Why Wholesum Harvest Had Its Farm Certified as Free Trade

Why Wholesum Harvest Had Its Farm Certified as Free Trade

“America Just Got Its First Fair-Trade Certified Farm — and that’s big news in a country where 85% of the fruits and vegetables consumed are picked by hand.”

This was the big announcement in mid 2017 from Wholesum Harvest in Amada, AZ, a third-generation, family-owned-and-operated farm. As a Mexican company that grows both north and south of the border — and has brought jobs and industry to both sides of the international line — it’s the latest milestone in a decades-long history of embracing social and environmental responsibility.

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There’s still a lack of understanding of what fair trade is all about, says Ricardo Crisantes, Vice President of Sales and Marketing.  “Most people associate it with something good, but they can’t say exactly what that good is.”

The fair-trade certification Wholesum Harvest went through focuses primarily on how employees are treated.

“Fair trade is meant to do what laws have been unable to accomplish,” says the company’s Sustainability Manager, Hannah La Luzerne.

Fair Trade Was a Natural Next Step for Wholesum Harvest

The concept of treating human beings like human beings began nearly a century ago when Miguel Crisantes Gatzionis left Greece and ended up farming tomatoes in Sinoloa, Mexico. About the time Cesar Chavez founded the United Farmworkers Union and Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, the Crisantes clan was already implementing organic farming and sustainable practices.

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Theojary Crisantes, Vice President of Operations at Wholesum Harvest says: “There’s no reason not to have excellent trade with all your neighbors — that’s just smart business.”
Photo by Lee Allen

“It was a natural fit for us to think about fair trade as a way to support our work force,” says Theojary Crisantes, the third of the three generations for Wholesum Harvest and Vice President of Operations. “We identify ourselves with fair trade because a company is nothing without its workers and we value the effort they make.”

As the 21st century rolled around and word of how coffee workers were benefiting from the fair-trade model, it became a natural next step to elevate production standards as well as provide “premium funds” (monies earned with every fair-trade sale) for community improvements.

Standards to Earn Fair Trade Certified

In Mexico, Wholesum Harvest was the second entity to receive the certification. In the U.S., it became the first by demonstrating compliance of more than 300 standards detailing working conditions and environmental protection.

In order to become certified as a fair-trade farm, Wholesum Harvest had several principles to meet:

  • Income sustainability. Wages should fulfill basic household needs, regardless of market prices.
  • Individual and community well-being. Committees of workers and growers decide how to invest premium funds (funds generated by surcharge on products).
  • Empowerment. Employers establish infrastructure that gives workers a voice.
  • Environmental stewardship. Prohibits chemistries which have proven to be harmful to natural resources.

Reinvesting in Employees and the Community

One of the most impressive parts of the the certification is the premium funds program.

Every fair-trade purchase involves a small financial premium paid by retailers (and ultimately, consumers), and as premium funds accumulate, workers organize a committee to decide how to best spend those distribution checks.

After watching their fair-trade certified farms in Mexico use the premium funds for such things as buying a school bus to help workers children get to classes, building a soccer field, helping fund home loans, and constructing an at-cost tortilla store, the folks on this side of the border decided it was time to duplicate that success.

By April of this year, the first check in the amount of $30,000 came in, and the 130 U.S. workers got to decide how to spend it. They decided on items like subsidized transportation and additional medical insurance.

What Farm Workers Think of the Program

Wholesum Harvest has more than 1,500 workers, permanent and migratory, and a retention rate of more than 80%.

Here’s what a few of those workers’ managers had to stay about the new program:

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Vanessa Cordova (Human Resources Director) and Jose Covarrubias (Operations Manager) acknowledge that “We’re aligned with our company values and fair trade is part of that alignment.”
Photo by Lee Allen

Vanessa Cordova, Arizona Human Resources Director: “We’re aligned with our company values, and fair trade is a part of that alignment. We’re a family and we treat employees like family members.”

Jose Covarrubias, Operations Manager: “[Fair trade means] a better balance to give workers the tools so they can build better communities and have more opportunities for their families. At the end of the day, what we’re trying to achieve is a better balance.”

Jessie Gunn, Marketing Manager: “We are a conscientious capitalist company, so for us, things like our organic certification and Fair Trade designation — they’re all a matter of doing the right thing at every turn.”