Is Being Organic Enough for Vegetable Growers?

Is Being Organic Enough for Vegetable Growers?

Editor’s note: This is an updated version, with new details and photos, of an article first published in December 2017. 

When you’ve developed a mission and a game plan that has worked for decades, you stick with it.

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“We grow nothing that isn’t organic; we’re 100% dedicated,” says Jessie Gunn, Marketing Vice President for Wholesum Harvest.

A third-generation, family-owned-and-operated farm located in Amada, AZ, Wholesum Harvest is a Mexican company that grows both north and south of the border. It is also certified through Quality Assurance International, a USDA-accredited organic product certifying agency.

Today’s organics market is akin to a youngster on a growth spurt with sales of organic fresh produce items approaching $5 billion last year, an 8% increase from 2016 with nearly 2 billion pounds sold in grocery stores alone, according to Organic Produce Network and a Nielsen Report on 2017 sales of organic fresh produce.

Being Organic Is Only Part of the Mission

Organic produce’s accelerating appeal stems from consumers demanding what they see as food that’s safe to eat and wanting to support growing systems that are sustainable.

Recognizing that, Wholesum Harvest is building on its original mission and upping the stakes for what it means to be a socially responsible grower. It is the first U.S. grower to gain the Fair Trade Certified Farm designation.

“That’s big news in a country where 85% of the fruits and vegetables consumed are picked by hand,” Gunn says.

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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

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,” he says. Fair Trade Certified, the 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

Treating workers fairly has always been part of Wholesum Harvest’ DNA, even nearly a century ago when Miguel Crisantes Gatzionis left Greece and began farming tomatoes in Sinoloa, Mexico. About the time Cesar Chavez founded the United Farmworkers Union and Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in the 1960s, the Crisantes clan was already implementing organic farming and sustainable practices.

“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.”

How 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.

To become certified as a Fair Trade farm, Wholesum Harvest had several principles to meet, including providing “premium funds” (monies earned with every fair-trade sale) for community improvements. Here are a few others:

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 surcharges on products).

Empowerment. Employers establish an infrastructure that gives workers
a voice.

Environmental stewardship. Prohibits chemistries that have proven to be harmful to natural resources.

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As part of its Fair Trade certification, Wholesum Harvest bought a school bus to ensure workers’ children can get to classes. Photo courtesy of Wholesum Harvest.

Reinvesting in Employees and the Community

The Premium Funds Program is one of the most impressive parts of the certification.

Every fair-trade purchase involves a small financial premium paid by retailers (and ultimately, consumers). 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.

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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

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 say about the new program:

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 are all a matter of doing the right thing at every turn.”