As I stepped back onto the fertile red soil of India, memories of my last trip came rushing back, filling me with excitement. Memories of long hot days, endless miles journeyed on backcountry roads, and walking the fields with proud farmers who happily welcomed me. Being there again brought it all back. How it was such an honor to be invited to take chai breaks with the joyful workers and join them in their homes for a spicy snack and to meet their children. Standing there on my first day back in India, I was flooded with joy to be around these welcoming communities again, in the rich, humid spice fields with the lush tropical backdrop that only India can provide.
As the Executive Director of Operations for Mountain Rose Herbs, I recently visited our Institute of Marketecology (IMO) Fair For Life project in South India, where I traveled to the state of Karnataka to meet our organic farmers and check in on important developments there.
Three years ago, we formalized a partnership that allows Mountain Rose Herbs to mandate a fair trade agreement and create greater transparency with our growers. This agreement helps us gain a deeper understanding of their environmental, social, and human resource practices. Our goal is to promote equality and prosperity along the herbal supply chain, from the farmer to the consumer.
Southern India is a lush growing climate for some of the world’s most valuable spices and plants including nutmeg, mace, black pepper, turmeric, tulsi, bird’s eye chili, ajwain, and amla. Mountain Rose Herbs has sourced from this region for decades, and for years we have worked with small, established family farms that grow exclusively for us.
We’ve met on their soil and in their fields, and learned intimately the successes and challenges of farming in Southern India. Our farmers are experts in organic farming, intercropping, plant selection, compost teas, and soil building methods. Over the years, our relationship with our farmers has strengthened and deepened, and the amount of products that we buy from them has increased.
In 2013, Mountain Rose Herbs decided to formalize this partnership by bringing in IMO Switzerland, a third party auditor. They worked with us to set goals and benchmarks for attaining revolutionary change in labor relationships. The process includes ongoing review of the working conditions of permanent and seasonal employees, and establishing standards and requirements ensuring health and safety. These include access to clean drinking water, hand washing and sanitary working conditions, equal pay across the sexes, sick leave, time off, clear job descriptions, sustainable schedules, and family support.
We play an active role in defining the standards and requirements, and feel these standards are critical to the values we hold as a company – that all of our botanicals are produced in a healthy and sustainable manner for both people and the environment. As the “mandator” of our own projects, we are involved in the inspections of the farms, and we offer support and guidance in meeting the criteria.
Mountain Rose Herbs is funding the initial cost of certification for these farmers as well as the ongoing audit costs and travel time of IMO agents. In addition, we pay a premium – an extra on top of the cost of the actual product – on all herbal harvests produced for us. This premium is at the heart of Fair for Life. It goes directly to the farmers and is used to fund innovations and improvements at the farm level. Mountain Rose Herbs and the farmers collectively decide how the money will be spent, taking into account the most crucial priorities and seeking to benefit the most people in the communities. The allocation of these funds is completely traceable by all parties: us, the farmers, and the auditors.
So where does the money go? Mountain Rose Herbs has helped bring teachers into farming groups to educate families on computer technology; buy and set up public, shared computer stations with internet access; build bathrooms with running clean water; support village orphanages with custom sewn school uniforms for the students; and provide compost bins to all the farms to help naturally enrich the topsoil. In addition, we’ve helped deliver medicinal tree saplings of cinnamon (back in stock November/December), moringa and amla trees to all of the farms; and specially grafted nutmeg and mace trees to promote higher yields and disease resistance. Most recently, we supported rebuilding homes in a remote village where the main commodity is organic turmeric.
We contract with these farms in advance so the farmers know how much to grow; and as part of the agreement, we are guaranteed exclusivity in purchasing these fair trade, certified organic crops – the famers can sell to secondary buyers once our needs are met. Our farmers understand our quality requirements, and grow their crops to our specifications, which is one of the ways we guarantee consistency.
There are multiple benefits to this model. By entering into long-term contracts and relationships, we are guaranteed stable pricing. The farmers benefit by having a stable income, not affected by fluctuating market prices as well as having set standards and volumes. Both parties strive toward a long-term, mutually beneficial partnership promoting wellness and sustainability for the land, water, wildlife, farmers, and for our customers. When you purchase the spices and plants produced by these growers, you are directly supporting both the program overall and the farmers.
It’s exciting to see the interest and enthusiasm from neighboring farmers who want to get involved, many of whom are transitioning to organic. We feel this is a huge indicator that the project is a success, and we look forward to watching the Fair For Life project grow and expand. We will continue to bring you updates on these developments as the collaboration unfolds. You can read more here.
In the meantime, please check out the fresh harvest, just arriving on our docks from the humid, remote, beautifully dense forests of Karnataka India, which includes arjuna, brahmi, long pepper, smoked black peppercorns, cinnamon, green peppercorns, garcinia fruit, holy basil vana, Krishna tulsi, cayenne powder (back in stock November), birds eye chili, whole chili, vanilla beans, gymnema (back in stock soon!), turmeric, and nutmeg.
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.