Fair trade at home

The domestic fair-trade movement

March 31, 2008

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.

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.”

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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.

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.

farmworkers California strawberry field
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.”

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.

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1. by Rodney North on Mar 31, 2008 at 1:44 PM PDT

This may be the most thorough article I’ve seen yet on the Domestic Fair Trade movement. Thanks.

For those wanting to know more about our Domestic Fair Trade program at Equal Exchange go to thishttp://www.equalexchange.coop/dft"link".

2. by anonymous on Mar 1, 2012 at 9:52 AM PST

I applaud the motivations for, and the IDEA of fair trade, but it seems to be such an unsustainable band-aid approach compared to other avenues. Instead, should we not invest in people, skills, etc., rather than just throw more money at them and hope it sticks? Teach a man to fish....

3. by Rodney North on Mar 7, 2012 at 11:15 AM PST

In response to “anonymous”:
There is nothing about Fair Trade that could be called “just throwing money at them and hoping it sticks”.

And as for “teach a man to fish” I’ve two responses:
1) the extra income that Fair Trade makes possible is what is needed so that farmer co-ops, and their members, can escape the poverty trap, and finally have the resources to do things like improve the schools in their communities, and keep their kids in those schools longer. It also enables them to, for ex, hire the agronomists that can help them improve their farming methods and more.

2) A big part of Fair Trade is that ...
- We are not “giving a man a fish”
- nor “teaching him to fish”
- but rather refusing to steal to his fish, even though market forces make it easy to more-or-less do that. The market renders poor, small-scale farmers chronically vulnerable and at a severe disadvantage to the Cargills, ADMs, Nestles, etc. Consequently traders and large companies can buy their “fish” (coffee, cacao, etc) at very low prices - in effect stealing the farmer’s labor.

Dedicated Fair Traders like Equal Exchange simply refuse to exploit this opportunity and instead actively seek to work with farmers to increase their market power and to pay an honest price for their “fish”.

The Fair Trade Resource Network has a good introduction to Fair Trade: http://www.fairtraderesource.org/learn-up/faq/

And for the nerdy among you, here is a study of studies of Fair Trade’s impact in developing countries:

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