Brattleboro spice company encourages sustainable farms

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(Host) All across America this week people topped off their Thanksgiving dinners with pumpkin pie. The spices in some of those pies, and that cup of organic coffee on the side, are helping to preserve the world’s shrinking rainforests and the cultures that live in them.

A Brattleboro company called ForesTrade is in large part responsible for making that connection, as VPR’s Susan Keese reports:

(Keese) In the Brattleboro Food Coop this week, shoppers were stocking up on cinnamon and spices for the classic Thanksgiving dessert.

(Shopper) “I’ll probably make a pumpkin pie.”

(Keese) But ask them where cinnamon comes from, or exactly what a clove is and many are not sure. Sylvia Blanchet knows. The sample room in her company’s Brattleboro headquarters is pungent with organic spices her company imports:

(Blanchet, opening bags of spices) “Let’s get some allspice and some cinnamon sticks, yes?”

(Keese) Cinnamon, Blanchet says, is actually the bark of the cassia tree:

(Blanchet) “A different genus and species of cinnamon is common in Europe, but the Americans are used to this type, which has a much stronger flavor. And it’s called cassia and it’s grown in Sumatra and that’s what we supply the U.S. with.”

(Keese) Blanchet and her husband Thomas Fricke are the founders of ForesTrade. The company is the world’s largest distributor of organic spices. It also imports fair trade organic coffees for retail roasters. Earlier this year the company was honored by the UN for its socially conscious business practices.

ForesTrade links farmers in the rainforests of Indonesia and central America to the high-priced organic food trade. Organic certification involves caring for the watershed and soils as well as growing food without chemicals. The premium prices allow farmers to earn a decent living without destroying the environment.

At first, ForesTrade operated as an importer of cinnamon. But a trip to the Cerinci region of West Sumatra revealed to Thomas Fricke that cinnamon farmers were clear cutting in the rainforest to expand their operations. And the rainforest preserve was the home to the last surviving Sumatran tigers. Sylvia Blanchet:

(Blanchet) “And the first thing he saw was that the farmers were largely cinnamon farmers and they were clear cutting and moving on, and clear cutting. And so he developed this whole plan to see if he could create incentives for farmers to stay on one farm and really learn to grow their products sustainably and agree to honor the boundaries of the park.”

(Keese) Many Cerincis were already worried about erosion on their clearcut slopes. The people had a tradition of protecting their resources, obscured in many cases by poverty.

(Blanchet) “It’s a fascinating culture. They have these homes that are quite remarkable. Great sloping roofs, they’re made to replicate water buffalo horns. And the houses have carvings all around the outside that are all about ethics and morality and what’s important in life.”

(Keese) When cassia trees are cut they send up new shoots. If managed well and cut selectively they can last for centuries and yield enough to eliminate the need to expand into the rainforest.

Fricke and Blanchet looked first for local farmers who understood sustainable practices and helped them meet European and U.S. standards for organic certification. Others became interested when they saw their neighbors earning more. In exchange for premium prices the Cerincis agreed to stop clearing in the rainforest.

Cerinci farmer groups now supply more than half of the world’s organic cinnamon. That’s about a half of 1% of the total cinnamon sold. ForesTrade is counting on the organic market to expand.

In other parts of the world, in Guatemala, for example, ForesTrade imports cardamom and allspice. Fricke says the company also supplies vanilla for Ben and Jerry’s ice cream:

(Fricke) “Vanilla is an orchid, and it has to grow up on trees. So it’s absolutely wonderful and essential that it be grown ecologically sustainable.”

(Keese) But it’s still an uphill battle. ForesTrade has a staff of 70 in Indonesia and Guatemala to offer advice and monitor farming practices between yearly inspections by outside organic certifiers.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Brattleboro.

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