In 2013, Willy Street Co-op introduced a new cashew to our bulk aisle. Our friends at Equal Exchange had provided us with quality organic coffee, chocolate, bananas, and tea from their network of small-scale farms for decades, and they were looking to crack into the nut industry.
A difficult nut to crack
Cashews are the world’s third largest nut crop—with 1.2 million people directly involved in the industry. The bulk of the world’s cashews are produced in Southern Asia, Eastern and Western Africa, and Brazil. A very labor-intensive crop, cashews need to be shelled by hand in order for the nut to remain whole. Workers—who are paid by volume of shelled cashews, not by the hour—are subjected to burns on their hands due to a caustic liquid the nuts produce. They work for long hours, suffering arthritis and back pain due to working in the same position all day. Often working on large plantations, they unfortunately don’t see much of the profits made on their cashews.
Of a cashew co-op in El Salvador
Situated on the mouth of the Lempa River on a small island called Montecristo in southern El Salvador, the Aprainores cashew cooperative was formed by twenty-five farmers in 2002 following a twelve-year-long civil war that shook the country.
In 2005, despite gaining some attention from fair trade organizations in the north and selling their first container of cashews to the UK, Aprainores racked up debt and was unable to pay the farmers that made up the cooperative.
With mounting debt and other internal issues, the general manager left the co-op. Alex Flores took over as General Manager and, along with the now 55 members, turned the organization around. They began paying back debts in addition to becoming certified organic and fair trade. They built a processing plant, and had steady buyers who were paying them fair prices for their cashews.
In 2012, small-scale supporting worker-cooperative Equal Exchange was sent a sample, and one taste was all it took for them to purchase every last pound they could of that years’ harvest.
Cashews meet co-ops
Equal Exchange supplemented their cashew procurement from Aprainores with another co-op in India to have a year-round supply for grocery co-ops in the United States.
On Valentines Day 2013, the first shipment of cashews from Aprainores left Equal Exchange’s Portland warehouse, spreading the love to a handful of grocery co-ops they partnered with to debut the new offering. They sold out within three months.
Equal Exchange doubled their purchase that year, but mother nature had other plans. During the growing season, El Salvador was hit with a storm producing winds that knocked all the budding fruit to the ground before it had a chance to fully ripen, eliminating seventy percent of the yield.
In 2014, Equal Exchange rolled out their Grow Together fund. The mission: to build a better supply chain. By working directly with farmer co-ops and linking them to supportive grocery co-ops and their shoppers here in the US,the chain becomes shorter—and stronger. Farmers are paid a higher, more stable income, while improving working conditions and sustainability on the farm. The first recipient of Equal Exchange’s Grow Together funding was Aprainores. In the wake of their monumental loss, it allowed for the building of a nursery for 7,000 cashew seedlings to supplement the aging trees that had seen damage in the storm. In August of that year, shoots from healthy cashew trees were grafted onto the seedlings. These new trees should be fully productive in three to four years.
Cooperation among Cooperatives
Cooperative principle number six states that cooperatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures. With each purchase of cashews from our bulk bin—or Equal Exchange chocolate bar, or coffee—you are helping to maintain a shorter, stronger supply chain.
Willy Street Co-op shoppers bought over 5,500 pounds of Equal Exchange cashews in 2014. Together we help to support small farmers by improving working conditions and giving workers a fair wage. And that ain’t nuttin’ short of amazing.