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Fair trade at home

(article, Twilight Greenaway)

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In the summer of 2007, shoppers at some food co-ops in the upper Midwest encountered a new label on their produce: “Local Fair Trade.” Seasonal staples such as cucumbers, squash, and broccoli were the first to don the label, a large, hard-to-miss sticker symbolizing the union of two approaches to sustainable food: eating food grown locally, and purchasing food traded fairly. 

We’ve gotten used to a variety of labels on our food. There’s “organic,” which used to connote ideas like “pure” and “natural” but these days technically means food certified as organic by the USDA (if domestically produced) or by the food’s country of origin. “Local” usually means food grown or produced within a few hundred miles of its selling location. And “fair trade” is seen most commonly on popular imports such as coffee and chocolate; the label means that the food’s growers or producers were paid a decent wage.

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So what does “local fair trade” mean? According to Erik Esse, the director of the Minneapolis-based Local Fair Trade Network, the label is an attempt to answer a question: “How can the principles of fair trade, which have effectively moved many farmers and workers in the developing world out of poverty and towards self-sufficiency, work here in the U.S., where our farmworkers are having some of the same problems?” 

At the heart of the local or “domestic fair trade” label is the idea of fair and equitable relationships. The label can be applied to food grown in the U.S. under a set of guidelines, including a living wage and an emphasis on fair and healthy living conditions. The product of nearly a decade of careful planning, the domestic fair-trade label is an effort to incorporate social-justice awareness into our burgeoning efforts to eat foods that have been cleanly and sustainably produced. 

As the fair-trade movement (both international and domestic) wants everyone to understand, the local people behind the food we eat deserve sustainability, too. The USDA’s national organic standards guarantee that organically certified food is not genetically modified and is grown without petroleum-based fertilizers or synthetic chemicals. But the standards have nothing to say about the people who produce the food. This fact appalls those who work closely with farmworkers, including Richard Mandelbaum of El Comité de Apoyo a los Trabajadores Agrícolas (CATA), a migrant-farmworker organization based in New Jersey. 

“Organic standards include all sorts of rules about how livestock needs to be treated, but absolutely none for the human beings that are on the farm,” says Mandelbaum. 

The Local Fair Trade Network’s Esse isn’t sure that enough consumers are paying attention to those human beings, either. “The way stores like to put up pictures of happy farmers these days — that’s in some ways great, in that it’s identifying that there’s a person growing their food,” he says. “But in some ways, those smiles mask the fact of how little money they get paid and how hard their lives are.” 

Although some organic farms in the U.S. opt to pay their workers a living wage, as well as provide vacation days and access to health care, many do none of those things. Small-scale organic farmers, who often live hand-to-mouth themselves, rarely have the budget to do so. And most large, industrial-sized organic farms rely on hundreds if not thousands of underpaid migrant workers, in much the same way that conventional farms and food processors do. 

According to a 2005 survey report from the University of California, Davis, the majority of the 188 California organic farms surveyed did not pay a living wage or provide medical or retirement plans. And despite the nationwide boom in organic food — the industry was worth more than $17 billion by the end of 2006 — the wealth has not trickled down. While the absence of synthetic pesticides (and the health impacts that accompany them) can be a draw to some workers, most employees on organic farms earn no more than those on conventional ones. 

Across the country, three to five million people labor every year on farms and in factories, planting, cultivating, harvesting, and processing fresh produce and other agricultural products. Their lives are anything but easy. According to the National Agricultural Workers Survey, 61 percent of farmworkers live in poverty. In recent years, their median income has not kept up with inflation: for individual farmworkers, the median annual income is now $7,500, while for farmworker households, the median annual income is less than $10,000. (The overall U.S. median household income, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is more than $48,000.) It is also estimated that between 72 and 78 percent of farmworker households have no health insurance.  

h3. Doing the groundwork

Today’s domestic fair-trade movement dates back as far as 1999, when CATA, along with Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA (RAFI-USA) and several other partners, argued for an inclusion of labor issues in the federal organic standards. 

“When it became clear that the issues of social justice and fairness would not be incorporated into the federal \[organic standards\],” says RAFI’s Michael Sligh, “that really triggered our work to look at opportunities to make that additional claim to the marketplace.” 

The result was something called the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP), a group that set to work devising a separate set of standards that would cover both equity for the small-scale farmer as well as fair working conditions for farmworker. But not everyone was convinced. 

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/OndagoArts" caption="Two migrant farmworkers pick strawberries along the central coast of California."]

“When we first started out, it wasn’t uncommon to get a shrug from those in the organic/sustainable community, with responses like, ‘I’m not sure why you’re focused on this,’” says CATA’s Mandelbaum. “But in the last two years, we’ve seen that consumers are increasingly dissatisfied with anonymous products, and really want to know how their food is made — environmentally of course, but also increasingly socially.”

In 2005, the Agricultural Justice Project, along with the international fair-trade organization Equal Exchange and several domestic farmer cooperatives, held the first meeting of the Domestic Fair Trade Working Group (now renamed the Domestic Fair Trade Association). By 2006, it became clear that the best place to pilot a domestic fair-trade label was the Minnesota/Wisconsin area. 

According to Erik Esse, whose Local Fair Trade Network is the Minneapolis-based arm of the movement, there are around 40 food co-ops in Minnesota and more than 25 in Wisconsin. “The fact that consumer cooperatives are so key to the area,” he says, “as opposed to the corporate natural-food-store model, means we have a background that lends to embracing fair trade. \[The customers\] already believe in democracy and in consumer activism.” 

h3. 2007: The pilot year

By early 2007, four small farms in the upper Midwest had been chosen to participate in the Domestic Fair Trade Working Group’s pilot project, along with two food co-ops in the Minneapolis area. All the farms involved were closely audited, including their business practices and employee policies. And they pledged to, among other things, “1) Respect workers’ freedom of association and right to collective bargaining, 2) Provide adequate health and safety protections, including access to adequate medical care, information on potential hazards, and using the least toxic methods available, and 3) Pay a living wage.” 

Esse points out that although small-scale farmers and farmworkers are often in similar financial situations, there is still some tension between the two groups. “Farmers don’t always want to stir the pot,” he says. “We often hear, ‘Things are going fine; why would I want to bring this up?’”

Rufus Hauke, of Keewaydin Farms in Viola, Wisconsin, does want to stir the pot. He’s a produce farmer participating in the pilot project who, along with his brother, decided to remake the family farm according to a vision for what he calls “the next evolution of food.” Although he has only a few employees, Hauke was excited to offer them the paperwork and training necessary to help get the first Keewaydin Fair Trade growing season off the ground. 

“I’ve always felt like being certified organic was very important, but that there was more to it than that,” says Hauke. “We all want to be able to make a living wage, and we want to provide a great working place for the people who do choose to work here. And somehow we have to get that across to the consumer.”

For small-scale farmers like Hauke, the potential for growth is also part of the draw. In coming years, the label is expected to mean higher prices on products, but for this first year, prices have remained unchanged.

[%image farmworkers float=right width=400 credit="Photo: J.J. Richardson" caption="Farmworkers at Featherstone Fruits and Vegetables, a Minnesota farm, display the harvest."]

Rather than changing how these pilot farms operated, the Local Fair Trade Network wanted to simply start by illustrating the importance of sound labor policies. “We believe that domestic fair trade exists on some level already; it’s just not systematized, and it’s not labeled,” says Esse. “So the co-ops that we’re dealing with were already paying a higher price to the farmers than the corporate stores. And the farms were paying a better wage and providing a more dignified working situation for their workers.” 

h3. Empowering workers

Including farmworkers in the decision-making process has been key from the start. For Esse, that meant lots of hours clocked driving out to the country to speak with farmers and workers, working with translators and advocacy groups. In the spring of 2007, with the help of a Minnesota-based farmworker-advocacy organization called Centro Campesino, the Local Fair Trade Network and the Agricultural Justice Project hosted a national farmworkers’ conference. 

“We got to hear about what was important for farmworkers and what they wanted to get out of fair trade,” says Esse. The conference also helped ensure that organizations like Centro Campesino would be involved in the process of auditing each farm’s practices. “We’ll be raising money so that our local farmworker group can come along when fair-trade auditors visit the farms, so that they can talk to the farmworkers there and create long-term relationships,” says Esse. “It gives us good info for the audit, but it also gives the farmworkers an ongoing resource.”

Farmworkers are also a crucial piece in the growth of the movement, which is seen by some labor activists as an organizing tool when it comes to changing the larger agricultural landscape. 

“There are two approaches,” adds Esse. “One, we have this program available for these programs to join and the farms that will join will be the ones that feel they don’t have anything to hide. On the other hand, the more we involve the farmworkers in this, the more word can get out in the farmworker community, and so we may see them bring this idea to the farmers who employ them.”

h3. Cautious growth

So far, the results of the pilot year have been promising. When the Local Fair Trade Network surveyed customers in both food co-ops, only five percent of the respondents said they would not pay more for food that they knew would directly benefit farmers and workers. Whether that translates to an actual increase in dollars spent is another question. 

“It does remain to be seen,” says Mandelbaum. “But I think all the indicators are there. So many people assume that ‘organic’ already does cover the social relationships, so that’s part of what they’re thinking when they choose to buy it. Which means that there is some \[pre-existing\] support out there.” 

Nearly everyone interviewed for this article pointed to the fact that both the organic and the international fair-trade markets have grown considerably in the last decade. 
The organic-foods industry in the U.S. has more than quadrupled since 1997. Domestic organic food accounted for $17 billion in sales in 2006, up from $13.8 billion in 2005, representing a 22 percent growth rate. Meanwhile, according to the New York Times,_ consumers spent approximately $2.2 billion on international fair-trade products in 2006, a 42 percent increase over the previous year. 
Some see domestic fair trade as the next logical step in the move toward a sustainable food system. 

“I think it’s maturation \[of the organics industry\],” says Michael Sligh, of RAFI-USA. “So many new and bigger players have entered the marketplace and it’s becoming mainstream. And that’s really a part of what triggered this.”

And with that maturation, everyone seems to agree, comes a level of complication. “As multinational corporations such as Nestlé have become involved in fairly traded products, both farmers and consumers have questioned the direction the movement is taking,” says Erbin Crowell, the domestic fair-trade program manager at Equal Exchange. “Many are concerned that mainstream efforts to promote fair trade have shifted the emphasis away from small farmers to larger plantations and away from fair-trade organizations (FTOs) committed to marketing 100-percent fairly traded products to large multinationals offering \[fair-trade products as\] only 1 to 2 percent of their product line.” 

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h1. Domestic fair trade, online

Local Fair Trade Network

Agricultural Justice Project

Domestic Fair Trade Association 

Equal Exchange

Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA

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This year, Equal Exchange itself — which helped launch the fair-trade coffee market in the U.S. back in 1991 — launched its own line of domestic fair-trade products, including organic tamari almonds, dried cranberries, and roasted pecans from family farmers and cooperatives in California, Wisconsin, and Georgia.

While these kinds of changes mean that more consumers are buying fair-trade goods, mission-based companies have had to differentiate themselves through organizations such as the International Fair Trade Association (IFAT), working to ensure that the ideals of fair trade stay intact as the movement grows. Crowell says he hopes that the domestic fair-trade movement can learn from this experience and keep its core its values intact, while growing to meet demand.

And grow it has. The core groups working on this issue, including the Local Fair Trade Network and the Agricultural Justice Project, have expanded in the last year and formed the Domestic Fair Trade Association, an organization seeking to unite farmers and farmer co-ops, farmworker organizations, processors and marketers, retailers and food co-ops, and community-based nonprofits. The association has conducted audits in many regions of the country and plans to launch similar fair-trade pilot projects in Canada, Washington state, and the Northeast.

“Where before the challenge was to find enough interested folks, now the challenge is to make sure that what happens really represents what these communities want,” says Mandelbaum. “My biggest trepidation is that there are other bigger players that want to jump in the game and slap their label on it.”

Then again, if true transparency is key to a sustainable food system, it may not be so easy to water down the core concept behind domestic fair trade. 

“We need to be able to see beyond a seal and be able to see what is really happening to the food from the soil to the point that it reaches the table,” says Crowell. “Any seal representing fair trade should be judged on the level of transparency it offers the consumer so that they can look beyond the promises made.”

Farmer Hauke agrees. “You should be able to look at all the different fair-trade farms and access information about whatever \[you\] want. If you want to know how our farm works, just come on out and visit.” 

p(bio). Twilight Greenaway is a Berkeley-based freelance writer who is excited about growing fava beans this spring.


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