In 40+ years as an activist pushing for a more equitable food system, Rob Everts has seen a lot. Now he’s one of Equal Exchange’s Executive Directors and he’s still fighting the good fight. In this episode, hear some organizing stories from back in the day, and learn about how you can take part in the upcoming Summit. (You can RSVP here.)
Want to attend the Summit? Make sure to RSVP by May 24th here.
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This savory staple is great for picnics, barbecues, or an easy dinner on a warm night. Stop yourself from eating it all in one sitting — we think it tastes even better the next day.
This is the best version of the classic American pasta salad we've ever had. We used fair trade Organic Olive Oil from our partners at PARC in the West Bank in the dressing.
Boil the pasta in salted water according to package directions. Drain and allow to cool.
Cook bacon until crisp, then chop.
Quarter tomatoes and slice cucumber.
Dice onion into tiny pieces. Soak in cold water to reduce its bite. Drain well.
Mix pasta with vegetables and bacon. Salt to taste.
Blend all dressing ingredients and toss with pasta. Add more salt and pepper to taste.
Since 2011, Equal Exchange has carried organic olive oil from Palestinian farmers. West Bank families produce this special oil from olive trees that have been passed down from generation to generation. We’re pleased to be able to work with the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee (PARC) an NGO that helps to organize and assist farmers in order to test their oil’s quality, bottle it, and bring the product to market.
But true partnerships must weather ups and downs. In October and November 2018, the annual olive harvest in the West Bank was the smallest in over a decade. This was due to a number of factors such as climate change-induced drought and the presence of olive flies. Some farmers had yields as low as 20% of normal, causing great economic hardship.
Agriculture has always been a risky business. If you’re an independent small-scale farmer, a bad season or two can shut you down. That’s why Equal Exchange acts in solidarity with our partners in 20 countries around the world — including PARC — by providing pre-harvest financing, paying higher than the fair trade minimum price, and being as consistent and transparent as we can. We do all this with your support!
Because of the poor harvest and lower total yields in the West Bank, less olive oil hit the threshold of Extra Virgin this year, so we weren’t able to buy as much as in years past. And as is always the case with supply and demand, when supply is cut, prices go up. Despite these challenges, we’re proud to have been able to pay olive farmers more this year.
Because of the limited supply of Organic Extra Virgin olive oil, Equal Exchange is offering a brand new product — Organic Virgin Olive Oil — at a slightly lower retail price.
But what’s the difference? Extra Virgin olive oil is the highest grade of virgin. It contains no more than 0.8% free acidity. Organic Virgin olive oil, in comparison, has a free acidity that ranges from 0.8-2.0%. Both kinds of olive oil we buy from PARC are 100% certified organic. Both grades are unrefined, derived from the olive fruit by cold mechanical extraction (“cold-pressed”) without fillers or chemicals. Both can be used the same way — cooked or uncooked. Let us know if you can even taste the difference!
PARC is a leading Palestinian non-profit involved in rural development and women’s empowerment. It works with cooperatives and reaches more than 6,000 members. Our work with PARC fits with the larger Equal Exchange mission of providing assistance to small-scale farmers around the world so they can run businesses that help to sustain their families. PARC offers these farmers an important economic opportunity, since markets for their goods are severely restricted due to the occupation.
This summer, we’re expanding the range of products from PARC that we carry. Starting this July, look for packages of maftoul, freekeh, za’atar, and dates, all sourced from small-scale farmers in the West Bank.
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By Kim Coburn and Frankie Pondolph, Equal Exchange
During the week of April 10th Equal Exchange coffee team hosted 10-20 coffee & cacao producers at Equal Exchange headquarters for Coffee & Cacao Sensory Activities, learning from each other and participating in the annual Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) Expo. I sat down with Kim Coburn, Equal Exchange’s green coffee buyer to talk about bringing producers together, sharing knowledge and learning from our farmer partner community.
As a green coffee buyer I imagine a lot of your work is going to the farmers and country of origin. What does this week mean to you hosting our partners here at Equal Exchange and at SCA?
I’m coming up on my first full year at Equal (amazing how time flies!), which means that this will be my first SCA with the team. Its exciting because we will be using this as an opportunity to meet with folks who we rarely get to see- from producer partners to project partners and other NGOs working in the region. It’s always good to know what other work is going on in the various countries to see if there is synergy and potential to collaborate in the future.
Wow! The web of the coffee industry is big, and I bet that SCA helps foster future collaborations, especially with people and partners we may not be directly connected with all the time. What producers are visiting us this week?
We purchase from twenty-three cooperatives in twelve countries, and only some of those will be represented this week. From Chiapas, Mexico we will have Finca Triunfo Verde, CESMACH, Comon Yaj Noptic. From Guatemala we have Chajulense and Manos Campesinas. From Peru: Sol y Cafe, San Fernado, Cecovasa, and NorAndino. Other coops from central america will also be here, including COMSA, a coop from Honduras, and Prodecoop, a coop from Nicaragua.
What do think one of the most rewarding aspects of bringing together farmers from different cooperatives is?
Providing a platform for discussion and exchange is absolutely the best thing. On top of that, of course we all get to know each other which doesn’t typically happen outside events like these.
We gave our visitors a tour of our facilities which proved to be a really fun experience. Many of the coops we work with also roast, grind their own coffee and have national distribution or aspirations to distribute a value-added product in their country. To see the scale that our cooperative operates at and some of the challenges we face with our distribution is important for us as a coop. Our growth has been steady and we are always happy to share our learning transparently to other ATO’s.
That’s super exciting to hear! I have heard a couple of folks at Equal Exchange share that when opportunities arise for farmers to learn from each other, share experiences and talk through various challenges- that’s some of the best cross-culture learning you can foster. What are some techniques and process farmers will learn in the lab this week?
Since we had a relatively large groups, and needed translation, we kept it simple. We tasted brewed coffee from various regions, and chocolate with different percentages of cacao.
We chewed the chocolate in silence, let it melt on our tongue, then sipped the coffee and noted how the flavors, acidity, and mouthfeel changes or were accentuated. The end result was a conversation on how chocolate and coffee pairings can accentuate characteristics in coffee and vice versa. We did this for three different pairings and then discussed our experiences as a group and what we noticed. Our first pairing was a coffee from Peru, and our mini chocolate bar, which is 55% cacao content. At the onset the chocolate was raisiny, coconutty, and floral. The coffee had the aroma of nuts and butter. Once I tasted the chocolate, and mixed it with coffee there was a burst of acidity and the flavor profile tasted more like whiskey and cherries. It was really fun!
We nixed the idea of doing a traditional cupping because of the group size, and this pivot ended up being really rewarding and really engaging. (Cupping is the industry term used for the process of analyzing a coffee based on its sensory qualities – for example, its aromas and flavors. Read more about it here.)
What do you imagine the biggest take away farmers gained during their time at Equal Exchange?
How our company operates as a cooperative, and what that means, how the market is affecting medium-sized alternative trade organizations (ATOs) such as ourselves, and how seriously we take food safety for us & our manufacturing processes.
I think it’s really cool that the coffee team choose to showcase our coffee and collaborate with a local cooperative business. I heard a delicious coffee IPA was brewed for the special week. Can you talk about this years SCA event and our collaboration with Democracy Brewing?
The SCA is an annual conference that brings coffee farmers, traders, roasters and baristas from across the industry together. This year it happens to be in Boston (in the past couple years its been in Portland and Seattle). The Equal Exchange coffee team attended lectures on the challenges posed by volatility in the global market and presented on panels. Our quality control team, Beth Ann Caspersen and Mike Mowry judged a cupping competition, while on the buying side, we sat down with a majority of the producer partners to check in on harvest and talk about upcoming needs, whether its contracting or financing, or questions about logistics that arose over the last couple months. It’s a great way to see a lot of people in a very short, jam-packed amount of time.
The Democracy Brewing event naturally came together for a couple different reasons. First,since SCA was in Boston after a hiatus, we wanted to take advantage and showcase a cool and new cooperative in our hometown of Boston.
Second, Equal Exchange is a coop, we’re sourcing coffee from cooperatives and.d=Democracy Brewing is a cooperative. Another fun fact is our co-president Rob also sits on their board. (And our co-president Rob is on the board). To have a coop to coop collaboration and create a beer together made so much sense! Years ago when SCA was in Boston, EE worked with Harpoon brewery. we go visit producers, they still bring the collaboration up. It made a lot of sense to have another coffee-beer combo, but we wanted to do something out of the ordinary. We didn’t want to do a coffee porter. While those are delicious, we wanted to surprise people and so when they picked up the lighter beer, and IPA-like beer, they were surprised because of the coffee aroma. Even the democracy brew folks weren’t sure how it would turn out- but I think all folks agree- it was delicious!
That does sound delicious! What cooperative did that coffee come from? Can you talk a little about the process of brewing coffee and beer?
For this beer we used a Peru Medium (meaning medium roast level), from the coop Sol y Cafe from the north of Peru. We made a cold brew concentrate out of it, and delivered that to Democracy, who then added it to their IPL Smash. The result was a light colored, hoppy Coffee IPA they named Crash.
Nice! That sounds like a delicious collaborating and so fun to highlight product from one of our visiting partners Sol y Cafe in Peru.
I imagine that week was filled with a lot of inspiration, learning and networking, not to mention that amount of logistics and planning it takes to host! Do you have a favorite moment from the week?was one of your most favorite moments during the week?
During the open house event, the general manager, Cayo Quispe, of the San Fernando Coop in southern Peru, saw a coffee bag out on our floor. We took several photos of it with him standing and smiling– it was amazing that the coffee that he helped get to us, was about to get roasted the moment he came to visit us (and the United States) for the first time. It was a reminder that coffee brings us together, no matter what part of the supply chain you’re in.
In this Mediterranean-inspired recipe, smokey roasted eggplant pairs perfectly with a tart, creamy sauce while the sweetness of pomegranate seeds bursts on the tongue.
It’s a beautiful dish, too — testers here were in such a rush to eat, we had trouble snapping a pic that did it justice! Maybe you can do better …
We used fair trade olive oil from our partners in the West Bank to roast the eggplants. We also mixed it into the sauce. Za'atar seasoning and pomegranate seeds set this vegetarian side dish apart from the pack.
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Adapted from a recipe by Yotam Ottolenghi.
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!
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.