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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