Wholesum Family Farms celebrating 10 years as Fair Trade producer
Wholesum Family Farms has a long history as a responsible grower and was an early proponent of organic produce. So in many ways, it is understandable that the company was also an early adopter of the Fair Trade movement, which shares some basic tenets with organic production.
“I think that responsible growing is one of the ingrained values we have at Wholesum and the path into Fair Trade certification was part of our evolution as a company,” said Joanna Jaramillo, marketing manager for the Amado, AZ-based grower.
Wholesum is now celebrating its 10th anniversary as a Fair Trade producer, and its ardent support of the program has made it a leading champion of the Fair Trade movement.
Detailing the background of Wholesum, Jaramillo said that the third-generation family-owned company got involved with organics during the time when the second generation was managing operations.
“Our second-generation owner, Theojary Crisantes Sr., was moved by the book Silent Spring, which explores the effects of pesticide use over time, and how resistance to chemicals develops, resulting in the need to use even more powerful chemicals,” said Jaramillo. “It is a downward spiral, as chemicals seep into our waterways and affect the environment.”
Jaramillo said Wholesum began exploring organic growing first at its farms in Culiacan and Sinaloa, Mexico. “There is a lot of agriculture in that region, and if you are the only organic grower, you are at risk of chemicals, pests and unwanted inputs from neighboring farms infiltrating your fields. So that is where the idea for greenhouse growing came into play as a way to offer protection, consistency and quality for the crops.”
She said Wholesum received its first organic certification in the 1990s, and while it was not entirely organic at that point, it marked the first step toward becoming a 100 percent organic grower.
As Wholesum was embracing the organic movement it became aware of Fair Trade, and the principles of social responsibility and the empowerment of workers rang true with company officials.
Jaramillo explained that in agriculture, there is a lot of history of unfavorable working conditions for workers, and Fair Trade presented a way to let consumers know that the company respects its workers and takes labor rights, wages and working conditions very seriously.
“Our leadership realized that this was a framework that was working well for coffee and tea and certain other commodities, and was helping developing communities in third-world countries really make a change,” she said. “So seeing the successes there was a trigger for bringing this framework to our farms to see how those successes could translate to our production and labor force.”
In 2012, Jaramillo said Fair Trade USA brought forth the agriculture production standard for larger farms such as Wholesum, and it was an opportunity to put this framework to the test on a larger scale.
“We were among the first large-scale produce growers to achieve Fair Trade status,” she said. “Ever since then we have seen a lot of impact and growth in our communities. We obtained our certification first on our farms in Mexico in Culiacan and Los Janos in the northern part of Sonora. It was really transformative, especially in terms of community development.”
Jaramillo said that with Fair Trade there are standards based around worker rights and working conditions that must be followed to earn a Fair Trade certification. Additionally, there are measures to ensure workers’ access to services such as medical care. And there is a module about empowerment and building healthy communities and healthy businesses.
With regard to empowerment and building healthy communities, one of the most effective tools is the Community Development Fund, whereby for every case of produce that is sold a premium goes back to the workers, who then manage the funds collectively through a democratic process.
“They elect committee members to represent them and make decisions on how to use the money for the good of the community,” said Jaramillo. “That is where worker empowerment comes into play, because they make these decisions outside of the company leadership.”
She explained that to determine the best use of the funds, a needs assessment is conducted in the worker community. The committee will survey workers about housing, clean water, health, nutrition, transportation or anything that affects their personal and work lives. Once the survey is complete, they identify what the top needs are and then present them to the full labor force for a vote on which projects to undertake.
Jaramillo said it is an involved process, and in most cases it takes a bit of time for the concept to be accepted by the farm.
“With every farm you start small, and there is a bit of skepticism because the funds take a while to come in and workers wonder if it is actually a real program,” she said. “But as the years accumulate, they start to realize how it benefits them. And it’s better than just handing each worker a rebate check because they would just spend it on themselves for material things. When you use it for a collective effort, there is more collaboration about solving community-wide issues. It helps build camaraderie among the community.”
Jaramillo pointed to some ongoing and completed projects that are among the success stories of the Community Development Fund.
In one instance, at Wholesum’s farm in Los Janos in northern Sonora, Mexico, a bus was funded to provide school transportation for children of workers, and was eventually expanded to help workers themselves get back and forth to the farm.
“Los Janos is a small community located eight miles from the larger town of Imuris, where many of the workers live, and so by providing a bus it gave workers a way to commute to the farm,” said Jaramillo. “Also, there is no high school in Los Janos, so students would often drop out of school because they did not have easy access to education. So this was truly transformative for that community.”
The Community Development Fund has also been used on a community center, a mini market that sells a variety of food items and goods including school supplies, and to start scholarships for farmworkers and their children, according to Jaramillo.
“Education has been one area where this has had a large benefit to their community,” she said. “Graduation rates have risen substantially since we implemented this 10 years ago, and a lot of the kids have been able to graduate and go on to attend college as a result of these scholarships. It’s very satisfying as a company to see the longer-term effects of the program.”
While Wholesum is mostly hands-off when it comes to managing the Community Development Fund, it does provide valuable guidance to the workers, who may need help with navigating projects.
“Wholesum has a social responsibility coordinator and our HR team works closely with the workers to help coordinate the efforts,” said Jaramillo, “but when it comes to making decisions we step back and let them do their thing. We are more there to provide guidance.”
She said some of that guidance might come in the form of working with vendors or government officials to procure permits for construction projects. But for the most part, older committee members work with new ones to help them understand the processes.
“It is truly empowering because you have workers whose responsibility it is to prune or pick, and now they are managing a project, managing the funds and showing the impact to their fellow workers,” said Jaramillo.
She said one of the ancillary benefits Wholesum derives from being a Fair Trade producer comes in the form of worker recruitment and retention.
“Our Fair Trade farms are very popular among our workers, who often bring their families from other parts of Mexico because they are treated well and have everything they need,” she said. “And then there are the word-of-mouth referrals that have more people interested in working with us. It helps with recruiting and retention a great deal. It leads to an overall happier workforce that feels respected, and that results in them working hard and being dedicated.”
On a broader scale, Wholesum does its part to promote Fair Trade by trying to work with retailers that are in favor of the program.
“It’s all about retail commitment,” said Jaramillo. “All our product is grown under Fair Trade standards, however it is a retailer’s choice about whether they want to purchase the product with the Fair Trade premium. Right now, 67 percent was sold under Fair Trade terms, so two-thirds of our product that was sold brought a premium back to the workers. We look to keep growing that number year over year, and it’s apparent that there is a growing number of conscientious consumers who care about the origin of their food, since there is a lot more interest in Fair Trade product.
“We also work with retailers to help educate them about the impact of the Fair Trade program,” she added. “It’s powerful when they realize they are affecting people’s lives by selling Fair Trade products.”
Jaramillo said Fair Trade is a passion for Wholesum Family Farms, and she views it as a win-win for both the company and its workers.
“The workers benefit since they are treated well and with respect, and for us as a producer we can demonstrate our commitment to social responsibility, which is so important to consumers these days,” she said. “It’s amazing how much has changed in the 10 years of our involvement. It’s a huge milestone for us that we are very proud to celebrate.”