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Fair Trade Hits Home

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Admit it. You feel pretty good when you drink your fair-trade coffee. Smug, even. As you inhale the rich aroma from that bag of beans, you know that your $12 helped to pay the farmers a fair price for their labor -- and helped build a school in El Salvador, create a women's leadership program in Guatemala or provide tsunami relief to Sumatrans.

Which is why Massachusetts-based Equal Exchange, a pioneer of the fair-trade concept, is betting you'll feel good -- maybe even better -- as you dip into a snack bag of organic California almonds, Georgia pecans or Cape Cod and Wisconsin cranberries. The products, the first to be developed by a coalition called the Domestic Free Trade Working Group, hit Washington area shelves this month (see box below for locations). The products come from family farms or small co-ops, which are paid a price that both buyer and seller deem fair and that is typically higher than the cheapest available. Every pack has a unique "best by" date that customers can plug into a Web site to track where their snack came from.

"For 20 years we've focused on the developing world. But the challenges faced by small farmers and family farms in the United States are not that different than the ones the farmers face overseas," said Erbin Crowell, Equal Exchange's domestic fair trade program manager. Like coffee and cacao farmers in Central America, small American farmers often get paid less than what it costs them to produce their products.

In the past 20 years, the concept of fair trade has made huge strides, evolving from a hippie idea into a global force. In 2006, Starbucks purchased 12 million pounds of fair-trade-certified coffee, about 10 percent of the world's total. The goal here at home is to move fair trade beyond commodities such as coffee, tea and sugar to higher-value products including dried fruit and nuts. Those products, like their commodity cousins, grow on trees and therefore are riskier for farmers: Orchards require years to grow and produce and, unlike corn, cannot be ripped out and replaced if prices fall precipitously.

Small farms in the United States are indeed reaching a crisis point. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the nation lost 8,900 farms between 2005 and 2006, a rate of slightly more than one farm per hour. Of the 2 million farms in the United States, just 565,000 are family operations.

One group that has struggled to survive is the Georgia-based Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which supplies Equal Exchange with pecans. From 1997 to 2000, the African American co-op had a deal with Ben & Jerry's, which was running its own unofficial fair-trade operation, effectively paying the farmers a premium to help the co-op stay afloat. But when Unilever bought the Vermont ice cream company in 2000, the deal fell apart. Because the co-op produces only about 16,000 pounds of pecans a season -- a drop in the bucket of 280 million pounds produced annually in the United States -- it was tough to compete with the big producers and get its product on the shelves.

The co-op worked on developing a mail-order business. But its Web site, the bare-bones (and not particularly user-friendly) http://www.federationsoutherncoop.com, proves state director Shirley Sherrod's assertion that "farmers are too busy farming" to worry about packaging and marketing: "It's just not possible for our groups to get into it without a partner like Equal Exchange that is willing to work through the bumps and the bugs to get out a great product."

That work included helping the co-op project the costs of production, labor, packaging and marketing, then determining a fair price for the pecans, which, this season, was set at $5.24 per pound. Then Equal Exchange contracted to buy about 75 percent of the co-op's total production this year -- and paid half the money up front so the farmers would have cash on hand. When a drought made it impossible for the co-op to fill the entire order, Equal Exchange treated the extra money it had paid as a credit for next year's harvest: a "lifeline," according to Sherrod.

Across the country in Turlock, Calif., almond co-op Big Tree Organic Farms doesn't face the same dire straits. With 21 member farms and 600 acres under cultivation, Big Tree is the second-largest organic almond handler in the state, selling to customers including Whole Foods Markets and granola manufacturer GrandyOats. Prices for organic almonds are at a near high, hovering around $7 per pound. Nonetheless, general manager Wendy Larson says she feels good selling to Equal Exchange: "Even when the price is high, they meet that price. I'm not the cheapest person out there, and a lot of my customers have walked away from me, looking for overseas product that costs less."

Perhaps equally important, the farmers like to be associated with the fair-trade brand. "Selling under the fair-trade banner allows you to be associated with fair-trade principles," Larson said. "In agribusiness, the individual farmers become invisible."

Already, it appears the concept appeals to consumers as well as farmers. Three Washington area food co-ops are stocking the Equal Exchange snacks, and 30 local churches have ordered them to serve or sell at community fundraisers. Helen Atkocius, general manager at the Bethesda Co-op, said the products, especially the organic almonds and cranberries, are selling fast: "Our customers like the whole philosophy of fair trade, so bringing in products that help domestic small farmers is a no-brainer."

The next step? Expanding to other dried fruits and nuts, such as wild blueberries from Maine and California apricots or walnuts. Or perhaps a trail mix that blends international and domestic fair-trade products: a cashew from El Salvador, a cranberry from Massachusetts, chocolate from the Dominican Republic. "It makes the point that, wherever it comes from, it should be fair," said Equal Exchange's Crowell. Something, in other words, that everyone can feel pretty good about.

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