Episode 11: The Spicy Origins of Burlap & Barrel

Bowls of spices in a market

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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Episode Transcript:

Intro: (00:01)
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.

Danielle: (00:29)
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?

Ethan: (00:48)
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.

Danielle: (02:33)
What was your favorite ice cream title?

Ethan: (02:36)
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.

Kate: (04:47)
And what happened next?

Ethan: (04:48)
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.

Kate: (05:21)
How’d you find your way back to spices?

Ethan: (05:23)
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.

Ethan: (06:46)
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.

Kate: (08:28)
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?

Ethan: (08:40)
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.

Ethan: (09:23)
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.

Kate: (11:11)
How do you go about doing that?

Ethan: (11:13)
Yeah, good question.

Kate: (11:14)
How do you find those people?

Ethan: (11:14)
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.

Kate: (12:57)
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.

Ethan: (13:23)
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.

Ethan: (14:18)
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.

Danielle: (15:25)
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?

Ethan: (15:41)
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.

Ethan: (19:55)
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.

Ethan: (20:49)
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.

Kate: (21:56)
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?

Ethan: (22:24)
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.

Ethan: (23:31)
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.

Danielle: (25:22)
Yeah, sure. And maybe a fun question. What is your favorite spice?

Ethan: (25:26)
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.

Danielle: (28:33)
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.

Kate: (28:40)
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.

Ethan: (28:49)
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.

Kate: (29:01)
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.

Ethan: (29:54)
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.

Ethan: (31:35)
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.

Kate: (33:30)
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.

Ethan: (33:48)
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.

Danielle: (33:59)
Thank you so much, Ethan. And before we sign off, I want to ask you about your podcast.

Ethan: (34:05)
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.

Kate: (35:15)
Sounds delicious.

Danielle: (35:17)
Thank you so much, Ethan.

Ethan: (35:19)
Thank you.

Outro: (35:23)
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.

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