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Archive for October, 2021

Equal Exchange Fair Trade Avocados Pragor Co-op Michoacan, Mexico

In September of 2013, Equal Exchange imported their first container of Fair Frade organic avocados from PRAGOR, a producer coop in Michoacan, Mexico. Equal Exchange visited them that summer and saw the challenges they were facing as small-scale producers, despite the increase in demand for avocados from Mexico. The stories they shared demonstrated the need for a trade model that is drastically different from the way conventional Mexican avocados are grown and exported.

PRAGOR is a cooperative of 20 producer members who each own an average of 10 acres of land, all 100% organic. Many of the members transitioned to organic 15 or more years ago, a revolutionary move at the time. At Equal Exchange, we have seen that when farmers own their own land, they are more likely to take measures to ensure the environmental sustainability of the land. Owning land is inherently more empowering than working as a laborer on a plantation and provides producers with greater economic security and opportunity.

Equal Exchange believes that a truly transformative model includes:

1. Farmers owning their own land.
2. Small-scale farmers having access to the global marketplace.
3. Having the real cost of food reflected in consumer prices.
4. Connecting consumers with producers around transparent supply chains.

Alfredo Huerto Pragor Cooperative

Alfredo Huerto Avocado Grower and member of the Pragor Cooperative. Alfredo owns 8 hectares of land and lives on the land with this 3 children, wife, brothers and father. The land has been passed down through his family for many generations. They originally farmed maize(corn) on the land, and transitioned to avocados 20 years ago.  He and another Pragor member Ruben, transitioned their farms to grow organically 17 years ago, a very progressive decision at the time in Mexico. His decision to transition to organic production was inspired by the birth of his first daughter, as well as the wish for the family and community to live in a less toxic environment. Alfredo manages the farm for this family. It is a lush and beautiful farm in the mountains near Uruapan.

Bright Orange Persimmons

Fall is in the air and bright orange Fuyu persimmons have arrived and the Hachiya variety is just around the corner. There are several species of persimmons but the most common is the Japanese or Oriental persimmon, also called the D. Kaki species.  In Japan they are the national fruit and called Kaki.  There are at least six varieties of the Asian persimmon but the Fuyu and the Hachiya are the most commonly grown in the United States.

The harvest usually starts around the beginning of October and goes through December. It can extend into January if there is no winter freeze. California grows almost 100% of the persimmon crop in the United States followed by Florida, Texas, Hawaii, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Missouri. In California over half of the persimmons are grown in Tulare and Fresno counties.  The other main areas are Orange, Riverside and San Diego counties and a very small amount are grown in Sutter and Placer counties north of Sacramento.

Fuyu Persimmons are short, squat and non-astrigent and when ripe they have a sweet flavor with a hint of cinnamon and apricot.  You can eat them raw when they are firm or soft and they do not need to be peeled.  Fuyu’s can be eaten like an apple, cut up and eaten on their own. You may sometimes find a few seeds inside but they are easy to eat around.

Fuyu Persimmons

The Hachiya Persimmon is tapered like an acorn and has a bright reddish orange skin. It is extremely astringent and bitter when firm.  If eaten when still firm it will leave a fuzzy unpleasant feeling in your mouth. The Hachiya needs to be jelly soft before it becomes edible. When the fruit has become very soft scoop out the flesh and use it in cakes, cookies, muffins and smoothies.  An Earl’s favorite is the James Beard moist persimmon bread using soft Hachiyas. 

Ripening and Storage Tips: Persimmons unlike many fruits will keep longer if left at room temperature.  Once they are in the refrigerator, they will go soft faster and will need to be eaten quickly. Look for persimmons with smooth skin and no bruising. Persimmons are an excellent source of Vitamin A, C and fiber and full of antioxidants

The First Cranberries of the Season!

All fresh cranberries are dry harvested once a year between mid-September through early November.  Cranberries grow on vines planted in bogs with a mixture of moist acid peat soil and sand which allows them to thrive in harsh weather conditions. Unlike wet harvesting where the cranberry bogs are flooded so that the fruit can be harvested while floating, dry harvest vines must be completely dry.  The pickers drive self-propelled harvesters (think vibrating lawn mower with conveyor belt to burlap bag attachment) over the dry vines.  The fruit is then taken to the packing shed to be graded and screened based on color.  Lastly, the berries are bounce tested.  Good berries will bounce because of their air pockets and the soft berries that do not bounce are discarded.

Equal Exchange Fair Trade Bananas

Earl’s Organic bananas are Fair Trade Certified 365 Days A YEAR.

Equal Exchange Bananas are grown in Ecuador by small farmers under the AsoGuabo Cooperative.  Farmer cooperatives are groups of small farmers that have come together to collectively operate their businesses at a larger scale. They share resources, capital, and knowledge, democratically electing leadership and collectively making decisions. In addition to being small farmer cooperative-led, all of Equal Exchange farmer partners are certified organic and Fairtrade.

ASOGUABO

AsoGuabo is considered a pioneer in the Fairtrade banana movement. For over 20 years, this cooperative based in el Guabo, el Oro, Ecuador has produced top-quality bananas while blazing a trail for democratic organizations, locally-led community development work, and advocacy for rural communities.

Fair Trade Premium Project Highlights: Improvement of farms: adding cables, cemented lines, packhouses, bridges, biofábrica: creating “bioles” using microorganism for soil health, grants made to local educational foundations, healthcare expansion.

The story of AsoGuabo, one of Equal Exchange’s farmer partners, is a success story in grassroots organizing. In 1998, 14 small-scale banana farmers in southwest Ecuador decided to take the tremendous risk of sending one container (about 38,400 lbs) of bananas to Europe with the hope of selling it directly to a supermarket. By cutting out the middleman, they took the power back into their own hands. With the sale of this first container, the El Guabo Association of Small Banana Producers was born. The entrepreneurs transformed themselves from individual, marginalized growers into a democratically run organization with access to the international market.

Today, AsoGuabo is a farmer-run co-operative with 350 small-scale banana farmers. Each farmer is committed to improving quality of life for themselves and their communities. In addition to earning a fair price for their bananas, the co-op receives an additional $1 per case (approx. 40 lbs of bananas) as a Fair Trade social premium. AsoGuabo’s members voted to spend the premium on education, health care, retirement, environmental projects and infrastructure improvements. Additionally, AsoGuabo is giving back to the local and global community by sharing their highly successful cooperative model with other producer groups in Ecuador and throughout the world.

In 2019 Jonathan and Spencer from Earl’s Banana Team traveled to Ecuador as part of Equal Exchange’s annual banana delegation. The delegation consisted of Equal Exchange employees, sales members from east coast distributors and a smattering of produce managers and buyers of grocery co-ops from the Northeast states.  The delegation visited the AsoGuabo banana cooperative that supplies Equal Exchange’s banana program.  They also visited several growers including an agroforestry producer in the mountains.  They saw all operations from growing and cultivation though harvest and packing.  It was truly an educational experience. 

AsoGuabo also manages the Fair Trade funded projects which includes; school infrastructural support, water treatment, women’s vocational training, drug rehab, and much more.  Jonathan and Spencer visited an elementary school that had a new roof installed from Fair Trade funds, a small neighborhood water filtration plant and a women’s culinary school.  Lastly, they toured the Port of Bolivar, an historic banana shipping port undergoing major upgrades to allow for large shipping container vessels to load volume.

2019 Delegation visit to Asoguabo. Jonathan Kitchens, Earl’s Organic Banana Buyer,  is pictured 2 from the left

Sumano Mushroom Tour

Edhi and his brother Luis have not been farming mushrooms for very long, but their fast-growing business reveals their dedication to the craft. Formerly operating under the name Ortiz Mushrooms, Edhi left the trucking business to join his brother and rebrand the farm Sumano Mushrooms, after their family bakery in Wastonsville. The property already had some basic buildings they could use, but it took a twenty-thousand-dollar investment to create the properly insulated environment to grow mushrooms. They now have 9 year-round employees and plan to continue expanding upon their success.

While your crimini and portabella have easily accessible and industry-wide growing practices, oysters, shiitakes, and lion’s mane require a little creativity. Edhi shared that many growers are somewhat secretive with their operations, leaving the pair with the difficult task of figuring out much of their operation on their own… And it’s quite the operation!

Lions Mane Mushrooms
Oysters Mushrooms

Essentially, the task at hand is to simulate the cool, wet forest environment where mushrooms usually grow on trees, on logs, and from the soil. (Mind you, they do this in the middle of very warm San Juan Bautista). Lots of growers buy prepared mushroom-growing logs, but Edhi and Luis decided to cut costs by learning to make their own.

Starting with organic inputs, they use a machine to compress local sawdust, nutrients such as rye or wheat bran, and calcium into logs. These are then put into bags with filters, and steam-sterilized for 4 hours through a giant high-pressure autoclave. Each day, over 1900 of these bags pass into a controlled lab environment to protect from bacteria, where each is inoculated with mushroom mycelium (Edhi also grows his own inoculation spores from the best-looking mushrooms of each batch).  

Sumano makes their own mushroom logs

From there, it’s essentially a game of rotation and waiting. While each mushroom is different, the long-incubating shiitake takes 12 weeks for the mycelium to fully saturate the log. Oysters and Lion’s Mane are quicker, at around 5 weeks. This long waiting period explains the higher price, along with the difficulty of controlling potential contamination: small bag punctures, exposure to bacteria, along with fluctuations of humidity and temperature can lead to contamination in the bags, which will spread to other bags if not removed from the racks. Growing mushrooms is a very intricate process, and costly mistakes may not materialize until weeks later, leading to a loss.

The magic happens fairly quickly in the fruiting room. Once the mycelium have populated the entire bag and begun to turn a soil-like shade of brown, the bags are moved into their final rotation. Small cuts in the bag (or entire bag removal for shiitakes) allow the oxygen to penetrate, and overhead mist simulates the wet conditions of a forest ripe with fruit. The mushrooms grow in just a few days, where they are picked to order by Edhi and his crew. The logs become compost for local farms, and the mushrooms go on to feed all of us in the Bay Area.

It was a great visit, we learned a lot, and to cap it all off they fed us a delicious snack: shiitakes and oysters sautéed with loads of garlic, tomato and basil, atop toasted Sumano sourdough! Next time you eat a Sumano mushroom, make sure to think about all the hard work of Edhi and his mastermind crew.

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