By admin / March 1st, 2016
Last year, Mississippi Market Natural Foods Co-op took part in a contest to sell Alter Eco’s fair trade chocolate truffle variety packs; maybe you, dear reader, were even one of the awesome customers who purchased a box. If you did, I’d like to say a big “Thank you!”, because this past fall Mississippi Market was named winner of the contest, and I was offered the prize: a chance to visit where Alter Eco sources the coconut oil they use in their truffles.
In the ‘lull’ between Thanksgiving and Christmas, my wife and I went to Kerala, India (the south west coast) with Kate Tierney, Alter Eco’s president. It was a transformative experience for all of us, and I’m excited to share some reflections here on our blog where I’ll be posting entries about the trip, meeting farmers, fair trade business, coconut oil, and of course, the food.
So what’s the big deal with these truffles? They’re just about the only truffle available that’s made with coconut oil rather than palm. While the latter is a much cheaper oil, it’s rarely farmed in a sustainable way, whereas coconut has proven to be a more versatile and longer lasting crop—trees can produce fruit for up to 60 years! The truffle boxes, like many these days, are made of recycled paper, but the wrappers are entirely compostable! Using a really cool patent-pending mix of plant-based materials and a super thin layer of aluminum that Alter Eco developed, these coverings will compost in 16-24 weeks.
Alter Eco as a brand really has their heart in the right place. A small team of 20 people run this multi-million-a-year company, but much of that goes to fuel their dedication to sustainability, organics, fair trade practices, and supporting small-scale farms. They have a strong desire to know their producers, and make a goal to take stateside partners (like me) along to visit farms and factories now and again. They work with nearly thirty thousand producers from around the world annually, and have supported 90+ community projects, many aimed at carbon offset.
One of the things I find really awesome about shopping at (and working for) Mississippi Market is the effort we put into getting to know our producers. Some of our deliveries are brought by people who were working in the fields or with livestock just the other day, have their name on the company, or are regular customers themselves. Going on the Eat Local Farm Tour in the summer is always a fun adventure, and the local profiles we have on the shelves highlight excellent opportunities to keep money in the local economy.
However, this trip to India was a reminder for me that while local is important, it’s quite difficult to escape the global food system we live in—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing! Our main priority in Kerala was visiting coconut farms, but we stopped at others along the way, and spoke with many small-scale organic farmers.
Agriculture, as I’m used to, revolves around plots of land dedicated to a specific crop. I kept waiting to see something like this on our tours, but at our first stop at a farming community way up in the hills, our guide Tomy stopped the path and said, “Now from here, I can see about 20 plants this family uses at home and takes to market.”
He proceeded to turn in place and point out cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, black pepper, coffee, mango, papaya, coconut, betel nut, tulsi/holy basil, lime, cacao, and a handful of other fruits, veggies, and herbs I didn’t grab the names of. At the end of our tour, members of the community gathered to hear Kate, Alter Eco’s president, talk about their work state-side and emphasis in supporting fair trade coconut in the region. Community members, in turn, spoke of what fair trade has meant for their community and offered snacks of small bananas, fresh passion fruit, and coconut water straight from the fruit.
We stayed a night with a farming family, and had a guided tour of part of his one-acre homestead, stopping at some of the same plants Tomy pointed out a few days prior. Like many, Suraj taps rubber trees to press and sell rubber (pictured below) at market.
He cut open a nutmeg fruit to show the nut and red mace, and the next day offered us a taste of a vinegary beverage they make using the fruit. Suraj also showed off his biogas system. His family owns two cows and two goats, and the floor of the animal shed allows the waste to run though into a small cistern. Here, the natural gasses from this are piped to the house for cooking and heating fuel while the solid remnant gets cleaned out into a compost pile which is full of earthworms. Every month or so, this gets rotated around and used to pot new seedlings, heaped around trees, and shared with neighbors who might not have animals of their own. He was proud of how waste-less this system really is: “good soil, good food” Suraj said.
Here again, there were no large plots, just a biodiverse acre of land he does the rounds of every day, harvesting what’s in season, tending to plants and weeding as necessary. For him, and for many others we talked to, farming is busy, but not grueling. They make enough money at market with their harvests to have a comfortable life, send their children to school, and invest back into their land and community, and still have plenty of time to spend with family, playing badminton at the local court, and carve roots of downed trees into animal figurines. I bet a view like this, from his front porch, isn’t tiring, either.
Written by Ben Zamora-Weiss from Mississippi Market. See his original blog post here.