at origin

Meet Someswar.

Assam, India is an area famous for its malty rich black tea. When we first met tea growers in Assam, we were surprised to hear they were producing green teas ... huh? The pioneers of organic tea quickly saw the need to differentiate their tea from others. It made sense to put together the idea of healthful green tea with organic tea cultivation. Selling green tea within Assam was much easier than competing with long-established black tea brands. 


Meet Someswar. Green tea grower, and organic champion.

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Someswar grows and processes tea for Level Ground's Green Tea.

Remarkably, Someswar has been a Small Tea Grower since 1976. In fact, he was the first small tea grower registered in Assam! A small tea grower is someone who owns and operates a tea garden (like a sole proprietor) - often their garden is in their backyard or close by to their home.  Officially Small Tea Growers may have a garden up to 10 hectares.  The growers of Level Ground’s tea have gardens between 1-10 acres.


Someswar not only has pioneered the idea of  small tea growing in Assam, but he is a champion of organic. He is an officially recognized trainer in organic tea growing and processing and uses his time to share the knowledge he's gained.   Thanks to efforts like Someswar's, there will be more organic tea growers in Assam!

 

Laurie, Level Ground co-owner, and Someswar visit in his Assam tea garden.

Laurie, Level Ground co-owner, and Someswar visit in his Assam tea garden.

Two leaves and a bud are plucked from Someswar's garden. This provides a good mix between quality (the bud) and quantity (the leaves) for tea. 

Two leaves and a bud are plucked from Someswar's garden. This provides a good mix between quality (the bud) and quantity (the leaves) for tea. 

Someswar shows us the list of students who have attended his training seminars over the past year.

Someswar shows us the list of students who have attended his training seminars over the past year.

about 100 students attend Someswar's Training Centre each year.

about 100 students attend Someswar's Training Centre each year.

 

Meet Catalina

Meet Catalina, the face of Aromatic Rice.

She is one of very few farmers that have an Education Degree. She wasn't able to teach, but instead used her education to work overseas to help out her family, supporting her siblings through school. When her parents fell ill, she returned home to the Philippines to care for them. After her parents passed away, she took over tilling the rice terraces along with her siblings.

Catalina is the secretary of the local women's group, farmer's group, and a community leader. She also manages to find time to work on the farm and grow Unoy (Aromatic) rice.

What an amazing woman!

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Meet Jaime.

MEET JAIME, THE FACE OF COLOMBIA COFFEE.

 
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Jaime Marín lives near Jardín, Colombia, where he grows coffee and fruits like lulo, a popular fruit among urban Colombians. His coffee plot is 2,000 meters above sea level, which makes his coffee a favourite among specialty coffee drinkers.  At this high elevation the coffee ‘cherries’ ripen very slowly and the flavour concentrates in the beans.  Jaime Marín’s coffee also earns Direct Fair Trade premiums through the “Programa San Miguel” and his coffee is shipped to Level Ground directly. 

Co-owner Stacey shows Jaime his face on the Colombia coffee package for the first time!

Co-owner Stacey shows Jaime his face on the Colombia coffee package for the first time!

Dave (Level Ground), Jaime, Robyn (Level Ground), and Elizabeth (Famicafé) visit at Jaime's farm.

Dave (Level Ground), Jaime, Robyn (Level Ground), and Elizabeth (Famicafé) visit at Jaime's farm.

Meet Tenzing.

MEET TENZING.

Tenzing is a small-scale tea grower in Assam, India. He's committed to organic tea cultivation because he's seen the impact of chemicals first-hand. Tenzing tells a story of a labourer in a tea garden with a spray pack, full of chemicals.  The container started to leak onto the labourer's neck. The labourer urgently took off his shirt to rinse in a nearby pond. As he rinsed the shirt, fish died and floated to the pond's surface. Upon witnessing this event, Tenzing committed to organic tea production!

Since converting to organic, Tenzing has become a role model. He educates and promotes organic cultivation in his region. His passion is spreading so that more of his neighbours are working in a chemical-free environment, producing healthy tea! 

We love that smile!  

We love that smile!  

Level Ground staff, Wyn, shares a laugh with Tenzing at his home in Assam.

Level Ground staff, Wyn, shares a laugh with Tenzing at his home in Assam.

The Faces of Fruandes.

Workers at Fruandes cut, sort and dry the mangoes.

Fruandes was founded in a time when Colombia was experiencing serious upheaval with many internal refugees moving to large cities in hopes for safety from armed conflict in the rural areas.  Embedded in the heart of Fruandes was a commitment to employ women who had been displaced by violence in their rural homes and had come to Bogotá to start a new life.  

Fruandes now employs 45 women and has carried on in its strength in providing community for the families of their employees.  

Fruandes is now looking ahead and building a new facility in Ibague.  This will mean moving the whole operation hours away from the city of Bogota.  In their usual style, the leaders of Fruandes put together a multi-day trip for the whole company to go by bus and explore the new town.  Finding housing, checking out schools and sports teams for their children, envisioning a new life in a new place together.  The collective sense is that the new town will provide an incredible lift in quality of life - less time commuting, more affordable housing and more time with family.

Meet Tatiana.

Tatiana's mother worked at Fruandes during Tatiana's growing up years.  In 2008 Tatiana became the 2nd generation in her family to join Fruandes.   She started in production and now works in the office as the administrative assistant.

Tatiana and Hugo in 2013, when Tatiana was expecting with her first baby.

Tatiana and Hugo in 2013, when Tatiana was expecting with her first baby.

MEET Luz.

The story of Luz is the story for many Colombians. She is an internal refugee who fled from her native costal town of Tumaco to the capital city of Bogotá. Luz is a single mother to six grown children, only the two youngest live with her. She must begin her day at 4am because her commute time to Fruandes is nearly two hours! Meaningful work, however, is worth it for Luz. She is thankful to have a stable job, and to work in a place where people truly care for each other. 


MEET DON ISRAEL.

(note - his first name is Israel, not Don. Don is a term of respect, similar to saying "Mr." in Spanish).

Don Israel grows organic mangoes in Vereda Guacaná, Colombia. He started farming in 2005. With his raised awareness of environmental care and sustainability issues, he converted to fully organic practices within three years! 

On his eight hectares of land, he employs two farming families year round, plus eight additional families during mango harvest.

He sells his harvest to Fruandes, Level Ground’s trading partner, and receives a fair price for his crops. 

Meet Julian.

MEET JULIAN.

Julian (pronounced 'hoo-lee-ann') is the Director of Famicafé, a small organization established to support coffee farming communities in Colombia.   

Julian is a trained Agronomist and well-loved in the coffee farming community. As the Director of Famicafé, Julian's job is to match children in the community with educational scholarships. He is vigilant in seeking out the poorest students in the region who stand to gain the most from financial support in their education. He provides thoughtful, human interaction between students and their educational funding so that best outcomes are most likely.

He frequently travels between schools and communities to check in on students. To these students, he is a counsellor, friend, mentor, and great resource. Julian's ongoing involvement with Famicafé has him caring for the efforts of the foundation in 36 schools with 200+ students!

Julian is a dear friend of Level Ground. This past summer, Julian and his wife came to Canada to visit Level Ground and encourage our staff with stories of how Fair Trade directly impacts farmers and the farming community in Colombia.

Since 1998, Famicafé has invested $1.4M in education, supporting over 1400 families! 

To read more about Famicafé, see our blog here.

Julian champions peasant farmers and their families’ future by thoughtfully directing our Fair Trade premiums to deserving students. He creatively inspires the students to work, plan and dream for a better future.
— Stacey Toews, Level Ground co-owner
Julian and Level Ground Quality Control Lead, Josh meet up in Colombia.

Julian and Level Ground Quality Control Lead, Josh meet up in Colombia.

Julian (far left) visiting Brazo Seco School in St. Inez, Colombia

Julian (far left) visiting Brazo Seco School in St. Inez, Colombia

Julian working from his mobile "office" - the top of a Jeep! (check out the 'cushy' seating)

Julian working from his mobile "office" - the top of a Jeep! (check out the 'cushy' seating)

Famicafé: Changing Colombian Families through Education

When we set up our first trade relationship in 1997, small-scale coffee farmers in Colombia told us that the education of their children was a top priority. In response, Famicafé was founded to fund education for small-scale farmers’ children.

How does it all work?

Level Ground Trading pays a Community Premium to Famicafé each time we purchase coffee from Colombia which funds student scholarships and classroom resources.  

Beyond student scholarships, there are other key factors which may not immediately come to mind such as: repairing washed out roads which must be in place for students to attend school, breakfast programs that ensure the students have adequate nutrition before they start their day, replacing leaky roofs or installing gutters on schools so that the learning environment is comfortable etc

One of the more significant challenges for rural farm kids is that their home is too far from school to be able to commute to and from daily. Famicafé has run a boarding house where each year from 3-14 students have lived during the week, with a ‘dorm mom’ to care for them.

Famicafé has been personal, caring and ultimately successful in accomplishing the goal of providing education for small-scale farmers’ children! Some students have gone on to earn post secondary degrees and are active in serving their community as medical professionals and agronomists.

A student displays his welcome poster for Level Ground staff on a school visit.

A student displays his welcome poster for Level Ground staff on a school visit.

Elizabeth and Bibiana stand against the incredible steep slopes of coffee.

Elizabeth and Bibiana stand against the incredible steep slopes of coffee.

The students at Brazo Seco were thrilled to receive their new Famicafé backpack!

The students at Brazo Seco were thrilled to receive their new Famicafé backpack!

Meet Gobin.

MEET GOBIN.

Gobin is a small-scale tea grower in Assam, India. He is a heart-felt organic enthusiast. He has devised a way of making his  signature tea, Smoked Tea, using equipment traditionally used to pound rice and a wok over a fire.

Travel to Gobin's village involves crossing the mighty Brahmaputra river on a long narrow wooden ferry.  

In honour of his mother and father Gobin has named his backyard garden, the Meen Mohan Tea Garden.   It is a beautiful garden backing onto the specular mountains of Bhutan.

Despite our challenging language barrier, we always appreciate the enthusiastic discussion with the workers at Gobin's garden and the heartfelt sharing of his poems.   

The workers at Gobin's garden have allocated their Fair Trade Premiums towards livestock, hand looms and roofing supplies.

 

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Laurie (co-owner) and Gobin meet in Assam in 2012.

Laurie (co-owner) and Gobin meet in Assam in 2012.

River Ferry on our way to Gobin's home.

River Ferry on our way to Gobin's home.

Meet Gobin. Smoked Tea Grower

Harvest Season in the Philippines

Harvest season for our heirloom rice is underway in the Philippines!

The heirloom rice of the Philippines is grown by indigenous farmers who are hard working and extremely friendly. Amidst the Filipino Cordilleran provinces, exist the 3 provinces where our grown: Mountain Province, Kalinga and Ifugao. 

These are ancient grains, grown organically in stone-walled terraces. Field work and harvest are all done by hand. The terraces are often remote and jaw-droppingly magnificent.

Harvest is the culmination of 5 - 7 months of rhythmic tending to the terraces. The time span from planting to harvest varies with the elevation; the higher the elevation, the longer time for rice to mature.

Often farmers' homes are distant from the land being work. After harvest, they trek home with their heavy, 50kg rice sacks! 

Thank you to the farmers for preserving a heritage and respecting the environment. For so many, 'rice is life'.

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The far-reaching benefits of organic & tea

The words 'wellness' and 'tea' are often used in the same sentence and usually are followed by terms like antioxidants and flavanoids etc. As a tea-drinker, the feelings of well-being that tea brings me are immediately obvious but another understanding of wellness is surfacing in my awareness. This awareness is the wider effect of trading in tea ... the promotion of wellness in the tea-producing community. 

I've had the privilege of meeting a number of tea growers in Assam who have chosen a different path in growing tea. They have rejected the chemical fertilizers and schedules of pesticide spraying most commonly followed on major tea estates. In many cases, their story stems from a shocking realization that the chemicals that are killing the pests are then spilling into their waterway and ultimately harming far more beings that they originally thought. The choice to go organic is an obvious step towards wellness for all who live, work and play near the gardens (never mind those of us who drink the tea leaves later on). 

Then there is yet another layer to the story of wellness and this involves the labourers who work in the tea gardens plucking leaves and rolling leaves to make tea. Organic and Fair Trade makes a significant difference in the lives of labourers; no chemicals means a healthier work environment and attention to Fair Trade has created dialogue about the well-being of workers. 

Sharing some laughs with the women who pluck tea at Pranjit's tea garden in Assam

Sharing some laughs with the women who pluck tea at Pranjit's tea garden in Assam

Dried Fruit from a Vancouverite's perspective

Guest post from Jenn Co

The following is an excerpt from Jenn Co's article on her time visiting Fruandes. 


Having lived in Vancouver, Canada for a good chunk of my life, I would call myself extremely blessed. Immersed and surrounded by luxury and opportunity, it’s easy to forget there’s a whole other world out there. When I decided to step out of my comfort zone and embark on my first solo travel trip by heading to Colombia, I knew I was in for an adventure.

As I stood at the entrance to Fruandes, I couldn’t help but think, “This doesn’t look like a production warehouse.”  It reminded me more of the outside of a house. I turned the handle, entered in and was immediately arrested by the sweet smell of deliciousness. I peeked past the staircase and saw crates upon crates of…mangoes! This must be heaven!  I’m a mango monster, you see! I knew at that moment I was going to thoroughly enjoy this educational experience to its fullest.

Fruandes started as a dream. In 2002, the market value of coffee beans was plummeting and Level Ground saw a need to partner with small-scale rural Colombian farmers to diversify their offerings in order to survive. Fruit seemed to be the most logical solution as it grows well in Colombia’s rich tropical climate. Plus, the high altitudes and rich soil of the Andes provided the perfect conditions to high-growing fruit trees. This is how Fruandes dried fruit was born. 

Fruandes, short for Frutos de los Andes (Fruit of the Andes), is a certified B-Company. B-companies use business to solve environmental and social issues. Fruandes exports its organic fair trade mango, pineapple, dragonfruit, golden berries, and bananas to many countries in the world—Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, Czech Republic, Chile, US and the Netherlands, to name a few. What’s incredibly inspiring about this story is… when Fruandes started, Colombian dried fruit didn’t even exist, much less exported! Now there are four other competitors in the market vying for people’s taste buds and loyalty. One could say Fruandes broke the ground in this area of business.

With all that knowledge in tow, I was raring to actually experience what happens in a dried-fruit production plant. But first things first: Get into gear! Jasmine, the packing supervisor, gave me a change of clothes: a loose white V-neck top and matching elasticized pants, a hair net, face mask, rubber boots and gloves. I was so excited to jump into doing things, Jasmine literally had to stop me. “Mira,” she said, which means “Look.”  

Riiiiight. I needed to wash my hands and dip my rubber boots into a water bath. I soon discovered hand-washing was a crucial part to the entire operation.  I literally had to do this before anything and everything. Let’s just say, Fruandes takes cleanliness and hygiene as top priority. The facility is both organic and on its way to meeting international standards for their processes.

Peeling, cutting and laying mangoes on drying racks

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Once I was thoroughly clean, I walked through a plastic curtain and into the main facility. I slipped on a rubber apron and was directed to a long upright table where smiling women were peeling and cutting mangoes. A knife was handed to me and I proceeded to copy the technique of these expert cutters. It took a while to get the hang of it because the ripe mangoes kept slipping and sliding out of my hands. I was taught to distinguish which pieces were able to make it to the next round, and which needed to be separated. So anything bruised or squishy had to go. These pieces are usually given to the workers at the end of the day for them to enjoy or bring back to their families. The pieces that made the cut were then laid flat onto drying racks, after which they were popped into dehumidifying ovens where the mangoes reincarnate into their more dehydrated versions.

Once dried, the fruit goes through another round of inspection where the best of the best get sorted into big plastic bags. The bagged dried mangoes are sealed, boxed up, then brought upstairs where they are packaged and labeled.

Jasmine escorted me up a flight of stairs and directed me to the room where more ladies were busy filling and weighing small packets of dried fruit. The day I was there, they were working on dragonfruit. After washing my hands (See? What did I tell you?) and donning a fresh pair of gloves, Jasmine gave a quick explanation of how to weigh and seal the packets. Then away I went! With weighing scale on hand, I ensured each bag held the exact number of grams indicated by the packets. After doing a hundred of those (or so it seemed), I moved over to a nearby machine and ran the packets twice to ensure they were sealed entirely. The last step was combining a dozen of these small packets into a bigger bag, stuffing that into a box, taping it down, and getting it ready to be sent to the country that ordered it.

An important aspect of Fruandes is how the production process keeps more money within the country. By paying growers and producers fair trade prices and hiring Colombians to work in the factory plant, Fruandes is able to reinject finances back into the local economy. From its inception, when Fruandes director Giovanni Porras rented a small space in a low income area, the story has been about making the lives of Colombians better. 

In 2002, Giovanni installed a dehydrator and gave six marginalized women in the Cazuca refugee community work. These women along with their children were struggling to survive. Through a connection with a local NGO, the women and children now have minimum wages, access to healthcare, transport subsidies, school tuition, scholarships and materials. Today, there are more than 45 women employed by Fruandes during peak fruit processing periods. Level Ground receives around nine containers of their dried fruit and panela (cane sugar) a year. The other European and US markets receive just as much product, if not more. So even though Level Ground founded Fruandes, this dried fruit company has definitely grown beyond them!

 

- Jenn

 

 

Fresh Spices from Sri Lanka

Flying into Colombo, I started to wonder, what does a spice farm look like?
Turns out, these spice farms looking nothing like what you might picture as a garden or a farm... it's more like jungle where the spices hide.
We hiked through these tiny farms and the spices were hard to spot. Moddy of Ethical Inspirations and the Coop Agronomist opened our eyes to the surrounding bounty by urging us to taste leaves and open strange looking seed pods to find the most amazing smells and flavours... like scratch 'n sniff. Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg & pepper...sensory overload!

In the year since that jungle adventure, the coop of spice farmers has worked hard to grow, process and bottle the spices for us. Now they are available to you! Ceylon Cinnamon (the real stuff), Nutmeg, Ginger, Cloves, Tumeric, Cardamon, White & Black Peppercorns. All small-scale grown on biodynamic farms, traded fairly and directly and so fresh it will knock your socks off.

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