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How Brooks Pepperfire Foods Inc Got Involved in the Fair Trade Movement

Why We Made the Switch To Fair Trade

When we started importing goatpeppers from Haiti, our goal was to get fresh peppers from a country where any dollars we sent could do a world of good. We weren't thinking about organic food or local food security, we really just wanted goatpeppers. We had put an ad on our blog asking for goatpeppers and Roland Hyppolite responded. He lived in a small village of sugar cane farmers a wild ride east of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. A nation, Greg nor I have ever visited, but where local food security really becomes a blatantly important thing. We decided when we began working with Roland that we would pay him a fair landed price for the peppers he would send us, in exchange for ensuring the farmers he worked with could have the opportunity to advance their farms beyond the poor farmsteads that then existed when farmers had to work for others in order to feed their children.

Raised here in Canada, I had seen what I, at the time, understood to be poverty. I lived on the wealthier side of poor or the poorer side of middle class, growing up, since both of my parents with barely a high school education, attained the comfortable position of white collar civil servants. To me, the idea that we would eat ketchup sandwiches and Kraft Dinner if things got really bad, was pure privilege. My family has been "poor" by Canadian standards. We have no concept of the depths of poor in this world. If you have travelled, perhaps you have seen the poverty in the USA. Without a safety net, poor is really poor. In such nations, the poverty is shockingly comfortable to many more of the inhabitants of our planet than we can understand until we see it. Even the poverty of the First Nations people of North America is wealthy in comparison to some. 

Where there is financial and job insecurity, there is food insecurity. Haiti has been subjected to oppressive reparations to France since they overthrew their chains of slavery, killing all of their slave owners in the night, in 1804. In 1825, with the support of the United States, Haiti was forced to begin paying reparations to France, said demands delivered to Port-au-Prince by an armada of warships. Many believe this extortion to be the source of Haiti's continued crippling poverty.

Haitians have a per-capita annual income of approximately $350. Their power grid is a wonder of modern science, when it works, and the roads remain essentially unpaved in the areas where US bureaucrats are mythologized to never venture. Off-roading adventurers who obviously do not live the crippling poverty, document their adventures in Haiti on YouTube. These wild rides are the highways and byways, as 50% of Haiti's inability to advance their own infrastructure keeps roads unpaved.

The fact of the matter is that where you have poverty, you have food insecurity. One might think that comparing food insecurity in Haiti to food insecurity in Canada isn't possible, but it exists for exactly the same reasons and is further mitigated by the same import percentages of the food security that they might provide. Follow my math, and I will show you why it is so important.

Now, in Haiti, when you venture outside of the city centers, the further afield you go, the more consumers become connected to their food. Most urbanites in Canada are they same, although, on a way higher per capita income scale, have a vegetable garden and a fruit tree or two, if they aren't actually farming commercially. In Haiti, 40% of the population earn their living farming, more often than not for someone else, because, as a result of the Government overthrow and failure to create infrastructure, it is very difficult to secure actual written legal title for arable land in Haiti. As you can see in videos of Haiti, the island is a pearl of an island, with rich land should it be developed for agriculture. 

Over the years, as we've worked with Roland and others to get them growing peppers, we had opportunity to work with and/or get resources from several pepper farming resources, MAPAQ (Province of Quebec Agriculture Dept.), the CFIA and Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada (Canadian Government), the Bahamas Department of Agriculture and Marine Resources, The Rodale Institute (World expert on Organic Farming practices), TransFair Canada (Canadian Fair Trade Certifier), and Caricom.

Caricom is a twenty-member integration movement that works on developing nations in the Caribbean Community by shared economic experience. They all provided us with information and learning resources that were of great educational importance to pepper farmers. The information CARICOM offered us was specific to growing peppers on the Caribbean islands. One might use organic dirt farming techniques in Jamaica or Haiti where there are mountains, but in the Bahamas and lower lying islands, pothole farming became important. There they fill holes in the coral with dirt and grow their food in that. Fascinating system, but it creates a very different food experience to my hypersensitive palate.

Working with the farmers in Haiti over the years, we managed to witness the change that real financial growth and prosperity can do for a community. When the 2010 earthquake hit, the hardest hit by food insecurity were those in the urban centers, where the flow of US imports was blocked temporarily. The shelves were bare, except for fresh, organic fruits, vegetables, and meats that could still be driven in from working farms, but that supply quickly diminished and a thuggery became the order of the day for a little while. If you had a garden, you had to actively police it, or in the morning it would have been raided bare. If you thought the wild west of the USA was real, then you'll understand how it can be when desperation kicks in. That is true food insecurity of the worst sort, because it happens all too regularly.

When 80% of your food is imported and a disaster strikes, such as an earthquake, or a pandemic, the empty shelves will be a shock to your sensibilities if you aren't used to it. But in Haiti, it happens every time the airports close for some reason or another. We saw that here in Canada when the pandemic hit.

The Impact of COVID-19

Greg and I are members of the local food co-op and we all work together to bring local food to market. Our biggest challenge has been what to do with local produce when the small plot farmer has an oversupply of produce on market day. There is not an uptake kitchen anywhere in the vicinity that will help move that oversupply into the food chain. Which is why Greg and I have been working on building that facility, with your help.

Well, we saw a very interesting side to oversupply versus undersupply that really, we hope, drove home to consumers the absolute need for the local food security we work to ensure.

I don't believe most Canadians have ever seen a run on the supermarket shelves. I personally haven't. I've seen people go nuts for individual products, like Tickle-Me Elmo dolls, video games, or iPhones, but never for food – until now.

When the shelves emptied and we saw the food insecurity that having 80% of our foodstuffs imported creates, it was surprising. But what happened next was even more surprising.

CTAQ contacted us with an invitation to fill the shelves of our local grocery stores, because they were suddenly empty and it was going to take a little longer than usual to get the replacement stocks in from the U.S. and China.

How about THAT? The very grocery stores who created the rules and regulations and ridiculously segmented food industry that we play in, wanted the producers they had ACTIVELY excluded to get into the game. I was incensed when I learned that although we were invited to play, we were not invited to wear the uniform or even sit the bench once the game was over. They would not list our products, still.

Well, we are blessed in that Canadian consumers reacted the way that one might expect. They told each other that there was no loss of supply at the local food markets. And indeed, we have seen an enormous influx of members to the Co-op CSUR and to Lufa Farms who we just started working with this year.

This year, I believe the food security that Greg and I live, and that we help bring to farmers, has been given a punch in the arm by the pandemic. I believe that as a result of those emptied shelves, that consumers are suddenly aware of the concept of local food security. For likely the first time in their lives, they have seen real food insecurity of the most frightening kind. The kind that is based on an inability for local farmers and producers to get their own food to market.

So you see, the Fair Trade part of our corporate philosophy has blossomed into something we think is pretty special: INTERNATIONAL Local Food Security, words which enhance our slow fair trade philosophy on levels we never thought to experience here in Canada. I suppose our new terminology to coin might be "slow fair trade food security."

Our dream, as you may know, is to have a large enough facility that we can offer a shared space to our partners at the local food banks, the Co-op CSUR, Les Moissons du Sud, and the local farmers and producers and create a distribution center for those food product, to help eliminate the food insecurity that already exists in our community when we don't have a pandemic.

We sort of picture what is commonly referred to as a "food hub" but we see it, now, more than ever, as guaranteed local food security. In the building of that hub, we can include an educational system that promotes and drives organic agriculture. What this does is create local organic supply when in season and storage, and pre-processing opportunities for local organic supply for the off-season. In promoting organic farming overall, we help prevent the agricultural insecurity that the use of broadleaf pesticides, herbicides, and surfactants will create as they continue to be used. 

The best part of creating more and more demand for the products we make and sell at Brooks Pepperfire Foods, is that it promotes more and more slow fair trade food security. Imagine if no child in the world ever went hungry.

It could happen.

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