Five years ago, for most of middle class America, the idea of paying $1.60 for a cup of fair trade, organically grown coffee was laughable; McDonalds sold a cup of coffee for 60¢! Today, it is virtually impossible for a coffee shop to survive financially if they don’t offer a fair-trade blend. What changed?
I was sitting in Folks Café, our neighborhood coffee shop, last summer, sipping on a fair trade organic coffee when the inevitable conversation started. Someone made a comament about shopping at Walmart. As any regular reader of this column can guess, that’s like lighting a Molotov cocktail around me. The ensuing discussion ended with her screaming that I couldn’t expect to change people’s habits! No, I replied, I didn’t think that I, personally, would change anyone’s habits or the course of human history. But I also noted that it can’t be denied: Something is happening.
The Business Dictionary defines “fair trade”: “A movement which strives for fair treatment for farmers. In a fair trade agreement, farmers, who in other situations might be more susceptible to the will of the purchaser, will negotiate with the purchasers in order to receive a fair price for their products. Farmers who engage in fair trade also aim to pay their workers a fair price and engage in environmentally friendly practices.”
The idea of fair trade is not new. It started in the 1940s with handcrafts, and it spread during the second half of the 20th century to include agricultural products. Really, it has gained traction in the last 10 years.
Still, the question lingers in many heads: “Why fair trade? Why pay a higher price?”
Fair trade is largely associated with the idea of supporting third-world farmers and rewarding farmers and co-operatives that do not employ child labor. The topic of modern-day child slavery in the chocolate industry alone could fill a dissertation. But by the aforementioned definition, a farmers’ market would qualify as a market place committed to fair trade. Produce purchased in the traditional grocery-store setting pays farmers (if they are even in the US) 20 percent or less of the retail dollar. Produce purchased at a Farmers’ Market pays the farmer directly, resulting in 100 percent of the retail dollar (minus any booth rental fee and transportation costs). Thus, it keeps monies here rather than filtering it away through middlemen.
As I drive around town, I am amazed at the number of restaurants with signs promoting their local menus. From the obvious (like Hieronymus Seafood, which serves local seafood), to the surprising (The Harp Irish Restaurant and Pub), obviously, there is a demand in the marketplace for local food. Yet, when the farmers’ markets are closed in the off-season, where do people go? For starters, Tidal Creek Co-op actively purchases local produce (and dairy products from Hillsborough). Pine Valley Market is switching much of their retail to all-local. Local seafood markets give us another option.
The bottom line is If we want to see a greater demand on the retail side for local food, we must advocate. Why are we importing a head of lettuce that has traveled from California or even Argentina, when we have farmers producing it right here in New Hanover, Pender, Onslow, Brunswick and Columbus counties? More to the point, why are we sending money there rather than spending it here? With green houses, Canadian farmers are able to produce for 10 months of the year—in a country with regularly sub-zero temperatures.
When I lived on a farm outside of Asheville, we had greenhouses that produced food year-round. Of course, summers were more lush than January, but we were still eating out of the greenhouses in the dead of winter up there. Imagine the possibilities in our more temperate climate?
Oddly enough, that seems to be exactly what Fort Bragg is doing with an installation project of sustainable greenhouses associated with the base. Businesses and markets respond to demand. The more we demand to invest in our own economy, the more our economy will grow and stabilize. It’s time we ask for a little fair trade closer to home.
Recently, the first Southeastern North Carolina Food Systems Regional Conference was held to bring attention to these issues and provide a forum for solutions. Down East Connect, a group seeking to connect farmers and restaurants directly with bi- and tri-weekly deliveries, is preparing for its inaugural season Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s) exist locally, too (Progressive Gardens). Consumers purchase a share in the harvest of a farm at the beginning of the season, giving the farmer capital, and get fresh boxes of produce delivered weekly. All of these are recent developments within the last few years.
Again, something is happening.
I am not sure if it is motivated by conscience or personal greed in the market place, and frankly I am not sure it matters which.