Oct/Nov 2015 Co-op News

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Fair Trade at the Co-op: A Growing Presence in the Produce Department

Fair Trade History and Vision

The Fair Trade movement, with its early beginnings in the 1940’s in handcrafted goods, has become a global phenomenon. It now includes not only items from village craftspeople, and hair care products, but also the agricultural goods of small farmers who have organized to get their products to markets world-wide, side-stepping the corporate trade that permeates and has such a strangle-hold on global economy today. Going strong since the 1980’s in Europe, it has now found growing support in the U.S. with the development of the Domestic Fair Trade Association (DFTA), a collaboration of organizations representing farmers, farmworkers, food system workers, retailers, manufacturers, processors and non-governmental organizations. Their goal is  to support family-scale farming, to reinforce farmer-led initiatives such as farmer cooperatives, and to bring these groups together with mission-based traders, retailers and concerned consumers to contribute to the movement for sustainable agriculture in North America.

Our understanding of the foundation of this movement is crucial to its growing strength and survival in a world that values corporate financial return over the health and well-being of all those who bring our consumer products to us. And as consumers, we are all in a position, by “voting with our dollars,” to offer support and ensure stability to small farmers and other producers locally and globally by purchasing products with Fair Trade labels whenever possible.

Taken from their website, the vision of DFTA is to see “the agricultural and economic system as a healthy community where all look after and support each other, everyone feels safe, and all contribute to and benefit from a clean and harmonious environment. Family-scale and community-scale farms and businesses thrive as all people recognize the realities, challenges, and effects of production, distribution, and labor and choose to participate in fair trade.”  As with the European fair trade movement, efforts are being made to “ensure just conditions for agricultural workers…strengthen their ability to engage directly with the marketplace…give them more control over their futures…and provide or facilitate access to credit.” Fair trade “emphasizes a holistic approach to agriculture, supporting such sustainable practices as organic, biodynamic, non-toxic bio-intensive integrated pest management, and small-scale farming, and supports the rights of farmers to their own seed.” In seeking to “educate consumers about the inequities of the trading system and the need for alternatives,” fair trade is setting new standards for a more conscious and humane trade system. (www.thedfta.org)

Fair Trade Produce at OFC

At Olympia Food Co-op, our Staff Collective works tirelessly to bring to our shelves products that first of all support our local suppliers, then when not available locally, to look for fair trade items whenever possible. While this movement is still in its infancy in the U.S., it is becoming more visible and enlisting a growing following of folks who prefer that their dollars go toward offering this support.

OFC has long offered fair trade coffee, teas, and chocolates, nuts and spices, hand-crafted items and hair care products. Our fair trade coffee comes from several sources. Fog Woman Coffee offers organic fair trade beans from Cafe Femenino, a Cooperative of women farmers from Columbia, Bolivia, Guatemala, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Peru and Rwanda.  Equal Exchange, a worker owned cooperative itself, has been importing and roasting fair trade coffee and cocoa for many years. They have now expanded to include bananas and avocados, as they move to serve small farmers in their struggle to survive global plantation-produced agriculture, brings us both coffee and now avocados. In addition to our fair trade coffees, Olympia Coffee Roasters practices direct trade, which does not currently have a standard or process for independent certification.  Direct Trade is self-certified by the importers themselves.

In addition to purchasing produce directly from nearly 20 local and regional farms, the Produce Department purchases from Charlie’s Produce and Organically Grown Company (OGC), Erin Majors, buyer for the Produce Department, told me recently. “Both companies” she said, “carry a limited number of fair trade items, but they are growing over time, especially at OGC” where the sales of fair trade items increased by 56% in 2014. It is important to her to order fair trade items although she realizes that “they are generally a tiny bit more expensive,” adding that she feels it is worth it for our shoppers to pay a little more for produce that has been fair trade certified. She knows that these certifications ensure us that all efforts have been made to provide workers with better wages and safer, healthier working conditions, along with many other benefits to our global economy and sustainable agriculture. Because this movement in the U.S. is new, several different fair trade certification organizations have been created, lending the added controversy over which ones are the most true to the values of the movement. To help consumers understand the variations in trade labels the DFTA has created a user-friendly tool that rates each program based on the 16 principles of fair trade. http://www.thedfta.org/This proliferation of trade label standards challenges OFC produce buyers to be well-informed about current fair trade activities.

Being in the middle of our own harvest season, produce buyers at OFC currently prioritize purchases from our small local farms over fair trade produce from far away, except for those items that can not be obtained locally. Our two major produce suppliers, listed above, work with several companies that have fair trade programs and through which we can obtain fair trade produce. These companies include: Taste Me Do Good–apples and pears; Wholesum Harvest–tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers; Del Cabo–cherry tomatoes; and Earth Equity–cucumbers and peppers. Bananas, beloved by most of us and certainly not grown in Washington, are only being offered by Equal Exchange on the east coast, so OFC has been purchasing our bananas from the Giving Resources and Opportunities to Workers (GROW) program which, while it is not fair trade, is well-appreciated by the OFC produce staff for its work in Ecuador and Mexico, providing ongoing financial support to services for farm workers, their families and surrounding communities. Kimberlee Chambers, Sustainability Manager for OGC, told me that “since 2005, OGC’s sales of GROW bananas have resulted in donations of $853,321 to vision and dental clinics, education centers, student housing, school supplies and scholarships in southern Mexico and in Ecuador,” and are expected to grow to $ 1 Million this year. No wonder our produce team is so eager to support them!

Avocados from Pragor in Mexico

I asked Erin what fair trade produce is currently being sold by OFC. She replied by saying, “there aren’t currently a lot of fair trade certified produce items available to us, but in the past year or so, we have seen an increase in items available for us to buy, especially avocados, tomatoes and cucumbers.” She particularly appreciates Equal Exchange avocados, from Pragor, a cooperative of small-scale farmers in Michoacan, Mexico, a state that is “tierra caliente (a real hot spot), in that it is heavily influenced by the drug war currently raging in Mexico. While only available seasonally (September to March), they are of special interest to Erin, since they are not only rich, creamy and delicious, but are produced by a group of 20 farmers who, when faced daily with many dangerous and difficult challenges, work together to market their avocados in order to provide safer working conditions and better wages for themselves and their families. (In order to get the avocados from their huertos (avocado farms) to a packing house that will work with them and move them on to market–a 2.5 hour drive from the nearest farm–they must travel through areas controlled by the drug mafia.) “The Pragor program,” Erin shared with me, “is so important because it shows that when small groups of people come together and work collaboratively, they can have a tremendous positive impact on their own livelihoods and community. The producers in the Pragor program are small-farm owners by most standards (farmers in the program own an average of 10 acres each), and yet they are able to compete with huge agribusinesses because of their cooperation with one another. It is also worth noting that many of the Pragor farmers have been farming organically for 10 years or more. Pragor has a great website where they outline their mission, vision, and values, and it is inspiring to see a business that places such a high value on social principals and cooperation.” See pragor.com to learn more.

Jessica Jones-Hughes, an Equal Exchange member who traveled with others to Mexico to meet with Pragor folks, describes her experience in an article titled “Avocado Obstacle Course,” on the Equal Exchange website (EqualExchange.coop). “These producers,” she says, “are trying, at great risk and incredible courage, to do something different.” Not only are they up against local drug cartels, but also multi-national corporations and intense USDA regulation (by the time Mexican avocados arrive on your store shelf they have undergone 5 official inspections). “I was struck,” she adds, “by the conviction of the Pragor producers and staff for upholding their integrity in an area where fear, corruption and multinationals are in control and often working in cahoots.” And once these avocados reach our Co-op shelves, they must compete price-wise with those being sold by the multi-nationals at prices that bend to the U.S. consumers spoiled expectation for low prices. “Our cheap food mentality,” she says, “does not reflect the true cost of food and energizes price wars.”

So if you are a Co-op shopper who values where your dollar goes, who it supports–and does not support–and are willing to possibly pay slightly more, consider looking for signs in both OFC stores for products certified as “Fair Trade.” It is one of the most direct ways that your money can influence world trade, help small farmers and support sustainable agriculture.