When it comes to food safety, most industry members recognize that consumers can’t subtly distinguish between brands and locations, and so the whole industry has an interest in making sure all produce is produced and processed under state-of-the art food safety standards. The industry has also become aware that selling fruit that doesn’t taste good early in a season, just to be first, can alienate consumers for weeks and weeks.
Yet it is unclear if the industry is really prepared to recognize that a reputation for treating employees well could behoove the whole industry.
Following an infamous Los Angeles Times series alleging poor working conditions in certain produce operations in Mexico, we wrote a series of pieces analyzing the report:
DAMAGING LOS ANGELES TIMES ARTICLE ABOUT MEXICAN LABOR, Though Incomplete And Unbalanced, Puts Retailers And Receivers On Notice: In A Transparent World, Retailers In America Are Now Responsible For Their Supply Chains. A Big Question: Will Improved Conditions For Laborers Lead To Less Employment?
There were many flaws in the series, most notably that there was no quantification as to the extent of such poor conditions.
Still, that conditions exist in many places — including many parts of Mexico that retailers and restaurants would not be proud to be identified with and that many consumers would object to — is not in question.
When we were planning the program for The Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference, we created the Knowledge Centre as a mechanism for knowledge sharing and transfer for the global produce industry. We decided to focus this event on four key themes: Innovation, Sustainability, Education and Health.
What Campos Borquez is doing impacts all four sectors and challenges the industry to go beyond “showcase projects” at the farm, to really consider what would enhance the life of the workers and their families, much of that life taking place not on farm property but back in their home villages. So we were fortunate when Sergio Borquez agreed to speak in Amsterdam.
We asked PRODUCE BUSINESS Contributing Editor Kayla Young to seek a sneak preview of this meaningful presentation:
Grape Harvest Manager
Q: You’ll be presenting at the Amsterdam Produce Show about the work Campos Borquez has taken on to support farm workers in Mexico. Tell us a bit about Campos Borquez and the work you do.
A: I’m the fourth generation in the state of Sonora. We produce in two valleys of Sonora — in the Caborca, which is more desert, and south of Sonora, in Obregón … We produce asparagus for eight months of the year from October to May, and we produce grapes during the summer.
My dad always says that beyond any produce, asparagus or grapes, we try to harvest “projects of life.” That’s part of the project we are going to talk about right now. Really our purpose is to create wealth for the people who are helping us grow these products.
A: Since we started, my entire family has had a strong social responsibility focus. As we grew, we had to put a structure behind it for us to maximize our impact. … So we had this philanthropic foundation that started working with the workers and also with the communities around our fields. Right now, the foundation works in 61 communities and helps over 15,000 people every year.
Then we created a partnership four years ago with Fair Trade certification that really enhanced this initiative with our workers to take it to another level. This certification really connects like-minded organizations within the value chain and those who want to work toward social prosperity and environmental care within the farms’ operations.
For every product under Fair Trade certification, the final consumer — one that is conscious, who believes in this mission — pays a small premium. All of those small premiums add up and go strictly to projects within the farm that produced the produce to create social prosperity projects for farm workers or environmental care initiatives.
Whole Foods is our main retailer that has really wanted to be a part of this entire partnership. In the past three years, we have built free dental clinics, free optometrists, and we’ve given away hundreds of scholarships to our workers. … The facilities are on our farms, and everything is free and really focuses on education and health.
For these workers, half of the year is spent in our farms but the other half of the year, they are in their home communities … mostly in the states of Oaxaca, Veracruz and Chiapas. We realized that it is an irony that these are people who are feeding the world with delicious fruits and vegetables, and in their homes they have no access to basic utilities like electricity, potable water, or any outside access to education or health facilities that can provide for them and their families.
So we realized we’d have the most impact if we focused on the home communities of our farm workers …That is how this project in Tierra Nueva started.
Tierra Nueva is a town in Veracruz of over 1,200 people, but up to 350 of them work on our farms for the grape and asparagus seasons. We realized after doing an investigation that all the town has zero access to potable water. They have to walk 5 kilometers to carry the water in 20 liter buckets. They have mostly women and children going to pick it up and bring it back home for all uses — cooking, hygiene, showering, etc. Usually they go twice a day, and it takes them 5 or 6 hours to do this job on top of everything else they have to do in the house.
So we decided that we wanted to fix that and, working with the Whole Foods and the Fair Trade program, we went down there. We hired a specialist, hydraulic engineering team, analyzed the area, and it was feasible. We commenced the projectand no e have finished it. To make a long story short, 100 percent of the houses right now have access to potable water. The benefits are incredible.
Q: When was the water system finished and implemented in the community?
A: The project started in November of last year. Then we had to go and analyze not only, physically, if it was feasible, but to really see why the problem was there. Why would a community completely not have water? So we had to look at past projects and why they didn’t work.
We realized that there were two problems: lack of interest from authorities, political and government, and when authorities tried to do a project, there was very little coordination among the inhabitants of Tierra Nueva, so the project fell through.
We started in November of last year to do all of these studies and really understand the problem and try to meet the people physically. But the actual construction didn’t get started until May. From May to July, the entire project was built.
Q: How were you able to overcome that coordination barrier and the lack of interest that had previously prevented other projects from going forward?
A: That’s why we love the partnership we found with Fair Trade and Whole Foods. The first thing we did was involve the people who are going to really benefit from this project, make them part of it from day one. If we involve them since day one, they start feeling really empowered and part of the project, so they feel the project is theirs. They were the sole labor of the entire construction.
Also we obviously had to give structure, so we created a committee. We created an entire workforce structure and divided it in the community in five different groups. One was taking care of pipelines, the other did all the digging, and (the other) some record-keeping. In all, there were five groups to create the project.
Now that it’s done, we created another structure for the supply system repair, the pipeline repairs and treasury. Then we always have a technical adviser in contact with them, so if anything goes wrong, we help so in that moment they are able to fix it. They send us every 30 days a maintenance completion report showing with pictures and check marks that everything is correct. We have a third-party auditor go once a month and we always collect from the people a five peso fee, so they also feel like they are committed to it. That ownership continues as well.
Q: How does the Fair Trade process work? What was your experience working through Fair Trade to fund most of this program?
A: They are very good because they have a team that is always in coordination with the project. We have our own team, a Campos Borquez team, always physically in coordination with everything in the process. But we always had advisory. Fair Trade has a lot of experience with other farmers, and they can tell you what has worked, what hasn’t worked. They gave us a structure.
We have a Fair Trade committee within Campos Borquez, so they are more like consultants and they’re with you. They really are with you all the way and they support you. They advise you throughout the process. How it technically works is that there’s a team behind it, supporting the farmer. But how it works in terms of funding and financing is that, for every product we sell, we get in contact with retailers like Whole Foods that are interested in this product and understand the certification.
So for all produce that Whole Foods sells from Campos Borquez that is Fair Trade certified, the final consumer pays an extra premium that goes all the way to the Fair Trade committee in Campos Borquez. The Fair Trade committee in Campos Borquez administers that money into different projects like this. But the Fair Trade committee includes farm workers from all the regions — from Chiapas, from De la Cruz, from Oaxaca, everywhere that we come from.
Q: Would you say the process is worth it? Would you be interested in funding more projects like this one through Fair Trade?
A: One hundred percent. In this case, the project was 85 percent funded by the Fair Trade premium and 15 percent by Campos Borquez. This is something we believe in. I believe what are considered fair practices are becoming much more of a standard and a must in negotiations.
In this industry in particular, we have this unique exposure to the most extreme social disparity there is. People who are feeding the world are probably the lowest socio-economic group. It’s sad.
In Campos Borquez, we believe it’s not a good business if that is still our reality. We have to really work for that to improve the conditions because it’s a problem, and it’s not really good for anybody. We believe that social responsibility should take that step and really solve the problem from the root. We hope we can find more partners like Whole Foods that can help us.
Q: Do you think that Fair Trade certification would be a feasible option for other farming operations that might be interested in pursuing social responsibility goals?
A: Absolutely, 100 percent. To me Fair Trade makes this great. You really have to have the conviction of social responsibility because it is a lot of work. It’s not easy to get over all of the social, cultural barriers when you’re trying to help. When we started working with farm workers, almost for two years, they still believed all the support through Fair Trade was part of the government. Then they thought it was the patrón, the boss from the farm, like my dad. It took us a while to create an understanding of this in the community.
We can empower them, and they also realize that the final consumer is interested in helping them, in creating a working relationship. Everyone’s lives get better. The farm worker puts more into it to get a better quality, better product, better standards with their efforts when they know the final consumer is also caring about their well-being and their prosperity, their advancement.
To really create that culture and go through those barriers is a lot of work. Fair Trade gives you the structure that you have to adapt in that way. I also believe in doing it this way. It’s the only way you can really tackle the root and create a long-term advancement for these issues.
My answer directly is that people who go to Fair Trade really have to have convictions of social responsibility and buy into the real issues. It’s definitely the right tool, but it’s work.
Q: For the people of Tierra Nueva, how has this water system impacted their quality of life?
A: When we got there, 74 percent of the people in Tierra Nueva had chronic diarrhea because of the lack of water supply. I also think about 20 percent continually showed signs of dehydration. Obviously that’s the health part.
They are exposed to many other diseases, like trachoma because of these types of conditions. All the risk for all these diseases will be highly reduced. It’s been too short for us to measure the improvements of this, but it is very notable that the cause of these conditions is due to lack of access to water. We hope to see this improve significantly as we keep measuring. We have another check point to see all of these effects by end of this year, in December-January.
But that’s only health. Then there is convenience. It is usually women and children who go for water, and they spend six hours a day to collect this water for their use. So this is going to add a lot of extra time. Usually the children should be at school and the children can do many other things that add to their personal advancement, like education. The women can also add to the household income in those six hours, if they decide, or they can give more care for the children, whatever they decide. But that’s six extra hours, so that’s convenience.
Number three is economically. Economically we found that the backbone of Tierra Nueva is local farming. Most parents and male adults work on their small farm, but all of this farming is done through natural rainfall irrigation. We found that the yield on many products was affected because of the volatility of this and lack of control of this type of irrigation.
So we believe that in the future, first we have to really make sure long-term coordination of Tierra Nueva is assured. But we believe this will have many good repercussions in the future. If we connect this water supply system to some sort of irrigation that can help the local farmers and not be affected by changes in the rainfall, then their yield will go higher. As their yields go higher, their household income will go higher, and so on and so on.
Q: Would you say the situation and challenges in Tierra Nueva are typical of farm worker communities in Mexico?
A: Yes, we have found many different issues. This one was the highest impact. But we found two other communities in Chiapas, where there are households that either didn’t have floors or didn’t have roofs. They were sometimes missing walls.
They leave from their home for so long that they come back and something has happened and maybe they don’t have the economic capability to deal with this. So we have also worked with these communities to see how we can support their infrastructure.
This is just a focus we started doing at the end of last year, and we have found exactly that most communities have these types of necessities. Other communities also had no access to adequate medicine. So usually it takes them three weeks after they have a bad condition to really check themselves with the doctor. If they have a disease or have any symptoms, it’s really hard for them to do anything in the moment. They usually wait three weeks or a month.
We have our hands full with the things we can do. We wanted to start with this because it was the most high impact, affected the most and improved the most number of lives of our farm workers. It also was feasible to do in this time.
Now people and our farm workers will be excited, and it will create momentum as well for future projects.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to add about this project?
A: This was one commodity, asparagus, for one retailer, and we have already helped thousands and thousands of people. We believe as an industry we have a big social responsibility. We are exposed to a greater social disparity than in any industry I can think of. This is the food we give our children. These are the people feeding our children, our families and ourselves.
In the end, we have three objectives for this project. Number One is to build this water supply system for Tierra Nueva, and a water supply system that was reliable and effective, 365 days of the year.
The second objective was to build from the ground up this empowerment and this type of belonging, engagement and coordination so the community itself, obviously with our support, can work for their own continuous advancement.
Then our third objective is to create these long-term relationships between Campos Borquez and the community. They see the solidarity. This is reciprocal in every single way. It is making everyone’s lives better.
This is such an encouraging piece because the impact on lives is so dramatic and so extensive. Yet, it raises many topics for discussion:
1) To what extent is it reasonable to think the produce industry — and one could just as well say the clothing industry or tourism industry — can be expected to take the place of government? It is very nice that this one village has water, but Mexico is not the Central African Republic. Mexico is ranked by The World Bank as 67th out of 183 countries in the world in terms of per capita income on a purchasing power parity basis. If the whole social and political structure of the country is so decrepit that in the year 2016 people are still having to spend six hours a day to get water, can any industry really do anything significant?
2) This incredible effort was made possible because consumers, mostly shopping at Whole Foods, were willing to pay a premium specifically to help laborers in poor countries. But is it realistic to think that the consumers willing to this will dramatically increase in number?
3) Will raising prices — which is what a Fair trade premium does — reduce demand for a product and thus lead to fewer jobs in this industry? Will it lead to more mechanization? Will it lead to work being transferred to other countries? After all, isn’t the reason we grow things or make clothes in poor countries because it is cheaper, or as an economist would say, because their comparative advantage is low-cost labor? If we take this advantage away or diminish it, might we retard the development of these economies?
4) Will these types of projects really win the industry kudos? Sure, knowing the story, this is an incredible effort. But after the effort is over and done, if that LA Times reporter sees the way the workers live, will he be happy? Or is it that no matter what we do, unless we give everyone a condo with a swimming pool and a car, critics will attack the industry because of the conditions under which laborers live?
5) The improvements brought about by Fair Trade premiums are visible. But the costs — money diverted to the premiums cannot be spent elsewhere — is hard to see. Maybe funds that are spent on this reduce charitable donation or the purchases of textiles from other poor countries. We just don’t know.
6) The great thing about this is that everyone involved can feel good. The consumer, the retailer, the grower… all can know they are not affiliated with anything unseemly. Yet there is a difficult calculus. Because what we happen to see is not the whole story. What if by paying workers less, we can employ more of them?
These questions are all difficult but none mean we shouldn’t make these efforts. At the core of sustainability, they argue for a kind of mindfulness of the secondary and/or unanticipated consequences of our actions.
These are the kinds of discussions that will be going on at The Amsterdam Produce Show and Conference: Case studies of real business enterprises doing real things and in-depth analysis of the meanings and consequences of these actions.
We hope you will join us in Amsterdam to be a part of these discussions.
You can read a Pundit piece we wrote that introduced the event here.
A brochure for the event is here.
The website for the event is right here.
Go ahead and register here.
Let us know if you need a hotel here.
We also have a great spouse/companion program and if you are interested tell us here
And we have fantastic tours that you can get involved in here.
In any case join us in Amsterdam, to learn, to think, to bond and do business. Join us in #CelebratingFresh