Chocolate seems to be associated with love on Valentine’s Day, when sales soar worldwide.
If you’re planning to express your love with chocolate this year, consider taking your love to another level as well: to the farmers who bring us this glorious food.
Yes, farmers. While chocolate certainly seems to come from heaven, there are thousands of hardworking men and women at the beginning of the cocoa supply chain.
These are not our local farmers, of course; Nevada County is way too far north of the equator. Chocolate starts with cacao trees, which grow in tropical countries, such as Peru, Ecuador, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Paraguay, as well as tropical Africa.
They have large, football-shaped fruits that grow off the trunk and limbs. Inside these pods grow our friends, the cacao beans.
After harvest, these beans undergo various stages of processing: fermenting, drying, cleaning, roasting and grinding, after which they are often referred to as “cocoa.”
The farmers who care for the trees and harvest the cacao beans may be far, far away, but each of us who buys chocolate can make a big difference in their lives.
Since chocolate is such a big business, as you might well imagine, farmers are often sadly exploited by large companies.
Reports of child labor and even slavery have emerged in recent years, souring the taste of what should be sweet.
Enter “Fair Trade.” Our gifts of love to each other can support the fair treatment of farmers when we purchase chocolate that is labeled as Fair Trade.
Fair Trade is neither charity nor handout; it simply means alternative supply chains that treat farmers fairly.
To find Fair Trade chocolate, look for the Fair Trade logo on the packages.
One Fair Trade chocolate company is Equal Exchange, which happens to be organized as a cooperative. Equal Exchange buys cacao exclusively from small farmer co-ops, which they consider the “heart and soul” of the Fair Trade movement.
One of these farmer co-ops, which is featured on the Equal Exchange website, is Oro Verde in Peru. Founded in 1999 with 56 members, Oro Verde now has 1,200 members, and the farmers who belong to the co-op have been able to obtain higher, fairer prices as a result of working together.
Their solidarity gives them greater clout in their negotiations with buyers.
They also sponsor programs that benefit the whole community, such as scholarships for the members’ children and groups working to better the lives of women. On top of that, Fair Trade chocolate companies are often better able to incorporate environmentally sound practices in their operations.
On our side of the story, knowing that these farmers are being treated fairly makes their wonderful chocolate that much sweeter.
Stephanie Mandel is the marketing manager for BriarPatch Co-op in Grass Valley. Learn more at www.briarpatch.coop.