Transparency and information for farmers; awareness and education for consumers; educational opportunities for women leaders in the developing world who are farmers or work with farmers.
Vanilla, like most tropical commodities, has a long history of injustices to farmers. While we could point fingers at the chain of people who are involved in the process of purchasing vanilla pods from the farmers, curing and drying the vanilla, selling the pods to traders, who then sell to wholesalers, then retailers and finally to you, we, the consumers are culpable as well.
How? We take for granted the many foods, spices, flavors and other specialties grown and processed in the tropics or other areas of the developing world. We rarely consciously consider the coffee or tea that we enjoy in the morning, the foods we eat each day, or the desserts and snacks we adore, as being grown by someone whose livelihood depends on our choices. We may be grateful for these simple luxuries, but can we imagine the face of the grower or how they live?
When the cost of coffee spikes, the bottle of vanilla extract seems outrageously expensive or our favorite chocolate is way too pricey, we complain and choose a cheaper brand or even opt for imitation if it’s available.
Fortunately, we have activists and organizations who lobby for small farm producers in most developed nations. In the developing world, this barely exists. Ironically, the luxury crops we enjoy so much –- coffee, tea, sugar, vanilla and chocolate — are grown in the tropics where farmers rarely enjoy the fruits of their labor both literally and figuratively. For instance, chocolate is produced throughout Africa, yet my African farmer friends rejoice when I send them a bar of chocolate.
Organizations have been created for organic and fair trade certification to assist these farmers. While well intentioned, the programs have been successful for some products, but have fallen short for most.
With a few exceptions, vanilla is one of the crops that has not fared well with organic or fair trade status. Why? Because the majority of farmers have only a few acres on which they produce their vanilla. Unless they are part of a collective underwritten by a non-profit or organization, they cannot afford organic or fair trade certification.
Vanilla is nearly always grown organically and sustainably. Most farmers use neither chemical fertilizers nor pesticides. First, vanilla grows better without chemicals. Second, the farmers can’t afford them.
At The Vanilla Company, the vanilla we purchase directly from the farmers or their immediate representatives, is bought at fair trade prices. There are some products that we cannot obtain directly, but we do our best to find sources that guarantee a fair price.
We have taken our beliefs one step further. I am a member of the Global Women’s Leadership Network (GWLN) based at Santa Clara University and was in the inaugural Women Leaders for the World training in 2005. I was sufficiently impressed by the program that I have sponsored women from the U.S., Mexico and Sierra Leone, and have tried twice unsuccessfully to sponsor a woman from Uganda. Unfortunately, getting visas in some countries is extremely difficult. Now I am working to bring the WLW Training to East Africa for women leaders unable to get visas to the US. These women are farmers or work with farmers.
I have sponsored a farmer from Kenya to the Worldwide Farmers Exchange for a year’s internship. We raised funds to rebuild the school in a small town in Mexico’s vanilla-growing region that was devastated by a hurricane. We connected a grower in Costa Rica with a woman who started a school in northeastern Haiti – 650 farmers now grow cacao and vanilla in this community and their children are the first ever to become literate in this region. We sold vanilla for a community in Papua New Guinea that now has a truck and a generator for the village.
I launched the International Tropical Farmers Network so that vanilla farmers could be in touch with one another via the Internet. And I helped to create a conference in Mexico in 2006 where all farmers were able to attend as it was free, a first ever for the indigenous growers.
When you purchase vanilla from The Vanilla Company, it helps me to continue to advise farmers on current prices, the world market, and resources that can potentially be of service to them. Your purchases make it possible for us to identify ways we can be of service to farmers in communities throughout the tropics.
While our accomplishments have been humble, they have created a sense of connection and of hope. We greatly value the support you provide by buying our products.