Episode 4: Farmers Sharing Knowledge for Better Chocolate — and Better Outcomes

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Episode Transcript

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.

Humanizing the Food System

By Danielle Robidoux, Organizer, Equal Exchange

Time, it is something the modern-day shopper is not likely to have in abundance. Walking through the aisles at a grocery store, our senses are inundated. Everyone is trying to get our attention, our dollar, our buying patterns or demographics to add to their marketing research, so we can be placed in a box, minimized to a mere statistic. When we pluck a product off of a shelf, it usually ends there. Who out there really wants to take the time to get to know us, find out who we are? Turn customers into humans, statistics into conversations, aggregate data into community, and dollars into real change?

As one of the leaders in Equal Exchange’s organizing initiative that started a few years ago, my job has been to do just that. Humanize the food system, you. My job has been to imagine, in a world that idealizes technology over human interaction, self-interest over community, productivity over sustainability, and profit margins over our planet, that despite all odds, we can build something real. We can at least exist in this corporately dominated space as an authentic organization, with people behind it.

Our first year of this organizing work was a lot of learning, mistakes, missed flights, and late night conversations debating what the hell we were doing. It also included, for some reason–a lot of pizza. We spent this first year clarifying and developing what we were building. Our second year focused on our community, who are the folks who have been drinking Equal Exchange coffee and buying our products for all these years? We created spaces for them to engage in peer-to-peer learning, we showed up physically and virtually across the United States. We gathered together, some events with just a few people, others with hundreds. Each encounter left us inspired by everything folks were doing in their communities to build a better world, brick-by-brick.

EE Event

Danielle pictured left at an organizing event this past October at Equal Exchange’s cafe in Boston.

Now, going into our third year of this work, in addition to opening up our own democracy as a worker cooperative to active citizen-consumers, we are organizing this community into campaign work. Work that we not only see as vital to the future survival of Equal Exchange, but to an independent food system more generally. Large food conglomerates are changing the rules of the game, they have been for years. In recent years, this continued shift has seemingly left the independent food world devoid of oxygen. Independent companies are being bought everyday by larger companies that undermine their original vision, water down standards and practices, and negotiate terms that adhere to their own interests, solely in the name of power and profit.

This has led Equal Exchange to endorse the Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act of 2018(A tongue-twister for sure). Sponsored by Senator Cory Booker and Representative Mark Pocan, this bill would essentially act as a pause on mergers in the food economy, allowing it a moment to breathe. It would then formulate a commission that would for 18 months evaluate the impact of consolidation on the food system, and carve a path forward.

The bill is in the process of being reintroduced in the first-half of this year. New conditions have led the group working on this bill to believe there is a greater chance for it to pass, at least in the House, with your help. Consolidation across the board has increased prices for consumers, decreased wages and benefits for workers, strangled rural communities, while simultaneously setting record breaking profit margins. Power has shifted so drastically we believe power needs to be shifted back into the hands of the independent food economy, an economy that can no longer exist without your participation.

While we all seem to have a scarcity of time in our lives, time is necessary to accept our shared responsibility of this planet, this food system, and the families and communities of which we are a part. This work is not easy, it is complex, and time and energy is what it will require. I invite you to email me, get angry, get curious, whatever you do, get involved.

The Dairy Crisis: Intertwining the World of Trade, Livelihoods and Consumers

By Emily Ambrose, Equal Exchange

In early January, I wrote a piece highlighting my experience as a dairy farmer and the path that led to my work at Equal Exchange. In this piece below, I hope to dig into elements of the dairy crisis and raise awareness of the consequences of building a food system for large corporations and commodity markets.

The dairy industry is a world in its own.The issues in dairy spread far and wide, intertwining the world of trade, the livelihoods of small farmers and farm-workers, the resilience of rural communities, and lives of consumers. It is a complex and very challenging industry and supply chain to follow unless you’re deeply and actively linked into it as a farmer, marketer, processor, or grocery industry insider. A key driver is the compounding nature of the dairy crisis; each problem exacerbates and drives the other; and to a huge extent this componding is a direct effect of a historic US policy structure that has benefited large agribusiness, the corporatization of agriculture, and facilitated agricultural “dumping” into other countries.

It’s important to know milk like other crops are traded as a global commodity, which means that milk price is subject to market fluctuations. Dairy farmers in the U.S., conventional and organic, get paid for their “fluid milk” per every 100/pounds of milk. Dairy farmers are subject to the market and contracts with milk buyers who are usually processors. Processors, vertically integrated retailers (like Aldi and Walmart), and large distributors control where a majority of the profit is made with the production of bottled milk, cheeses, yogurts, and miscellaneous milk by-products (i.e. protein isolates).

Another issue is in the rise of mega-dairies throughout this country. On an average mega-dairy there is usually a few thousand cows who are milked two-to-three times a day and typically live most of their lives in a barn rotating into a milking parlor; these mega dairies usually are defined as “confined animal feeding operations, CAFOs.” In conjunction with the low market prices, is this surplus of milk coming from these mega-dairies (both conventional and organic). The surplus of milk has no demand ready to absorb it and is flooding out the conventional and organic markets to a new level. In addition to this surplus, CAFO systems typically deny basic human and animal rights by their design, intent, and demand in my opinion. Trade relations also play a role to this part of the supply chain. The U.S. dairy industry is increasingly reliant on flooding and dumping their milk into foreign markets to stay afloat (if you recall the negotiations of the new NAFTA in late 2018 to include opening of both Canada’s dairy market); something that is not an unfamiliar practice historically for US surplus’.

The effects of low prices to farmers also comes with low and inadequate pay and benefits for laborers. It’s surprising, however, the cost of dairy processed products is increasing. The corporate ownership and consolidation of the seed, fuel, equipment, processing, and retail industries are all factors affecting the livelihoods of dairy farmers and farm-workers throughout this country. I’d like to also note that this view of the dairy crisis does not include a full actualization of an aging farm population, farm-worker injustices, migrant laborer challenges, markets without entry for new dairy farmers, and direct-sale restrictions ; all hyper-crucial issues in dairy that need addressing.

In midst of the grim outlook for dairy, progress is being made in trying to reform the industry and create viable markets and policy that protects farmers, farm-workers, and consumers.Three strong initiatives that address different issues in dairy, reinforcing the industries own challenges and complexity are Wisconsin Farmers Union Dairy Together initiative, Migrant Justice Milk with Dignity Campaign, and the National Organic Coalition “Restore Fairness in Organic Dairy”.

Some solutions include the creation of value-added enterprises for dairy; however, distribution and supply chain logistics into conventional retail spaces can be a challenge. Part of this solution rests in policy which happens through changing laws, breaking monopolies, restructuring markets, and like many issues in the world: redistribution of wealth equitably. A large part of how I see the solution is us waking up to the realities of our food system and being vocal, intentional, and curious to change them. In the weeks to come, look out for a piece from Equal Exchange’s cheese team who are working domestically to explore new supply chains for small dairy farmers and producer groups.

Natural Process Coffee

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?

 

Drying Coffee with the Natural Process

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.

Hundreds of small round coffee cherries are gathered on a cloth
These coffee cherries have just been harvested in Honduras.

 

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 process coffee fruit dries in the sun on raised platforms
Ethiopian coffee farmers dry their beans as part of the natural process.

Environmentally Friendly – and Innovative

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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A group of twenty five people pose together under tropical trees.
A group of coffee farmers with their families and EE visitors at COMSA in Honduras.

Almond Butter Cups

Offer a snack that is vegan, paleo, gluten-free … and tastes decadent! You and your family can enjoy while feeling good about the ingredients you used and knowing how they were sourced!

Three chocolate almond cups on a plate next to a bag of fair trade chocolate chips.
5 from 2 votes
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Almond Butter Cups

We like that these cups take very little time but fully satisfy your cravings for something chocolatey, sweet and crunchy. Plus, they’re made with organic, fairly traded ingredients!

Course Dessert, Snack
Keyword almond butter, Chocolate
Total Time 15 minutes
Servings 12

Ingredients

Almond Butter Filling:

  • 1/2 cup almond butter (Make your own with Equal Exchange Almonds or use store-bought if you’re short on time.)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 tablespoon organic maple syrup

Chocolate Mixture:

  • 10 oz. Organic Bittersweet Chocolate Chips
  • 2 tablespoons melted organic coconut oil (We like Dr. Bronner’s because it’s fairly traded and whole kernel which gives it a nuttier flavor!)

Garnish:

Instructions

  1. Add almond butter, vanilla extract and maple syrup to a bowl. Mix until smooth. Set aside.
  2. Place chocolate chips and coconut oil in a heatproof bowl. Set over a pot of boiling water (but not touching the water) and stir until melted.

  3. Place paper cupcake lines inside the cups of a muffin tin. Add a tablespoon of melted chocolate to each cupcake liner. Use a spoon to work the chocolate up the sides of the liner. Place the whole muffin tin in the freezer for five minutes, until the chocolate hardens.

  4. Remove tin from the freezer and place one scoop of the almond butter mixture in the center of each chocolate filled cupcake liner.

  5. Top each filled cupcake liner with remaining chocolate until the almond butter is completely covered. Place two whole almonds on the top of each almond butter cup.

  6. Place the cups in the freezer for five more minutes to firm up.

  7. Remove from the freezer and garnish the tops with coarse sea salt if you’d like.
  8. Note: It’s recommended to store the cups in an airtight container in the refrigerator until you’re ready to serve them. The airtight container ensures that the chocolate doesn’t absorb any other food smells and flavors that are also in the fridge.

Recipe Notes

Recipe adapted from JoyfulHealthyEats.com

Ballet 5:8 is on “Pointe” with Fundraising

We love to celebrate our many fundraising catalog partners. Each participating group makes a direct and positive impact on farming families across the globe as they offer their products to their communities. For this, we thank you! 

Image shows the Ballet 5:8 School for the Arts logo

Ballet 5:8 is a 501(c)3 nonprofit based outside of Chicago. They’ve been partnering with our catalog program for over 5 years, raising $10,126 for their organization in that time! Successful fundraising is a crucial part of their mission to bring high-quality ballet performances and educational programs throughout Chicago and beyond. They take fundraising very seriously.

Photograph of Amy Sanderson, Executive Director of Ballet 5:8, Fundraising CoordinatorBallet 5:8’s Executive Director Amy Kozol Sanderson offered her insights about the nonprofit’s continued success with our fundraising catalog program. We asked Amy why an Equal Exchange fundraiser matches up so well with their organization. Here’s what she said:

Fundraising Tips from Ballet 5:8

Coffee and chocolate are great items that everybody loves! The items available in the catalog are great options especially for families that eat healthy and wouldn’t order other products such as frozen cookie dough.

We appreciate the generous profit margin of 40% that is available for nonprofit fundraisers. Many other similar fundraiser options only donate back 10-15%. The 40% makes this fundraiser very worthwhile for the time and effort of everyone involved.

The funds go directly to our dance education center, Ballet 5:8’s School of the Arts. This helps us keep our tuition low and accessible to community members of all walks of life, so all can reap the benefits of high quality dance education. The funds also help support our scholarship programs for students in particular financial need, as well as our professional-quality ballet performances, which we also work to keep accessible to our local community through low ticket prices and donated tickets. We are huge advocates of the ways the fine arts can strengthen and inspire communities!

Image of young students with teacher at Ballet 5:8. (Image courtesy of Ballet 5:8)

Planning and Promoting Raises More

We make sure to communicate very clearly to families about our mission and the nature of our organization as a 501(c)3 nonprofit that relies partially on donated funding. From there, with the enthusiasm about our mission, we communicate clearly on how families can help out with the fundraiser. Communication includes fliers and handouts, emails, and in-person reminders from instructors and staff people.

We ask each of the families participating on our dance education programs to take part in the fundraiser, and we give out prizes related to our school – Ballet 5:8 School of the Arts swag like t-shirts, and tickets to our upcoming Nutcracker production for the top sellers as an incentive to sell more.

Image shows students practicing at Ballet 5:8 (Image courtesy of Ballet 5:8)Organizational Tips

We’ve found it is best to have one person in charge of collecting orders and inputting them into the order spreadsheet; this minimizes typos and other errors. Make sure to double check once everything is in. Then, when it comes to sorting the orders, make sure to have plenty of volunteers ready to help! We’ve found there are usually some human error made during the sorting process, but it helps if the volunteer coordinator and the volunteers all know to keep going back to re-check sorted orders until they find the problem. Most of the time it can be spotted even if it’s on the 3rd or 4th try!

We have several office staff people who are involved in organizing. As mentioned earlier, having enough hands to help is crucial, but for the sake of organization and accuracy it is also helpful to have specific, individual people in charge of each area of responsibility.


Thank you Amy and Ballet 5:8! Your fundraising success is also a huge win for small farmers. Keep up the outstanding work!

What has worked for your organization? Let us know in the comments below or share with other Equal Exchange Fundraising organizers on Facebook. If you or someone you know would like to receive more fundraising tips and news from Equal Exchange, click here and sign up for our e-newsletters. 

Super-Savory Snack Mix

Party animals won’t be able to stop reaching for this snack on game day — it’s tangy, salty and a little spicy!

 

A close up of a snack mix containing fair trade nuts
5 from 1 vote
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Super-Savory Snack Mix

A twist on an old favorite, using fair trade cashews and almonds, this mix pairs well with iced tea or ice cold beer!
Course Appetizer
Cuisine American
Keyword Nuts
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Total Time 25 minutes
Servings 6

Ingredients

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 250.
  2. Melt butter on stovetop or in microwave.
  3. Pour into a large bowl, stirring in sesame oil, hot sauce and soy sauce. Add the spices, tasting and adjusting to suit your preferences.
  4. Break pita chips into bite-sized bits.
  5. Add pita chips, nuts and popcorn and stir to coat everything with the butter mixture. Spread out on a rimmed baking sheet.
  6. Bake 10 minutes, stir, then bake another 10 minutes.

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Silver Rail PTA Finds Success Fundraising

At Equal Exchange, we’re proud to help schools, nonprofits and organizations of all sizes raise money with an easy catalog program. Participating groups often reach – and exceed – their fundraising goals while also supporting authentic fair trade!

Silver Rail Elementary School is working to be a collaborative culture that encourages curiosity, critical thinking and problem solving as we engage in academics, wellness and service to the community.”

Silver Rail Elementary School opened in Bend, Oregon four years ago. As a new school in need of funding, the Silver Rail PTA is very active raising money for the school’s various programs including field trips, assemblies, reading programs, artists in residence, and a new LEGO® robotics program.Image shows Brant Himes of Silver Rail Elementary PTA

In the fall of 2018, Silver Rail PTA participated in the Equal Exchange fundraising program for the first time with a goal to raise $3,000. The campaign far exceeded that and they raised over $5,000! To learn just how, in their first year participating, their campaign did so well, we asked Silver Rail PTA President Brant Himes to share his insights to help empower others to succeed. Here’s what he said:

Why Equal Exchange?

Equal Exchange was a good fit for the culture of our school. Our school motto is ‘kindness matters. Equal Exchange gave us an opportunity to participate in a fundraiser where we could feel good about promoting and selling fair trade and organic products that aligned with our values of supporting community.

Planning & Education is Key

We started actively planning for this fundraiser during the Summer before the school year started. We ordered sample products to share at our September PTA meeting, and then had catalogs ready to go home in October. The samples and catalogs arrived very quickly, which made it easy to get organized.

We also appreciated the educational materials that were available, so our students could learn more about what makes fair trade different, and how Equal Exchange works with local farmers.

Good Promotion & Incentives Raise More Money

We sent home catalogs and a letter with every student, and promoted the fundraiser on our Facebook pages and in the school newsletter. We also had a kick-off assembly at the school where we challenged them with our school-wide goal: if we raised $5,000 profit, then the entire school would earn an ice cream party. To help foster a larger sense of community at the school, we opted for a school-wide prize instead of individual seller prizes.

Image of Silver Rail Elementary PTA volunteer organizing Equal Exchange chocolate bars for their fundraiser.Organizational Tips

EE provided great resources for organization. I would advise making sure to review everything that EE provides as you go through the fundraiser. We devised our own system for counting and sorting orders, but then realized the EE had a great order form spreadsheet and so we ended up using that in the end.

We had our fundraising chair take charge of the organization for the launch of the fundraiser, and then our board helped support the fundraiser throughout, especially with counting and entering the orders.

Distribution Made Simple

We rallied a group of volunteers to sort the orders upon arrival, and things went quicker than we anticipated. Again, EE had great strategies for organization (like setting out all the products around the room in order of the order form), and this helped keep the process clear.

We had great enthusiasm for this fundraiser and I anticipate we will want to do it again next year. People loved the products.

Planning Now for Future Fundraising Success

Next year, we will promote more with local businesses to consider purchasing the gift packs for their holiday employee gifts, as we had a couple of large orders for these that really pushed us over the top of our goal. We will also be able to process the orders more quickly just having done this before. From beginning to end, this was one of the more smooth and successful fundraisers that we have done! Thank you for your support of our school!

We did meet our goal, and so it was exciting to provide the ice cream for the school!

Image shows interior of Silver Rail Elementary School


Well done, Silver Rail PTA! Your success is also a huge win for small farmers.

Do you have fundraising tips to share? Join other Equal Exchange Coordinators on Facebook and let us know.

Looking Behind the Barcodes

Next week, the Equal Exchange organizing deparment will be cohosting a webinar with Oxfam America on their Behind the Barcodes Campaign. Join us on Tuesday, January 29th from 4-5pm EST by emailing eeactionforum@equalexchange.coop.

Reposted from June 22, 2018 from Oxfam

By: Becky Davis, Oxfam

whole foods banner

Activists demonstrate outside a Whole Foods in Boston as part of the launch of Oxfam’s Behind the Barcodes campaign. (Photo: Elizabeth Stevens / Oxfam)

An estimated 22 million people around the world work for food manufacturing companies alone. But that number is just the tip of the iceberg. Millions more work in formal or informal roles, such as seasonal labor on plantations or on fishing vessels at sea.

And while supermarkets earn big profits, many of these workers, year-round or seasonal, face harsh and dangerous working conditions, earn low wages and live in poverty, struggle to feed their own families. From forced labor aboard fishing boats in Southeast Asia, to poverty wages on Indian tea plantations, and hunger among fruit and vegetable pickers in Southern Italy, human rights abuses are widespread among the women and men who produce the food that we buy from supermarkets around the world.

The global food industry generates billions in revenue every year, but the rewards are increasingly skewed toward the powerful. The eight largest publicly-owned supermarket chains in the world generate trillions in sales and billions in profits, and are keeping a growing share of the money we spend in the checkout line – while the small-scale farmers and workers producing the food get less and less. Human suffering should never be an ingredient in the food we eat. That’s why Oxfam launched a new campaign this week seeking to expose the economic exploitation of millions of small-scale farmers and workers face in food supply chains and to mobilize the power of the people around the world to help end it.

In our research, we found that:

  • The average earnings of small-scale farmers and workers in the supply chains of 12 common products—from South African grapes, to Peruvian avocados, to Indian tea—is not enough for a decent standard of living, and where women make up most of the workforce, the gap is greater.
  • Supermarkets have kept an increasing share of the money their consumers spend, while the share that reaches workers and food producers has fallen, sometimes to less than 5 percent.
  • The eight largest publicly-owned supermarket chains generated nearly a trillion dollars in sales, $22 billion in profit, and returned $15 billion to shareholders in 2016.
  • Food insecurity is common, according to surveys of hundreds of small-scale farmers and workers across five different countries working in the supply chains of supermarkets.

As part of the campaign, Oxfam looked at the policies and practices of some of the biggest and fastest growing supermarkets in the US and Europe, focusing on four themes: women equality, worker’s rights, small-scale producers, and transparency.

In the US, Oxfam assessed and ranked six of the biggest retailers, including Walmart, Kroger, Albertsons, Costco, Whole Foods and Ahold Delhaize, the parent company to retailers such as Food Lion, Giant, and Stop & Shop. In general, US supermarkets scored very low across all four themes assessed, demonstrating that they have little awareness on these issues and have not yet chosen to prioritize human rights, due diligence, supply chain traceability, living wages, and gender inequality issues.

Oxfam and the Sustainable Seafood Alliance Indonesia looked specifically at working conditions in seafood processing in Southeast Asia, interviewing workers from some of the biggest shrimp processors and exporters in Thailand and Indonesia that supply to supermarkets like Whole Foods, Ahold Delhaize, Kroger, Costco, Albertsons and Walmart. Through the interviews, we found that wages are so low that 60 percent of women workers surveyed in Thailand were severely food insecure, workers in both countries struggled with controlled access to drinking water and toilet breaks, and were forced to put up with routine verbal abuse by supervisors.

One woman, Melati, told us that she was trained to peel 600 shrimps per hour but was never able to attain that goal. The conditions she was working in at the processing plant in Indonesia were dangerous and she struggled to breathe and burned her hands because she didn’t have proper protective equipment when handling cleaning chemicals like chlorine.

Melati and women like her toil in processing plants in Indonesia and Thailand for little pay. In fact, we calculated that it would take women like Melati 4,000 years to earn what the chief executive at a top US supermarket earns in a year.

Our analysis found that US supermarkets can do much more to support the millions of workers, small-holder farmers, and fisherfolk who grow and produce our food every day. And it isn’t just about paying a higher price, though that would help. As supermarkets have gotten bigger so too has their power. This allows them to set the terms for how they will source their food, from quality and timing to price and risk. Throughout supply chains, more and more risk is being placed on farmers and suppliers and the pressure to produce quality products under extreme time pressures is being borne by workers as well. As our US Supermarket Scorecard shows, the industry has more to do to take the human suffering out of our food.

You and I spend enough at the grocery store to ensure women like Melati have decent working conditions and earn a living wage. Supermarkets depend on us, their customers, so they have to listen. Call on supermarkets to help end the human suffering behind the barcodes by taking action and joining the Behind the Barcode campaign today!

To learn more about how you can be an integral part of Behind the Barcodes join our webinar on January 29th from 4-5pm by emailing eeactionforum@equalexchange.coop.

Guacamole Recipe

Time for guacamole! Our favorite recipe comes from our friend Scarlett de la Vega Ochoa, a native of Puebla, Mexico. Here’s how she makes it!

Bowls of food, including fresh guacamole and corn chips, crowd a table
5 from 1 vote
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Scarlett's Guacamole

Try a guacamole recipe from Mexico! This creamy dip is sure to delight you and your party guests. Fair trade avocados = perfection.

Course Appetizer
Cuisine Mexican
Keyword Avocado
Servings 6

Ingredients

  • 4 avocados
  • 1 small white onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup cilantro, finely chopped
  • 2 plum tomatoes, diced
  • 1-2 limes, juiced
  • 1 tablespoon Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Instructions

  1. Finely chop the garlic, onion and cilantro and juice the limes.

  2. Cut avocados in half, remove the pit and slice. Detach avocado from peel with spoon and place fruit in a bowl.

  3. Pour juice of one lime along with the garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper. With a fork, smash the avocados until all ingredients are mixed.

  4. Add onion (if it's too strong, rinse with warm water first), cilantro, and tomatoes.
  5. Mix and taste it. If it needs more lime, add the other one and mix again.

A single avocado hangs on a long stem from a tree

Equal Exchange proudly works with PRAGOR, a group of small-scale avocado farmers in Michoacán Mexico. Corporate interests have made it difficult for small-scale farmers to compete in the market. But the farmers of PRAGOR organized to control the entire process, from growing to exporting.

Ask the produce department at your local grocery store to carry fairly traded avocados from Equal Exchange!

 

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