Canada: Where Fair Trade Meets Buy Local

They are socially conscious, but geographically separate, movements: “fair trade” and “buy local.”

Fair trade usually calls to mind southern hemisphere products like coffee and bananas, while buy local elicits images of locally grown vegetables and dairy.

But now a marriage of these two previously disparate movements may be underway. The Farmers Direct Co-Operative in Saskatchewan, Canada, recently became the first agricultural group in North America to receive fair-trade certification.

The pioneering certification could have a major effect on the way North American farm co-ops market themselves. Farmers Direct and other similar labels — such as Big-Tree Organic Farms Co-Op in central California and Southern Alternatives Agricultural Co-Op in southwest Georgia — are hoping that applying the fair-trade label to local products will help struggling farmers.

North American and European countries rely on the southern hemisphere for products such as coffee beans, tea leaves, cocoa beans and tropical fruits that cannot grow in northern climates. Amid concerns over the treatment of farm workers in the southern hemisphere, fair-trade marketing began in the 1970s and 1980s.

Fair trade refers to goods grown according to rigorous environmental standards and with sufficient protections for workers. Compelling human narratives are woven into product marketing and products bearing fair-trade labels sell at a premium price.

Socially and environmentally conscious shoppers have long been familar with fair trade, but now buy local is what’s on their radar. Advocates say locally grown food taxes the environment less than food shipped around the world.

Threaded throughout today’s local food movement are many of same the priorities that global fair trade organizations have touted for nearly a quarter century. Yet fair trade and “buy local” have existed as separate movements, with fair-trade labels used exclusively for products from developing nations in the southern hemisphere.

Now the Farmers Direct Co-Operative is offering products that are locally grown and fair-trade. The co-op comprises 70 certified organic family farms. It sells wheat, flax, lentils, beans and peas wholesale to food manufacturers and distributors. Amy’s Kitchen and Organic Valley are among its biggest customers.

General manager Jason Freeman said the co-op wanted to help differentiate between multi-national organic companies and organic family farmers.

“Organic is becoming a commodity,” he said. For consumers who have tried to eat organic for years, organic means not only grown without pesticides, but also a commitment to independent brands, Freeman said.

As multi-national corporations began to buy up small independent organic companies (for example, Coca Cola now owns Odwalla Juices and Dean Foods purchased dairy producer Horizon), many of the distinctions among organic products blurred.

Freeman wants consumers to know that co-op farmers are held to rigorous regulations in terms of pay equity and environmental standards. He sees this distinction as necessary in order to separate responsible farmer-owner businesses from larger corporations.

It took the co-op seven years to gain fair-trade certification in part because no one had developed official standards for domestic fair trade products. The Agricultural Justice Project, a national advocacy network, developed the standards over the last three years.

Now that the certification process is standardized, a growing number of farmer co-ops — producing everything from grains to natural fibers, vegetables to fruit juices — are expressing interest in becoming “fair-trade” certified. They see great market potential in distinguishing their products from those not produced under stringent labor and environmental standards.

As domestic fair-trade certifications become more common, advocates hope consumers will demand the same standards from regional family farmers that they now expect from foreign goods.

“If consumers want the food system to become more ethical, they need to support the independents and the family farms,” Freeman said. “Eventually the big companies will have no choice but to follow.”