Archive for the ‘small farmer co-operatives’ Category

Last week our friends at the Coop Food Stores in Hanover-Lebanon, New Hampshire sent us these photos of a large display they have created to promote our exciting coffee partnership in which we attempt to link consumer coop members in New Hampshire, worker coop members at Equal Exchange, and indigenous small farmer coop members in Chiapas, Mexico.




To read more about this exciting partnership, click here.

Last Thursday, we reposted a link to an article written by Amanda Charland, Director of Outreach and Member Services at Co-op Food Stores, about her visit to CIRSA last year and the connection between coffee, climate change, and co-ops.  Click here to read.  Later this week, we’ll feature two more articles on this topic written by other members of Co-op Food Stores who had the opportunity to visit CIRSA as part of this new sister co-op relationship Equal Exchange is helping to develop.


logocirsa logo

Read Full Post »

By Ted Weihe, Consultant to Equal Exchange

Yesterday in Paraguay and earlier in Bolivia, Pope Francis praised co-operatives and other localized organizations that he said provide productive economies for the poor (See NYT, July 11, 2015).

“How different this is than the situation that results when those left behind by the formal market are exploited like slaves!” he said. In his Encyclical Letter, Laudato SI (available on line), he said “Liberation from the dominant technocratic paradigm does in fact happen sometimes, for example, when cooperatives of small producers adopt less polluting means of production, and opt for a non-consumerist model of life, recreation and community.”

He has reframed inequality and poverty around a new economic theory and defining it in moral terms. “Working for a just distribution of the fruits of the earth and human labor is not mere philanthropy,” he said on Wednesday. “It is a moral obligation. For Christians, the responsibility is even greater: It is a commandment.”

Francis acknowledged that he had no new “recipe” to quickly change the world. Instead, he spoke about a “process of change” undertaken at the grass-roots level by priests, NGOs and community organizers.

“What can be done by those students, those young people, those activists, those missionaries who come to my neighborhood with the hearts full of hopes and dreams but without any real solution for my problems?” he asked. “A lot! They can do a lot.”

“You, the lowly, the exploited, the poor and underprivileged, can do, and are doing, a lot. I would even say that the future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands.”

But, if there are “real solutions” in promoting co-ops, the Catholic Church, community leaders, NGOs and Fairtrade advocates have a lot to learn, too.

Most credit unions in Latin America were formed by priests and nuns. Yet, it took decades to restructure them as sound financial institutions for the poor with appropriate interest rates for savers, and market-based loans to members.

Similar U.S. efforts in the 60s and 70s to create worker co-ops also failed because they were seen as utopian democratic experiments instead of successful group businesses where worker-owners needed to provide equity. In the case of Equal Exchange, they allowed for non-voting investors to raise capital – all with a profit focus while true to their democratic workplace and mission to buy from and support small farmer co-ops.

We know that cooperatives in Western countries probably did more to reduce poverty among the poor than any other interventions. For example, in the U.S. during the 1920s recession in agriculture after World War I, most of today’s producer co-ops were formed; in the 1930s rural credit unions took off during the Great Depression; and in the 1940s electric coops transformed rural America. This same U.S. experience parallels successful earlier co-ops in Europe, in Japan with General MacArthur reforms after World War II and in India where in the 1960s, they created the most successful and largest small farmer dairy co-ops in the world. Many of the most successful co-ops in the world such as Sunkist were formed before 1900 – so there is a rich and long history to draw on.

Yet, we in the development field have not learned the most important lesson about co-ops in that they must be properly structured financially so that the poor contribute through their usage and delivery of products, and they generate member equity so that the co-op can prosper and grow. Do-gooders, Fairtrade advocates and industries such as chocolate companies that are dependent on small farmers to provide their raw products, cocoa beans, do not understand co-ops. Donors certainly do not when they shower money on co-ops “to help the poor” instead of creating sustainable co-ops that can be self-supporting and uplifting through the farmers own efforts.

With Equal Exchange’s on-going project with cocoa co-ops in Dominican Republic, Peru and Ecuador, they have proven that getting poor farmers to contribute to their co-ops through the delivery of products is not only possible, but supported by managers, boards of directors and delegates to the General Assembly. Members now have a financial stake in their co-ops which generates lower bank loans, more purchasing of cocoa beans from fellow members and greater loyalty to the co-op. They are breaking away from the current donor-driven paradigm.

So we do have successful models to respond to the Pope’s call, but how can we spread the message, design and advocate true co-ops? At least, I have tried to lay out these premises in my book: Saving Fine Chocolate: Equity, Productivity and Quality in Cocoa Co-ops. But, I feel like a lonely voice. I hope that others can join me.

Read Full Post »

On our way back from a meeting with one of the women's groups organized through FTAK, somewhere between the towns of Kudiyanmala and Vellad.

A brief stop on our way back from a meeting with one of the women’s groups organized through FTAK, somewhere between the towns of Kudiyanmala and Vellad.

Fair Trade Alliance of Kerala, (FTAK) a 4500-member co-operative of small farmers in southern India, has created an exciting initiative to articulate and put into practice what most fair trade farmer co-operatives understand empirically.  Fair Trade is important but it’s simply not enough.  It’s a starting point; a means to an end; certainly not the end itself.  Like kicking off the day with a well-balanced breakfast, selling cash crops on fair trade terms is a  foundation from which so much else becomes more possible.  But, like the role that a healthy breakfast plays in someone’s day, it is what comes afterwards that brings true community empowerment, development, and social change.

Meeting with a women's group in the community of Talakala.

Meeting with the Thalakallu women’s group in the community of Asankavala.

FTAK is not the only Fair Trade co-operative that has initiated specific programs to protect the biodiversity of their regions; ensure that their members have access to diverse sources of locally-produced, nutritious food; and recognize and actively promote the role of women in all areas of family, co-operative, and community life. Many fair trade co-ops carry out programs in some of these areas.  However, by consciously articulating their Fair Trade + 3 Initiative in their mission statement, FTAK sends a strong message to their members and the world about their values and priorities. By elevating these issues to the same level as their fair trade program, the forward-thinking Kerala farmers demonstrate that women, the environment, and food security are three interwoven strands, interdependent and of equal importance. Fair Trade is a tool, but a successful co-operative needs many tools in its toolbox.

In December 2013, four of us from Equal Exchange traveled to Kerala where we had an opportunity to spend five days with the farmers of FTAK.  We spent many hours traveling through the coconut-tree studded tropical landscape of northern Kerala; meeting with farmer groups, women’s groups, FTAK staff and board; touring small farms lush with fruit trees, wild and cultivated plants, and gardens;  visiting cashew and coconut processing plants; and participating in dinners, festivals, and even a party down by the riverside.  Throughout all this, we learned about FTAK’s organization and structure, the production and processing of their coffee, cashews, coconuts, and spices which they sell into the local and international market.  We shared our views on Fair Trade and learned more about their ideas and initiatives on gender equality, biodiversity, and food security.


Unfortunately, our trip didn’t overlap with the Seed Exchange, one of the most important events that FTAK organizes as part of their Fair Trade +3 initiative.  Farmers from all over Kerala save their best seeds throughout the year in anticipation of this agricultural fair.  Each January, they then come together to trade seeds, learn new farming techniques, and buy and sell livestock and domesticated animals.

We were pleased, however, with the opportunity to participate in another exciting FTAK activity, the Green Leaf Festival, held at the Ujjaini Auditorium in the community of Kelakam.  As its name indicates, the festival is both a celebration of the biodiversity of the region, and a food security initiative designed to bring people together to learn how to identify, prepare and cook with the organic plants that grow wildly on their farms.  Walking into this beautiful community center, with its clean white walls, open windows, high ceilings, and full-out party decorations, we could feel the excitement, anticipation, and significance of the event. We were immediately greeted by a few of the women whom we had met the day before in Asankavala.  Dressed in the most elegant saris, they welcomed us shyly, but with warm smiles that immediately made us feel comfortable.

Individually, the FTAK farmers don’t own much land, but what they lack in acreage, they certainly make up for in biodiversity. We had seen this when we visited farms where the owners grow herbs and spices, vegetables, coffee, tea, cacao, henna, cashew, coconut, and other fruit trees.  In fact, an average FTAK farmer could have as many as 85 different crops and plants on his or her farm.  In addition to those plants they intentionally cultivate for personal consumption and income generation, there are many plants that grow wild on the farms.  Some of the knowledge about these plants and how they can be cooked or otherwise used has been lost over time.

Thus, the purpose of the festival:  over a hundred women (and a few dozen men) were invited to participate.  They were asked to bring with them a variety of “leafy greens” from their farms that they might not be familiar with, and in small groups, they would practice cooking with them.  They were also invited to bring food from their farms to prepare for lunch.  The day would end with a huge banquet of food entirely coming from and prepared by the FTAK members.

Posters lined the wall, showing the variety of wild plants, and their various properties and uses.

Posters lined the wall, showing the variety of wild plants, and their various properties and uses.

In the main auditorium, the event officially began with a formal opening, brief introductions, and some presentations about the Fair Trade +3 initiatives, the importance of food security and resource conservation, and the role of women in all of these activities.

Standing, on the right, Tomy Mathew, founder of FTAK.

Standing, on the right, Tomy Mathew, founder of FTAK.

In the meantime, in another room, the real work was happening!  All day long, small groups of men and women were washing, chopping, and cooking a variety of food – and many leafy greens!  In small groups, they exchanged ideas about the greens and learned to cook them with the idea that they would go back to their communities and train their neighbors.  In other groups, women were preparing the food that would eventually become the banquet we would all enjoy before the end of day:  everything we ate that day was grown and prepared by the participants themselves.


Finally, the formal activities were finished and the eating began!  In a flash, the men set up two long rows of tables and chairs.  Boom, boom, boom, they lay down paper table cloths, and a large banana leaf to serve as a plate.  We all sat down and the men came down the row one at a time, each scooping a portion of some spicy, mouth-watering, vegetarian dish, spiced just right (all spices also coming from their farms).  In no time at all, we had finished our meals, and in a flash, the entire paper cloth, banana leafs and food was lifted from the tables, and the tables reset until everyone had eaten their meal.


Efficient, economical, and environmental.  Zero waste.  And delicious to boot!

We had many fascinating days in Kerala and we learned enough to fill an entire notebook on that trip.  Coconut processing, cashew processing, visions for the future, challenges, and successes.  At another point, we’ll share some of those stories as well.

For now, I’d just like to end with some photos of the women we met at the meeting who later were part of the Green Leaf Festival, greeting us like long-lost friends when we saw them in the community hall.

Janaki Kalla

Janaki Kalla

Lissy Joy

Lissy Joy

Rosamma John

Rosamma John

And finally, while I’m on the topic of festivities, here is a one and a half minute video you might enjoy of our bonfire party down by the river.  Those FTAK farmers are not just hard working and visionary, but they are full of life, incredibly fun, and such gracious hosts!  Thanks to FTAK and to all those of you who buy our cashews and help support this entrepreneurial and innovative small farmer co-op!!!

Thanks also to my colleagues and traveling companions, Wells Neal, Deepak Khandelwal, and Rink Dickinson! Photos taken by Wells, Deepak, and Phyllis. Riverside video put together by Deepak Khandelwal.

Read Full Post »

On our way back from a meeting with one of the women's groups organized through FTAK, somewhere between the towns of Kudiyanmala and Vellad.

A brief stop on our way back from a meeting with one of the women’s groups organized through FTAK, somewhere between the towns of Kudiyanmala and Vellad.

Fair Trade Alliance of Kerala, (FTAK) a 4500-member co-operative of small farmers in southern India, has created an exciting initiative to articulate and put into practice what most fair trade farmer co-operatives understand empirically.  Fair Trade is important but it’s simply not enough.  It’s a starting point; a means to an end; certainly not the end itself.  Like kicking off the day with a well-balanced breakfast, selling cash crops on fair trade terms is a  foundation from which so much else becomes more possible.  But, like the role that a healthy breakfast plays in someone’s day, it is what comes afterwards that brings true community empowerment, development, and social change. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Once upon a time there was a very sad banana.   

“Why was he so sad, you might ask.

Well maybe, it’s because although many people appreciated him for his golden yellow color and his sweet, yummy flavor, they never took the time to get to know him. Really get to know him, that is. Don’t get me wrong; he was flattered when people walked down the aisles of the supermarket and they remarked on his looks, made comments about his flavor, and how good he would taste in their morning cereal. It’s not that he didn’t like hearing these compliments and all. But, he couldn’t help thinking that the chatter was, well, you know, kind of superficial. I mean there was A LOT more to the banana than just what met the eye. (more…)

Read Full Post »

By Nicholas Reid, Equal Exchange Natural Foods Sales Representative

Equal Exchange has credited co-ops with building Fair Trade coffee and making the alternative trade system possible, by keeping farmers organized in developing countries, and connecting them to consumers through co-ops like Equal Exchange and their local food co-ops. This October, while we celebrate Co-op and Fair Trade Month, and consider the values and successes of these two movements that are so intrinsically connected, Equal Exchange would like to push ourselves even further. The support and collaboration of co-ops is crucial to the future of organic coffee.

Declining yields due to soil exhaustion and global warming are threatening specialty coffee production, and the livelihoods of thousands of farming communities that rely on it. Once charged with making coffee cultivation economically viable for small-scale producers, Equal Exchange now asks co-ops to support those farmers in their efforts to adapt, innovate and invest in the future of high-quality, organic coffee.

The history of commercial farming in Latin America (and in the United States) is one of extreme short-sightedness, environmental destruction and an ever-increasing reliance on chemical and technological inputs. One need only look at the former sugar plantations of northeast Brazil, now deserts and agricultural wastelands, or the destruction of local communities and ecosystems that banana cultivation led to in Central America, to see that modern agriculture effectively raped the soil of nutrients, destroyed local flora and fauna that sustained the land, and nearly ended the possibility of human existence in those areas. (more…)

Read Full Post »

If you live in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, you might have visited the annual Seward Arts Festival last weekend which featured more than 200 artists, musicians and peformers, with open studios, performance and live music events throughout the neighborhood. 

Seward Community Co-op timed their Principle Six launch event to coincide with this festival.  The co-op offered food, prizes and specials to introduce the community to our new Co-operative Trade Movement, a joint project of Equal Exchange, Seward Community Co-op and five other leading co-ops across the country. 

By all accounts, it was a huge success!  There were demos of P6 products, one-day specials on P6 items throughout the store, and shopping cart give aways for those who purchased $20 or more in P6 products.  From this month on, Seward Co-op shoppers will be able to see on their receipts the percentage of their purchases that are P6… meaning the percentage of their total shopping dollars which they spent on products meeting our highest values: co-operatively owned, small farmer/producer, and local.

Read more about Seward Community Co-op’s Principle Six launch here.

Read the front page coverage of Principle Six on last Saturday’s Star Tribune business section here.

Read Full Post »

Q: What do Seward Community Co-op in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Nature’s Bakery in Madison, Wisconsin, Tierra Nueva Coffee Co-operative in Boaco, Nicaragua, Cabot Creamery in Vermont, and Equal Exchange, a worker-owned Fair Trade co-operative in West Bridgewater, MA all have in common?

If you answered that each of these co-operatives is engaged in the business of providing healthy, high quality, organic food to consumers, you would certainly be on the right track. If you responded that each of these co-operative businesses is also committed to its own membership through education, democratic governance, and profit-sharing, you’d be even warmer. But, if you were to take one step even further, and noticed that all of these businesses, and many thousands more across the country, are now formally linked together in a new Co-operative Trade Movement, called Principle Six, your answer would be spot on.

Principle Six: Co-operative Trade Movement. What on earth is that?

Principle Six is the sixth international principle of co-operatives: co-operation amongst co-operatives. Simply put, it says that co-ops should support each other. They should trade with each other. They should lead with their values. We believe in this principle: so strongly in fact that we’ve decided to start living this principle to the fullest extent possible. Equal Exchange already buys all of our products from small farmer co-operatives. And food co-operatives already sell our products, and many more from their own local networks of ethical producers. But why not take this principle further, as far out there as we possibly can?

Imagine the power behind an entire network of co-ops explicitly leading with their values and unequivocally encouraging their members to do the same: supporting small farmers and producers, local farmers and producers, and co-operative and non-profit businesses!

That’s interesting… Tell us more!

During the month of October, Equal Exchange and six visionary, consumer co-operatives across the country (Bloomingfoods Co-op (Bloomington, Indiana), Brattleboro Food Co-op (Brattleboro, Vermont), The Merc (Lawrence, Kansas), Davis Food Co-op (Davis, California), Equal Exchange (West Bridgewater, Massachusetts), Seward Community Co-op (Minneapolis, Minnesota), and Willy Street Grocery Co-op (Madison, Wisconsin), are launching an exciting, new pilot initiative to rebuild the food system and our local economies in stronger alignment with our co-operative values. We’ve done it before: the organic and natural foods movements were brought to you through the labors of the food co-op movement. Fair Trade was built through the dedication and commitment of farmer co-ops in the Global South and food co-operative members in the North. More recently, food co-ops have championed the Buy Local movement, once again putting concerns for the environment and local economies at the forefront. In fact, throughout the past 40-odd years, care for high quality food, the environment, local community control and democratic participation has run deep in the co-op movement. Yet, for all our hard work and well-placed values, we haven’t had the impact on the food system and the economy that we believe is necessary to provide sustainable livelihoods for small farmers, protect our environment, sustain healthy, vibrant communities, and put consumers in the drivers’ seat where they belong.

Okay, but how are we going to do this?

Seward Co-op General Manager Sean Doyle with Equal Exchange's Scott Patterson at Seward Co-op's P6 launch (photo courtesy of Seward Co-op)

Today, October 1st, marks the beginning of National Co-op Month.  We will begin highlighting and promoting those products which we believe meet our highest values. We’ll also be educating and engaging consumers to think about these products, the companies that make them, and the kind of food system we want and deserve. Through community events, in-store activities, and on our website, www.p6.coop, we’ll inform, promote, debate, challenge ourselves and each other, all the while learning, sharing, having fun (and of course eating and drinking well). Ultimately, we hope to strengthen existing, and build new, co-operative relationships between producers, manufacturers, distributors, retailers, and consumers thereby creating a web of new economic structures and patterns, that add value at every step in the supply chain.

Several months ago, David Korten, author of Agenda for a New Economy, spoke at the Association of Cooperative Educators conference in Cleveland, Ohio. He was criticizing the bankruptcy of our old economic models that have propelled us into the current economic recession. He concluded his talk saying, “it is the relationship between organizations that will create the new economy. Individual co-ops offer society a new model with values and principles but,” he continued, “the real power is when they begin to interlink. When co-ops come together, to support their mutual goals, that’s when we can begin talking about ‘rebuilding the food system’.”

His words actually gave me goose bumps. This is exactly what we’re trying to do and the time couldn’t be any more right. The recent economic, banking, housing, and food crises – to name just a few – point repeatedly to the need for an alternative economic system. What better time than now to rebuild our local economies and food networks and what better way than through a co-operative trade movement?

But don’t take it from us: this vision isn’t ours, alone. Tell us what you think. Go to www.p6.coop and share your opinions. It’s your movement after all.

Read Full Post »

International Women’s Day is celebrated on March 8 every year to recognize the economic, political and social achievements of women around the world. Equal Exchange is proud to support women-centered projects through our work with small farmer co-ops. Today we’re highlighting a few of them. From income diversity to leadership training, these projects represent the ways in which organizing can bring opportunity.

New Women’s Initiatives at the Tierra Nueva Co-op in Nicaragua

Agueda Ordenana, member of the Tierra Nueva Women's Commission

Agueda Ordenana, member of the Tierra Nueva Women's Commission

By Susan Sklar, Interfaith Program Manager

At the Tierra Nueva Union of Co-operatives in the Boaco region of Nicaragua,  some new initiatives are helping women to improve their economic conditions.  Delegates from the Presbyterian Church (USA) and Equal Exchange traveled to Nicaragua this past January to visit Equal Exchange´s coffee farmer partners.  Members explained how they are trying to help women become active participants in the co-operative.

In Nicaragua, there’s a common understanding that the ownership of land belongs to men; when a woman marries and inherits land from her father, her husband automatically assumes control over it.  But Tierra Nueva, a union of 600 small coffee and honey farmers, is making an effort to change gender relationships and inequitable practices.   In 2006, Tierra Nueva applied for a grant to conduct a gender survey among its farmers. The focus groups and interviews documented what was already widely known: that the participation of women in Tierra Nueva farming co-operatives was extremely limited. As a direct result of these findings, Tierra Nueva created a gender policy program that was officially approved by the membership in October.  It formally authorized the actions of the Women’s Commission, which is composed of five female representatives from the various primary coffee co-ops. (more…)

Read Full Post »