Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Road to Fair Labor Certification

Bena Burda is in Central America this week to observe the Fair Labor Practices certification process that is being applied to Maggie's Organics. Here is her latest update dated 8.31.09:

The past 2 days we have visited a total of four farmers groups, whose cotton will be used to make most of our scarves this fall, and hopefully many other products in the future.

I am thrilled to actually tour the farms, as I have been actively trying to support these farmers since 2003. We have had their cotton tested for quality by at least three spinning mills before. It always tested out to be perfect for our needs, but one thing or another prevented us from using it (the spinning mill went out business, the US government told us we would have to fumigate it, etc).

Three of the groups we have seen over the past two days are cooperatives; the other is an association that handles marketing, administration, education, etc. for all the farmers.

Farmers here are small and consist of 2 - 30 manzanas per farmer (a manzana is 1.6 acres), and the farmers are very poor. So it is common in Nicaragua for farmers to band together to form associations to help bring product to market. Coops are encouraged by the current Sandinista government - the grower’s share tractors, trade work at harvest time etc.

The first group we met with represents 150 farmers. They are certified for organic production by BioLatina, a USDA accredited certifying agency that operates all over Latin America. The second and third groups have 30 farmers, and the last one has 48.

The farmers use a three-year crop rotation, planting each crop by July and harvesting in Nov/Dec. They generally grow cotton, yucca, and then a nitrogen-fixing legume (white beans or soybeans). This year the Nicaraguan government is offering a very high price for mung beans (apparently because Venezuela wants them) so many farmers have planted mung beans instead.

Nearly all of the farmers have a few farm animals as well (cows, chickens pigs). For fertilization, they use approximately 8000 lbs of seasoned manure per manzana. The cow manure works best, as it 'seasons' within 1 year (chicken manure can take 10 years). They generally spread the manure 1 month before planting, and that is the only input they need on their fields.

Although this is rainy season (Nicaragua has two seasons - wet and dry), for many farmers this year's rains have been slow and low. So our cotton for this year is very late. They cannot plant unless ground is moist. We were told that they have until next weekend (Labor Day in the US) to finish planting. We did a few rain dances yesterday.

All of our cotton is hand-harvested, which is grueling work. Once our crop is out of the ground, the remaining "Rastrojos" (basically 'field trash' and stalks in English) is allowed to decompose for a few weeks, and then plowed under, adding nutrients for the next crop.

The second and third groups we met with are two cooperatives of women's farmers. This is very unusual in Nicaragua, and as ever, I am so inspired by the strength and attitude of the women here. Thanks to Nicaragua's tumultuous political history, land has changed hands many times. In the mid-1980s, during the Sandinista revolution, the women who grow our cotton found out that a bank had taken over a land-baron's farm for non-payment of loans. They quickly formed their co-ops, and were able to attain the land under the Agrarian Reform Act.

We met with all 30 of these growers in the office they have managed to build, which is on land owned by one of their members. It was inspiring to walk out to their fields, along a path by a cool river, under giant Guanacaste trees. Each member's land is fenced off, all part of a larger piece. These women work together to raise their children, help each other plant and harvest, and bring product to market together. All of their children are in school, which they are all very proud of. Domitila, one of the leaders of one of the groups, actually purchased a small home in a village away from her land, so that her children can attend a better school. Her 5 children live their full-time, while she stays out on the farm during the week. Each weekend she drives to her home to bring clean school uniforms to her kids and to be with her family. She is a single mom. One of her daughters is now a schoolteacher, and her son works as an exporter, and together those two take care of the younger ones during the week. They both also still work the fields. As we walked along the fields, they introduced us to a wild plant that they dry and powder, as it works as a great insecticide on the fields.

Our Fair Labor auditors have interviewed and visited 29 farms so far, with more being done today.

It is great to see how all of this happens, and as ever I am humbled by how hard these folks work. I've showed our products to them all. I also showed the hang-tag that we hope to use to identify their certified product. Most know of our work with the Fair Trade Zone, and they seem excited for the opportunity. And of course they all have worked with JHC for years, so trust that we will not let them down.

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