By Rink Dickinson, Equal Exchange President
Equal Exchange was founded as an alternative trade organization (ATO) with the mission of connecting US consumers and small marginalized farmers from the global south from countries like Nicaragua, Peru, or India. Within the ATOs internationally, Equal Exchange has been identified with the organizations that trade food, support social movements and farmer coops, and is itself structured as a worker coop.
Alternative trade organizations had foundational influence in the broader fair trade movement but have been isolated from even their most natural allies including coops, citizen movements, community economic organizations, unions, and NGOs. This isolation has caused ATOs to not only be under grave threat for the future but at risk of not surviving the market in the next ten to fifteen years.
How is Equal Exchange, one of the most successful ATOs in the global north thinking about our future? What is our plan or strategy to try to survive and prosper in this next period? How will we need to change to increase our odds of success?
In general, we have been doing several things at the same time over the last five years, all of which are important pieces of the future we are trying to build. To increase the odds of success we must create a future in which consumers and producers can connect in actual partnership that is real, mutual and sustaining of fair economics and democracy building. We need to:
As we watched our fellow northern ATOs recede and face economic collapse we were compelled to act to save and support as many as we could. In 2008 we acted to keep Oke USA, the only fair trade produce company in the country alive. We invested $400,000 of high-risk capital into an organization that was effectively in bankruptcy. In 2013, we put $400,000 into Equal Exchange UK as a sister ATO to keep the doors open. We re-invested in that effort in 2017. In 2014 we invested $400,000 in La Siembra, a Canadian worker cooperative to keep their ATO model alive instead of becoming effectively demutualized and transitioning from an ATO to a brand at the service of venture capitalists.
There have been other circumstances where we looked at trying to lend a hand, There likely will be more. We believe we have done more to keep authentic ATOs alive,, competing and performing their vital work than any organization out there. Today Equal Exchange US and UK, La Siembra, and Oke are all in business, profitable, and together sell over $80 million annually. We have created an ecosystem of ATOs that walk their own path, but learn together and reinforce each other.
We have always tried to fairly balance commercial sales with strong partners and allies. Those deep partners were primarily food coops and churches. What we came to realize is that these semi-partnerships were ultimately weakly constructed, not structurally coherent and ultimately not able to allow us or our “partners” to co-plan, co-invest, co-sacrifice, and co-share any surplus created. As previously mentioned, ATOs are isolated from even their most natural allies. At times we may have been close to solving this isolation and lack of structural connection issue but ultimately that did not happen. Understanding that what we hoped for and tried to create in partnership was not there. This realization allowed us to re-engage in what our situation really was and still is.
In this last period, we have begun to directly organize citizen-consumers. This is to create a network to support Equal Exchange, our farmer partners, and citizen-consumer power in the market and society. As always, the benefits of this success will flow to Equal Exchange in part but well beyond Equal Exchange as well. We believe for any ATO to succeed in 2020 or 2030 it will require a very strong network of citizen-consumers. We need to build economic alternative institutions, and ATOs in most cases will need to build their own structures in this new environment.
What we can say after three years of active engagement is this work is among the most challenging we have undertaken. It is confusing. Everyone comes at this with their own assumptions. It is hard to share these. We are on unplowed terrain. We have left the heavily tilled ground of social responsibility and sustainability which most of the major players in the multi-trillion dollar global market now support in theory. We believe this is exactly where Equal Exchange as a pioneering, entrepreneurial, imaginative ATO should be spending its time.
Fortunately, Equal Exchange has been successful. Our network of ATOs has collective sales of $80 million in the U.S., Canada, and the UK. We have 160 workers, most of them as cooperative owners. We have hundreds of thousands of consumer supporters and now a few thousand more organized citizen-consumers. We have a solid balance sheet, positive net retained earnings and a capital base. We have three brands that are well established and have substantial value as brands to our competitor capitalist frenemies. We have a 33-year history of trying different things and succeeding a fair amount of the time. We exist at reasonable scale and can play our game in the midst of the broad, often challenging,and ever-consolidating market.
While we do this as a networked, international mini-group of ATOs, as the market gets more challenging there is more and more support for our approach and what we have done. For quite a while we and our farmer partners watched as the market took over fair trade and mainstreamed it to the point that it was unrecognizable. More recently worker coops & democracy have gotten more energy, attention and are now in a boomlet of their own. This development is truly exciting. As corporations consolidate further there is an increasing understanding of the need for a new economy, community ownership and worker ownership. One of the foundations of our mission is becoming more understood as a needed reform and that reform is happening in dozens of small organizations and a few bigger organizations across the country. Meanwhile, Equal Exchange has been living with the structure of worker ownership for decades and is yet again in our own unique space.
Equal Exchange remains a unique hybrid. We are one of the few ATOs of scale in the US. We are one of the leading northern ATOs on the planet. We are one of the largest worker coops in the US. As an ATO we support small farmers and small farmer democracy. We support worker democracy and have trusted our organization to workers to govern.
Over the past thirty-two years of building our hybrid model we have learned a lot about building a network of ATOs, fostering supply chains centered around farmers and sharing our unique business model with others. The heart and soul of Equal Exchange has always been about and continues to be about relationships. An unintended but clear mistake of our model has been leaving out our citizen-consumer base. The model will be stronger with them in. We believe our economic and political survival depends on doing this in an effective, meaningful way.
We have a brand. It is of great value to others. We need to continue to leverage our brand, our supply chains, and our unique model in the more hostile market. We need to bring citizen-consumers into our democracy and continue to build the most democratic brand in America.
It’s not a secret: due to human activity – particularly the activity of the most privileged – the Earth is in crisis. This year, to commemorate Earth Day, we are uplifting the work of those on the frontlines of healing the environment while feeding people, the producers who have spent their lives working towards sustainable agriculture. Read on for news from avocado and banana producers from Mexico and Ecuador.
By Ravdeep Jaidka, Sourcing Manager, Equal Exchange Produce
EL GUABO, ECUADOR – In Ecuador, the banana capital of the world, a small farmer coop is leading the charge on an exciting project that provides meaningful benefits to its farmer members, while having a positive impact on the environment. Through premium funds, AsoGuabo cooperative in El Guabo, Ecuador recently launched a biofábrica, or a bio-fertilizer plant. The idea emerged from a desire to increase the productivity on the banana farms of its members in a manner that mutually benefited the environment.
It is important to mention that one dollar per 40 lb. banana box is paid directly to farmer cooperatives in the form of Fair Trade Premium and farmer members democratically elect the projects to support with Premium funds. Since bananas are a volume game, the Premium can be sizable. In 2018, the three banana farmer cooperatives working with Equal Exchange received over $300,000 in the form of Fair Trade Premium. This is a tangible way in which Fair Trade is creating democracy and impact on small farmer communities.
The bio-fertilizer project began in January of 2019 with the construction of a warehouse. From there, the manufacturing process begins with two starters (an active starter and an inactive starter), resulting in 5 different types of bio-fertilizers, each with its own set of characteristics. While some contain nutrients and micro-organisms to promote the growth of the plant, others combat diseases plaguing the banana plant. Disbursements of bio-fertilizers to farmers members began in March. As of April, half of the 150 farmer members of AsoGuabo have already applied the bio-fertilizers on their farms, free of cost.
As you can see in the photos, each bio-fertilizer tank dons a sticker that reads “With healthy soils, we guarantee the quality of the environment.” This connection between soil health and environment is a tangible one, with research pointing to the benefits of a healthy topsoil in promoting water retention, biodiversity, disease control, and carbon sequestration, especially for organic farmers, who already have a limited toolbox for combating disease and promoting plant growth.
By Meghan Bodo, Avocado Supply Chain Coordinator, Equal Exchange Produce
MICHOACÁN, MEXICO – Since its inception, Mexico-based avocado cooperative PRAGOR has built environmental sustainability into their heart of their business. PRAGOR sources only from small farmers who have been maintaining organic orchards for at least six years. This membership requirement is based on the cooperative’s desire to curtail deforestation, which is a problem of increasing concern as the global demand for avocados rises.
Beyond ensuring the integrity of the land of their members, PRAGOR has dedicated the use of some of their Fair Trade Premium Funds towards environmental causes. In 2016, PRAGOR started supporting a beekeeping initiative in conjunction with the local government. Five PRAGOR farmers agreed to host bee boxes on their farms, cared for by a group of women – Mujeres polinizadoras de Tingambato — many of whom are associated with the cooperative. The group received formal training; they breed queen bees in order to assist bee population growth in the area and also harvest honey. In 2017 the group reported production of more than 1000 liters of honey from over 80 bee boxes.
When asked about the roots of the project, one group member: “[Bees] help the environment a lot. They are fundamental. They pollinate – they pollinate the fruit in the field.” She is correct: according to Greenpeace, at least a third of our food depends on pollination from bees.
Both through growing organic avocados, and through supporting efforts like beekeeping initiatives, PRAGOR provides an inspiring example of a sustainable business.
by Angelica Hicks, Banana Supply Chain Coordinator, Equal Exchange Produce
EL ORO, ECUADOR – Whenever we’re asked about soil health and bananas, the first person who comes to mind is our friend Rubén Fernández, an agronomist who works for AgroFair, a Netherlands-based fair trade company. Rubén provides technical services to farmer-members of the Ecuadorian banana cooperative AsoGuabo. We’ve met with Rubén to learn about his work with agroforestry farms; though EE does not purchase fruit from these farms, we hope Rubén’s work has the potential to increase access to agroforestry practices for all small commercial farmers.
Rubén is now a formally trained agricultural specialist, but he has been involved in tropical agriculture since he was just a child. “My dad taught me to do fieldwork. He used to tell me, an agricultural engineer is a person who likes to grow a plant.” He went to an agricultural high school, where he would spend half of the day in the classroom and half of the day in the field apprenticing. He then continued on to study at an agricultural college, completing his thesis on soil microorganisms.
Today, Rubén works as a general administrator for agroforestry projects with a focus on soil health and ecosystem maintenance, an area of work which he says can help boost small farmer productivity while reducing negative impacts of agriculture on the ecosystem. According to Rubén, the typical and conventional lowland monoculture banana farms, when compared with agroforestry systems, require more resource input, including more cycles of fumigation against the devastating plant disease Sigatoka, increased water usage, and higher costs for farmers.
In contrast, “In the agroforestry farms 500 meters above sea-level, the water drops don’t erode the soil. It is like a refuge for microorganisms.” In addition to diversity on a microbial level, the agroforestry farms “maintain native green cover crops and maintain biodiversity, not only with banana and cacao but also citrus and other fruits.”
While agroforestry is a traditional form of food production in tropical climes, it is also being studied for cutting-edge applications to improve commercial practices. In 2016, Rubén’s team launched an experiment to observe the results of mycorrhiza application, taking samples of the fungus from agroforestry farms and inoculating lowland farm soils. The team preliminarily found that the plots inoculated with mycorrhiza showed increased root mass, assisting in nutrient uptake, reducing irrigation needs and resulting in larger offspring of the banana plant.
Agroforestry has another critical significance amid our collective global scramble for climate change solutions: its potential to sequester carbon at an impressive rate, both in above ground biomass (i.e., in plants themselves) and belowground (i.e., soil and roots; see Toensmeier and Herren, 2016). Per Rubén, the soil on the agroforestry farms is richer than on monoculture banana farms, with high levels of porosity and aeration, and more or less 40 centimeters of soil organic matter. “When carbon is captured, automatically the issue of climate becomes more favorable,” says Rubén, noting that in addition, healthy soils filter pollution and break down toxins.
One personal observation bears mentioning: while a conversation with Rubén can be science-heavy, his passion is inherently social: “Soil health – I define it as the soil’s ability to function as a living system to maintain biological production, promote environmental quality and maintain animal and human health.” That definition leads him to work towards the benefit of small farmers and their products as an integral part of a healthy and harmonious ecosystem.
Toensmeier, E. and Herren, H. (2016). The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agricultural Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, pp.22-23, 32-33.
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Get ready for the most exciting episode of The Stories Behind Our Food we’ve done yet. We talked to Joe Maxwell about consolidation in the food system and why it’s a threat to American farmers, workers and consumers. “Big doesn’t just happen,” Joe told us. “Big is allowed to happen.”
Make sure to visit the Organization for Competitive Markets’ website to learn how you can get involved. It’s here: https://competitivemarkets.com/
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Danielle :0:02Everyday 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 insight or knowledge about every step along the process. I’m Danielle Robidoux and I’m Kate Chess and we’re your hosts
Danielle :0:28Today. I’m excited to talk with Joe Maxwell about independent family farms. They’re going extinct. Corporations control everything from seeds to supply and prices while chipping away at regulations that inform and protect consumers. It has left the independent food economy, especially farmers devoid of oxygen. How can we change the rules of the game and this episode join myself, Kate and Joe Maxwell, the executive director for the Organization of competitive markets. We will explore how big food hurts American farmers, workers and shoppers. We will discuss how Joe’s history as a hog farmer and legislator has shaped his work in the food system and provide action steps so you can get involved too. Very excited to have Joe on the podcast here. If you had maybe one minute to tell the listeners what, what would be an elevator pitch on why you think this work is important? If you had one minute, what might you tell a listener?
Joe:1:31Absolutely. And I want to thank you all for the opportunity to be on and for all those listening in, it’s extremely important because today independent family agriculture and the family farmers and ranchers that operate within a independent agriculture are on the verge of going bankrupt and being made extinct, by the actions and policies at our state capitals and in Washington DC. And unfortunately their voice is drowned out by big agriculture, industrial agriculture and we need your help. We need it today and we need to join forces if the family farmers of America are gonna survive and they’re the ones that could have the ability and capacity to deliver the safe, healthy food that we know consumers like you are looking for.
Danielle :2:27Thank you, Joe. That’s, that’s awesome. I really love working with OCM, a organization for competitive markets. But maybe, maybe we’ll kind of get into what, what is OCM kind of, how did you become connected to them and your history there?
Joe:2:44Organization for competitive markets, OCM is a 20 year old organization, a that works with family, farmers and ranchers across the country. It’s a national organization and it strives to, reinforce policies and advocacy that support independent family agriculture. we pushed back against the power in the marketplace that multinational food companies now have a, in an effort to give a space, so that our farmers, the what we believe in history will show and does show. Are they good stewards of the land that the animals, our environment and their neighbors, I give them a space so they can operate, stay in business and deliver healthy, safe food, for America’s consumers.
Danielle :3:39That’s great. And I know that you folks are working on a few different projects obviously, as an organizer for equal exchange. I’m really excited about the project that we’re working on together. So, yeah, maybe can you talk a little bit about the food and agribusiness bill and kind of why you think this path is a good step forward for the u s food system specifically?
Joe:4:04Absolutely, and I know many folks that are probably listening are familiar with the recent mega mergers, such as Bayer, Monsanto. These mergers that came over the last several years have sold a concentrated, the, the power of the market and those that control, the very, inputs for the production of our food today after these Bayer, Monsanto type mega mergers, over 70% of seed corn, just as an example, is controlled by two companies. we see that as much as 95% of agricultural seed, now will bear the Monsanto traits, so that, additional roundup can be sprayed on the crops. and, so it’s linking the chemicals, to the actual seed and forcing farmers didn’t have no choice in the market to have the ability to produce a more sustainable, type grains. We also are looking right now, in your, in the protein side.
Joe:5:19folks like, Brazil’s JBS and Brazil’s Marfrig, are now two are the top four, beef producers in the United States that control over 80% of that market. We also see Smith China now own Smithfield and it controls over 25% of the pork production in this country. the problem with those statistics is not that we don’t want to support farmers and ranchers, across the globe. But the fact when these, dominating forces come into the U s market, they’re also in the world market and they’re dictating to every farmer and rancher, price or dictating to the consumer the choices that they’ll have in the grocery stores. And so, we see it’s time to hit the pause button on these mega mergers and these acquisitions within the agricultural sector, beverage and food manufacturing and retail. we believe that until we do, workers will not see justice. Farmers and ranchers will not see justice, nor will the consumer. So we’re working hard to get the u s congress and the Senate and the House, to stop these acquisitions and mergers and take a deep look at the harm that’s been caused to our economy, to the farmers and ranchers, the workers, the environment. Take a look at this and put in place the safeguards necessary to have a fair and open market that delivers health, healthy and safe foods, to, to consumers. Not only here in the u s but around the world.
Danielle :7:06Wow. That’s, that’s great. It sounds like, so it sounds to me like this bill is going to kind of give the economy a chance to pause, right. A chance to breathe. You know, a lot of the concentration, it’s almost like sucking oxygen out of the room for, for independent business. I’m just curious for like on an as an individual, what, what is, you know, why, why exactly is consolidation bad on an individual level? What is the impact on the human level of concentration? Right? Like all those statistics that you just mentioned. Wow. Like, that’s, you know, all those percentages. But what does that really mean on an individual level? You know, I’m a consumer. I’m shopping at my store. Why, why is consolidation bad for me?
Joe:7:54Right? Well, first you also mentioned businesses. this heavy concentration is driving out a small businesses and denying, men and women the opportunity to enter into the food sector. so, it, it denies individuals to fulfill their dream of having their own business, to processed foods, to package foods, and to deliver a high quality, healthy food to their neighbors. How does that reverse of that? Right. Is that we know that here in the US and, also globally, that individual eaters, care about where their food comes from. There’s a rising concern, legitimate concern already in, that, the way in which industrial agricultural globally is producing food. It’s killing. they, they have a care for their bottom line, but they don’t have a care, an equal care for the folks that they’re actually feeding. And so when you wake up in the morning and you think about what am I going to have for breakfast? And you think about how, what your kids and children, should have for breakfast, you, you go to your grocery store and you can’t find that healthy food because too few companies, as few as four companies, regardless of the number of brands or labels that’s on that grocery shelf, it’s really controlled by roughly four companies. And they’re not giving you the healthy choice. They’re giving you the choice that most efficiently produces that, calories in that box or on that shelf, that puts the most money in their pocket.
Danielle :9:53And so consumers wake up every day and are denied opportunities. We also know, especially in the U S and Europe, the, the consumers also trust the voice of those local farmers and ranchers. They trust that, that, that historical, traditional family farm type agriculture, cares about them. And, they not only want to do it for themselves, out of being able to have healthy choices for themselves and their families, but they want to help those farmers. And we are very, very thankful for everyone that has that position, that they are willing to step up and want justice, not only food justice for themselves, the justice for America’s family, farmers and ranchers, that there’ll be treated fairly in the marketplace, that they will have an opportunity to be the sixth or seventh generation. We have, all of us, the staff members, you’re a, Angela Huffman is our director of communications and research, always goof this up, but she, her and her family have been on their farm for over 190 years, who works for us.
Joe:11:12Her family still owns a multi century farm, in, in Europe. And, they, you know, we, we as farmers, I, I’m a fourth generation family farmer from Missouri and, you know, we care about our land. We want to hand it down to the next generation that will feed our neighbors, better than what we found it. we want to care for those animals and we’re not allowed to do that. And we know all those issues are of interest to the consumer, not just the fact that they want justice on the food shelves, but they want justice for those people that have that kind of value, that kind of caring spirit, as they till the soil or raise the, raise the animal.
Danielle :11:56That seems like a great thing about OCM, but folks who were involved with the organization have a personal stake. Can you tell us, Joe, a little bit about what your background is, a farmer, like how that affects this work that you’re doing?
Joe:12:09It’s extremely personal. In that I, have lived, the decline of independent family agriculture in the U s we were thriving in the late seventies, and then there were policy changes in Washington DC, that, began to erode the market opportunity, the fairness and equity, within the marketplace for farmers like myself. My great Granddad plowed the original prairie land under a in Missouri and my grandpa and my dad a farm that as do my brother and myself. Now I take my hat off. My brother is the true American farmer. I do a lot of this work more pretend I’m a farmer. So I want to take my hat off to my brother Steve. he is, the true spirit of what makes American agriculture great. But I have lived that in his early eighties, a this further concentration, these, lax enforcement of the antitrust laws.
Joe:13:25And we’ve allowed monopolies to begin to control the food sector, with that market power brings economic power to them, that economic power brings in political influence or political power. And so, they have now gained a lock of control over the policies, dictated by our elected officials in Washington DC. And so, over that 30 year span or so, I have seen us go from a thriving marketplace where consumers had choice and justice in their food system and we’re family farmers could thrive. The one now where we’re on the verge of bankruptcy and consumers being denied healthy, safe food. We, we strongly, OCM works every day and we all share as staff and as board members, those kinds of values. And that makes it not only personal but gives us a more momentum to get up every day and, and to work hard, for justice within our food system.
Danielle :14:37I think that’s really interesting too. And I’m just kind of looking at your background, right? You know, multigenerational hog farmer. Then you’re kind of talking about the impact of policy on farmers and how that was really real for your family, where you kind of always interested in that connection as a young person. Like where did that begin? That’s just like something that’s really interesting to me. Like did you feel the policy was kind of the next thing that you, the direction that you needed to go to find impact and then kind of what brought you from like multigenerational hog farmer legislator and then kind of taking a different path with OCM as a nonprofit organization? And how do you, you know, kind of exert power and influence in those different spheres and spaces? Just interested in that.
Joe:15:29Growing up? my Steve, I’ve mentioned my brother Steve, we’re twins. Our agreement with the farm who was a value set in us by my, probably more influenced by my granddad because my dad would be out, driving the tractors and we, my brother and I would be helping take care of the animals. And he instilled in us this sense of stewardship, this huge amount of responsibility that a independent family agriculture has as to the things that’s been given to care for. And so I had this deep seated value early in my life as extended by my Granddad and my dad. And all we wanted to do was far. Yeah. So growing up I never dreamed I would be doing this. One day, with changes in Washington d C it became evident that to two of us wasn’t going to be able to stay on the farm. I was going to, and my brother was married. And so I, I was not at the time. And so I, I decided I was going to do something and I got mad. I got furious, right?
Joe:16:43Hate to say that. But I would have been happy to, you know, set on my feed bucket on my prairie farm and watch the sun up come up in the sun, go down. But I became furious that people, policymakers are elected officials would work against my interest, and, and deny me what I grew up as a small child on that prairie farm wanting to do. And I recognize that they made choices. This wasn’t just natural occurrence, it’s just big. Just does it happen. Gig allowed to happen. They gag or culture has been a allowed to happen by our policymakers passing legislation that supports high heavy subsidies or their practices or their predatory retaliatory in discriminatory practices or their abuse of the land and the animals and the gruel communities and the farmers are policy makers make those choices daily. And so got mad.
Joe:17:51And I began to, I thought, well, the other thing I thought to be honest, well, I’m as smart as those elected officials know exactly, I would work. And ultimately ran for office, and and awesome. And I encourage everybody listening, get mad when you go to the grocery store, angry when you go to the grocery store, get angry when you see how little of someone in the food sector, wages are because of the concentration, the prey. Get angry when you could buy healthy food for your children. Get angry and sign up and do something about it because you can make a difference.
Danielle :18:30Yeah. I love what you said and I think that, you know, you do have this interesting experience of like, you know, growing up with your family, just having that farm experience and seeing how that influence that, how consolidation influences people on a human level. And I think that the system exists in a way where we’re really disconnected from our food and that’s the way that folks want it. Like you mentioned, you have this illusion of diversity, illusion of choice. You see hundreds and thousands of brands that are on the shelf as you walk through the grocery store. But like you said, it’s on by four companies and one for companies have that level of consolidation and abusive levels of power. What are they able to do and how are they able to influence the food that we eat? And it’s set up in that way, on purpose, right? To disconnect us from our food and how do we, how do we turn the table on that? How do we begin to start to connect people with their food and to all of these complexities? I think it’s a journey, but I, that’s definitely why I am really excited about this bill that equal exchange is working on with you. So thank you for all your work and I’m really, really great story.
Joe:19:38Thank you. The, the one thing that’s important to know is this legislation would just put a moratorium on these acquisitions and mergers and would establish a commission so that we can study these issues and the impact and the congress and all of us can come together to have the solutions that work. we’re, we believe it’s a low bar. It’s a benchmark. It’s the beginning. and we believe in a u s senator or any member of Congress that does not sign on to this bill and support this bill is really making a choice, a choice to support the demise of independent family agriculture. And the injustice on the grocery store shelves are the consumers of the United States.
Danielle :20:28So my understanding is that your organization is bipartisan. Can you speak to that a little bit? You say any legislators should be signing onto this bill. Do you feel like this is an issue for people across the political spectrum?
Joe:20:40Absolutely. This is, this is not a partisan issue. This is really an issue that affects Democrats, Republicans, independents. It’s an issue that’s impacting the economies, within all states. It’s an issue that’s impacting consumers in every state. And we do not find our organization is a nonpartisan, but we seek out bipartisanship on the support of the legislation. we understand that for some it’s a little tougher lift. but we believe this is a benchmark. This is a place to start so that at a bipartisan way, a the U s Congress House the Senate and come together and find the solutions together, that restore a stewardship within the marketplace, justice within the marketplace and justice on the grocery store shelves.
Danielle :21:46Awesome. Thanks. I have a question that I think a lot of times when you talk about monopolies, you know, thinking about the commission and what, what kinds of things they’ll be working on, you know, cause consolidation at the food system is such a huge topic and there’s so many different things that consolidation touches a lot of people. They kind of focus on price, right? What is the price for consumer? I think that’s definitely an important thing to think about. What, what other things can you imagine that the commission might focus on in regards to consolidation? Anything on like, you know, the, I know that the diversity of the food that we’re growing and you know, even if you look back, you know, not even a hundred years ago that the thousands of varietals of lettuce for instance. Right? And now how many, you know what, I think I had saw some national geographic chart, it was like down to 32 and you know, what is that doing also for the nutrition of our food? I just wasn’t sure if you thought that maybe the commission might focus on, you know, beyond price. What other types of things does consolidation touch that they might focus on?
Joe:22:50Yeah, absolutely. Well, first, um, big ag industrial ag will tell you that they are driving efficiencies on behalf of consumers.
Joe:23:02To include price, lower prices. What we, what our evidence at, OCM shows is that what they’re driving is efficiencies that put money in their pockets. As we’ve seen fewer and fewer companies, process buying a agricultural goods, processing them into foods for consumers have, there has been fewer and fewer within that food chain. we have seen consumer prices go up and farmer prices go down. Okay. there is not a direct supply and demand fundamentals in operation. They’re extracting the wealth from both the farmer and their rural communities as well as from the pocket of the consumer. So we know the evidence is there. We w we are calling on Congress to take that evidence. So they, consumers are afraid that if it gets, if we move back to more local and regional food systems, that their grocery prices are gonna go up where they can’t afford it.
Joe:24:16What else needs to be looked at? That is the fact that farmers, back when my dad was farming, we’re getting over 50% of the retail food dollar today farmers are getting less than 15%.
Danielle :24:34Wow. Yeah. I had seen that statistic too, and that was, that was jarring.
Joe:24:40And the other thing that we want to look at is the harm that’s caused when you have so few companies like the Bayer, Monsanto’s the Dow, Dupont, the Syngenta’s, with Kim China, the controlling of the seed, we’re coming to words becoming more monolithic type production, but within that we’re getting fewer and fewer varieties of seed.
Joe:25:11Yeah. Which is opening us up to a disease to come in and having no food produced in the United States.
Joe:25:22We are very concerned at the shortage of research and development, specially with the climate change. And whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, that you look out your window, you have to admit there’s extreme weather and farmers are on the front line of that. And with these fewer companies, there’s getting to be less and less research and development on a, on variety development, that can withstand the weather. So both threat of disease, the threat, the changes that we see out there with our climate as we’re trying to produce the food to feed our neighbors. And these companies have zero incentive because there’s no competition because there’s too few of them. They just carve up the country into sectors and they’re the only one you can buy from. Wow. And so it’s a threat to our national security. It’s a threat to our future food security. and, so we want them to also take a look at that from a national security or a food security for this country. Look, we also want to look at the concentration. The Roosevelt Institute did a great study, that shows with this heavy concentrating, these fewer and fewer companies controlling the food system, that they now are controlling wages in depressing wages. and, our, whether you’re a UFC, WWE, member or any a union member, you can attest that a, you see the pressure on, on your wages and the threats that those companies bring even against the, organized labor in this country and workers that are organized that find themselves making less and less. I processing food processing, meat processing worker, make significantly less than a manufacturing worker because of this heavy concentration. You get to take the job or you don’t. And we only paying this and is really depressed wages across the country.
Kate:27:31Yeah, we’re the only game in town. So take it or leave it. Yeah.
Joe:27:35Take it or leave it, and a poultry contract grower. the pilgrims, the puritans, the others control the broiler industry. And that farmer no longer is even raising their own animals or feeding the animals their own feet. They just become a landlord or an owner of a building. They got millions dollars borrowed, for the Tysons, the puritans, the pilgrims, any of those companies. And, and then there’s no one else, they’ll rip that building. And taxpayers are subsidizing that industry either through SBA, there’s a government report out on how I SBA, but one point $8 billion into the poultry industry to, to benefit these large monopolies. There’s tax dollars that underwrite the loans so that the banks have no risks. The taxpayer take on the risk if that company stops leasing that building from the farmer. So the farmer, is on the line with consumer and taxpayers on the line and we think it Oughta, they’ll take a look about fair, arrangements with these contract poultry growers and contract a pig growers.
Kate:28:57I find this extremely sobering and convincing and I think anybody listening probably will as well. But it seems to me like a big challenge here, Joe, is just misinformation or lack of information when there are multiple labels out there, you feel like you have a choice in the grocery store. A lot of brands are trying to cast themselves as being, you know, local farmers in some way, despite the fact that they’re not. How can — what can people do to tell their neighbors about this? How can we — I’m not sure everybody recognizes this is the problem that it is.
Joe:29:28Well first of all, they should go to competitivemarkets.com and take a look. We, Angela, I’ve been on our team as director of communications and research is a master at taking some of these complex issues and drilling it down where it can be comprehended and that’s extremely important. I get a little too much in the weeds unfortunately, but she does a great job on that page and I think anyone will find it a digestible and understandable. the second thing is, is that we find is it sounds so bad. No one believes, not we hear all the time. Well that can’t be happening here in America. Oh yes. It is land of the free anymore. And the opportunity to start your small business in your rural community or in your urban or suburban community. It’s, it’s not, we don’t, we have lost freedom. There’s grave injustices within our economic system. Okay.
Joe:30:30Oh, OCM believes what is important is not a, as some try to get caught up in this concept of redistribution of wealth. No, we need a fair and equitable distribution of the opportunity for prosperity that represents America.
Joe:30:49When we help build that prosperity, whether you’re the worker, the farmer or the business owner, we help build that prosperity. Everyone deserves — has a right to share in that prosperity. And we’re all being denied that today and this work, putting a stop on, on these mega mergers, taking a look at our economic system and ensuring that there’s a fair and equitable distribution, to all. One of the notes — I want to put a big note on this one. You know the communities of color in agriculture have suffered for generations and had been denied opportunity. And as we take a look at this, we need to make sure that when we say economic opportunity for all or justice for all we really mean this time in America for all.
Kate:31:51Thank you for saying that. I find that incredibly powerful.
Danielle :31:56Thanks Joe. This is just all these things are swirling around in my mind. Really excited to be working with OCM on some of the campaigns and I’m going to put a lot of this information that Joe has talked about in the show notes so you can stay connected, stay informed. I definitely, We’d love, folks to, you know, join us, right? Like did get involved in this campaign like Joe saying like get mad. So definitely a stay tuned, Equal Exchange is going to be working on this campaign if you want to get involved so you can join organizing with equal exchange and we work with OCM a lot. You can connect with OCM directly. And I would also like to say that equal exchange is having an annual summit and that will be June 20th to 22nd at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. And we’ll be doing a lot of this work and how it’s, it’s important to stay in form. It’s important to really be in tune with the conversation that Joe and I have had today. But I think that would equal exchange wants to do is to connect individuals to what they can actually do and empower them to feel as though they actually can create change in the food system and that year it’s not just your dollar that matters, it’s your voice that matters. It’s your, your political voice. And we want to try to elevate that and encourage folks to use that as much as possible. And I just want to thank you so much Joe and I dunno if there’s anything you have to add in like how folks can stay connected but, we’ll definitely put any resources or information that you suggest in our show notes.
Joe:33:33Well we appreciate your partnership in this effort. We would suggest that folks go to competitivemarkets.com. learn more and sign up. There’s petitions on there. Let’s work together. Let’s put our voices together and unite or, an economic, change, in, in the way of which we approach our food system. And let’s ensure it’s justice for all.
Kate:33:59You’ve been a fantastic gas or so have you on here. Thank you very much.
Danielle :34:05Thanks Joe.
Kate:34:10Thanks 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.
Meaghan Holmes is our Chocolate Supply Chain and Quality Control Coordinator. In the four years she’s worked for the Chocolate Team, she’s done sensory analysis on hundreds of samples in order to make sure the quality and characteristics of Equal Exchange chocolate are always consistent.
Meaghan is extremely passionate about chocolate and coffee! She says “When considering possible pairing combinations for our products, I am looking for products that consistently have flavors that compliment each other, or strongly enhance a particular flavor.”
She found a pairing for each of the three new bars. Read on to discover Meaghan’s flavor recommendations, as well as the rationale behind why they work.
How Meaghan came up with it: The saltiness of this bar can make it difficult to pair with coffee. Certain light roast bright and fruity coffees would clash with the salt and create an unpleasant acidity, whereas a very dark roast can intensify the salt and feel really astringent. I knew immediately that I’d need a mellow and straight forward coffee to pair well with this complex chocolate bar.
Why she thinks you’ll like it: Mind Body & Soul is a wonderfully mellow coffee, it’s nutty and chocolatey with brown spices which makes it a perfect match to round out the sweet and salty richness of the Whole Almond & Sea Salt bar.
What else you might try with Dark Chocolate Almond & Sea Salt: Breakfast Blend. Also a mellow and sweet coffee, this pairing will complement this salty nutty bar nicely.
Why Meaghan thinks you’ll like it: The sweetness and creaminess of the Coconut Milk chocolate is wonderful when washed down with the smooth creamy mouthfeel and milk chocolatey full bodied Ethiopian. The sweet fruity berry characteristics coming from this naturally processed coffee really enhance the toasted coconut.
What else you might try with Organic Chocolate with Coconut Milk: African Roots. Ethiopian beans blended with beans from Congo in a lighter roast than the Ethiopian Full City, this bright and juicy coffee balances the caramelized sweet notes coming from the coconut sugar.
Why Meaghan thinks you’ll like it: Midnight Sun is a fan favorite coffee known for its rich chocolatey flavor, and the 92% is also a dominantly chocolate profile. When the two are combined it is a true total eclipse! The robust flavors coming from both coffee and chocolate are surprisingly harmonious. The subtle sweetness from the coffee smooths out the intensities of this dark chocolate.
What else you might try with Total Eclipse: Ethiopian Full City. Creamy milk chocolate plus dark chocolate combine to taste like chocolate chip cookies and other brown sugar spiced baked goods, a straightforward but delicious combination.
Can you taste the harmony of the flavors? Try Meaghan’s pairings and let us know what you think!
Laura Bechard, Chocolate Supply Chain Coordinator, Equal Exchange
Last December, members of Equal Exchange’s chocolate team met with our sugarcane co-op partners, Manduvira. Located in the Southern Hemisphere, Paraguay experiences its seasons opposite to ours. In December, while Americans enjoy a mug of hot chocolate to warm up, Paraguayans are enjoying an iced tea, called terere, to cool down.
Sugarcane farming at the small-scale level requires a lot of manual work. Traditionally, the brunt of this labor occurs in the fall and spring. In late fall, the sugarcane is beginning to shoot, so sun can still shine on the row spaces and cause weeds to flourish. Using a hoe, farmers must walk these rows to remove the weeds. Once the sugarcane grows tall enough during the winter months, the sun cannot get into the rows and the sugarcane is left to grow tall. In the spring, the sugarcane must be harvested and transported to the mill as soon as possible before it begins to lose its sucrose content. Most farmer members of Manduvira cooperative do not have access to large mechanical harvesting machines that dominate the organic plantation landscape, just 90 miles away in Paraguay’s central departments. This means that like weed maintenance, sugarcane harvesting must also occur by hand. Armed with machetes, farmers work full days harvesting and stripping the cane of its leaves to be ready to sell by the kilo to Manduvira.
Not only is the labor incredibly manual in nature, the seasons are also transitioning either out-of or in-to summer. This means temperatures in the upwards of 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit at midday with a sun that beats down unforgivably. For a spry young farmer, this may seem like just an extra challenge to their hard day’s work. But when you look at the average age of Manduvira’s farmer members (40+), a hard day’s work starts seeming more like an impossible feat and farmers depend increasingly on hiring out day-labor. On top of rising age, Manduvira is also experiencing rising average annual temperatures due to climate change. Together, these factors pose a challenging risk to the sustainability of small and medium scale sugar production for Manduvira.
Manduvira recognizes and continues to work to mitigate these challenges. To work on rising spring temperatures, on their co-operative test plot, their staff of extension agents have been testing out different sugarcane varieties that can be harvested at various times of the year, from May to September. As their technical teams explained to us, if a farmer had three different varieties, they would be able to spread out their labor needs across the course of five months and could reduce the amount of a later-season (and hotter temperature) harvest. To work on engaging with youth, Manduvira offers a large source of industrial work in the community. Since the co-operative owns its own sugar mill youth have other options besides farming to stay involved with the co-operative. By opting to work locally instead of moving to the capital city these young Paraguayans remain connected to their rural livelihoods and many continue to participate on their family’s farms.
Fundraising with fairly traded, organic and delicious products? Here’s an excellent tip to help you raise more money… let them taste it!
As the fundraising campaign organizer, it’s up to you to come through for your cause. You make sure your community knows exactly what your organization needs the money for and why you partnered with Equal Exchange to help raise it. Great work! Now, it’s time to boost your fundraising efforts by offering samples.
There are two different groups of people who have a stake in your fundraiser. Each plays a different, yet important, role in your campaign. Identify them, then give each what they need to raise the most possible.
The first group is your team of organizers and fundraising participants — the people who are passing out catalogs or soliciting orders. They are the ones who sell to their sphere of contacts. Your participants need to be passionate about your cause or project. Their passion gets their friends and families excited. They need to be able to talk about what the funding means to them personally. It’s up to you to get them jazzed up to generate excitement.
Your team also needs to know – and love – what they’re offering. You, of course, share Fair Trade and organic information with your participating children and adults to let them know the fundraiser also supports small farmers. Giving them a taste of the delicious products will let them describe “delicious” in their own words and help boost their individual sales.
The second group is the people who ARE your fundraiser. They are people your participants know — friends, family and coworkers. They may buy an item or two but if you train your team to offer a taste of decadent chocolate, a sip of freshly brewed organic coffee, or an inhale of aromatic steeping tea it’s likely order sizes will increase. Samples help you raise the most money possible throughout your campaign.
How to Order Samples For Your Equal Exchange Fundraiser
Small team? Let your group experience the quality of products in our sample variety pack. It includes a bag of coffee, a box of tea and two chocolate bars. (Items may vary.) The organic sample pack is $22.99, but fundraising organizers can order it 50% off when they sign up for an Equal Exchange fundraiser, or by calling 774-776-7366.
Large team? Browse the products that will be in your fundraiser and decide what you’d like to sample. (All are best sellers so you can’t go wrong!) Then, take advantage of lower discounted pricing when you order product by the case online.
The purpose of sampling is to raise more money. It will cost approximately $30 for a case of 12 chocolate bars. Unopened product can be sold in your fundraising campaign. If you calculate properly, you could even pull a small quantity from a case to use as samples, sell the rest at catalog prices and break even. (Example: 8 chocolate bars sold at fundraising prices can pay for a case of 12. Use only 4 chocolate bars to sample and sell the rest.) You can also plan to use products as incentives for your top sellers, thank you gifts for volunteers or supporters, and even silent auction items.
You are in need of money so ordering product by the case before starting your fundraiser may be difficult. Reach out to a few specific supporters and ask for their help directly. Your email could look something like this:
As you know, we’re kicking off our Equal Exchange fundraiser soon! When people taste the delicious, organic products we’re offering, they’ll purchase more and we can raise more money. Would you be so kind to donate a few cases of product that we could use as samples? You can keep some for yourself! Here’s what we need…
Then, make your sample wish list and include product links to make it easy for them to help. If you ask a few people, consider requesting different products with each request.
Share your ideas and experiences here or with other Equal Exchange Fundraising Organizers on Facebook so all can raise the most they can for their important causes.
It’s time for The Stories Behind Our Food. We’ve just released a brand-new episode of our interview-style podcast, and hope you’ll give it a listen.
You can hear #StoriesBehindOurFood on:
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or wherever you enjoy online audio!
Got that song in your head now? Don’t forget to subscribe to The Stories Behind Our Food and leave a review.
Intro:0:02Every day 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 insight or knowledge about every step along the process. I’m Danielle Robideau — and I’m Kate Chess — and we’re your hosts.
Danielle:0:27The majority of the world’s chocolate comes from Africa, but Equal Exchange has historically always sourced its chocolate from Latin America. Dary, Kate and I engage in a conversation about the chocolate bar, the Total Eclipse, the story behind that partnership. And beginning to work in Togo. We unpack the complexity of child labor and the chocolate industry. We hope you enjoy it. So who, who are you, Dary, and what do you do for Equal Exchange? what exactly is like a day in the life?
Dary:0:58Hi. Yeah, my name is Dary Goodrich. I am Equal Exchange’s Chocolate Products Manager. And I’ve actually been at Equal Exchange probably over 15 years now. Quite a while, working in various roles. and, I manage our chocolate team and all of our chocolate products. So what does a day in the life look like? Well, I have to say every day is definitely different. The chocolate team is really responsible for managing our chocolate and cocoa products and that’s really kind of all the behind the scenes work to develop and procure products to build and manage relationships with our farmer partners and suppliers to share that knowledge that we have with our teams and our sales team to go out and get the hands in the product of our customers. So entails a whole lot of different work, from product research and development and purchasing and inventory management, and development of packaging and marketing materials to building relationships with our farmer partners and working to share their stories.
Dary:1:58So, yeah, every day is totally different. you know, a day, often there are meetings involved, and you know, connecting with manufacturing partners about our production orders, things that arise, as they’re producing or thinking about future productions. you know, looking at sales numbers, seeing how this compares to what we thought was gonna happen and how this might impact our needs for future inventory. And, you know, we have a team of four of us, so a lot of my work too is supporting my team as we kind of navigate, you know, various inventory or product issues that come up, or responding to customers. and, hopefully in there I can always kind of find time to carve out some project time and think about, kind of goals and, and future projects that we can work on for our team, to kind of always improve what we’re doing. I do actually work remotely. I’m located in Birmingham, Alabama. I was in Massachusetts at our main office for about 10 years, but since I do work remotely, sadly I don’t participate on our sensory panels, so I don’t get to do a lot of the quality work on a day to day. but of course, and I still love to eat chocolate.
Kate:3:19That is so sad. You’ve given us a real sense of the complexity of your job. And I think that Danielle and I were talking about how a lot of people have a pretty simplistic and rosy picture of what it might be like to work in chocolate. It just involves eating a lot of chocolate. Can you tell us about, if you can, about what some of that fun stuff is? We’re really curious about the process for deciding on a new chocolate product, for instance.
Dary:3:47Yeah. Well, you know, it’s a pretty sweet job. Ha! See what I did there. I actually began my time at Equal Exchange in our interfaith program back in 2001 and around 2005, 2006, at that time, you know, we were very much focused on coffee, which is still the largest part of what we do. But we realized, you know, we had other products and wanted to put more energy into chocolate and tea actually, and there was no kind of dedicated staff for either of those products. and I was like, I can’t pass up this opportunity when Equal Exchange decided to actually create positions for a chocolate products manager and tea products manager. And I was like, ah, I need to work at chocolate.
Kate:4:29So you didn’t have any chocolate experience formally at that time?
Dary:4:30No, other than selling chocolate through our interfaith program at the time. but, that was really it. so, it’s been just a great learning experience for me and just kind of building this whole program and growing it, every year and kind of new and different ways. and you know, it is super fun especially to develop products. and that’s a really kind of a fun part of, of what we do in a creative part of what we do. and you know, what Equal Exchange, I think we really try and be strategic about how many products we have. Right? There’s just a lot about, how many products you have and what that means for kind of fewer your capacity as a team to manage those. of course your inventory and your carrying costs are all those things. and, and we want to make sure we’re really offering the right products for our customers, that people are excited about.
Dary:5:25And so we know when we think about developing new products, we, we look at what’s happening out there in the market. we look at market data. our team is out there. I’m getting samples from, the market on the shelf and seeing what’s happening on the shelf. and also thinking about kind of larger food trends. and then kind of reflecting on what are we kind of, what are we missing or what might be good opportunities for us in terms of new products. and you know, out there in the food world, especially chocolate, there’s always a lot of trendy stuff that happens in the market. and for us, we want to launch a product that, at times kind of meet some of those trends, but also kind of at times meets some of those trends, but we want to do something that’s going to be more long lasting, right?
Dary:6:09That’s going to actually build a product that can build volume for our producer partners. and so a lot of of my kind of thinking behind product strategy is, is kind of combining trends with something classic so that it can actually, have more long term success. and so once we kind of looked out there and all the things that are going on and we kind of brainstorm different categories or products we might want to launch or a specific products that feel like really good possibilities from, for us. and then from there we work with our manufacturing partners to develop the recipes through a process that really kind of narrows down. A lot of times we just throw stuff up at the wall in terms of the categories we think are, are good places for us to be. and say, hey, we want to try a bunch of these, you know, three or four different things within this category., and then we, from there do a lot of sampling and would’ve like down and narrowing down to ones that we actually feel like are the right, right match and that our customers will be excited about. and then, yeah,
Kate:7:11So, if I’m understanding correctly, you would choose some ingredients perhaps and then ask manufacturing partners to play around with those? And then try them and see which ones work best?
Dary:7:19Correct. Exactly. Yup. and so, a lot of it is saying, hey, here are the ingredients we want. Here’s kind of the, the, a few different, , chocolate, percentages are recipes that we might want to try those ingredients. And, and then once we get those say, Whoa, that really didn’t work with the 55%. , so let’s try it a 65%. , and then really kind of tweaking around, the recipes to really get the best balance between, the, the ingredients and the chocolate. And I think one of the surprising things, you know, is how much inclusions, right? So the, the different ingredients we put in bars at side of just the chocolate, right? So the almonds and sea salt and lemon and ginger and things like that. How, how those really play with the chocolate. sometimes they work really well and pair where it really well and sometimes they don’t and they can really overwhelm the chocolate or make the chocolate. you know, some cases super sour when you added salty note, and like, that just doesn’t work. And so there’s a lot of back and forth and a lot of work to get to really that perfect balance that we’re excited to, launch.
Kate:8:29Yeah, that’s really interesting. Are you fumbling in the dark about that stuff or do you have more of a sense now that you’ve been doing it for a long time? What might work well, playing with the notes of the chocolate?
Dary:8:40I think we have a good starting point, but you always learn as you do it, like, Well that actually didn’t work as much. and so a lot of it is just being open, and saying, hey, we’re going to start with a few different starting points and see really where it, which direction is the right one to go in. But I do feel, you know, I feel like we’ve had some, some really good success with some product launches. I think we’re, we’re pretty good at that. We’ve also had some failures, right? Which is also how you learn and you have to do that. and, but I feel like we’re, we are good at really getting to kind of what’s up with the final product that we’re excited about it and we, we believe that customers are gonna be excited about.
Kate:9:22Well, speaking of new products, we have three new bars coming out, but we’re especially interested in talking to you about the Total Eclipse bar. We were hoping you could tell us what’s special about it and a little about that.
Dary:9:33Sure. Yeah. We are excited that we’re launching three new bars coming up here soon and the Total Eclipse is one of those, the 92% dark bar. and you know, we know more and more people, right, are looking for products with less sugar. And I think when I started in this position, you know, dark chocolate people was in the 60 to 70% range. And then years later, it was in 70 to 80% range. And you know, more recently the 80, 90% range, right? We launched an 88%. That’s done incredibly well and people are looking for that. and so we’re really excited to launch this 92%, which, has only three grams of sugar but is also, you know, for us, that’s a, that’s a super dark bar, right?
Speaker 3:10:19So we want something that, that can be challenging to get a product that actually has good flavor at that percentage, you’ve got to really have good beans, a good process to make sure that the product is not overly bitter or astringent or that they’re kind of off notes in that product. and you know, we’ve worked hard to come up with a bar that, is, you know, just a really nice chocolate bar. and just a lot of chocolate notes in it. And that sounds a little funny, talking about, chocolate because it’s chocolate, but different origins have very different flavor profiles. Right? And some are going to be more nutty. Some are going to have floral notes, some are going to be more sour. and, we are actually super excited with this bar to begin working in Africa to source some beans for this bar.
Dary:11:14This is, is not a single origin bar, but some of the beans will be coming from farmers in the country of Togo, which is located in west Africa. and up to this point, we’ve been working in Latin America. We love working with our partners in Latin America, but we are excited to begin partnering and working with, some organizations in Togo for these beans and bringing it back. The, you know, West Africa is very much known for it’s chocolatey notes in the beans. And so this bar kind of is illustrating a kind of the chocolateiness, of some of the beans that are in there.
Danielle:11:46The question that I had, it seems that, discourse around kind of labor abuses in the chocolate industry, child labor, focuses a lot on west Africa. traditionally Equal Exchange seems to have source chocolate from Latin America. can you talk about why that was chosen and how did some of those initial relationships come about?
Dary:12:17Yeah, a really good question. And you know, throughout its history, Equal Exchange has focused mainly on supporting organic farming, right and kind of more environmentally friendly farming practices. and that’s been a key part of kind of, who we are as an organization. and when we launched our chocolate program back in 2002, we started with an organic product. we actually, our first, chocolate product was actually a cocoa product. It was a cocoa mix. So we launched in 2002, which is just a great product. It’s just combining organic cocoa powder, organic sugar and actually organic milk powder. and when we started at the time, the only place where you could actually source organic cocoa or cacao was in Latin America. and so in a lot of the kind of the, the fair trade organic cacao sourcing and origins were in Latin America.
Dary:13:19And that’s, where we’ve focused a lot of our work, in Dominican Republic. And Peru and Panama, Ecuador. and for a long time really Latin America has been the leader in organic and traceable, kind of high quality and more specialty, cacao beans. And it’s really been interesting, I think to watch the cacao industry in Latin America follow the specialty coffee industry. and so a bunch of the countries in Latin America have done a really good job of supporting co ops and they’re kind of growing industries to focus on quality and provide, kind of unique flavors and higher quality caco for the chocolate industry.
Danielle:13:59Very cool. And, so, going back to the very beginning, how did some of those, where did you find those connections and how did you know, which farmers to work with and you know, were you involved in that process? Was it kind of driving around different countries to find farmers? I mean, how does, how does that work?
Dary:14:23Okay. it was actually before my time. I’m in the chocolate world. so that, that happened before me. but, really it was connection with people who were, who were doing some of this work already. And we actually ended up launching our first product in conjunction with a, a worker co op in Canada who was a hundred percent fair trade organization. They were focused on cocoa, their name is La Siembra, who’s now a close kind of partner, sister organization of ours. And and they were the ones doing it. And then, you know, we were excited about kind of the origins they were working with, which was, the Dominican Republic for the cocoa powder cooperative called CONACADO. and then also at the same time, organic and fair trade sugar coming out of Paraguay which is kind of the leading country in terms of organic sugar at the time. And working with several co ops.
Danielle:15:16Very cool. So now it seems like the direction maybe is beginning to shift a little bit with kind of your mention of a new partnership and Togo. Can you talk a little bit about that partnership and kind of where the thinking behind that came about?
Dary:15:37So, we were approached by an organization that’s been working in Togo, a fair trade organization named Gabana Togo, who’s been there for since 2015 I believe now. And, they’re working with two different cooperatives. One is named Scoops Procab, which was founded in 2013. and the second cooperative is named scoops IKPA. And they were founded in 2018 and they were originally actually, one co op, but they realized they were very far apart. And so it made more sense to split up the structures of the organizations to make it function better. and combined between the two cooperatives, there’s over 850 members and they’re located, and the regions around the cities of Kpalime and Badou, which are in the south western part of Togo, close, pretty close to the border of Ghana. And so really much, very much in the what’s called the cocoa belt of West Africa.
Dary:16:37in terms of a little bit more about them, their average farm sizes are about half a hectare to one and a half hectares. And so, just to give you a little comparison, it’s quite small. we work, traditionally with small scale farmers, for our cocoa, but in Latin America, a lot of our producers are averaging in the two to three hectares range. And they’re probably producing about 400 kilos or over 800 pounds of cocoa per hectare. And that’s also below kind of the, the world kind of average of cocoa production. I think a lot of older farms, and also older farmers, kind of the average age of farmers there is 50. and actually the life expectancy and Togo is probably about 60 years old. so yeah.
Dary:17:23But they are really investing in kind of new trees and investing in the farms. They actually I think in 2017 replanted about 80,000 new cocoa trees. and you know, I think what’s really exciting, is that they are doing organic and I think, this, you know, they’ve actually been producing cocoa in Togo, for, over a hundred years for a long time. and the industry kind of grew and then declined because there just wasn’t a lot of investment there. And so, I don’t have exact figures, but I’m guessing they’re producing, globally in Togo, for all production, maybe 5,000 to 10,000 metric tons. And to compare to two countries over in Ivory Coast, they’re producing roughly 1.8 million metric tons of cocoa. So very, very small scale. And I think what’s exciting is this is allowed these organizations to do organic, which is not, kind of, traditional in West Africa.
Dary:18:41And it’s traceable cocoa. and so, you know, we’re excited to work with organizations that are really trying to do things differently and set a different standard or an industry in this country that’s, that’s really kind of being reborn, and I think can be reborn in a really positive way. so for us, there’s still a lot to learn, right? We, we, it’s totally different context, in West Africa. So, that’s part of, part of why we would want to do this and make this step and get kind of in there and see what we can learn.
Danielle:19:16And so just to ask a little bit more about, why, why this decision, do you think that it’s more of a business decision, more of an ethical decision and why is it meaningful for Equal Exchange to, you know, to move forward with this partnership to you?
Dary:19:37Yeah, really good question. And I think, with Equal Exchange, these kinds of decisions are always often both of those things. and you know, why did we want to get into West Africa? Like I said before, it’s really the, the, the heart of the kind of major part of the industry. All right, 60 to 70% of the world’s cocoa is coming from there. so it’s, it plays a major role in the entire chocolate in industry. and beyond this, as a lot of people listening will probably know. Right. And as I previously mentioned, there has been a major focus on the problem of child labor in West Africa. and, and I want to talk about that, just kind of clarify that a little bit. what do you mean by child labor? Because I think there’s a lot of times kind of misconceptions out there about kind of how do we define that or what does that mean?
Dary:20:27And at the first level, right, it’s kids working on farms with their families, right? And so that’s, that’s something that’s normal, right. And is happens in the U S on farms. Right? and they’re helping their families out on the weekends. Outside of school. I’m doing, you know, just, safe tasks around the farm. Like, you know, my kids do chores around my house. and then there’s what’s known as the worst forms of child labor. and the International Labor Organization kind of, states this as a quote work, which by its nature or the circumstances in which is carried out, is it likely to harm the health, safety or moral slept children, unquote. Right? So, that’s really, what people are talking about. And that’s when kids are not able to go to school. When kids are working long hours, when they’re working in unsafe and I hope the conditions, and then there’s another level, which is children that are actually trafficked and ended up in slave conditions.
Dary:21:32And that’s, that’s a far smaller number, but it’s still exists. And, and I think something that’s kind of unfair to West Africa is to, it’s often, you know, explained as this is it it or it seems or is perceived as is only happening in West Africa. And this is not just happening in West Africa. It’s happening around the world that’s happening, not just in cocoa but, all sorts of crops. So sadly today, this is just a major widespread problem that still continues around the world. and even in the US and so, but that said, you know, in West Africa, because it is such a large part of the industry and it provides the most beans for the industry. There has been that focus and you know, just to give some numbers in some context, the United States government hired a Tulane University to really look at this and provide research and reporting on this issue. And they published a few different reports. Their final report was in 2015 and they compare data from the 2008-2009 harvest to the 2013-2014 harvest. And they found an overall increase in, in, children working in hazardous conditions, in the Ivory Coast and Ghana. and they wrote that over 2 million children are found in hazardous, work, during that 2013, 2014 and harvest season. So it’s, it’s a major at a, at a huge scale.
Kate:22:59Right. And my understanding is that in the chocolate industry, there’s been conversations and more light shed on this and people, big players have said that they’re going to be making improvements, but so it’s disheartening to hear that in fact, there are MORE children working in this industry than there were.
Dary:23:13Yeah. I mean there’s, there’s been a lot of conversations for a long time. and there’s, there has been some action, but I think what everyone, still believes is that it’s far, far, far from enough. and a lot of that too is it’s it’s action that, is not the right action. and, you know, from Equal Exchange’s perspective, you know, a lot of this needs to be paying farmers more. and part of the fair trade system is that there is a floor price and they were paying higher than the price. but, in 2017, the market dropped, basically by over 30%. Right. And so for farmers to lose that, and have no control over that, has a huge impact and that forces them to take drastic measures, and which can be how they, you know, aren’t, aren’t even able to pay their labor or maybe it actually stopped growing cocoa altogether. Right. it’s, it’s hard choice.
Kate:24:08Right, they’re forced out of the industry, or they hire laborers — or get laborers that aren’t being paid fairly.
Danielle:24:23And Dary, do you see any specific difficulties around this partnership in particular? And anything that you can foresee that could be difficult for Equal Exchange in this partnership?
Dary:24:39Yeah. So, I think we’re learning that, right? I think, I think time will tell, but you’ll let us know. well, you know, of course we kind of think about these things. and you know, a few things that come to mind is, is you know, many countries in Latin America, Co ops are, well defined, they’ve been around for a long time. and they’re sometimes decently supported by the government, sometimes they’re not, it depends on the country and the context. and I think in Africa this is less true, right? So, kind of our understanding is that these organizations are learning to be co ops and, and are starting at a very different place. and so I think that’ll be something that’s for us to learn and engage with them. And I’m understand what does that really mean and what’s that look like as we progress with this relationship.
Dary:25:32You know, I know they’ve also, right now they’re doing fermentation on the farms. rather than kind of central post-harvest fermentation, and, and what that means is right, cocoa beans go through a process once they’re harvested. they actually are fermented, which goes to your process, really kind of develop the flavor of the bean and doing it on the farm. How you have less control over that, right? So there’s, the quality can be really good, but it also can be inconsistent, right? So I think that’s something that we want and I know they’re thinking about that there as well. obviously the size of the farms are very small, so, that plays a, a role in how much impact you can have, if there’s only so much land to produce on. so kind of trying to understand that piece and the other pieces that were on our side, you know, we’re, we’re only launching right now this product with these beans and it’s, it’s blended.
Dary:26:27So, yeah, it, it’s a new product, right? And so we hope it does really well. but it’s a new product and you don’t know that. And so, you know, we hope we can buy a whole bunch of beans from this operative. but, with only being in one product, it’s time will tell. Right? And so we hope we can, provides, a more kind of consistent purchasing partner for them. but time will tell. And of course we can also think about other strategies.
Kate:26:56It sounds like our listeners need to make sure to buy some chocolate. That’s the Total Eclipse bar, for folks listening at home. It’s delicious, I hear. Actually, I’ve tried it; it is delicious.
Dary:27:07It is delicious. Yeah. And we think it will do well, but, but again, it’s a new product and they’re always unknown. and there’s a lot of, there’s a lot of challenges between us and even just getting a product to the shelf and to customers. Right? It’s just not always a straight path. So those are a few things I think that we’re, we’re thinking about. But you know, I am really excited that we’re taking this step and as I said, it’s, it’s new for us and it gives us the ability to move into West Africa and learn. And really see what the reality is and how much it lines up with kind of what we hear out there in the news and and what it is on the ground and how we can potentially play a role in having, yeah. Real positive, impact along with these organizations that are doing good work in Togo.
Kate:28:00Yeah, that’s a powerful thing.
Dary:28:02Yeah, for sure.
Kate:28:02So go back to the fluffy questions. Can you tell us how you came up with the name Total Eclipse? I’m really struck by that. I’m a fiction writer and I like words.
Dary:28:14Nice. Yeah. I mean a lot of chocolate bars are pretty straightforward names. Like one of the other bars we’re launching, it’s just Almond and Sea Salt, right. So, pretty straightforward. But, with this one, we wanted to get a little bit more creative and we actually, so the process, like I was talking about before, kind of going through iterations and thinking about what’s good out in the market and we actually in this case had a team, a committee that was, a few of my colleagues from our chocolate team as well as a few folks from our sales team, working together through this whole process to come up. But these products and, that committee, we a had a few brainstorm sessions and I know some folks on the committee also got some ideas from people outside of our committee. and we had a lot of, you know, we, we’re thinking super dark, right? What are fun ways to represent that. And of course, a lot of us came back with kind of nighttime moon themes. and I believe actually a total eclipse. The name came from one of our designers, Greta Merrick, who was working on the, the labels when we were thinking about, names. And, and we all kind of took that big list and did a few rounds of voting and narrowed it down and got down to a couple of names, and let people kind of sit with it and think about, kind of does this fit with our current line? Will people understand what the product actually is, are reasons we shouldn’t use the name right. And, kind of see if the final ones made sense and worked in that. We all were definitely in love with the Total Eclipse concept and a, it was also super fun again because our designer was working on this and she got whimsical and put in an eclipse moon above the cacao tree on the top. So that’s pretty fun.
Kate:30:02An Easter egg.
Dary:30:03And then the bar is just a, you know, it’s a kind of, it’s a black label and we just are super excited about the whole concept and bringing that out in the market. We think people enjoy that.
Danielle:30:22Great. Thank you so much. Dary, for meeting with us. maybe just one last question. What’s, what’s up for, the Equal Exchange chocolate team coming in 2019.
Dary:30:35Okay, sure, of course working on a whole bunch of things. A lot of it just making sure we have products for people to purchase. and of course a lot of our energy will be focused on supporting the launch of our new bars. and a lot of our work is behind the scenes, so we’ll kind of be doing projects to kind of continue to improve how we do things logistically and, and move our product ground and get it to folks out there, the market. continuing to build our relationship with our precert partners, and do trips to origin, as well as connect our customers and farmers through trips. And so last year we did a delegation to Peru and we’re actually looking at doing several delegations this year for staff and hopefully some, some of our accounts, which is always kind of a main goal of ours to just tell those stories but also connecting. Cool. and so people can see live and, and time what it really means, both to be a farmer, but also so farmers can hear what’s happening in the US right around the chocolate, aisle. So yeah, that should be pretty exciting.
Danielle:31:43Awesome. Thanks so much. Dary, and yeah, maybe there’s a followup podcasts. How does this partnership go? I’m definitely interested in the follow up. Thank you for joining us today. Yeah, thanks for having me.
Outro:31:56Thanks for listening to the stories behind our food. How podcast by Equal Exchange inc or work around 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, Cape Chests and Danielle Robidoux. Sound engineering provided by Gary Goodman. Join us next time for another edition of the stories behind our food.
In the lush and isolated highlands of southern Peru, a region known as Incahuasi, meaning “House of the Incas,” one young woman, Habilia Vigoria Oyola, stands out. To celebrate International Women’s Day, we are highlighting an outstanding woman who is working to support the dreams of a long-term coffee-producing cooperative and ally, San Fernando and break the mold by increasing gender equity in her community.
What sets Habilia (Haby) apart isn’t the fact that she is a woman. It is her desire to build up a generation of future leaders. She is passionate about involving young people, creating more resilient and sustainable ways to farm coffee, and making gender equity the norm.
Haby is the middle child of six, and the oldest of four girls. She is brave and adventurous– in fact, I first spent time with her when she spontaneously decided to go on a three-day backpacking trip to the looming peak behind Incahuasi’s native valley, a mountain by the name of Choquesafra (16,000 ft). She is also dedicated and studious. In addition to finishing up her undergraduate degree in Agricultural Engineering, she is also learning how to cup coffee, which is an important tool for empowerment for any cooperative. Cupping is how coffee is tasted by producers and buyers around the world to check the quality of a batch of coffee. (Read more about it here.)
In February 2019, I spent three days with Haby in a workshop focused on equipping trainers to disseminate the importance of capitalization. Workshop participants learned how to genuinely incentivize small-scale farmers to invest in their cooperatives- the main focus of this work being that no famer is too small or too poor to invest. (To learn more about that, read this or this). Haby is committed to San Fernando. She says “cooperative work is really nice. The more members we acquire means more support. We share knowledge and we … feel like a family with all the members of the cooperative.”
Haby’s parents are indigenous smallholder producers of coffee, supplying their crop to the San Fernando Cooperative. The recognition that all coffee farmers face controllable and uncontrollable challenges propelled Haby to pursue agricultural engineering. Over the course of her studies, Haby has witnessed all the difficulties in growing coffee and is proud to support their work by sharing all her learnings and ideas with her family and the cooperative. For example, her senior thesis work focuses on coffee pests and plagues, and she is hoping to put together model demonstration plots to share what a healthy plot or “chakra” should look like.
When I asked Haby how we could engage more female members of the community, her response was thorough: “By making women know their rights — that we are all equal, that we receive the same benefits from the cooperative.” According to Haby, the next step is to “create and strengthen institutions specialized in the field of gender equality, by promoting the participation of women in these areas.” In addition, she spoke of the importance of training people in leadership roles so that there’s a “mechanism for follow-up and monitoring of equality and gender equity in the cooperative.” None of this can happen, she says, without dedicating “resources for the proper functioning of this important work.” In her studies, she often found herself as the only woman in her cohort. Because of her experiences, she understands firsthand how difficult it can be to work in a role that people are used to seeing men fulfilling. She is dedicated to creating a new normal.
Haby has ambitious plans for the future. Her personal goal is to finish her agricultural engineering degree and focus on that career. She’d also like to grow speciality coffee on at plot of at least two hectares and to cultivate cacao varieties to experiment. As for the co-op, she hopes to see advances like an on-site processing plant and fully implemented cupping laboratory, as well as the production of biological controllers.
I know that Haby is just beginning to make her mark in the beautiful Incahuasi valley. Every time we part, I’m reminded of how genuine and powerful her enthusiasm is. Perhaps most importantly, she’s sending her community and co-op an important message: when you give youth and women the tools to succeed, they will start by giving back to their own community.
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Intro: 0:02 Everyday grocery store items like bananas, chocolate, coffee, these are global commodities. They pass through a lot of people’s hands on their way from the fields to your grocery cart. This is the stories behind our food podcast, the podcast where expert guests share insider knowledge about every step along the process. I’m Danielle Robidoux and I’m Kate Chess. And we’re your hosts.
Kate: 0:28 Danielle and I are here today with Cristina Liberati, who administers grants that support farmer cooperatives as they improve their quality, productivity and financial stability. Cristina deals with an astonishing variety of people, small scale farmers in a number of countries, plus agronomists, tasting professionals, folks who work for the u s government and more. And all of these people are working toward the same goals. Let’s hear more about how that works. Thanks for joining us, Cristina. Thanks for having me. Your job is clearly very complicated. How would you explain to a stranger what it is that you do for a living?
Cristina: 1:03 Well, I’ll start with my job title. I am the grant projects manager at equal exchange. So, what is the grant projects manager do at equal exchange? There’s really kind of two scenarios. One of them is your average come to the office, write emails, the usual have meetings. The other scenario is I’m in the field visiting with farmer cooperatives and, supporting educational workshops or giving workshops. All of this is related to managing this grant project that we have.
Kate: 1:39 Can you tell us about the scope of the grant?
Cristina: 1:42 Yes. So it’s actually, we, we have in the past had more than one grant, but the one that I’m referring to mainly is the USAID. So that’s the U S agency for International Development Cooperative Development Program. So it’s a multi year project where we applied for funding to do special projects with our farmer cooperative partners in three countries originally, Ecuador, Peru and Dominican Republic. And we work on lots of different activities related to strengthening our cooperative partners.
Kate: 2:21 Is there anyone else involved in this besides equal exchange?
Cristina: 2:29 So USA ID has many different funds. One of them being the cooperative development program. And within the cooperative development program we were one of nine, grantees. So some of the other grantees include the land o’ Lakes International Development Program. Another group called National Cooperative Business Association, specifically their arm that does is international projects called Clusa.
Kate: 2:57 Cool. Yeah, that sounds like so much. It’s kind of hard to wrap my mind around. What is it like, I guess we can all imagine sitting in an office and answering emails. Some of us might do that ourselves, but what’s it really like? Can you describe what it, what it’s like when you’re visiting producers in Ecuador or Peru?
Cristina: 3:17 Sure. well first Ecuador and Peru are, are fairly different, but sure. Yeah. My mainly in a project activity would involve, you know, flying down there and that always takes longer than, and then you’d like to thank, but oh, depending on where you’re going, I’ll take one or two days to get to your destination. At this point, you know, we’ve had such great relationships with our cooperatives that we can kind of call them up and say, I’m arriving at the airport at this time. Will you come pick me up? And they’re great about that. Usually pick us up, we’d go visit the offices of the cooperative and say hello. And, and one thing you kind of forget when you work in a US based office is physical contact is almost uh, discouraged. But if you go to Latin America and you are saying hello to someone, especially if you haven’t seen them for a long time and you don’t do the kiss on the cheek, it’s actually offensive. So there’s a lot of kisses and hellos. And how are you and this time of year happy new year, happy new year old lasts at least to like February.
Cristina: 4:30 Usually there’s some kind of meetings scheduled. If, they have a processing plant. Say if I’m going to visit NORANDINO in northern Peru, they have a coffee processing plant. We usually kind of tour the plant a little bit or do a little walk around as things change. We’ve worked on project activities to implement, you know, kind of new kinds of laboratory equipment in, in a co op like Nora and you know, and so want to see how it’s working, chat with staff about how it’s going, say hello to folks and then sit down and have meetings specifically around what was your work plan for the project this year, how’s it going, how can we support you? Is there anything we need to troubleshoot? Then you usually go for a nice leisurely lunch, uh, in a place like, uh, where NORANDINO is Savi Che is the most popular lunch and you know, that’s also, it’s a working lunch. You kind of continue to update each other on what’s going on. We try to provide as much information as we can about what’s happening on the u s market side or with equal exchange changes that are happening here.
Cristina: 5:40 And then, I’ll oftentimes you will have a field visit either the same day or the following day where you go visit with individual farmers. And again, it’s part of, it’s just going there and sitting and having a chat. And some facetime and you know, accepting graciously whatever find beverage they offer you. In Peru, sometimes it’s Chicho, which is a fermented corn drink.
Cristina: 6:09 I was recently in Paraguay and they offered us ted today, which is a kind of herbal concoction that they serve cold and you drink through a straw. But the generosity of our farmer partners is always astounds me and they’ll, they will give you anything they have and a lot of times they have beautiful fruits and things from the farm that they offer you as well. And then you know, if we implemented specific project activities with that farmer, we talk about that, you know, if they tried, uh, you know, a new Pr, uh, compost or went to a workshop around how to improve their pest management of the bugs that were eating their crops. So we, you know, we talk about that and how, how it went and what they, what suggestions they might have. So that’s, that’s in a nutshell that, that could repeat itself over a couple of days. And sometimes I go and we do workshops. If we’re workshop coming up in Peru to train more people in a capitalization, education program curriculum that we have so that we can offer that education program to more cooperatives in the future.
Kate: 7:28 That’s such a great picture of a sort of daily process of what this might be like. Thanks for that. Just like as a basic 101, what is a producer co-op in the context of Latin America?
Cristina: 7:42 Yeah, so again, Latin America is pretty large and produce our co op could mean a lot of things. My experience is mainly with coffee and get cow small farmer, producer, co-ops in Peru and Ecuador and Dominican Republic. So but given that, I think there are some generalizations we can make, the most essential function that these cooperatives provide is purchasing the raw product that the farmers are producing.
Cristina: 8:12 And a lot of times they’re aggregating it and providing a service of a postharvest processing they call it. So taking the raw product and turning it into a semi-finished product for export. So in the case of cacao for example, it needs to be fermented and then dried. And often you have better quality control and if you do that for many farmers at once versus the farmers doing individually. So the co op serves that function and also they’re the ones out there looking for international markets and clients and you know they serve as the face of the farmers in the kind of international market at the same also they invest some money back into the co ops and services for the farmers. Sometimes that takes the form of like a health campaign where they have an optimologist come and fit people for eyeglasses and or a lot of times it involves them hiring a agricultural technicians to go and support the work on the farms on a daily basis. Just those are just some small examples.
Danielle: 9:24 I have a question specifically on scale and how big some of these cooperatives are. I know you work in a few different countries and kind of what’s the range of how many families are in each cooperative. And I don’t know if you have any opinions on like is there a too big or what’s like the right size for how many family farms are in the cooperative? What your thoughts are on that?
Cristina: 9:51 Yeah, it’s a really interesting question. I work with cooperatives that range from a couple hundred producers up to almost 10,000. Wow. And there are, it’s a big one, although in, you know, there’s a cacao co op in Ghana that has I think something like 80,000 members, I mean massive. So it makes, uh, some of the 10,000 member Coopa Look, look small. I wouldn’t say that there’s a right or wrong answer here. I think that each scenario provides different challenges and also different benefits. So when you’re really small, oftentimes the cooperative is like a tight knit family for better or for worse. Right. So, yeah, and it makes sense like if you love your family, but you need a little space from them sometimes. And in those scenarios, often if you are introducing a new technology or a new idea, it’ll be adopted by everyone pretty quickly. And that’s, as long as it’s a good piece of information, that’s a good thing. On the other hand, there can be a lot of infighting and politics that the organizations don’t always mature to the level where they can handle that. And so I think you have a lot of vulnerability at that size sometimes. They also, you know, might not be able to access the same kind of markets that a larger co-op would because they just aren’t producing at a scale that some clients find efficient to buy from.
Cristina: 11:28 But you know, there are successful co-ops at every size, I think. And the larger co-ops you’re able to, they often develop into multifunctional businesses. So they’ll have an arm that does part raw processing. Like they might have a factory where they turn the cacao into cacao powder. They might have their own bank or credit union that serves the members, but also the rest of the community. The challenge with those large cooperatives I’ve seen is they often lose contact with their membership. And so that’s risky. Also, it’s sort of the opposite of a tight-knit family. You just have this loose aggregation of folks that it doesn’t really matter to them that they are a member of this particular co-op. It’s just the one that’s everywhere, you know, it doesn’t feel personal anymore. Yes. Yeah, yeah. To talk about individual farms now, the farms that make up these are the farmers that make up these producer co-ops.
Kate: 12:27 One of the aims of this program, it sounds like focuses on quality. What our issues are about quality when we’re talking about organic farming.
Cristina: 12:38 Yeah. I think issues with quality can range from organic to nonorganic. some of the challenges specifically with quality for organic farmers are they can’t use the same chemicals to combat like insects and different diseases that, conventional farmers are able to access. And so sometimes they can be much more success susceptible to those things and that will, of course, affect your quality and your productivity. On the flip side, I think organic farmers tend to have more diversity of, of product and of, uh, crops within their farm. And that from a flavor perspective and a variety of perspective is usually a benefit. And so, you know, I work in part in,it’s kind of like the specialty good cacao, area and you have more diversity and interesting flavors that can come from organic farms usually then it conventional farm in. That’s a generalization.
Kate: 13:54 When you say diversity, you mean like they might be planting more than one variety will have this of cacao or different kinds of things other than cacao as well or both?
Cristina: 14:03 Yeah. And cacao has thousands upon thousands of varieties and it’s one of the most complex foods on earth in terms of variety of flavors. There’s like 6,000 aromatic compounds. Weight might be 600 beyond that a lot. Yeah. I’m, it’s up there with wine and coffee and those other products that people really like to save her and look for a flavor notes and having a different varieties of cacao on one farm can give you more complexity of flavor and also other crops are going to interact and, have an impact on what people call sometimes terroir, which is the taste of a place or a unique flavor of a product.
Kate: 14:53 I’ve heard that before. Referring to other kinds of products like wine. What is … are farmers … Is this sort of coincidence or is it something farmers are deliberately working to develop?
Cristina: 15:06 Often it’s just a circumstance. You know, you inherit a farm that’s got a mess of varieties and it can be a challenge because if you don’t know, you know, what those, what the potential is of those varieties. It, you know, what good is it to you. And also in terms of farm management, sometimes the trees aren’t planted in rows. They’re just kind of scattered all over the place. They’ve been pollinated by who knows what. And you have, you don’t know exactly what varieties you have. So it can be messy, but if you know what you’re doing, you can really benefit from, from that diversity and complexity
Kate: 15:51 People on the consumer end. And certainly, people in the middle, people who are buying these commodities have sophisticated ideas about what qualities are desirable or what tastes delicious or what can get the most money. Are Farmers included in those conversations.?
Cristina: 16:43 We talked a little bit about wine a second ago and that is, is a crop where farmers are very often included in those conversations. The products that equal exchange works with and as of yet we don’t work with wine but someday maybe. Yeah. Here’s to that! The answer is no. Farmers aren’t always included in those conversations. I’d take, coffee has come a really long way in that aspect and Equal Exchange was really a pioneer in that movement to include farmer’s in conversations about quality. And my office mate is the green coffee buyer and she was just looking at hundreds of reports of quality analysis that they’ve done in our lab here that she’s bringing down to Peru to talk to the farmers. About next week. So this is very much an ongoing thing. And in it’s been a lot slower, that development, but it’s happening now and I’d like to think our project has played some part in that.
Kate: 17:17 Yeah. What are, what are the advantages, just to break it down, why would a farmer who’s really good at growing plants need to know how the finished product is gonna Taste?
Cristina: 17:28 So a product like cacao is the prices generally determined by the New York Stock Exchange and not by the quality of the product that they’re offering. And having some knowledge about the quality of your product gives you a voice and power in negotiations around its value in a way that many farmers typically have not been included in before or given before.
Kate: 18:00 So how does it work? How do they, how do they get included?
Cristina: 18:05 Good question. Yeah, I think, first and foremost starting to ask the question, you know, oh, I didn’t know I could, you know, that there was more than one price for cacao. Our work has focused on in the project, really collaborating with some of the star co-ops in our supply chain who had already made some advances in this area too. Generally work at the Co-op level, but we worked with TCho chocolate in San Francisco to, uh, install little mini-factories, which we call the TCho calls, flavor labs at the cooperatives so that they can process small amounts of the Ra or the fermented and dried cow beans into chocolate or with or without sugar. That’s the way that most chocolate makers evaluate the quality of a product and make decisions about whether or not to buy. But many farmers had never even tasted their own beans and chocolate form. And so,
Kate: 19:07 wow. I just want to stop and think about that. That’s crazy.
Cristina: 19:11 Yeah, it’s a, it is a little bit mind-blowing, you know. So just even the gotten of leveling the playing field with the tools that are available was, was a huge step. And then from there it’s really sitting down at, at the table and tasting together and Cho and equal exchange. And our farmer producers got together a few times a year and we’re tasting chocolate or unsweetened chocolate together and trying to see if we were coming up with similar flavor characteristics and qualities and from there developing written documents that would help people speak the same language when they were discussing their results. So we worked together on a tasting form for Cocoa. And you know, related things to help people have, have a universal tool to look at and speak the same language. Yeah, that’s really inspiring. It’s easy to see how that can make a big difference.
Danielle: 20:20 Can I ask one question, thinking about some farmers for the first time tasting their own chocolate, is there any kind of funny experience that you can think of a reaction to that and you know, folks being excited or, wow, I didn’t know that, you know, when I was growing, could, you know how it tasted? I don’t know. I’m just interested in that like kind of reaction that they might’ve had to taste their own chocolate for the first time. It seems like it could really cool.
Cristina: 20:48 Yeah. You know it’s really fun, but in fun in the way that looking, I’ve, I’ve been, I’ve been a participant in tastings like this also, but often what we would advise the coops to do, or they came up with this idea on their own was create a chocolate and unsweetened chocolate made from beans that were processed really badly and one that was processed really well. And right away the farmers can tell the difference in the flavor and the quality of off, you know, uh, fermentation changes the flavor dramatically and it reduces the bitterness and the stringency of the cacao. And so if you don’t ferment properly, you taste that right away and you just want to spit it out. So and on the other hand, it really good, good cow. That is the process. Well, even without sugar is going to taste really nice. And so I’ve, I’ve been at workshops where they offer, you know, kind of a good example and a bad example, but they don’t tell you. And the faces on the of the participants are just kind of priceless. And I, yeah, I’ve seen that many times. It’s, to be honest, but it’s a, it’s a really great educational tool and I know that some of the farmer co-op quality managers have taken the beans from a particular farmer back to that farmer and said, you know how you’re harvesting all those underwrite pods. Yeah, here’s what you’re giving us and we can’t sell this to clients or we get penalized for it. And once they taste it, they understand.
Danielle: 22:33 Kind of going off of that in regards to this project, how much of it is kind of producer-led? And do you kind of feel as though small scale farmers are either represented underrepresented and the scope of this and what are your thoughts on that?
Cristina: 22:56 Yeah, you know, it occasionally we get together with other grantees from the cooperative development program and every time we go to these meetings, people are kind of astonished by the, by the way, our project seems to work and I’m always astonished by the way their projects work. But they’re like, you give the money directly to the co-ops and then they do the work. I’m like, what are you doing? This is the cooperative development program. A lot of them work through third parties or consultants to deliver services to the Co-op, but never deposit the money directly to the ops themselves.
Cristina: 23:38 But I think we have the advantage of working with co-ops that are developed to the point where they’re able to export. I mean they’re, they’re fairly sophisticated in the world and the co-op world. Yeah. But we also trust them and they, you know, we have the good fortune of them often trusting us. And so we establish a very clear work plan in a very clear budget. And then we make deposits and then they have to send us receipts on all those deposits. And if they don’t, they don’t get another disbursement. They also know that it, that their performance on the grant affects the commercial relationship and our, you know, if they do really poorly on the grant, it’s not going to necessarily damage the commercial relationship, but it’s not gonna improve it either. So we, we don’t, we don’t, uh, use one to leverage the other and that’s not what I’m trying to say, but it’s, it’s like engaging with a family member on a business project.
Kate: 24:36 If one thing goes poorly than the other one, it’d be awkward at Thanksgiving.
Cristina: 24:39 Right, exactly. Yes. Well spoken. And so I think, I don’t know if that answers your question, but it’s, I would say yes, it’s, it’s very much producer led in the design and the execution and the ownership. And One, one statistic I can give you, cause we were just evaluating our project, is I don’t know many times when people look at what charity to donate to, they look at how much goes to overhead. And I actually calculated that equal exchange has taken of 100% of the funds available to us, 3% to execute this project. And 97% of the funds went directly to the co-ops or services that directly benefited the co-ops. And so I think that’s pretty good. Yeah.
Danielle: 25:39 Yeah. I just, just ask that question and I have an international relations background and a lot of times that would be something that folks were concerned about. People just kind of going in and having their perspective telling people how to do things, but having a different energy around it saying, no, actually, you know, this, it’s important for the involvement to be produced led and having feeling that feeling of ownership and control over your own projects and that changes the energy behind it to me. But
Kate: 26:08 yeah, you also alluded to the fact that we’re talking about very different countries here. Something that’s going on in Peru with, you know, cacao is going to be different from something that’s going on in the Dominican Republic. Do people in the cooperatives decide what’s important for their specific group?
Cristina: 26:29 Yeah. I mean it’s kind of a balance, right? Sometimes you learn about something that’s going really well and you want to be able to share that with, with a cooperative that’s having a different challenge, even if they’re in a different space. But it, wherever possible, we try to have the producers tell those stories directly to other producers rather than saying, well in, you know, use Becca, Stan, I saw they did this and you should try this. You know, it’s, it’s very different than bringing someone from Uzbekistan together with someone from Honduras to share that experience.
Kate: 27:04 Yeah, cut out the middleman.
Cristina: 27:05 Yeah. Well, and it just, it has more impact if it, if you hear it from someone who you can relate to in their experience and goodness knows they don’t grow any cacao in Uzbekistan.
Kate: 27:16 Yet.
Cristina: 27:17 But that said like producer co-ops around the world, tend to face some similar challenges or I mean, and we even find we have similar challenges as Equal Exchange. The worker co-op with some of our producer co-op partners. Like, how do you get people to run for the board? How do you get them educated to run for the board? This is a question that I see here and we were just talking about it today actually. And it, I’ll be talking about it with a producer co-op, the Banana Co-op in Peru that I’m visiting next week. Same problem.
Kate: 27:49 That’s great. Yeah.
Danielle: 27:50 Yeah. Even thinking about having a cooperative that are geographically dispersed and trying to still honor that connection of the members together and how that can be more challenging as cooperatives grow. And I know that’s a problem. And that equal exchange has that, you know, you would kind of alluded to before talking about the different scale of the
Kate: 28:11 yeah. Big Cops that don’t see each other that much, where farmers might feel isolated or less connected. Makes Sense. Yeah. Yeah. Can you talk about information sharing that seems to be an ethos of this program?
Cristina: 28:23 Yeah, I would say it’s an ethos of equal exchange to I and I, my colleague Beth Ann Casperson, who I think did a previous podcast, which everyone should listen to, is really, such a proponent of this and you know, in the coffee world, equal exchange has shared a lot of information about how we roast or how we work with our partner co-ops. And that philosophy I think works its way into many things that we do include this project. And so one area I already highlighted was trying to have producers share information with other producers. So we organized over 15 different coop exchanges through the previous project, bringing together all of the representatives from all of the cops in their project to talk about specific issues related to quality productivity or financial management of the co-ops .
Danielle: 29:20 And kind of thinking, taking a step back, thinking about a timeline. And you know, originally the project was supposed to be five years and it’s kind of had three extensions, right? So that’s a huge difference in longevity and creating a longterm relationship. How have you been because of these extensions? How have you been able to see some of the, of the project directly?
Kate: 29:44 And if I can jump in, what’s next?
Cristina: 29:46 Yeah, sure. the, the extensions of time, we’re kind of a blessing and a curse. I mean you, when you think you plan for a five-year project and then it turns into eight, sometimes you’re running out of ideas or you know, it’s at what point do your teammates from other cops go and work on other things. But on the plus side, I would say, you know, trees take a long time to grow. So I’m, and cacao trees planted from seed, we’ll take about five years to mature and eve if, so, if you start right away on a productivity project, you may or may not see the results at the end of your project term. And this project has allowed us to really see some of those developments in productivity. You know, we did a bunch of what they call model farms.
Cristina: 30:39 So you know, kind of demonstrative farms within certain areas of the Co-op that do all of the improvements to the farm and they are supposed to serve as, as a model for their neighbors at those, model farms. The productivity went up by, you know, on average in some places like 496%. Wow. And so being able to see that is really satisfying and then you’re able to really share that knowledge. And, and I think with this extension of time, we’ve been able to much more kind of systematically and intentionally create records and tools that we can then use going forward. And that hopefully, you know, in the spirit of sharing are available on a wide scale to whoever finds them useful. All of these are products that we’ve created or tools, resources are actually on the equal exchange website. So feel free to check out the cooperative development page —
Kate: 31:43 –if you’re planning to start a cacao farm yeah.
Cristina: 31:46 Or you want to learn how to taste chocolate.
Kate: 31:49 Yeah, all right. You’re speaking my language. Yeah, yeah.
Cristina: 31:52 And what’s next? Equal Exchange applied for and received funding for another cooperative development project that started in 2018 and we’ll go to her until 2023 or 2026 or who knows how many extents. Yeah. Yeah. That has to do with the government not knowing how much money to allocate at a particular time. Something that the shutdown is highlighting. Maybe they could use some financial management training.
Kate: 32:23 Great. Thank you so much, Cristina. You’ve been awesome. It’s really fun to talk with you and learn about what is going on.
Danielle: 32:32 Yeah. Thanks for chatting so much.
Kate: 32:37 Thanks for listening to the stories behind our food. A podcast by equal exchange, inc a worker owned cooperative. Love this episode. Please subscribe rate and leave a review. Be sure to visit equal exchange.co op to join the conversation, purchase products and learn more about small scale farmers and the global supply chain. This episode was produced by equal exchange with hosts, Kate Chess and Danielle Robidoux sound engineering provided by Gary Goodman. Join us next time for another edition of the stories behind our food.
Have you ever tried natural process coffee? If you have, you probably noticed a difference! Known as “naturals” in the specialty coffee industry, these coffees impart a heavy, expansive mouthfeel and flavor notes that are fruity and complex. Equal Exchange now offers natural process coffee — and fans of this style are devoted. But what makes naturals so distinct?
Coffee beans are the seeds of the coffee plant. Like other seeds, they’re found within the fruit. In coffee-growing regions around the world, farmers wait for this fruit to ripen. Once the sugars are fully developed and the cherries are mature, it’s time to harvest them from the bushes where they grow. But what happens next? That depends.
Often, farmers remove the pulp that surrounds the seeds. Because this is commonly done with water, the method is called wet processing. But in some cases, the de-pulping step is skipped entirely. The coffee bean is processed within its cherry. The result is dry-processed – or natural-processed – coffee.
After farmers harvest the cherries, they spread them out on raised drying beds or bamboo mats to dry, with the beans still inside the fruit. The flesh shrinks down, making the beans resemble large raisins. They lose moisture over the course of the drying period, creating a dense sweetness. The process may sounds simple, but it takes skill. Workers must carefully remove unripe or defective beans by hand. They must also turn the coffee cherries regularly so that they dry evenly in the sun. Once drying is complete, which can take anywhere from twelve days to three weeks, beans are put through a hulling machine. This removes the dried pulp, parchment and silverskin. The green beans are now ready to be roasted.
Natural processing is the most environmentally friendly method of processing coffee. Unlike with wet processing methods, there is no wastewater that must be evaporated in soak pits or filtered before it can be safely returned to rivers and streams. And when access to water is limited, as it is in many parts of the world, natural processing is especially practical. It makes sense that this method is very common in Ethiopia, where the coffee plant originated! Equal Exchange works with small-scale farmer partners at SCFCU, located in the Sidama region of the country, to source the natural process beans we use in our popular Organic Ethiopian coffee.
The success of the dry-processing method in Ethiopia has encouraged coffee farmers in other parts of the world to turn to natural process coffee, too. Experimenting with processing is a one way to improve quality. Farmers at the COMSA co-op in Honduras are leaders in innovation. They’ve discovered that beans from the same lot can sometimes garner a higher score on the Specialty Coffee Associations of America’s 100-point scale when processed naturally, as opposed to with the wet process. COMSA’s willingness to try new things and their commitment to quality results in a final product that tastes phenomenal! In Fall 2018, a limited-edition seasonal in Equal Exchange’s Women in Coffee series featured natural-processed beans from COMSA.
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