Fast Company

Former Big Mac Addict Brings Fair Trade to Organic Farmers

Jason Freeman of Farmer Direct is a passionate agricultural innovator who is making big waves with a small group of humble Canadian family farmers.

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Jason Freeman's organic farmer's coop, Farmer Direct, is a tiny Canadian 63-member group, but that hasn't stopped him from doing big things. Together with Equal Exchange and others, he helped cofound North America's leading Fair Trade group, the Domestic Fair Trade Association, and now Farmer Direct is gearing up to launch one of the first farmer-owned, certified organic, Fair Trade, non-genetically modified product lines in North America.

Freeman, 41, is a self-proclaimed "city boy" from Vancouver who initially took an interest in organic farming after realizing that his McDonald's eating habits were making him sick. He adopted a completely organic lifestyle at age 25 and has been involved with farmers and farmers' groups ever since.

Fair Trade is a term often associated with developing countries, but it has its place in Canada as well. What it means is that "all laborers are being paid fairly, with safe working conditions, and they have access to collective bargaining," Freeman tells Fast Company.

"We realized that core organic consumers want certified Fair Trade as well," he says. "We're targeting organic retailers, not the Walmarts and Whole Foods."

The Farmer Direct branded products will supply small organic retailers with flax seed oil, pancake mix, milled flax seed, pasta, and hemp seed oil to start off. Freeman's farmers already reach thousands of customers by supplying peas and lentils to the popular organic brand Amy's Kitchen, in addition to mom and pop organic health foods stores. Adding on the Fair Trade certification to his already organic coop is an effort to prevent "fair-washing," says Freeman.

"If you have integrity, even if you're small, you can effect a lot of change," he says. "Systemic change has to start with the farmers."

And change is catching on. TIME.com ran a story this week about how "foodies" can save the green movement, because of the collective, interdisciplinary involvement of artists, business owners, policy makers, and farmers, and because the universal appeal of "pleasure" forms the core motivation and experience of good food.

A sense of community is also a driving force behind the modern local, organic, Fair Trade movement. People want to feel connected to the land, the growers of their food, and to an entire ecosystem of people and animals that help make good food possible. Last year Fast Company profiled the recruiting efforts of Organic Valley, a group that was going to top U.S. universities preaching organic farming as a viable, alternative career to medicine or law. And with people's increasingly computer-centered lives, setting aside a time to "unplug," as Fast Company detailed in an interview with Alone Together author Sherry Turkle, has become almost sacred--and the appeal of urban agriculture and eating locally is no better way to get "grounded."

Freeman says he hopes his efforts make others realize that you don't need a lot of power to inspire change.

"We don't need to rely on multinational, publicly traded companies," he says. "I'm hoping that what's happening is a re-evaluation of priorities in our society. It feels like we're at a point of change in our society. If you want to be part of that, that's all about taking responsibility."

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3 Comments

  • Rodney North

    PS--there has been an exciting development with domestic Fair Trade this month: all of those most active in this field have signed something called “The Boston Accord” that will encourage the establishment and preservation of high standards for anything promoted as “domestic Fair Trade”. See http://tinyurl.com/66vyuex

    (& * re: being 'ahead of the curve' back in ’04 & ’08 Fast Co. was already shining a light on some of us who have been pioneering Fair Trade practices http://www.fastcompany.com/soc... )

  • Rodney North

    PS: There has been an exciting development within domestic Fair Trade this month. All of those most active in this field have signed something called “The Boston Accord” that will encourage the establishment and preservation of high standards for anything promoted as “domestic Fair Trade”. See http://tinyurl.com/66vyuex

    (*about "being ahead of the curve"-- back in ’04 & ’08 Fast Co. was already shining a light on some of us who have been pioneering Fair Trade practices http://www.fastcompany.com/soc... )

  • Rodney North

    Once again Fast Company is ahead of the curve*.

    More seriously the Domestic Fair Trade Assoc. is doing critical work in adapting Fair Trade for the North American context. Just as small scale coffee & banana farmers need Fair Trade so do hundreds of thousands of family farmers in the US & Canada. And the millions of farm workers in N. America need it even more.

    We encourage folks to go to http://www.thedfta.org/ and learn more.