The smiles on the faces of the farmers as I handed them their organic cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, and clove saplings were ear-to-ear grins. Today, I had the pleasure of hand-delivering the saplings to one of the 60 farms we collaborate with as part of our innovative Fair for Life Project.
It was the winter of 2016, and over the course of two weeks, I visited about 25 of these organic farming projects in India. These are the farms and farmers that Mountain Rose Herbs is working with as part of its Fair for Life Project.
Each bioregion in India is known for growing its own unique crop types, so our farms are spread out across hundreds of miles and dozens of climate regions. The hot, arid region where bird’s eye chilis grow is hundreds of miles from the humid, tropical land where we source our smoked black pepper. Even further away are the lush, green valleys where groves of garcinia and amla trees flourish. I spent many hours, many days driving the backcountry roads from one farm to another, watching the landscape change slowly from one bioregion to another.
Despite the distance that separates them, these unique areas are all included in our Fair for Life Project and covered under the same organic certification. Many of these plots are only a few acres, surrounded by remote and pristine land with a rich agricultural history. Most of the farms grow multiple crops, using an intercropping method that creates a diverse patchwork of food and medicinal plants.
The goods from each farm are consolidated for shipment to the U.S., and the premiums – extra payments to the farmers that support our fair trade agreement with them – are evenly shared between all the contributing farms. Making sure that each farm gets its fair share and that the premiums are used to support and benefit the most people is a huge challenge due to their geographical distance. Distributing the organic spice tree saplings such as cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, clove, and moringa to each farmer was our unique solution. Each farming group gets a special delivery of trees to plant on their land, providing multiple benefits to farmers and consumers.
Some of the trees produce more than one spice. For example, the nutmeg tree also produces the spice mace, which is the aril covering on the outside of the nutmeg seed – creating crop diversity. In addition, we help select trees that will produce a very high grade of fruits and spices and will command a high price at market. This helps the farmers augment the variety of crops they grow without their having to spend a dime (or rupee in this case), and the trees will provide income for many generations.
Intercropping, planting multiple species on the same plot of land, also has many benefits. This variation helps avoid some of the problems we see with monocultures, which tends to attract pests and disease. The farmers also have diversified cash crops to harvest at different stages through the growing cycle, thereby spreading their income throughout the year.
While these changes bring many benefits, Mountain Rose Herbs wanted to do more to benefit our farmers by increasing yields, biodiversity, and disease resistance. We enlisted plant scientists from Bangalore University in India, who grafted the trees to increase yields and reduce the chances of disease. Grafting is the practice of taking a hearty root stock from a native tree and splicing a different top on it, called a scion. The scion is the part of the tree that produces fruits.
This natural horticultural method has been used for centuries in many fruit and nut varieties, and it is the same technique used in orchard tree production that gives us the legendary apple tree with multiple apple varieties growing from the same trunk. By employing this ancient method, we are able to add value to the trees by grafting specially selected, productive tree tops directly onto the disease-resistant bottoms that will thrive in the region for which they are destined. The grafted scion grows together with the root stock, and the vascular tissues join, forming one complete tree.
It was a rare pleasure to be able to hand-deliver the special trees to the farmers on their land. And it was such a joy to be able to express (in person!) our gratitude for their hard work that eventually becomes the high-quality spices offered at our shop that arrive on your doorstep.
The trees will grow and thrive on these farms, providing abundant shipments of organic whole nutmeg, nutmeg powder, whole mace, ground mace, whole cloves, clove powder, moringa leaf, and moringa powder for our customers at Mountain Rose Herbs for years to come.
Read more about our Fair for Life Project and Fair for Life Project Turmeric!
Jennifer Gerrity is the Executive Director of Operations at Mountain Rose Herbs and has played a key role in establishing the company's fair trade program over the last decade. She earned a bachelor’s in Plant Science from Rutgers University, where she specialized in plant propagation and agribusiness management. Jennifer oversees the staff and production at Mountain Rose Herbs, and she takes special interest in the procurement of high quality organic herbs, spices, and teas through local, national, and international travel. She is committed to farm development and outreach in the form of special projects such as the Fair For Life Ayurvedic gardens in Kerala and Karnataka, and ethically cultivated American Ginseng through the Forest Grown Verification Program.