a festive tablecloth and a string of lights or greenery to make it eye-catching. Organize products neatly and re-purpose shipping boxes turned upside down under a tablecloth to create vertical space to showcase products. Order our table signs, posters, olive oil gift tags and brochures to share information and draw people in. We even offer authentic and inexpensive burlap coffee bags to display.
You can raise funds for special projects, trips or activities by marking up your products 25% to 40% of your wholesale unit cost. Round up to the nearest dollar to help cover your costs and make giving change easier. Examples of reasonable prices are: $8 for 12oz bags of coffee, $10 for 1lb bags of coffee, $4 for chocolate bars, $5 for tea, $15 for olive oil and $7 for cocoa. Remember to tell folks what you’re raising money for — they’ll love being able to gift shop and help your cause! Sell multiple items at slightly reduced prices to help encourage more sales. An assortment of chocolate bars tied with a ribbon makes a decadent but affordable gift!
You know that fair trade is important for our global community, and now is a great time to tell shoppers why it matters. Edit these Customizable bulletin inserts and e-bulletins/newsletters to promote your sale at services or in an email blast.
Try this example wording: “Give gifts that give more! Join us for our Holiday Sale [insert date, time and location] Give fairly traded, organic gifts this holiday season. Equal Exchange products are sourced from small-scale coffee, tea, cocoa and olive oil farmer co-operatives worldwide and profits from our sale go towards [insert your group, committee or reason for the sale here]. Through fair trade, farmers are better able to support their families, protect the environment and strengthen their communities.”
Put up these free posters announcing the sale and use these new colorful mission posters by your sale table to drive the points home! The meaning behind the products you sell will really set them apart from other options– so don’t be afraid to talk about it! Our talking points and brochures also help make it easy!
Who are your favorite foodies? Gift them with some of our newest products from the Middle East. They’re not easily found in the US and they support small-scale Palestinian farmers. Succulent Medjool dates, hearty couscous (maftoul) and smokey freekeh (along with recipes showing how to use them) make memorable, quality presents!
If you’d prefer to give a gift that’s boxed already, we also have a Palestinian Farmers’ Box that comes with 4 products from the West Bank.
Know people who like to bake? Imagine giving them “Bakers’ Baskets” filled with organic pantry staples like Equal Exchange baking cocoa, bittersweet chocolate chips and virgin olive oil. Purchased by the case, those 3 products would be less than $22 per gift! Maybe they’ll bake something for you as a thank you!
Mothers, sisters and women who appreciate good coffee and social justice will delight in beautifully packaged bags of Mama Tierra , Sisters Blend and Congo Coffee Project . Each tells a story and celebrates women. Gift them individually or as a trio! 5 coffee trios with 3lbs of coffee for under $27 each is pretty awesome! In addition to being fairly traded and organic Mama Tierra and Congo Coffee both have an extra bonus – a built-in donation for community development work in Oaxaca, Mexico and the Panzi Hospital in the DR Congo.
Another one of our favorite ideas for affordable gifts for your neighbors, kids’ teachers, or mail person is bite-sized chocolate minis in gift bags you assemble yourself. Buying in bulk gives you the best price.
Call customer service at 774-776-7366 M-F 9-5 EST or email firstname.lastname@example.org
African American farmers have surmounted all kinds of obstacles in order to keep their family land and make farming profitable. We talked to Shirley Sherrod about the radical structure of New Communities Inc. — the first community land trust in the U.S. — and their hard work over fifty years in the poorest, most rural counties in Georgia.
Visit New Communities at www.newcommunitiesinc.com to learn more, or contact Shirley Sherrod at (229) 430-9870.
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Everyday grocery store items like bananas, chocolate, coffee. These are global commodities. They pass through a lot of people’s hands on their way from the fields to your grocery cart. This is The Stories Behind Our Food podcast, the podcast where expert guests share insider knowledge about every step along the process. I’m Danielle Robidoux — and I’m Kate Chess — and we’re your hosts.
Hello and welcome to The Stories Behind Our Food. I’m Kate and I’m here with Danielle and we are privileged and pleased to be here with Shirley Sherrod today, who is a civil rights activist, community organizer and a former Georgia state director of rural development for the United States department of agriculture. Thank you so much for taking the time.
Thank you and good to be with you today.
All right, so one of the reasons we’re recording this podcast right now is New Communities Inc. has an important anniversary coming up this October. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is?
Yes. it was 50 years ago that we came up with the idea of trying to develop a community land trust. And so here we are 50 years later using that model and others are using the model and we want to celebrate the first 50 years .
I mean, clearly there’s so much history on this land and so much history, 50 years of history within this organization. I heard some really amazing facts about New Communities that I want to share with our listeners who may not know what you do and what you have done. I’ve heard that it was the first community land trust in the U S and also that, you know, go ahead.\
I was going to say that’s exactly right.
That’s really impressive. I’ve also heard that it was at one time the largest tract of land owned by African Americans in the whole country. Is that one, right?
Yes, that’s correct too. The, on the original land, of course we lost it in 1985 but we had about 6,000 acres of land, which was about the size of the state of Rhode Island.
Oh my goodness. Wow. Wow. So how did that … tell me about, can you tell us about a little bit about the history of New Communities — and I don’t want to dwell on difficult topics, but also about how it was thwarted.
Yeah. So my work and I work in the area, started with the Civil Rights Movement. And one thing we realized as we were helping people to exercise their rights, many times we’d have people come into the meeting and they’d been kicked off the land they were living on. So we, from that we started trying to develop a solution to dealing with it because sometimes we get a whole family, at a meeting we had to find somewhere for them to live and so forth. So we actually sent a group to Israel during the summer of 1968 to look at how Israel was resettling its people looking at the kibbutz model and so forth. And they came back and we started meeting and decided to develop something where we could get land, hold onto it and not lose it. So that’s how the whole idea of developing a community, land trust, communal ownership of the land. So that we wouldn’t lose it.
Yeah. So what happened next?
Well, we faced a lot of discrimination, once we got our … we had a, we had — actually, we found the land. We had a one year option. We got a grant from the government to plan this community. But what happened was that local opposition surfaced and sometimes they would shoot at the buildings we were in. They started the political opposition to what we were doing. So that by the end of the year of planning where we had planned every aspect of this new community, where industry would be located, what kind of farming we would do, the kind of educational system we would have and so forth, and how we would live and work with each other. By the end of that year though, the government, OEO, the office of economic opportunity didn’t feel politically, they could actually give the major grant they had talked about giving. So we, we actually faced foreclosure for a couple of years and, and family got better financing around 1973 and we were farming.
What were you growing then?
We were growing peanuts, corn, soybeans, sorghum. We had a herd of cattle. We had the 75 brewed sour operation. We were known for the cured meats that we had. We grew lots of vegetables and and we worked in organized with farmers in the area to try to get them elected to committees that affected the farming in those counties.
The diversity and scale of this is just mind blowing to me. I mean, it’s so, so impressive and I don’t know, I mean I’m just stuttering here because I can’t imagine the organization that this must have required. And it sounds like there were a lot of people involved as well. Can you talk about how you came to be involved and who the other people were that were participating in this?
Well, my work, as I said earlier, it started with the Civil Rights Movement and it was after my father had been murdered. My father was murdered by a white farmer who wasn’t prosecuted, even though there were witnesses and I made a commitment on the night of his death that to stay in the South and devote my life to working for change. So that’s why — initially it was the Civil Rights Movement and then we moved on into economic development and trying to make life better for people who had recently been allowed to eat in restaurants or integrate schools or register to vote. You know, what was the next step? The next step was involved with trying to make life better where they were living.
And so I do a lot of organizing work with Equal Exchange and I’m hearing just around that there is a growing interest for racial justice specifically within food. And I was just wondering kind of, you know, you being involved in this work, what does collaboration look like with other organizations or other folks who are doing different but maybe similar work and maybe them looking at you as a role model because you know, you folks have been around for so long.
Well, let me say to you, without being able to collaborate with groups around us, and then especially with those who were not from this area, I can go back to legislation where we were trying to get a minority — it started out being a Black farmers’ rights group — rights legislation passed. It’s known as the minority farmers rights act now, but we had to look to white groups in the Midwest and in the North to help us eventually get that legislation passed. Now everybody’s benefiting from it now, but it was really because of Black farmers. I can also talk about the days when we couldn’t get into local markets and we had to look outside of the area. We partnered with Red Tomato and, and, and even Ben and Jerry’s ice cream company, actually arranged to buy pecans from, from our farmers to help with the problem of Black land loss. So without the collaboration and the help from group outside of this area, many of the things we’ve been able to do, we would not have been able to do in those earlier years. Things are a little different now. We get a little more cooperation. Back when I was trying to find a place to get pecans processed for Black farmers in the 90s, I couldn’t find anyone, even with us paying them to do them. But today that that has changed and New Communities, our project is able to actually contract out some of the value-added work that, that, uh, we, uh, we are doing.
So we talked about the, and then we talked about — Danielle just asked you about what you’re doing now, but what, what happened in between, when you lost these grants, when you were — I mean, I was gonna say a word that I probably shouldn’t say on air, but yeah. When you were the unfortunate, you know, when this discrimination happened and you lost the money that you had expected, then what? How’d you get to where you are now?
Yeah. So we had all of these major plans and couldn’t implement any of them because we didn’t have a way to, to get the financing to do so. But, so we started farming. Now, even with that, we couldn’t go to USDA for the loans that were being offered to other farmers, mainly white farmers. So we had to look to, again, organizations and groups outside of the area to get the financing to do the farming. And we were doing quite well. We could, we could from 1973 until the drought started in 1976 we could farm, we could make the money to pay the land notes and we could expand the farming operation. We couldn’t build the housing and do all of the other things we had planned to do, but we could hold onto that land. And then we ran into a drought followed by second year of drought. And it was at that point we decided we had to try to go to Farmer’s Home Administration to get an emergency loan. Like all farmers were doing. Well, what they said to us is, you’ll get the — the County supervisor said, you get a loan over my dead body. And we ended up having to complain to Washington. They sent people down to go with us to the local office to get the application. Would have been good if they had stayed to help us through that process because it took three years and three years with more droughts and not the proper input for the products was just too much. Now also in between there when we had the money and before the droughts, sometimes we would order liquid fertilizer and wouldn’t know until the crop was up that, that, that was something wrong with that fertilizer. It forced us to start pulling a sample from every delivery we had to the farm. Because many times we were not getting what we ordered. So —
so you were being sabotaged, is that what you’re saying? Like they’re sending you bad fertilizer on purpose?
Sending bad fertilizer on purpose and then even taking the crop in the peanuts for example, the grades would be much less than what we knew the grades we should have been. But what could you do? You have to try to work within that system. But anyway, when we got an emergency loan, it wasn’t what was requested. They would not find this irrigation for us and then they require a lien on all available assets. And once they got a lien on everything we had, then they could engineer the foreclosure. So in 1985, we lost everything and in fact they — our assets were worth about four and a half million at that point. They sold it to someone out of Atlanta for one million dollars and then three weeks later let him borrow 950,000 of that. Then he dug holes and pushed all of our buildings over in them getting rid of every trace of us on that property.
This is so disheartening to hear and I can’t imagine what it would be like to live through. That said all of this local opposition and you still feel these ties to Georgia, to the South. Can you talk about what that’s like?
You see when you –like I said earlier, I made a commitment to stay and I made a commitment to not just stay here, but to stay here and fight to try to make it better. So you work with people in those communities and you work with anyone else who can help make that make, make some of the changes that are needed in this area so that life can be better for all of us. And every now and then you find someone who’s, who’s from the area who also want to work with you to help make it different. You know, I ran into that one … I had a white farmer that come to me in ’86 to ask for help with saving his land. In the end I did that and then when I became state director of rural development, Breitbart tried to take that situation and turn it around to make it appear that as a government employee, I refused to help a white farmer. The help I gave to that farmer was 24 years earlier. But that white farmer — unlike many of the white farmers I’ve worked with through the years — stepped forward to say what I had done to, to help him and his family and save the day for me with that.
Gotcha. Wow. Do you feel like there are — to me this, this project has specific resonance for Black farmers due to land insecurity and all of the, the forces of discrimination and working against Black people, people of color specifically. Do you feel like there are young farmers coming up, young farmers of color who are interested in this work today?
There are, but a different kind of agriculture. That’s why it’s been so difficult to get young African American farmers interested. They saw what their grandparents and their parents dealt with, dealing with the system through the years and wanted no part of it. Now I have said to them all through the years, “you know, they have machines to pick cotton these days so you don’t have to worry about picking cotton.” But what I’ve pushed is — “you know, people need to eat so you don’t have the acreage to compete with the big cotton farmers, the big peanut farmers or the big corn farmers. But you can grow the food that we eat every day and work together to market that to people in your community, to people in other, say Atlanta, for example, or even to school systems that want to serve locally grown food.”
And that’s something people are, are excited about?
Yes. We, we have a group of women who are working — see, when I first started this work, back in the 60s, uh, it was the men who ran the farm. The women did a lot of work there but you didn’t really see them. But there are women who have stepped up and they, you know, they are farming. They’re young people. We are looking at developing an agro-tourism trail. So we looking at things that will actually help bring in more income so that those who are on the land and, and need to pay taxes and need to make a living there and those who want to try to come into the area and farm, will find a space to be able to do that .
Maybe — thank you so much for that. Maybe taking a step back to, the … obviously there’s such a rich and inspiring history of New Communities. What does the, how has the evolution of what New Communities used to look like and what it’s kind of transformed into now, because I’m kind of thinking are, what types of things did you grow then and what types of things are you growing now? And then also I read on your website that there’s a retreat center. And so I don’t know if that’s related to the agro-tourism, but that that does seem like an interesting way to kind of think about diversified income strategies. If, you know, there are challenges as a farmer and being able to compete with a really big market and big farms around.
Yes. So back in the, in the 70s, we, for example, we were growing three and four hundred acres of peanuts and you know, four and five hundred acres of soybeans. But we don’t have that acreage at this point. We have 1,608 acres. It’s a prime piece of property. So today we can’t do that large scale farming. And I’m not sure we even want to do it anymore. As I explained earlier, we’re trying to take our farmers into a different direction. So, when you go out to the property now, that we currently have, you will find Pecan Grove,when, when it was purchased, there were 85 acres of trees that were almost a hundred years old. We added another 115 acres to that, uh, of young trees. And you find satsuma oranges. Uh, this is a crop, as they found more and more problems with growing oranges in Florida that production is moving more into Georgia. So not only are we growing them, but we also having — bringing our younger farmers in and other farmers in to look at what we’re doing so that we can spread that around the region. We have, muscadine grapes. Our goal —
Are those the big ones. Are those, those really big, those big grapes? Sorry to interrupt you. I got excited.
Yes. So we have some for eating and our goal is to add another 12 acres for wine-making. So we eventually want to have our own wine. There is , we also grow vegetables from time to time. There is an 85 acre lake on the property. There are cabins on the property. We actually have a master plan. There’s about 600 acres of wooded land. We looking at that for recreation. With the cabins there, we arranged for people to be able to come and stay there. There is, we — our goal is to add more of them. Eventually it takes a lot of money for for that kind of thing to happen. There is a 13,000 square foot antebellum house on the property. This property was once owned by the largest slave owner and the wealthiest man in the state of Georgia. He had about nine plantations and this was one of them. He built, the original part of that house was built in 1851. It was restored many times over the years, but the last time around 1998. The previous owner actually developed a system for paying for fuel at the pumps. So he had lots of money and put $3 million into restoring. That house is used for lots of meetings and so forth now. And weddings, it’s a beautiful, beautiful place. Uh, we feel that racial healing — it had a bad beginning cause it was a slave plantation. We actually have an ad where 150 slaves from that plantation were sold at the courthouse steps here in Albany, Georgia on December the 29th, 1859. But we feel, we can use that plantation to, to help train Black people on our history. The fact that they could go from a slave began into descendants of slaves. It’s so much you can talk about and deal with on that journey to where we are now. We, when we first acquired the land, we had what we called blessing of the land ceremonies. We did it for three years where we brought in, , the Lower Creek Indians, Hispanics, Black, white, Asians, and, and it was so educational for everyone ’cause each group with would bring the blessing from their culture. And you know, people learn so much during those sessions.
Yeah, that’s really powerful. A lot of folks say the problem that we have as Americans is that we don’t talk about our racial history. White people don’t want to hear about the past and sometimes Black people don’t either because it’s so painful and there’s so much blame to go around. Do you think people who come to visit this plantation are ready to learn?
Many of them are. Some we’ve had just wanna come and see. You know, once we acquired the property, there were white people located locally who could not believe we had gotten it first of all. And, I’ve gotten comments so many times lately, they’ll say, “Oh, y’all keep the grounds so beautiful.” It’s as if no one expected us to keep the place up. When we first acquired it, we allowed a group that deals with abuse, child abuse and sexual abuse and soforth, to have a fundraiser there. And they told us they wanted to put a tent up, in the end, they didn’t. The affair was beautiful. They sat at tables and chairs in front of that antebellum house for 500 people. Well, I want you to know before it was over, the police came and they told me they had to come because that was the second time being called. Now we way out in the country and uh, the closest house is quite some ways away, but one of the neighbors actually called the police and he — you can even hear, there was a band and this was — when the police came, he saw out of about 500 people that are maybe 20 Black people there. And I think he was shocked, but I think the neighbor was trying to stop us from being able to have anything there.
A fundraiser for abused children, like who could be against that?
Right, right. And later when we wanted to get an area around that house rezoned, he went before the County Commission to talk against the re-zoning saying that — one of the statements he made was that “Charles Sherrod is living there like a Black king,” where my husband and I have never stayed in not one of the buildings on the property. We live about 15 minutes away, you know? And we’re not trying to build anything for ourselves. IOur work through the years has been for others here in this area.
I’m just really inspired by everything that I’ve heard from you so far and I’m just kind of going back to — to me land is power and for this land to have such a history of kind of being, you know, started during the slave trade to kind of the work that you’re doing now is just really inspiring and, and kind of symbolic of the evolution of kind of how far we’ve come as a society. And obviously you’ve talked a little bit about some of the challenges that you’ve gone through doing this work for years and years. I’m kind of curious as to what are your, what are you right now, what are your most pressing challenges? Consider kind of where you’ve come from to where you are now? Because I don’t think, I don’t think obviously the challenges are, are different than they were, but there are still lots of challenges, right?
Yes. And the way we acquired this property was through winning a lawsuit and the Black farmers — blended our case rather, and the Black farmers’ lawsuit. We were awarded about $12 million. Should’ve been much more when you look at the amount of land we lost. But we’ve used that to acquire this property and we’ve been operating for about eight years. You heard me say we added pecan trees, you know, 115 acres. We put irrigation in and we are doing all of the things we need to do to try to expand and, and move more into profit making ventures. That takes a lot of money and the money from that lawsuit can’t last forever. So that worries me. I have sleepless nights because there’s so much we need to do. There’s so much we can do to not just do for New Communities, but looking at the region, we actually try to work in a 14 county area, bringing farmers along and bringing others along to try to make a better Southwest Georgia. That’s what we’re about.
You lost all this time, you lost all this money and you got a little bit of it back, but you’re worried — if I’m just like, to recapitulate what you’re saying here — you’re worried that it won’t last for you to do the work that you want to kickstart here.
Absolutely. That’s, that’s, that’s part of the issue here, now. We need to, we need to –we are, we’re organizing for example, pecan farmers. In fact, there’s a meeting coming up in a few days. And so having a process in sight for them or trying to figure out how we can all process together, how we can add value to, to the product, how we can get into markets. When, when the President talks about tariffs on China, we knew we would be hit hard. And anytime there’s something that affects larger growers, you know, we get the worst of it. So just trying to maneuver through all of that and figure out how we can hold on to the land we have and have others hold onto the land they have so that we make a better life for all in this area. And this is like your poorest area of the state of Georgia. There are so many persistently poor counties here, but it’s your largest, agriculture, you know, row crop, vegetable production area for the state.
Are there a lot of small growers in the area still or are they mostly been taken over by these big farms?
Still a lot of small growers and many of them have — we’ve lost a lot of land. We have lost a lot of land as Black land owners who inherited land from former slaves who worked so hard to get it. But we still have a good bit of land. So just trying to help those families who are still holding onto it, figure out how to make some money so that they can continue to hold on to it, because there’s pressure all around to get that land out of the hands of Black people.
And how many farmers do you work with?
We have about — around a hundred Black farmers in the region that we work with. Yes.
Are you still — that’s good. That’s good to hear. What happened — I know New Communities originally was built around this idea of collective ownership and I’m sure that got disrupted in the course of this 50 year history. Where are you at with that now? Like who technically owns the land? And then also I’m curious about like, do you still have hope for collective ownership as a model for, for Black farmers or other farmers?
Collective ownership is the way to go. When we purchased the land, we had to put it into — it’s still in the name of New Communities and we still operate as a community land trust. It’s just that once we got the money, we had all of these legal people trying to help us put together what was needed for today. But we’ve never stopped operating as a community land trust. And —
So, why is it that this is the way to go? Yeah, tell me more.
Yes, it’s a way to go. You know, when we came up with the idea originally we came up with that because we had so many — you know, there was so much heir property owned by Black people and that was one way to lose it. So we — and then people would make foolish purchases and ended up losing land. So that’s, that’s exactly the reason why we came up with the idea of collective ownership and having it so that people could get a longterm renewable lease on the land where their home was built and so forth, and then work together. You know, I’ve, I’ve said the farmers through the years, “back in the day when my grandparents were working, even with them, they work together as a family. But when they were, when there was one person on the farm who felt he could make it on his own, maybe he could. But today that’s just not possible, especially when you own 50 acres or 30 acres or even a hundred acres. It’s just not possible for you to, to do the things you need to do to be able to make the money you need to make, to stay there working alone.”
Yeah. So it’s, it’s really amazing, all the commonalities that farmers around the world have. Farmers around the country and farmers around the world facing instability related to the climate changing, droughts, like what happened to you folks in the 70s? Finding ways to diversify income and figuring out that they have to work together in order to keep what they have. It’s just like, it seems to me like you were ahead of the curve on so many things and you’re, you’re such a great resource for other farmers.
Yeah. I think back to those early years, , as we were involved in — see, people are so used to just going and work on a farm, not making any, any decisions. Not having any say but that was different at New Communities. We operated with committees. For example, there was a Farm Committee and that we had a Farm Manager cause we needed someone to lead this, and everyone understood when we are out there working, that Farm Manager had the last say. But we had a Farm Committee meeting every Monday night and the members consisted of everyone who was working on the farm, plus three members from the Board of Directors. So you had a say for the first time in trying to use your ideas or to, to have some input and moving forward. It was so different for our people. That was hard for folks to get it, early on.
Yeah. You don’t just — you’re not just a laborer. You are a business person as well. And I can, I can really see that you have gotten that figured out. What’s going on now? What’s going to happen in the future?
Well again, we, we don’t have the landholding that we had, that we’ve had, but that place is a special place for everyone. So the training that, you know, we have to do production agriculture for New Communities, ’cause we do need to make money in order to be able to stay there. But we can’t let — we can’t do that in an area where there’s so much need and not think about others. So we are bringing everyone else along with us. We also see it as a place for racial healing. I can’t stress that enough. There’s a special feeling when you go out there on that property. That’s why I encourage people to come, you know, come and just walk those grounds. That place can be used to try to bring us together where we’ve been so separated in the past. And then young people, they have no clue of what their history is. We have to connect to the land again. And that’s one place where that can happen. And as we connect them to the land there at New Communities, we can also get them out into and, and on land in the region, in the area. You know, we can bring some pride back again to being land owners as my husband’s always saying, “land is power and all power comes from God.”
Yeah. Wow. Well, thank you so much for talking to us. Oh, another question I wanted to ask you is how can people get involved? If, if folks feel like this was as powerful as I feel like it was when they’re listening into this. , Equal Exchange is proud to offer pecans from New Communities. You can find them on our web store and buy them. But what, what would you say — people who are maybe not in the, in the Georgia area — what can they do?
We have a website and I’m sorry I can’t …
we’ll put everything in the show notes so we can give a link to your website there.
OK, and then, you know, a phone number. , it’s 229 … We use the Southwest Georgia Project phone number currently (229) 430-9870. We welcome, we need all kinds of help. We need all kinds of skills here and we want everyone, we want people from all over the country to feel this is a place they can come to and have an experience that they won’t have anywhere else.
So people can just give you a call?
Surely. Yes, yes. I’m here every day. You know what they say, I’ll be 72 and in November and I just didn’t think I’d still be working, but I have some new energy now.
Well you are just full of ideas and stories and it’s been such a pleasure to talk to you and I’ve learned so much. Really. Thank you for sharing the story with us.
Thank you, Shirley.
And happy anniversary.
Oh, thank you.
Thanks for listening to The Stories Behind Our Food, a podcast by Equal Exchange, Inc., A worker-owned cooperative. Love this episode? Please subscribe, rate and leave a review. Be sure to visit equalexchange.coop to join the conversation, purchase products and learn more about small scale farmers and the global supply chain. This episode was produced by Gary Goodman, with hosts, Kate Chess and Danielle Robidoux. Join us next time for another edition of the Stories Behind Our Food.
“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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What will you do to to make Halloween fair for all? We’re eager to see the equitable and creative ways you and your friends and family celebrate this October. Enter our Fair Trade Halloween contest on Instagram. We’ll be awarding a frighteningly delicious — and fairly sourced — assortment of full sized Equal Exchange bars to three winning entries. Just follow @equalexchange, tag us in your post and use #FairTradeHalloween!
What are we looking for? Carved pumpkins and other spooky decor. Your costume or your kid’s costume (or your pet’s costume!) A recipe using fair trade ingredients. As long as it’s got a Halloween theme, we want to see it!
All entries must be posted by 11:59 PM EST on 11/04/19 to be considered. By entering, you affirm that you are 18 or over and a resident of the contiguous United States and the District of Columbia. Only one entry per household. Equal Exchange employees and their dependents are not eligible to win.
Entries must follow and tag @equalexchange and use the contest hashtag, #FairTradeHalloween. EE reserves the right to disqualify any entry deemed offensive, inappropriate or otherwise unsuitable.
Our judges will choose their favorite three entries that adhere to the rules, and we’ll contact winners by direct message. Winners will have seven days to claim their prizes by providing a mailing address (not a PO box) in the contiguous US. We’ll ship prizes via UPS Ground.
Equal Exchange is the administrator of this promotion. It is not sponsored, endorsed or administered by, or associated with Instagram.
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.
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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.)
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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.
Interview by Jennifer Pruess, Equal Exchange
Wrapping up Portland’s Early History, Diving Into Roasting, and Pondering the Future with Todd Caspersen
With Todd (Todd Caspersen, Director of Purchasing and Production), we reach the final stretch in our blog series concerning Equal Exchange’s early Portland history. We had a truly engaging conversation covering activism, inclusion, proposals, Portland’s coffee culture, and building a roaster. And not just any roaster, a 1986 Roaster Probat from Germany.
Todd: Have we met before?
JP: I think so, but it was briefly. I’ve been back to West Bridgewater, at company retreats, and up at SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) in Seattle. So, I think at one of those events, we have met.
Todd: How long have you worked at Equal Exchange?
JP: Over five years.
JP: Yeah! I started off in the warehouse here in Portland and then I transitioned into doing a combination of warehouse and customer service, then DSD (Direct Store Delivery) . DSD is what I’m currently doing. I also do demos and help with special events like hosting folks here in our office.
Todd: You’re the DSD for New Seasons?
JP: Yep! One of them. There’s three people on my team doing DSD to New Seasons Market, local co-ops, and stores.
Todd: That’s funny. I use to do the DSD there. Many, many years ago.
JP: Right after this interview I’ll be doing a full day of DSD at New Seasons. Anyways, that’s who I am. And for some context as to why I wanted to sit down and talk with you, since being here for the last five years and getting to know the many nodes of our company, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back at Equal Exchange Portland and dig into our Oregon history. I think moving out West was a big deal for Equal Exchange at that time, similar to the decision of owning roasting.
There were risks involved with these decisions yet it was also an exciting time for the company. Luckily, there’s still plenty of people for me to connect with in this journey of revisiting our story. As I was talking to Tom (Thomas Hanlon-Wilde, Executive Director of La Siembra) and Wells (Wells Neal, Director, Equal Exchange West) your name popped up quite a few times. They recommend that I get your perspective on things and I agreed! Then from that initial conversation about Oregon, came the other story about how you helped to bring coffee roasting in-house with Beth Ann (Beth Ann Caspersen, Quality Control Manager).
So, here’s a typical first question: How did you get started at Equal Exchange? And what initially interested you about working out in Oregon?
When I was in college, I was a member of the Mifflin Street Food Co-op, which is in Madison, Wisconsin. I remember reading the Equal Exchange coffee bag and thinking huh, I bet somebody has the job that has to go buy coffee. I thought that that was pretty cool, I’m going to get a job like that. It didn’t even really occur to me to try and get a job at Equal Exchange. I just thought okay, I’m going to learn Spanish, I’m going to travel around and get a degree in Agriculture. Then I’m going to get a job doing something like these people must do. So, I did that, and then I went into the Peace Corps. I’ve known about Equal Exchange for a long time.
Then, I was living in California and my mom sent me an ad from a newsletter for the Resource Center for the Americas which was in Minneapolis and Equal Exchange was hiring for what they called an Organizer to work in Minnesota. I thought: great, I’ll go back to Minnesota. I’m originally from Minnesota, I’ll go back and I’ll live in Minneapolis. I applied for the job and I interviewed and whatnot. They said: “Great, we’re going to hire you, but we’re not going to hire you to live in Minnesota, you can come live in Massachusetts.” At that point I was sort of couch surfing in San Francisco so I said okay.
I went to Canton to work as a sales representative. I didn’t want to be a sales person, but my friends were like you need a job so just take the job and something else will happen after that. So, I moved from California to Massachusetts to work in the Canton office. I started in October of 98’ and by March of 99’ I was in Oregon. Right after I started there they had started the Oregon office, I think the summer after coming back from Nicaragua in 98’.
They were like: “Hey, we need more people. Do you want to go to Oregon?” That sounded like a great idea to me. I didn’t have any particular attachment to Massachusetts or New England. So, I moved to Oregon. That’s sort of my spiel about how I got started.
Move out to Oregon and do what exactly?
Do sales, do whatever basically. Go make Equal Exchange successful in the West. It was a great time, me and Tom. Tom rented an office in Gresham, which was a horrible place, but whatever. I could take the train into town and we just started selling coffee.
Describe a typical workday for you at that time.
We always had service calls. There was an existing customer base, so we would do all of the customer service for existing customers. Then we would do cold calls essentially to anybody and everybody that we could.
Right when I got out there, Wild Oats had been sold. We knew they were going to open a new grocery store chain and New Seasons was starting. We got Markets of Choice, it wasn’t called Markets of Choice, but we picked that up and we started doing DSD to the co-ops in Oregon. In the beginning, it was a bunch of sitting in the office, doing a bunch of calling people and taking orders, then processing those orders to get them shipped out from the east.
Eventually, to better serve the Portland area we were like let’s get inventory. At that point, I rented a house on Hassalo Street (Portland, OR) that had a big garage. I had a pickup truck and I would go to the UPS terminal on the north side of Portland. I would pick up pallets of coffee in my truck and take them to my garage. I would keep all of the inventory in my garage and drive around and distribute the coffee from my garage!
Really? Working like seven days a week then?
Six days a week. So, it was a lot of office stuff to begin with and then it was delivering stuff. Then we hired Roxanne (Roxanne Magnuson of Life Source Natural Foods) and the team got a little bit bigger. We hired Beth Ann (Beth Ann Caspersen, current Quality Control manager for Equal Exchange) but it was traveling to accounts, delivering coffee, cold calling people, and that was pretty much it. It’s not that much different from what folks do now it’s just bigger.
You just mentioned a few accounts you worked with back then. Do you remember what key accounts were back then?
We had Food Front Co-op (Food Front Cooperative Grocery), there were some grocery stores that weren’t New Seasons, and there were smaller grocery stores we’d deliver to.
We’d also go up to Seattle. Bulldog News was the first food service account that we actually landed. I was super excited when we got that. I don’t know if you know, but food service accounts are very difficult accounts to get, so that was a good one and we use to be at a restaurant called Higgins. They were slow food folks and we sold them coffee for a while. We had Marcos Café in Portland that we serviced, I think that’s still one of our customers.
Yes, Marcos Café is still one of our customers.
I also had the whole Southeast: California, Idaho, the whole nut out there. Tom and I were trying to open up stuff there for a long time. Those were busy days just dealing with the accounts that we had. Then when we added new things like New Seasons Market and Nakata (Town and Country). They were both building stores and growing fast…yeah, that’s a long time ago.
Sounds like things were really busy even to the point of needing more people than you had at the time. With that being said, what were some of the bigger challenges for Equal Exchange working in Oregon? Were people not really familiar with the company yet or the Fair Trade movement?
I mean it was just trying to grow a business, managing a business, adding people, trying to figure out what is good business and what’s bad business. Those years were years of high growth for Equal Exchange. You’d go around and tell people about Fair Trade coffee and they’d have no idea what you’re talking about. I mean, it was really the beginning of specialty coffee.
Those were sort of years of really aggressive growth. I think in 2001 we hit ten million dollars and so we were growing by millions of dollars every year. It was really just managing growth, customers, and volume. Getting stuff shipped out to us, where to put it, and what to do with it. Do we get a bigger space? Why are we living in Gresham?! Those kinds of things.
In the end, I decided that if we didn’t roast coffee then we couldn’t compete. If we don’t roast, this is going to be bad for us. There was no way that Equal Exchange was just going to let us build a roaster in Portland by ourselves. Everything was back in Canton (Canton, Massachusetts). I set out to convince everyone that we should do that and I had to move back to the East. Plus, I wanted to be closer to the green coffee and buying. They didn’t hire me to go come back and roast coffee. They hired me to go back and work in the purchasing side of things.
That was definitely one of my questions. Considering what a vibrant coffee culture we have in the Pacific Northwest with small batch roasting being a strong theme here, I’ve always wondered about what drove that decision to roast out East as opposed to the West.
It makes sense that roasting should happen where the green beans are landing. Especially with the operational undertaking of owning roasting and the space needed to do something like that on the scale that Equal Exchange exists on.
Well, the board, the management, everything was in Canton and no one knew how to roast coffee. It wasn’t a for sure go, but, basically, I was like if we don’t roast than this isn’t going to work. That was sort of my own personal agenda. I got hired to buy green coffee first and then once I was doing that I was working with Mark Souza (Procurement for Equal Exchange) and Rosario Castellon (former Producer Relations Coordinator for Equal Exchange as well as an activist during the 1970’s Nicaraguan Revolution), asking what are we buying and where are we buying it? It was also a lot of systems work.
You asked about challenges and I think those are some of the same challenges we have today: systems. How do we work systems? How can we improve systems? How come different people do things differently? Why do you fill out the green paper and what happens to the green paper? We spent a lot of time doing systems development stuff and while I was doing that, we were having someone else roast our coffee. Everything was going well, but it was clear to me that you needed to be involved with the coffee. There seemed to be a lot of money on the table that we could take by roasting it ourselves and it would just be way better and cooler to do it.
We put a proposal forward and that ended up turning into the Build, Buy, Roast Proposal. We were renting. We were like: “Can we rent and roast coffee?” We can’t roast coffee here in Canton and we were growing like crazy. What should we do? That led to buying the place in West Bridgewater (MA).
Aha! So that’s how you got that conversation started about bringing coffee roasting in-house and making the decision to do so?
Can workers of Equal Exchange still look at that original proposal? The Build, Buy, Roast Proposal?
I was looking for it on one of my computers. I have a couple old computers opened up, but I couldn’t find it on the computers that I have. I’m sure that Rink has it because he has a huge file cabinet and actually, the first proposal was called The Means of Production Proposal. Most of the argument was not economic it was more of including production workers in our coop. It was more of a worker owner coop democracy Marxist argument which turned into let’s go buy this because we’re going to make money, but that was the basis of the original argument.
Wow, interesting stuff! I love hearing about this. So, back to Oregon. What was the scene like then? The coffee scene and the Fair Trade movement in Oregon while you were working there?
When I first started it was really nascent. It was not like it is now right? You had your sort of food coops, grocery stores. There wasn’t Whole Foods, there wasn’t fancy grocery stores, there wasn’t cafes on every corner. It was more of what you would think of as traditional diners type coffee. There was a couple nice cafes, but nothing at all like it is now.
In that time, Duane Sorenson, the ex-owner of Stumptown (Stumptown Coffee) had just started Stumptown and was roasting in this little place. It was kind of a café but more like a little roastery and he was having a lot of success. You were just beginning to see the beginnings of people roasting with a lot of smaller roasters. The traditional industry was disaggregating and you were having a lot of smaller roasters start to pop up. Starbucks was beginning to acquire some of the bigger roasters and specialty coffee was becoming way more popular.
One of the big things that started happening was all of the drive-thrus (coffee stands) that’s still kind of unique to Oregon, the number of coffee drive-thrus. We had an account on the coast that was owned by these two women, Tom would remember what their names were, but that was all the rage. Coffee People was all over the place, that’s an old brand that I think got bought out, but I remember those little drive-thrus were really the hot ticket. I was looking around and I was like if you don’t roast your own coffee you’re going to have a really hard time competing or even just being real in the coffee scene. Watching Stumptown just really convinced me that we had to do this.
Portland has changed a lot for sure.
A lot a lot.
Switching over to the internal sentiment regarding bringing coffee roasting in-house, what was the general sentiment within Equal Exchange about being out in Oregon and branching out like that?
I don’t know, you’d have to ask them! I think people were excited about it. It was exciting to have another office in another place. We were growing all over the country really. I think it may have been a little bit weird to have us be out there and be worker owners. There was no Zoom meeting, you’re on the phone shouting through the phone, you’re sending faxes back and forth. In some ways, we were way more isolated and more of an idea. Like the whole West Coast office was like yeah, we got something out there, but you didn’t have the same level of communication or integration. We were just kind of out there doing our thing. We would check in with Rink or whoever it was we had to talk to and that was pretty much it. We weren’t really that involved with other people, it just wasn’t like that.
Were worker owner meetings happening regularly?
Yeah, there were meetings and you could go to board meetings, you could call in, it was just a very different experience you know?
I’m trying to remember how many people actually worked at Equal Exchange at that point. I think it was probably more like when I started, maybe 20 people in the whole thing. So, yeah, we had worker owner meetings, we elected board members. There was a lot less structure to everything. There was no real worker owner coordinator…now we’ve got committees and blah-blah-blah and processes, and all kinds of bureaucracy.
Are there any highlights for you with your work out in Oregon?
The Battle for Seattle! Which was a huge anti Free Trade WTO (World Trade Organization) protest. Do you know about that?
Yes, I was there too.
You were there too?
Yeah, the Battle for Seattle, man. I still have a teargas canister from that in our cupping lab! We also have one of the (protest) signs. We were giving out coffee in a church basement and we were a part of the whole riot. That was part of our messaging was that whole movement. We also brought coffee to the tree sitters in Eagle Creek. I climbed up to one of those tree sitting places, we were donating coffee to them at that time!
Those two things for sure and when we landed New Seasons Markets, Markets of Choice, and Vitamin Cottages. We were growing, it was a really exciting time of growth out there. It was fun! It was sort of Wild Westish in that way and because we were not here (Massachusetts) we were sort of free to do whatever we wanted. There wasn’t a whole lot of structure or supervision as long as we got accounts and took care of people. I remember the first August I was there, I made 350 cold calls!
Whoa! That is a lot of phone calls!
You’ve already mentioned this, but it sounds like you were the one to really get the conversation started around in-house roasting. So, how exactly did this conversation get rolling?
I moved back (Massachusetts), got involved in the green coffee purchasing side of things and just did that for a while, but I was pretty consistently thinking we have to roast coffee, we have to roast coffee, sort of beating that drum, talking to people saying: “We should do this, let’s do this.”
I remember the first day I got to Equal Exchange and I showed up and I asked: “Where is the roaster?” The answer was we didn’t have one. I couldn’t believe it! What? What do you mean you don’t have a roaster? It just seemed unreal to me and so when I came back I spent a couple of years just sort of talking it up and then eventually I wrote a proposal on it, on an electronic typewriter!
I can still see the thing typed out and called: The Means of Production. It was the proposal that we submitted to both the board and the worker owners. Eventually everyone talked about it and said it sounded like a good idea, but then it had to morph. We had to do more work and then it turned into Build, Buy, Roast which was a worker owner vote as well as a board vote.
It was a process. I think it took a little bit longer than a year before it was approved.
Who was working on the proposal with you?
We had a consultant named Willem Boot who runs Boot Coffee Consulting (of Boot Coffee Campus). He’s super well known now. He helped us speck out if you do x or y this is what’ll it’ll cost. He helped us come up with some economic scenarios and Rink was pretty involved in that proposal process as well.
I’m just sort of mystified with just the overall undertaking of a project and proposal like this. Especially considering that at that point, no one in the company really had much experience with roasting yet?
Well, we had Beth Ann. Beth Ann started working at Equal Exchange before I did and during that period Jonathan (Jonathan Rosenthal, co-founder of Equal Exchange) decided that she should learn how to cup coffee. She went off to apprentice with George Howell, who was a really well-known coffee guy back in the day who had these cafes called The Coffee Connection. That ended up getting sold to Starbucks.
Anyways, she apprenticed with him to cup and so she worked in his lab for free. She would roast his coffee, prepare the cuppings, clean it up, but she was an employee of Equal Exchange. It was kind of a weird arrangement actually, but we had a sample roaster. We did sample roasting and we had a little tiny lab with a couple of things. We were roasting coffee on a tiny scale. We still have the roaster that we started roasting samples on.
It’s not rocket science. It’s hard and there’s a lot to it. There’s a lot of science and a lot of alchemy to it, but people have been doing it for a super long time. I was convinced that we could do it, that I could do it and I convinced everyone else that it was a good idea. It was a big move, but it was fun and it was exciting and people wanted to do it.
Just like now. People want to roast coffee in the West. I mean, most of the people I talk to say that we should have a roaster here (in the West and owned/operated by Equal Exchange) because there is a physicality to it that is different than just moving boxes, when you’re engaged with the product. Even being a DSD Rep, you’re actually touching the product. If you’re just a sales person and you never touch a box or open a bag, you just sell it it’s just a theoretical thing, but when you’re actually involved in the chain it just has a different feeling to it.
Agreed. I recently took a trip to source and it had a similar impact on me. I felt like I could engage with the community at large concerning the supply chain, the farmers and producers that we partner with and in general, have a closer relationship with the products that we sell.
That being said, as a DSD & Demo Rep, I see that we still face steep competition because we are not a Portland centric roaster. Similar to how you were feeling when you were in Oregon observing that if we didn’t roast, we were going to have a hard time keeping our place in the marketplace. We can still be treated differently even when we are in stores every week merchandising product and building long-term relationships with our accounts piece by piece that the market we are advocating for depends on.
I think the thing about projects like roasting is that it’s big, it’s scary, and it’s exciting. So, once everyone is on board there’s this feeling when everyone is pulling in the same direction. It’s motivating, it’s galvanizing, it’s cool. We’re going to do this! It’s exciting to have a clear direction.
Like you said, there’s something about owning that part of the process. Logistically, it didn’t make sense for Equal Exchange to start the roaster in the West as it was so far removed from our products and production out East at the time.
Well, there was just no way that people were going to vote for me and Tom (to start roasting out West). There was just no way. It was too important of a move to just hand over to two kids three thousand miles away. They weren’t just going to write a check for however much the first roaster (was going to cost). I mean, I think the first project in the beginning was about a million dollars of stuff, maybe a little bit less. That just wasn’t going to be a thing (out West). I knew that to make it happen it had to be back here (West Bridgewater).
Right. Beth Ann mentioned that our roasters came from Germany? Tell me more about the process of acquiring the roasters and getting them running.
Once it (Build, Buy, Roast proposal) got approved, we had to go buy a building. There was a whole process around buying a building and a whole process around moving the workplace which is actually detailed in our bylaws about how far can you move, where can you move to. You can only move within a certain radius without a vote of who wants to move there. There was a whole internal process about where we were moving first.
Once we had the place, we hired some consultants who were mostly ex-Starbucks executives to sort of help us set things up, do the engineering work, get us permitted, stamped, improved, and help us decide which roaster to buy. We worked with Probat (Probat Burns Commercial Coffee Processing Equipment Manufacturer) and ended up with a traditional drum roaster. We thought that if we are going to buy a roaster, let’s not buy a cheap thing. I’m kind of like if we’re going to go buy a car, let’s buy a Mercedes not a Hyundai. We went out and bought the best roaster we thought we could buy and that turned out to be a 1986 Roaster Probat that was from Germany.
Probat brought it over, we got an old packaging machine from the York Pennsylvania Starbucks plant. So, our first packaging machine was a used packaging machine from York. And that was it. It seems like a big thing, but it really wasn’t. At that point you could walk into a coffee roasting company, say Stumptown for example, I think they had a small Probat and there they are roasting coffee. It’s not that complicated. And so we had a biggish machine and then a packaging machine which was actually more complicated than the roaster to some degree because it was sort of finicky.
The consultants came and we had a bunch of people bring the machine into the building. They set it up, plug it in, run all the gas, run the electricity, put everything together and then they left. I remember the first day Probat came. We went out for a week with the crew to California and roasted coffee at different coffee roasting places, had coffee roasting classes for a week, then we came back. Then everyone left. There we were with our machine and I remember we were all like: “Oh my god, what do we do now?”
We decided to roast a French roast. We turned it on and roasted a French roast, packed it up, and sold it! I can remember that day, turning the thing on. There were no consultants, there was no engineers, and we were like: “Let’s do it.” It was scary. Everyone thought we were going to throw it out or wreck it. I was like: “No, no, no, we’re going to sell this coffee.”
That’s a cool story to hear about the roaster landing and that our first coffee ever roasted was a French roast!
Sometimes when the worker owners bring proposals forward these days, it can be hard to tell what the general consensus is. Maybe because we are bigger, there’s more people and more insights. It’s nice to hear about a time when a proposal was brought forward that really brought together the worker owners and then went full steam ahead.
Well, we haven’t really done anything like that since. We have proposals about this and that, but not on spending a couple million dollars to go buy a building and machines. The kinds of proposals (now) are a different animal. Once people were in favor of the Build, Buy, Roast proposal it was exciting, it was a unifying activity. Plus there was a lot less of us right?
Right, around twenty or so worker owners?
We actually didn’t get the roaster running until 2005. So, I don’t know how many people worked at Equal Exchange at that time. It was more than 20, maybe 50 people. You’d have to ask someone else.
Well, it really was just a monumental moment in the history of Equal Exchange.
Those were the times. In those years where we had our first million-dollar month. I can remember when we had our first million-dollar month. I can’t remember what year it was, but I remember it was a big deal. That was exciting. Rob (Equal Exchange’s co-director) brought champagne and we toasted (the occasion). So, it was just an exciting time, those years from 1999 to 2009 were basically crazy mad growth, 25-30% a year.
Before NAV, we had Dynamics. In Dynamics, when I came back, there was a million of everything! So, the inventory, they just put a million of everything because we didn’t really use it, we’d do inventory by hand, you didn’t use it as an inventory system. It was just crazy, it was a whole different world back then.
As we move forward as a company from being Fair Trade Pioneers to Fair Trade Maintainers, so to speak, the movement has been established yet its intended standards have been watered down over recent years. With that being said, what current challenges do you think Equal Exchange faces as a company?
Well, I think the market is a big deal. The amount of money that is in the hands of our competitors is outrageous. Like the amount of cash that is flowing into coffee and especially the specialty coffee sector is just…you can’t even count the zeros, but staying independent and staying at the size we are or even getting bigger is really complicated. Most companies would have sold out by now and been a part of a much bigger conglomerate that buys shelf space and does all of that (Equal Exchange has a Never Sell Out clause built into the business model).
I think that the environment in which we are talking is really crowded with ideas and there’s a lot of competing ideas. To some degree our success is that we’ve been so successful that everyone talks about farmers and how close they are to farmers. You’ve sort of lost your north star to some degree because so many people are saying they’re doing what we’re doing whether they are or not, that’s another question. You’re not the only guy in the room anymore going: “Hey, I have organic coffee or what do you think about organic?”
This is a part of the whole artisan food, local…like all of that happened during this time and now it’s everywhere. You go to Panera Bread which is owned by the same people that own half of the coffee companies in the world and you get “artisan” this, “local” that. It just didn’t exist like that. Now, in that environment, I don’t think we’ve found that new something that makes us that different. We are different, but it’s crowded. The space is crowded and there’s a lot of money. It’s really hard to compete and it’s really hard to keep your place.
We haven’t really grown, particularly coffee sales, in quite some time. We’ve kind of been spinning the same hamster wheel. So, how are you going to go from six-million dollars and now we’re at, depending on how you count, call it 60-million. How are you going to get to a 100? Where is the magic bullet? I don’t think we know yet.
It’s a crowded space and there’s so many ideas in it now. Before, it was not like that. People weren’t talking about where their coffee was coming from, they weren’t talking about the environment, they weren’t talking about local roasters. Now it’s so hard, it’s just a cacophony of sounds. People are very hyper focused on this sort of weird fetishisms about coffee and consumption. I think it’s hard to be in that environment and not have a true north star.
If you ask: “What are we doing?” And you ask ten different people (worker owners of Equal Exchange), you’re going to get a lot of different answers. Before, I think it was much clearer. I think everyone had a more shared vision of what was happening and I feel like we’ve lost that a little bit.
Well said. There’s a lot of truth and challenges to dig into the material you just presented. On that note, we will wrap up the conversation here for now. Is there’s anything else you’d like to add?
I’ve really enjoyed this opportunity to meet with you. Thanks again for sitting down and chatting with me about the early days of Oregon and the birth of roasting at Equal Exchange.