What Your Chocolate Says About Farmer Voice, Agency, and Marketing

This piece isn’t about Hershey’s, Cargill, Nestle, nor any other mass producers of chocolate flavored candy. It isn’t about the rampant cacao slavery in West Africa, or even about the farmer’s implicit invisibility in modern Mega-Bulk cacao trading.

I’m talking about our chocolate champions, the Dandelions and the TCHOs, masters of taste and fair trade in all its forms. Our Bay-Area artisans who nail that 85% dark, smooth, “by God these Guatemalan Criollo notes are divine” bar of chocolate bliss that smothers us in its ethical culinary embrace.

And…

I’m talking about their sources, the elusive farmers.

We happily exist in a time (or coastal bubbles, let’s be real) where just about every other liberal arts major unleashes their own Said-inspired term paper diatribes against Orientalism in the National Geographic. Eager disciples of Raj Patel, Naomi Klein, and Vandana Shiva entrench themselves in regional food justice groups, CSAs, or maybe simply (yet so commendably) forgo the extra food mile at the farmer’s market.

As a bottom line for chocolate makers and chocolatiers, this translates to an increasingly ethical consumer base (and internal staff, lest we forget these companies don’t operate in a vacuum!) demanding higher standards across the ethical board.

Cue investing in better beans, cutting carbon emissions, applying for third party certifications, partnering with NGOs and cooperatives, and in some cases, such as the TCHOSource Program, engaging in some frankly inspiring sustainable development projects. Product quality increases, farmers’ pay grows, and the world slowly inches in the right direction. The challenge is immense, and the results rewarding across the entire value chain. Translating that story into the product, however, presents an entirely separate moral quandary.

So what’s the most logical avenue for bringing home that warm, globally connective oomph directly to the consumer? Enter the farmer. Just as with the picturesque open ranges and adorably bovine faces printed on our milk cartons, farmer sourcing images appeal to our instinctual, visceral ties to the land. They’re the human faces, tangible, raking the sun beds, hands outstretched with a freshly cracked cacao pod. The knowledge also satisfies that tiny inner philanthrocapitalistic, TOMS era itch; we feel that our purchase is giving the opposite end of the supply chain a fair shake.

Many of you may disagree, but I find that fine… when it’s done right. When it’s a true manifestation of farmer agency, not just part of a marketing scheme or a charity-industrial complex.

As a Latin American growing up in Caribbean Colombia, food was never an issue, or even worthy of a second thought. Organic was the standard. My family’s small farms served as sanguine venues of laughter and sharing through dark national storms. We sold pomelo, oranges, guayaba, and mango locally. The milk went (and still goes) to a bustling ice cream shop down the road in Sampues (Helados Coquito, for all you interested parties, more worthy of an off-the-map ice cream pilgrimage than any other glacier on this planet).

It may sound naïvely idyllic, and is, especially when compared to the neoliberal and Big Ag forces that historically plague our country (long before thinkers even coined “Banana Republic”). But what stands true is that issues of metabolic rift, exploitation, and someone making a quick buck off of images simply didn’t exist or cross our minds. Collaboration between farmers, whoever had a truck, and whoever had a stand to sell things kept farms going season after season. The only third party certification was that “señor Betín dropped off these sacks yesterday.”

My work with Yellow Seed today involves navigating infinitely grayer waters; I have questions, and nobody has all the right answers, at least not yet.

And that’s fine too! Shouldn’t the conversation around ethical representation be fluid, responsive, and coated in layer upon layer of regional context? Smart companies strive to innovate and improve around what farmers, consumers, and critical philosophies find appropriate, for more than just PR.  Above all, keeping issues of dignity, respect, and transparency at the forefront of our marketer’s minds seems key.

A most refreshing trend in this space, at least in recent years and especially around coffee, has been the proliferation of farmer cooperatives across the Global South, and not only in a capacity of bolstering economic might. Just as farming cooperatives leverage their collective force to get better prices, they also find better channels to collectively communicate with the outside world.

Take ACOPAGRO, a large and influential Peruvian farmer cooperative. After years of pooling purchasing power, profits, and community influence, you can now visit a domestically-designed window into their world. The videos, pictures, and words are their own, White Man’s Burden-discourse free, complete with news bulletins, event postings, and even scantily clad Ms. Cacao calendars (cacaolendars?).

[Note: If you’re feeling confused about that last one, just know that in Latin America we tend to go questionably nuts about beauty pageants. For better or worse, they’re a huge cultural deal.]

Point is: expression of farmer agency goes hand in hand with a more balanced global supply chain, but having the degree of media influence ACOPAGRO enjoys is rare. Even at their level, navigating misrepresentation and imperial attitudes when it comes to storytelling and the final product can be difficult.

I was party to a similar struggle first-hand while working with Amazon Watch, an environmental and indigenous rights NGO in the Bay Area. For us, imaging played a key role in raising awareness around the issues of rights violations, environmental crimes, and grassroots campaigns. As in dealing with farmers, collecting and using images of indigenous communities can lead to offense if they are manipulated, disrespect privacy, or are misrepresentative. While Amazon Watch did its due diligence to request consent in the local language, explain how the media would be used, and accurately represent all images depicted, the conversation around image rights never stopped. Protocols are constantly revisited, and they readily accept new criticisms, growing as the nebulous realm of global ethics and north-south relations continues to expand.

Here at Yellow Seed, we hope to nurture that same spirit of openness and collaboration moving forward, both in our own media collections and those of our partners. Ultimately, we nurture the idea of fostering a uniquely transparent, accountable, and balanced network of buyers, farmers, and donors.

Many of our Bay Area exemplaries, TCHO and Dandelion included, readily engage in ethical representation practices. TCHO regularly quotes their farmer partners directly throughout blog posts and communications, as well as handles the development side of their operations with delicacy and humility. Dandelion Chocolate, showcases farmers not on the homepage, but directly on their process page, accurately contextualizing farmers and their valuable work. Neither makes use of unnecessary emotional appeals, showcases needy children, or overcomplicates their narratives. They’re simply making chocolate, and pretty well at that.

While these companies are behaving more ethically in terms of imaging and including farmer voice, we at Yellow Seed are interested in the next steps. How can excluded, emerging small-scale farmers (outside of cooperatives) sound their voice in modern markets? How can we nurture and encourage ethical representation and marketing alongside ease of market entry? How can farmers have a direct line of communication, not only to those using their images in the market, but the actual consumers hearing their stories?

Those reading closely will note this author is possibly as guilty of neglecting farmer voice as the worst offenders. I haven’t quoted a single cacao farmer throughout this piece, and despite my Colombian citizenship and upbringing, I’m very much approaching the space as a globally northern actor. I can presently only respond in two ways. First, as with any international undertaking, maintaining a basic self-awareness and criticism of positionality and personal bias are crucial to effective communication. Second, I eagerly await any and all outside criticism.

As a collaborative development process, Yellow Seed hopes to engage with buyers, farmers, donors, and consumers to navigate these increasingly gray waters. From comprehensive image rights policies, accurate and farmer-specified representation, and above all a love of the beauty, taste, and spirit of cacao – we look forward to moving this conversation forward.

And so, I’ll finally ask, what are your thoughts? Producers, chefs, chocolate lovers, and all around wonderful people, how do you approach, feel, or respond to the often overlooked questions of representation? How do we maintain a successful spirit of collaboration and solidarity across language, distance, and culture?

Recognizing Via Campesina’s International Day of Peasants’s Struggles, as well the values we hope to foster here at Yellow Seed, I defer to Cesar E. Chavez, who always said it best:

“If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him…The people who give you their food give you their heart.”

 

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