Farmers

Meet Bijit & Swapna.

Meet Bijit.  

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Bijit is one of the nine tea growers we work with in Assam, India. He is an amazing leader, and continually offers his time to create community within all of the tea growers. He and his wife, Swapna, reach out to others who are new to growing tea to encourage them. They continually invest in education to increase tea quality.

 

But really, the story is about Swapna.

Swapna is Bijit's wife, the face of green tea, and the one who keeps it all together. She manages the processing facility and leads the team of women who pluck tea on their garden during harvest. She is kind-hearted, conscientious, and dilligently employs many people from the nearby village. 

 

Bijit and Swapna embody Fair Trade in Assam, India. They care for their labourers, neighbours, and the land on which they cultivate tea. We are incredibly lucky to visit them each time we travel to India.

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Swapna, Alicia, Bijit, Laurie (Level Ground), and Wyn (Level Ground).

Swapna, Alicia, Bijit, Laurie (Level Ground), and Wyn (Level Ground).

Minga - Working Together for Great Pineapples

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In the Cauca region of Colombia, four women travel together from one pineapple farm to another. Elfa Nelly, Nolba, Leda, and Yolima do a Minga every day. 

What's a Minga?

A Minga is the idea that when many people work together, everyone benefits. In this case, it's a traditional process where a group of people agree to rotate between each others' farms to work as necessary. In this case, these women have essentially formed an unstoppable group of pineapple farmers!

Many of the 42 members of the Pineapple Association we work with participate in a Minga. Together, they cultivate pineapple and sell it to Fruandes, the Fair Trade Organisation we partner in Colombia. In return, they receive the best price for their pineapple and the whole community benefits. Win-win! 

Pineapple growing on a farm in Cauca, Colombia.

Pineapple growing on a farm in Cauca, Colombia.

Elfa Nelly, Nolba, Leda, and Yolima

Elfa Nelly, Nolba, Leda, and Yolima

Meet Albeiro. Golden Berry Farmer.

Meet Albeiro Chamorra. Golden berry farmer and leader of the golden berry farmer association. 

 

Meet Albeiro. Golden Berry Farmer
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Albeiro is a husband, father, and is one of fifteen farmers who grow organic golden berries as a member of Biofruit NAPOLI. 

He is a trained Agronomist from Bogota (the "big city"!). When his father, Hernan, joined the golden berry association, Albeiro moved back to Nariño to join his family. Albeiro, with his University Education, has been a great asset to the community where the average education ends at elementary school. 

He is now the leader of Biofruit NAPOLI, the golden berry association, and advocate for organic production. 

 

Albiero (centre left) and his father (centre right) along with the women who work on Albiero's farm.

Albiero (centre left) and his father (centre right) along with the women who work on Albiero's farm.

Members of the Biofruit NAPOLI association come together every month.

Members of the Biofruit NAPOLI association come together every month.

Meet Orlando.

Meet Orlando, Leader of the Banana farmers association, and king of organic. 

Even without a word of English, Orlando is one of the most hilarious people you will ever meet. His smile and laugh announce his presence everywhere he goes. Quick to make jokes, Orlando draws people near: family, friends, and visitors. But don't let that fool you - Orlando is dead serious about one thing: organic farming.

Orlando creates organic mixtures to solve any problem on his farm. If a plant needs more nitrogen, he's got a blue bin for that. More calcium? There's a bin for that! He shares the mixtures with members of the association, ensuring they all have a healthy harvest.

So how does he make all of these mixtures? It's a science. He takes organic materials from his farm, and neighbouring farms, and combines with precision. One key is using run-off from his neighbour's pigs. They take the organic material that pigs expel, allow it to ferment, and use the nutrient rich material. (Side note: the gas resulting from that process is used to power their homes!) 

Orlando's success has allowed him to spread the impact throughout his family. His brothers, who were stuck working in coca production, called Orlando to ask for help. His response: to take them in without hesitation. Now, all the brothers live together, producing healthy plants that give life. 

Each blue bin contains a different organic mixture, designed to combat pests and disease.

Each blue bin contains a different organic mixture, designed to combat pests and disease.

Dave (Level Ground), Orlando, Robyn (Level Ground) and Pacho (Orlando's brother). 

Dave (Level Ground), Orlando, Robyn (Level Ground) and Pacho (Orlando's brother). 

Orlando and his famous soil!

Orlando and his famous soil!

Golden Berries - Biofruit NAPOLI

Biofruit Napoli - the organic golden berry farmers association in nariño, colombia.

What's in a name? Biofruit NAPOLI was started in 2007 by six members:

Nancy, Alba, Piedad, Osvina, Leonardo*, & Lilliana.  (*Leonardo was the only Male founder of the association!)

The association has 16 members, 15 of which are farmers. Giraldo Rosero the only non-farmer member operates a nursery for golden berry plant starts. He carefully nourishes the seeds into starts, then farmers come to purchase and plant the starts in their farmers. 

Each member owns a farm. Collectively they hire 81 workers who harvest and sort the leaves. The vast majority of these workers are women, which is a welcomed change in Colombia. All of the members meet on the first Sunday of every month. They gather to share success stories, organic practices, and encourage each other in their work. 

Hernan Chamorro, member of Biofruit NAPOLI

Hernan Chamorro, member of Biofruit NAPOLI

The nursery for Golden Berry plant starts.

The nursery for Golden Berry plant starts.

Members of the Biofruit NAPOLI association come together every month.

Members of the Biofruit NAPOLI association come together every month.

Golden Berry Package

Meet Menaka.

Meet Menaka, a seasonal worker for Ethical Inspirations, our spice partner in Sri Lanka. 

 

Menaka is responsible for leading the others in cleaning, shrink sleeving, labelling and packaging the spice bottles.

She is a woman who was marginalized in the local community. She was born with multiple disabilities. Her mother sent her to school, but as she grew, she struggled to find employment. Her physical limitations restricted her from finding livelihood employment. 

Menaka was born with only seven fingers on both her hands; and only one foot. She has to depend on an artificial foot to move. Her limitations have made her determined to stand up in life as an independent woman. 

Menaka is married to Weerasinghe, a young man plagued by polio. Weerasinghe drives a trishaw that provides an income for the family. Weerasinghe ensures that his wife gets to work on time and picks her up after work. Menaka has the opportunity for dignified work and to make an income for her family.

Menaka and her husband, Weerasinghe.

Menaka and her husband, Weerasinghe.

Menaka poses with freshly labelled spices.

Menaka poses with freshly labelled spices.

Pineapple - Regrowing Peace through Pineapples

In the Cauca region of Colombia, the Balanta family has worked for years advocating simultaneously for peace and for pineapples. 

It's a region that was known for conflict; it's main crop, coca leaves. Because of the coca production, guerrillas occupied the area, soon followed by the military. This combination led to heavy violence in the area.

Cesar (Nilsen Lucumi), Susanna, and Gustavo (Amaifi Bonilla) Balanta grow pineapple from their farm in Cauca. Even though they have formal education, and hold other jobs in Law and Human Resources, they never left Agriculture. This family has deliberately chosen to stay in Cauca, through conflict and war. They advocate for pineapple production, a welcomed alternative to coca, and are passionate members of the pineapple farmers' association - Asoagronorca (Agriculture Association of Northern Cauca). 

Now, this region cultivates peace. What was previously an area known for drug production and violence is now a community who comes together to produce pineapple and work together. 

Cesar Balanta in one of the Pineapple farms in Cauca.

Cesar Balanta in one of the Pineapple farms in Cauca.

The finished product. Our pineapple package features the face of Susanna Balanta.

The finished product. Our pineapple package features the face of Susanna Balanta.

Meet Maria.

Meet Maria Chari. The face of Peru Coffee.

Maria is a coffee farmer and Matriarch of the Machiguenga First Nation in Pangoa, Peru. 

Like many of the co-op members, Maria produces coffee as a cash crop. She employs biodiversity in her crops to cultivate healthy food.

Maria, her family, and other members of the First Nations group grow organic coffee and cacao. They are members of a long-established co-op with 680 members. The co-op is called 'Co-operativa Agraria Cafetalera Pangoa' (now, that's a mouthful!), or 'CAC Pangoa’ for short.  

The organic coffee we purchase is grown exclusively by the Machiguenga First Nation. 

Maria seeing her face on a package of Peru coffee for the first time!

Maria seeing her face on a package of Peru coffee for the first time!

When we visit, members of the Machiguenga First Nation throw a celebration and wear their traditional (and colourful) robes.

When we visit, members of the Machiguenga First Nation throw a celebration and wear their traditional (and colourful) robes.

Peru Coffee

 

 

Fruandes Organic Farmers Meeting

Fruandes, our dried fruit and cane sugar partner in Colombia, shared the following with us.


This summer, Fruandes held the sixth organic farmers meeting in Ipiales, Nariño (Colombia). The On this occasion, Fruandes visited and shared some time with each of the members of the Biofruit Napoli association, a group of organic golden berries producers led by Albeiro Chamorro.

The focus of the meeting was 'The Farm as a Set of Good Practices'. Participants exchanged farming practices, in order to co-create and improve processes. 

The agenda had four stages:

1. Good Practices 

The 2-day meeting began with the participation of all association members. Each member shared their best practices and strategies in terms of quality and sourcing.

Together they identified the following good practices:

  1. Loyalty and organizational commitment

  2. Persistence and good project management

  3. Good organizational management

  4. Strategic leadership

  5. Inclusive governance

  6. Good logistics and traceability through effective communications

 

2. The Chagra Route

A Chagra is an Indigenous farming system. It's not only a collective activity wherein farmers and indigenous people produce their own food, but also a learning place where traditional beliefs are connected with organic production and divinity.

We visited the Chagra in the afternoon. The aim of this activity was to observe, and analyze how we can replicate these kinds of farms. Fruandes encourages farmers to grow healthy, nourishing foods for their own households. 

 

3. Visit to the organic golden berry farms

The Fruandes community visited the farms of several Biofruit association members to know more about growing organic golden berries. First, we visited Hernando Chamorro’s farm, where we had a tour of his fields and learned about his composting practices. Next, we went to visit Albeiro Chamorro’s farm, and toured around the farm as he explained the golden berry picking process. Later, we visited Gildardo Rosero´s farm. He is in charge of raising the seedlings of the golden berries for all farmers belonging to the association. Lastly, we visited the farms of Jaime, Enrique and Leonardo López in the José María Hernández village, located in Pupiales. There we learned about other products made from golden berries.

 

4. Gathering and cultural exchanges 

At the community center in the village of José María Hernández, we participated in the last activity of the meeting, much anticipated by participants. We described the organizational structure of Fruandes with two main objectives: 1) To know the roles of each on the Fruandes team; and 2) To replicate this model within each association to improve their organizational structure.

To be faithful and loyal are the keys of success.
— Albeiro Chamorro, Biofruit Napoli Association
Fruandes is a knowledge center!
— Orlando Rodriguez, Banana Farmer
Germán Betancourt, Organic Development Leader (far left) with organic pineapple farmers from the Cauca region.

Germán Betancourt, Organic Development Leader (far left) with organic pineapple farmers from the Cauca region.

Fabio Baron, Fruandes Logistics and Service Leader (left), on the farm of Hernan Chamorro, the pioneer of the organic golden berry production in Nariño.

Fabio Baron, Fruandes Logistics and Service Leader (left), on the farm of Hernan Chamorro, the pioneer of the organic golden berry production in Nariño.

A traditional dance from Nariño on the last day of the meeting.

A traditional dance from Nariño on the last day of the meeting.

Hugo in Tanzania: An Update from Tracey Ciro

A farmer update by Tracey Ciro (Co-founder).


Good morning, Level Ground!

Hugo left Victoria on Tuesday.  At some point early Sunday morning, while we were all still sleeping, he finally made it to the coffee growing region of Tanzania.  Long trip!  

I believe, this photo was taken at the Mlolow Coffee Processing Plant in Mbeya, Tanzania.  These are the women who sort our Tanzanian coffee bean by bean by hand.  (Please know, when I visited this plant, I asked about the women working on the floor.  I was shown sorting tables and comfortable-looking (to my eyes) chairs.  All unused.  The women, it was explained to me, prefer to work on the floor! )

There must be some story to the shirt Hugo is wearing.  I do not recognize it.

Hugo is off to visit farmers in Ileje today.  It will be a bumpy 4-wheel drive that is hours long… (and way longer than the driver tells you it will be!).  The road is red clay, if it has been dry, red mud if it has been raining.  There is lush green vegetation on either side of the road, and steep cliffs on, at least, one side of the road.  It is the kind of road you tell your mother about once you are safely back in Canada! ;)

Wishing you all a great day!

Tracey

Hugo in Tanzania

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.

 

D.R. Congo Farmer Visit

Here's what's happening right now (June 2017): Hugo is in Africa visiting farmers. His latest stop, D.R. Congo with coffee friend Jono from Bean There Coffee.  

DR Congo
The Mutendero washing station in Vissale (near Butembo), D.R. Congo. 

The Mutendero washing station in Vissale (near Butembo), D.R. Congo. 

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Hugo and the "Mamas" - women who sort the green coffee beans. 

Hugo and the "Mamas" - women who sort the green coffee beans. 

Selfie at the coffee milling plant with the Mamas. 

Selfie at the coffee milling plant with the Mamas. 

Farm Visit & Composting Lessons

Today we visited the 10 Acres Farm in North Saanich (just North of our HQ) with our Fruandes trading partner, Javier Vasquez from Colombia. He's the one in orange!

Fruandes ends up with about 40,000 tonnes of compost per month through processing and drying our delicious dried fruits. 10 Acres has an impressive system for composting their restaurant and farm wastes so we were keen to see where Fruandes could potentially gain insight into composting large quantities of organic waste.

The farm contains several greenhouses full of herbs and starters as well as crops of rhubarb, kale and asparagus (to name a few), lemon, lime and apricot trees, grapes, pigs, goats and ducks!

It was inspiring and heartwarming to connect with another local company focused on farming and agricultural diversity. Farmers doing what they love and people enjoying the delicious fruits of their labour ... literally!

Chantelle, Javier, Stacey, Hugo & Hannah on the farm.

Chantelle, Javier, Stacey, Hugo & Hannah on the farm.

Goats galore! These are for kids to play with and learn about farm life. 

Goats galore! These are for kids to play with and learn about farm life. 

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.

Meet Dissanayake.

The minimum farm-gate price has assured us of real value for our hard work. We now have some extra money to invest in our dwellings and my family.
— Dissanayake

Dissanayake and his family grow rice and spices on an 1.25 acre plot of land in  Alutgama, Yatawatte, Sri Lanka. 

His biggest challenge? "The adverse weather. We do not have irrigation channels and have to depend on the rain and ground water. During the dry season, the ground water resources tend to dry-up and then we have to abandon our farming".

Through the work of Ethical Inspirations, Dissanayake was able to sell his spices at a fair price.

Peppercorns ... coming soon!

Peppercorns ... coming soon!

Dissanayake in his backyard spice garden.

Dissanayake in his backyard spice garden.

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 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

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