Episode 4: Farmers Sharing Knowledge for Better Chocolate — and Better Outcomes
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Intro: 0:02 Everyday grocery store items like bananas, chocolate, coffee, these are global commodities. They pass through a lot of people’s hands on their way from the fields to your grocery cart. This is the stories behind our food podcast, the podcast where expert guests share insider knowledge about every step along the process. I’m Danielle Robidoux and I’m Kate Chess. And we’re your hosts.
Kate: 0:28 Danielle and I are here today with Cristina Liberati, who administers grants that support farmer cooperatives as they improve their quality, productivity and financial stability. Cristina deals with an astonishing variety of people, small scale farmers in a number of countries, plus agronomists, tasting professionals, folks who work for the u s government and more. And all of these people are working toward the same goals. Let’s hear more about how that works. Thanks for joining us, Cristina. Thanks for having me. Your job is clearly very complicated. How would you explain to a stranger what it is that you do for a living?
Cristina: 1:03 Well, I’ll start with my job title. I am the grant projects manager at equal exchange. So, what is the grant projects manager do at equal exchange? There’s really kind of two scenarios. One of them is your average come to the office, write emails, the usual have meetings. The other scenario is I’m in the field visiting with farmer cooperatives and, supporting educational workshops or giving workshops. All of this is related to managing this grant project that we have.
Kate: 1:39 Can you tell us about the scope of the grant?
Cristina: 1:42 Yes. So it’s actually, we, we have in the past had more than one grant, but the one that I’m referring to mainly is the USAID. So that’s the U S agency for International Development Cooperative Development Program. So it’s a multi year project where we applied for funding to do special projects with our farmer cooperative partners in three countries originally, Ecuador, Peru and Dominican Republic. And we work on lots of different activities related to strengthening our cooperative partners.
Kate: 2:21 Is there anyone else involved in this besides equal exchange?
Cristina: 2:29 So USA ID has many different funds. One of them being the cooperative development program. And within the cooperative development program we were one of nine, grantees. So some of the other grantees include the land o’ Lakes International Development Program. Another group called National Cooperative Business Association, specifically their arm that does is international projects called Clusa.
Kate: 2:57 Cool. Yeah, that sounds like so much. It’s kind of hard to wrap my mind around. What is it like, I guess we can all imagine sitting in an office and answering emails. Some of us might do that ourselves, but what’s it really like? Can you describe what it, what it’s like when you’re visiting producers in Ecuador or Peru?
Cristina: 3:17 Sure. well first Ecuador and Peru are, are fairly different, but sure. Yeah. My mainly in a project activity would involve, you know, flying down there and that always takes longer than, and then you’d like to thank, but oh, depending on where you’re going, I’ll take one or two days to get to your destination. At this point, you know, we’ve had such great relationships with our cooperatives that we can kind of call them up and say, I’m arriving at the airport at this time. Will you come pick me up? And they’re great about that. Usually pick us up, we’d go visit the offices of the cooperative and say hello. And, and one thing you kind of forget when you work in a US based office is physical contact is almost uh, discouraged. But if you go to Latin America and you are saying hello to someone, especially if you haven’t seen them for a long time and you don’t do the kiss on the cheek, it’s actually offensive. So there’s a lot of kisses and hellos. And how are you and this time of year happy new year, happy new year old lasts at least to like February.
Cristina: 4:30 Usually there’s some kind of meetings scheduled. If, they have a processing plant. Say if I’m going to visit NORANDINO in northern Peru, they have a coffee processing plant. We usually kind of tour the plant a little bit or do a little walk around as things change. We’ve worked on project activities to implement, you know, kind of new kinds of laboratory equipment in, in a co op like Nora and you know, and so want to see how it’s working, chat with staff about how it’s going, say hello to folks and then sit down and have meetings specifically around what was your work plan for the project this year, how’s it going, how can we support you? Is there anything we need to troubleshoot? Then you usually go for a nice leisurely lunch, uh, in a place like, uh, where NORANDINO is Savi Che is the most popular lunch and you know, that’s also, it’s a working lunch. You kind of continue to update each other on what’s going on. We try to provide as much information as we can about what’s happening on the u s market side or with equal exchange changes that are happening here.
Cristina: 5:40 And then, I’ll oftentimes you will have a field visit either the same day or the following day where you go visit with individual farmers. And again, it’s part of, it’s just going there and sitting and having a chat. And some facetime and you know, accepting graciously whatever find beverage they offer you. In Peru, sometimes it’s Chicho, which is a fermented corn drink.
Cristina: 6:09 I was recently in Paraguay and they offered us ted today, which is a kind of herbal concoction that they serve cold and you drink through a straw. But the generosity of our farmer partners is always astounds me and they’ll, they will give you anything they have and a lot of times they have beautiful fruits and things from the farm that they offer you as well. And then you know, if we implemented specific project activities with that farmer, we talk about that, you know, if they tried, uh, you know, a new Pr, uh, compost or went to a workshop around how to improve their pest management of the bugs that were eating their crops. So we, you know, we talk about that and how, how it went and what they, what suggestions they might have. So that’s, that’s in a nutshell that, that could repeat itself over a couple of days. And sometimes I go and we do workshops. If we’re workshop coming up in Peru to train more people in a capitalization, education program curriculum that we have so that we can offer that education program to more cooperatives in the future.
Kate: 7:28 That’s such a great picture of a sort of daily process of what this might be like. Thanks for that. Just like as a basic 101, what is a producer co-op in the context of Latin America?
Cristina: 7:42 Yeah, so again, Latin America is pretty large and produce our co op could mean a lot of things. My experience is mainly with coffee and get cow small farmer, producer, co-ops in Peru and Ecuador and Dominican Republic. So but given that, I think there are some generalizations we can make, the most essential function that these cooperatives provide is purchasing the raw product that the farmers are producing.
Cristina: 8:12 And a lot of times they’re aggregating it and providing a service of a postharvest processing they call it. So taking the raw product and turning it into a semi-finished product for export. So in the case of cacao for example, it needs to be fermented and then dried. And often you have better quality control and if you do that for many farmers at once versus the farmers doing individually. So the co op serves that function and also they’re the ones out there looking for international markets and clients and you know they serve as the face of the farmers in the kind of international market at the same also they invest some money back into the co ops and services for the farmers. Sometimes that takes the form of like a health campaign where they have an optimologist come and fit people for eyeglasses and or a lot of times it involves them hiring a agricultural technicians to go and support the work on the farms on a daily basis. Just those are just some small examples.
Danielle: 9:24 I have a question specifically on scale and how big some of these cooperatives are. I know you work in a few different countries and kind of what’s the range of how many families are in each cooperative. And I don’t know if you have any opinions on like is there a too big or what’s like the right size for how many family farms are in the cooperative? What your thoughts are on that?
Cristina: 9:51 Yeah, it’s a really interesting question. I work with cooperatives that range from a couple hundred producers up to almost 10,000. Wow. And there are, it’s a big one, although in, you know, there’s a cacao co op in Ghana that has I think something like 80,000 members, I mean massive. So it makes, uh, some of the 10,000 member Coopa Look, look small. I wouldn’t say that there’s a right or wrong answer here. I think that each scenario provides different challenges and also different benefits. So when you’re really small, oftentimes the cooperative is like a tight knit family for better or for worse. Right. So, yeah, and it makes sense like if you love your family, but you need a little space from them sometimes. And in those scenarios, often if you are introducing a new technology or a new idea, it’ll be adopted by everyone pretty quickly. And that’s, as long as it’s a good piece of information, that’s a good thing. On the other hand, there can be a lot of infighting and politics that the organizations don’t always mature to the level where they can handle that. And so I think you have a lot of vulnerability at that size sometimes. They also, you know, might not be able to access the same kind of markets that a larger co-op would because they just aren’t producing at a scale that some clients find efficient to buy from.
Cristina: 11:28 But you know, there are successful co-ops at every size, I think. And the larger co-ops you’re able to, they often develop into multifunctional businesses. So they’ll have an arm that does part raw processing. Like they might have a factory where they turn the cacao into cacao powder. They might have their own bank or credit union that serves the members, but also the rest of the community. The challenge with those large cooperatives I’ve seen is they often lose contact with their membership. And so that’s risky. Also, it’s sort of the opposite of a tight-knit family. You just have this loose aggregation of folks that it doesn’t really matter to them that they are a member of this particular co-op. It’s just the one that’s everywhere, you know, it doesn’t feel personal anymore. Yes. Yeah, yeah. To talk about individual farms now, the farms that make up these are the farmers that make up these producer co-ops.
Kate: 12:27 One of the aims of this program, it sounds like focuses on quality. What our issues are about quality when we’re talking about organic farming.
Cristina: 12:38 Yeah. I think issues with quality can range from organic to nonorganic. some of the challenges specifically with quality for organic farmers are they can’t use the same chemicals to combat like insects and different diseases that, conventional farmers are able to access. And so sometimes they can be much more success susceptible to those things and that will, of course, affect your quality and your productivity. On the flip side, I think organic farmers tend to have more diversity of, of product and of, uh, crops within their farm. And that from a flavor perspective and a variety of perspective is usually a benefit. And so, you know, I work in part in,it’s kind of like the specialty good cacao, area and you have more diversity and interesting flavors that can come from organic farms usually then it conventional farm in. That’s a generalization.
Kate: 13:54 When you say diversity, you mean like they might be planting more than one variety will have this of cacao or different kinds of things other than cacao as well or both?
Cristina: 14:03 Yeah. And cacao has thousands upon thousands of varieties and it’s one of the most complex foods on earth in terms of variety of flavors. There’s like 6,000 aromatic compounds. Weight might be 600 beyond that a lot. Yeah. I’m, it’s up there with wine and coffee and those other products that people really like to save her and look for a flavor notes and having a different varieties of cacao on one farm can give you more complexity of flavor and also other crops are going to interact and, have an impact on what people call sometimes terroir, which is the taste of a place or a unique flavor of a product.
Kate: 14:53 I’ve heard that before. Referring to other kinds of products like wine. What is … are farmers … Is this sort of coincidence or is it something farmers are deliberately working to develop?
Cristina: 15:06 Often it’s just a circumstance. You know, you inherit a farm that’s got a mess of varieties and it can be a challenge because if you don’t know, you know, what those, what the potential is of those varieties. It, you know, what good is it to you. And also in terms of farm management, sometimes the trees aren’t planted in rows. They’re just kind of scattered all over the place. They’ve been pollinated by who knows what. And you have, you don’t know exactly what varieties you have. So it can be messy, but if you know what you’re doing, you can really benefit from, from that diversity and complexity
Kate: 15:51 People on the consumer end. And certainly, people in the middle, people who are buying these commodities have sophisticated ideas about what qualities are desirable or what tastes delicious or what can get the most money. Are Farmers included in those conversations.?
Cristina: 16:43 We talked a little bit about wine a second ago and that is, is a crop where farmers are very often included in those conversations. The products that equal exchange works with and as of yet we don’t work with wine but someday maybe. Yeah. Here’s to that! The answer is no. Farmers aren’t always included in those conversations. I’d take, coffee has come a really long way in that aspect and Equal Exchange was really a pioneer in that movement to include farmer’s in conversations about quality. And my office mate is the green coffee buyer and she was just looking at hundreds of reports of quality analysis that they’ve done in our lab here that she’s bringing down to Peru to talk to the farmers. About next week. So this is very much an ongoing thing. And in it’s been a lot slower, that development, but it’s happening now and I’d like to think our project has played some part in that.
Kate: 17:17 Yeah. What are, what are the advantages, just to break it down, why would a farmer who’s really good at growing plants need to know how the finished product is gonna Taste?
Cristina: 17:28 So a product like cacao is the prices generally determined by the New York Stock Exchange and not by the quality of the product that they’re offering. And having some knowledge about the quality of your product gives you a voice and power in negotiations around its value in a way that many farmers typically have not been included in before or given before.
Kate: 18:00 So how does it work? How do they, how do they get included?
Cristina: 18:05 Good question. Yeah, I think, first and foremost starting to ask the question, you know, oh, I didn’t know I could, you know, that there was more than one price for cacao. Our work has focused on in the project, really collaborating with some of the star co-ops in our supply chain who had already made some advances in this area too. Generally work at the Co-op level, but we worked with TCho chocolate in San Francisco to, uh, install little mini-factories, which we call the TCho calls, flavor labs at the cooperatives so that they can process small amounts of the Ra or the fermented and dried cow beans into chocolate or with or without sugar. That’s the way that most chocolate makers evaluate the quality of a product and make decisions about whether or not to buy. But many farmers had never even tasted their own beans and chocolate form. And so,
Kate: 19:07 wow. I just want to stop and think about that. That’s crazy.
Cristina: 19:11 Yeah, it’s a, it is a little bit mind-blowing, you know. So just even the gotten of leveling the playing field with the tools that are available was, was a huge step. And then from there it’s really sitting down at, at the table and tasting together and Cho and equal exchange. And our farmer producers got together a few times a year and we’re tasting chocolate or unsweetened chocolate together and trying to see if we were coming up with similar flavor characteristics and qualities and from there developing written documents that would help people speak the same language when they were discussing their results. So we worked together on a tasting form for Cocoa. And you know, related things to help people have, have a universal tool to look at and speak the same language. Yeah, that’s really inspiring. It’s easy to see how that can make a big difference.
Danielle: 20:20 Can I ask one question, thinking about some farmers for the first time tasting their own chocolate, is there any kind of funny experience that you can think of a reaction to that and you know, folks being excited or, wow, I didn’t know that, you know, when I was growing, could, you know how it tasted? I don’t know. I’m just interested in that like kind of reaction that they might’ve had to taste their own chocolate for the first time. It seems like it could really cool.
Cristina: 20:48 Yeah. You know it’s really fun, but in fun in the way that looking, I’ve, I’ve been, I’ve been a participant in tastings like this also, but often what we would advise the coops to do, or they came up with this idea on their own was create a chocolate and unsweetened chocolate made from beans that were processed really badly and one that was processed really well. And right away the farmers can tell the difference in the flavor and the quality of off, you know, uh, fermentation changes the flavor dramatically and it reduces the bitterness and the stringency of the cacao. And so if you don’t ferment properly, you taste that right away and you just want to spit it out. So and on the other hand, it really good, good cow. That is the process. Well, even without sugar is going to taste really nice. And so I’ve, I’ve been at workshops where they offer, you know, kind of a good example and a bad example, but they don’t tell you. And the faces on the of the participants are just kind of priceless. And I, yeah, I’ve seen that many times. It’s, to be honest, but it’s a, it’s a really great educational tool and I know that some of the farmer co-op quality managers have taken the beans from a particular farmer back to that farmer and said, you know how you’re harvesting all those underwrite pods. Yeah, here’s what you’re giving us and we can’t sell this to clients or we get penalized for it. And once they taste it, they understand.
Danielle: 22:33 Kind of going off of that in regards to this project, how much of it is kind of producer-led? And do you kind of feel as though small scale farmers are either represented underrepresented and the scope of this and what are your thoughts on that?
Cristina: 22:56 Yeah, you know, it occasionally we get together with other grantees from the cooperative development program and every time we go to these meetings, people are kind of astonished by the, by the way, our project seems to work and I’m always astonished by the way their projects work. But they’re like, you give the money directly to the co-ops and then they do the work. I’m like, what are you doing? This is the cooperative development program. A lot of them work through third parties or consultants to deliver services to the Co-op, but never deposit the money directly to the ops themselves.
Cristina: 23:38 But I think we have the advantage of working with co-ops that are developed to the point where they’re able to export. I mean they’re, they’re fairly sophisticated in the world and the co-op world. Yeah. But we also trust them and they, you know, we have the good fortune of them often trusting us. And so we establish a very clear work plan in a very clear budget. And then we make deposits and then they have to send us receipts on all those deposits. And if they don’t, they don’t get another disbursement. They also know that it, that their performance on the grant affects the commercial relationship and our, you know, if they do really poorly on the grant, it’s not going to necessarily damage the commercial relationship, but it’s not gonna improve it either. So we, we don’t, we don’t, uh, use one to leverage the other and that’s not what I’m trying to say, but it’s, it’s like engaging with a family member on a business project.
Kate: 24:36 If one thing goes poorly than the other one, it’d be awkward at Thanksgiving.
Cristina: 24:39 Right, exactly. Yes. Well spoken. And so I think, I don’t know if that answers your question, but it’s, I would say yes, it’s, it’s very much producer led in the design and the execution and the ownership. And One, one statistic I can give you, cause we were just evaluating our project, is I don’t know many times when people look at what charity to donate to, they look at how much goes to overhead. And I actually calculated that equal exchange has taken of 100% of the funds available to us, 3% to execute this project. And 97% of the funds went directly to the co-ops or services that directly benefited the co-ops. And so I think that’s pretty good. Yeah.
Danielle: 25:39 Yeah. I just, just ask that question and I have an international relations background and a lot of times that would be something that folks were concerned about. People just kind of going in and having their perspective telling people how to do things, but having a different energy around it saying, no, actually, you know, this, it’s important for the involvement to be produced led and having feeling that feeling of ownership and control over your own projects and that changes the energy behind it to me. But
Kate: 26:08 yeah, you also alluded to the fact that we’re talking about very different countries here. Something that’s going on in Peru with, you know, cacao is going to be different from something that’s going on in the Dominican Republic. Do people in the cooperatives decide what’s important for their specific group?
Cristina: 26:29 Yeah. I mean it’s kind of a balance, right? Sometimes you learn about something that’s going really well and you want to be able to share that with, with a cooperative that’s having a different challenge, even if they’re in a different space. But it, wherever possible, we try to have the producers tell those stories directly to other producers rather than saying, well in, you know, use Becca, Stan, I saw they did this and you should try this. You know, it’s, it’s very different than bringing someone from Uzbekistan together with someone from Honduras to share that experience.
Kate: 27:04 Yeah, cut out the middleman.
Cristina: 27:05 Yeah. Well, and it just, it has more impact if it, if you hear it from someone who you can relate to in their experience and goodness knows they don’t grow any cacao in Uzbekistan.
Kate: 27:16 Yet.
Cristina: 27:17 But that said like producer co-ops around the world, tend to face some similar challenges or I mean, and we even find we have similar challenges as Equal Exchange. The worker co-op with some of our producer co-op partners. Like, how do you get people to run for the board? How do you get them educated to run for the board? This is a question that I see here and we were just talking about it today actually. And it, I’ll be talking about it with a producer co-op, the Banana Co-op in Peru that I’m visiting next week. Same problem.
Kate: 27:49 That’s great. Yeah.
Danielle: 27:50 Yeah. Even thinking about having a cooperative that are geographically dispersed and trying to still honor that connection of the members together and how that can be more challenging as cooperatives grow. And I know that’s a problem. And that equal exchange has that, you know, you would kind of alluded to before talking about the different scale of the
Kate: 28:11 yeah. Big Cops that don’t see each other that much, where farmers might feel isolated or less connected. Makes Sense. Yeah. Yeah. Can you talk about information sharing that seems to be an ethos of this program?
Cristina: 28:23 Yeah, I would say it’s an ethos of equal exchange to I and I, my colleague Beth Ann Casperson, who I think did a previous podcast, which everyone should listen to, is really, such a proponent of this and you know, in the coffee world, equal exchange has shared a lot of information about how we roast or how we work with our partner co-ops. And that philosophy I think works its way into many things that we do include this project. And so one area I already highlighted was trying to have producers share information with other producers. So we organized over 15 different coop exchanges through the previous project, bringing together all of the representatives from all of the cops in their project to talk about specific issues related to quality productivity or financial management of the co-ops .
Danielle: 29:20 And kind of thinking, taking a step back, thinking about a timeline. And you know, originally the project was supposed to be five years and it’s kind of had three extensions, right? So that’s a huge difference in longevity and creating a longterm relationship. How have you been because of these extensions? How have you been able to see some of the, of the project directly?
Kate: 29:44 And if I can jump in, what’s next?
Cristina: 29:46 Yeah, sure. the, the extensions of time, we’re kind of a blessing and a curse. I mean you, when you think you plan for a five-year project and then it turns into eight, sometimes you’re running out of ideas or you know, it’s at what point do your teammates from other cops go and work on other things. But on the plus side, I would say, you know, trees take a long time to grow. So I’m, and cacao trees planted from seed, we’ll take about five years to mature and eve if, so, if you start right away on a productivity project, you may or may not see the results at the end of your project term. And this project has allowed us to really see some of those developments in productivity. You know, we did a bunch of what they call model farms.
Cristina: 30:39 So you know, kind of demonstrative farms within certain areas of the Co-op that do all of the improvements to the farm and they are supposed to serve as, as a model for their neighbors at those, model farms. The productivity went up by, you know, on average in some places like 496%. Wow. And so being able to see that is really satisfying and then you’re able to really share that knowledge. And, and I think with this extension of time, we’ve been able to much more kind of systematically and intentionally create records and tools that we can then use going forward. And that hopefully, you know, in the spirit of sharing are available on a wide scale to whoever finds them useful. All of these are products that we’ve created or tools, resources are actually on the equal exchange website. So feel free to check out the cooperative development page —
Kate: 31:43 –if you’re planning to start a cacao farm yeah.
Cristina: 31:46 Or you want to learn how to taste chocolate.
Kate: 31:49 Yeah, all right. You’re speaking my language. Yeah, yeah.
Cristina: 31:52 And what’s next? Equal Exchange applied for and received funding for another cooperative development project that started in 2018 and we’ll go to her until 2023 or 2026 or who knows how many extents. Yeah. Yeah. That has to do with the government not knowing how much money to allocate at a particular time. Something that the shutdown is highlighting. Maybe they could use some financial management training.
Kate: 32:23 Great. Thank you so much, Cristina. You’ve been awesome. It’s really fun to talk with you and learn about what is going on.
Danielle: 32:32 Yeah. Thanks for chatting so much.
Kate: 32:37 Thanks for listening to the stories behind our food. A podcast by equal exchange, inc a worker owned cooperative. Love this episode. Please subscribe rate and leave a review. Be sure to visit equal exchange.co op to join the conversation, purchase products and learn more about small scale farmers and the global supply chain. This episode was produced by equal exchange with hosts, Kate Chess and Danielle Robidoux sound engineering provided by Gary Goodman. Join us next time for another edition of the stories behind our food.