Why Yellow Seed is helping farmers tell their story.
Right now, humanity is playing out narratives such as “the hero versus the destroyer,” “the Earth is a storehouse for resources to exploit and grow the economy,” and “humans are the villain in the story of climate change.”
For better or for worse, narratives work like an operating system to shape our collective culture. The ones above often lead to poor outcomes, including war, exploitation, over-extraction, shame, and disempowerment.
How do we change these narratives for the better, and then act in a way where our hearts, lips, and feet move in the same direction? Luckily, in the case of our food systems, a culture of regenerative, sustainable, transparent, collaborative, and fair trade approaches is well underway. Recent news of massive fires sweeping the Amazon have called attention to companies and policies designed to extract and profit from the destruction of the Earth. A new wave of activists of all types is responding, although many more are needed.
Yellow Seed, too, realized it needed to shift its focus in order to meet its mission of connecting farmers to markets and ultimately to the hearts of consumers. In 2013, we began as an online and participatory marketplace for fairly traded cacao, designed to engage new groups of farmers to provide more diverse and ethical choices for makers and chocolate-loving consumers. We closed the marketplace last year to focus on the lever we think we can address best: immersive storytelling experiences told through the voices of the farmers themselves.
Why the shift?
After years of talking to farmers, businesses, decision makers, and consumers in my role as executive director of Yellow Seed, I noticed three core assumptions that persist in the current supply chain for cacao and many other agricultural products. These assumptions seem to keep entrenched patterns locked in place, and I was curious if there were better ways to build empathy, shift mindsets, and develop relationships from farm to consumer.
Assumption 1: Farmers have ample choice in how and what to produce, and can price their products accordingly.
Stuck misconception: That agriculture needs to be exploitative and extractive to be profitable.
Assumption 2: Companies and brands are aware of the challenges facing farmers and can be relied on to “do the right thing.”
Stuck misconception: That there is no business case for regenerative or sustainable agriculture.
Assumption 3: Consumers aren’t interested in farmers’ lives.
Stuck misconception: That consumers have little desire or power for change.
Let’s explore these three assumptions and misconceptions further.
The Myth of Farmer Choice
There is a false belief that farmers have wide-ranging control over the prices of their products and can benefit financially from going organic. But this isn’t usually the case, especially for the small-scale farmers who grow most of the world’s food.
This reality hit home to me during a phone call with Altair Rodriguez, a cacao farmer and human rights researcher living in the Dominican Republic. “Prices are the most difficult things for farmers. They don’t understand why they are so low,” she was explaining. “They thought it had to do something with the local market, but didn’t understand that it actually had to do with international markets.” Even for products that have premiums, such as organic produce, farmers don’t make a living income, Altair noted, and they often resort to converting their land to crops that are ultimately less resilient to risks like climate change.
Altair studied law in the Dominican Republic and earned a degree in development studies in London, where she specialized in human rights. “I had never worked in a garden in my life,” she explained. “Coming back and working here felt like it healed me.” Altair returned to her home country to work on her father’s 60-hectare cacao farm. “I decided to dedicate my life to improving the land and to turn it into a diversified agroforestry farm that was profitable.”
In the mid-1940s, during the Dominican Republic’s decades-long military dictatorship, the government had confiscated the land from Altair’s great-grandfather, who eventually died in exile. Twenty years later, the property was returned, and now it is located in the center of the country’s main agricultural landscape.
“In the 1980s, there was lots of cacao in this country. Then there was a huge drop in prices, and everyone chopped it down and started to use herbicide to grow plantains and cassava for cash, in full-sun monocrop plantations.” Across the Dominican Republic, large swaths of land, including formerly diverse forestland, have been converted to cash crops in recent decades due to market pressures to generate more lucrative exports.
Altair’s cacao farm is not yet profitable. “While the trees are highly productive, the money we make on cacao does not cover labor expenses.” she explained. “Because of this, I’ve been pressured to cut down 50 percent of the trees in order to plant cassava to invest in infrastructure costs.” In 2018, the area around the farm flooded, and all profits, about $40,000, were lost.
Altair is hoping to make farming more viable in her country. In 2018, while collaborating with a research project to measure living income for local cacao farmers, she learned that the minimum wage in her community is around 7,000 to 8,000 Dominican pesos a month. According to the project’s methodology, a living wage is about 13,000 to 14,000 pesos a month based on the area’s general living costs, although if a worker gets both breakfast and lunch, that could drop to 11,000 pesos, she explained.
The Dominican Republic is the world’s leading exporter of organic cacao, and initially producers received a good premium for this production. “Some exporting companies said eight years ago they got around 800 pesos for organic pricing. Since then, that number has gone down. Today, farmers get around 100 to 200 Dominican pesos for every 50 kilos of cacao they sell — equivalent to 2 to 4 U.S. dollars,” said Altair.
She noted that the organic premium is not like the “Fair Trade” approach, which uses a standard fixed premium and is transparent around stipends and money spent on social problems. So while going organic can benefit the environment by avoiding the use of chemicals — and companies can benefit from using the label on their products and charging consumers higher prices — the farmers themselves often don’t gain financially from organic cultivation.
We Can’t Always Rely on Companies to “Do the Right Thing”
In a time of rising climate awareness and corporate social responsibility, most of us assume that the companies and brands we trust will give back to society, including by supporting the small farmers who produce much of our food. According to a Stanford University study, people expect companies to be major players in tackling climate change and achieving other sustainable development goals, mainly through steps they take via their global supply chains.
But the reality is that most companies still focus mainly on the bottom line, and they take actions to meet social and environmental goals only when and how it suits them best. So why is that? What’s missing here?
Companies follow dollars. The modern food system is entrenched in a complex web of long-standing, interdependent relationships that is designed to chip away at the integrity and values of any brand looking to go against the grain.
The sustainability director for a “green” brand recently confided to me: “On one side, you could say we’re doing our best, and I could easily list a number of ways we are creating tangible positive impact. On the other side, I’ve been noticing an interesting tension between our values and our actions. But when I’ve tried to speak up and ‘shine a light in the shadows,’ so to speak, I’ve been threatened, penalized, and made to feel uncomfortable.”
“Why the disconnect?” I asked her. She replied, “Many people I work with don’t know anything about farmers’ lives. It’s often a lack of awareness of context and education.” In other words, it’s not always that people don’t want to do things better, she explained, it’s just that they don’t have a compelling enough reason or motivation to really make the change. It’s basic human nature: you won’t protect what you don’t know. Plus, she noted, it can be risky, from a business perspective, to “do the right thing” when so many of your competitors aren’t quite there yet.
I thought back to conversations I’ve had with sourcing managers from both large and medium-sized food companies and restaurants. These folks are responsible for much of the decision making around sourcing agreements, marketing, and ongoing communication with suppliers. Yet only a handful of them (with the exception of a few companies in the craft chocolate sector) have actually visited the places where their ingredients or products originate, or have a direct relationship with the cooperatives that produce these items. And very few people I’ve met have direct relationships with the farmers who work in those co-ops.
Edward K., a food industry adviser and co-founder of Living Economy, agrees: “There are a ton of voices advocating for the food industry to pay greater attention to ingredients, sourcing relationships, and the power of responsible food dollars — especially in the fine dining and upscale casual segments. Unfortunately, there’s a huge disconnect between the philosophy and the everyday practice of how the majority of the segment is conducting its day-to-day operations. So much of that disconnect is driven by the realities of supply constraints and supply-side mechanics, as well as lack of awareness and training for young cooks and emerging chefs about the reality that happens on the farm.”
Awakening Consumers to the People Behind Our Food
Not long ago, I left a talk on regenerative agriculture feeling hopeful, inspired by the vision of a more equitable and sustainable food system that also protects the land and ecosystems that support us. But side conversations with other attendees quickly revealed the fears still deeply entrenched in the system. Leaders in this movement were asking themselves and one another, “What’s the business case for regenerative agriculture?” and “Will consumers care?“
Last year, I met Manoj Dayaram, an engineer lead at Square, a tech company in San Francisco. He explained that he runs a “chocolate club” that gathers in the office twice a week, to taste and compare different kinds of chocolate and learn about the differences (see @thechocolatepolice on Instagram). “People often come to the events really curious,” he said, adding, “Well, it is free chocolate.” Out of passion for the club, Manoj buys the chocolate for the group himself.
“What are they most interested in learning about?” I asked, hoping to glean more about people’s interest in chocolate. Manoj explained: “It really depends where the person is in their journey in chocolate. We get people who are already fairly entrenched in the world of farm-to-table, and on the flip side there’s also a ton of people whose idea of chocolate is still a candy bar. So learning about craft chocolate and its nuances — especially flavor and quality — tends to be the more fascinating part. For example, some people are really into the concept that chocolate — basically made with just two ingredients, cocoa and sugar — can taste different from different places.”
“That’s great! So, are they interested in where it’s from? About the farmer?” I asked hopefully. My own research over the years seemed to confirm that “consumers want to know the real story behind their food and how that item made its way from the source to the store,” as Whole Foods noted in its report on the top food trends for 2018.
Manoj had just returned from a trip to visit Zorzal co-op in the Dominican Republic with Greg from Dandelion Chocolate and had been excited to share with his co-workers first-hand stories about his experience with the cacao farmers. “But when I started to talk about the farmer, I noticed that many people’s eyes seemed to glaze over,” he told me. “That was a bit disheartening and unexpected.”
Manoj noted that, when talking to adult consumers, “their interest in the farmer seems to depend strongly on how much they’re already bought in to the farm-to-table movement.” But for kids, there is almost unanimous intrigue about where chocolate comes from: “All the times I’ve taught chocolate classes to children, the kids are always excited to learn not just about the farmers, but about the process of how chocolate goes from being a fruit on a tree to the bar we all know and love.”
It could just be child curiosity or, we agreed, it could be a sign that the tide is changing and that future consumers of all ages will desire to know more about where their food comes from.
But what about the people who can’t travel to experience cacao farms first-hand, or who still seem disinterested? I began to wonder if there were ways to bridge this gap — between people’s interest in “artisan” food and the relatability challenge that Manoj was alluding to. “What if we could bring your experience to them?” I asked him. “Sort of like a ‘choose your own adventure’ style.”
Yellow Seed 2.0: Global Farmer Voices
At Yellow Seed, as we explored ways to connect farmers to markets, we realized the importance of storytelling and the role that we could uniquely play to build empathy and make value visible. At that time, we’d just begun a pilot story initiative on wild cacao aimed to connect everyday consumers to the source of their food.
We designed an immersive experience — a sort of accordion-style interactive and ethnographic experience with video, data, and 360 video, where the viewer can choose where to go and how much content to digest. The story centers in Purus, Brazil, a community in the heart of the Amazon rainforest and the first working cooperative for wild cacao in Brazil.
We shared the story broadly to get people’s feedback — including with Manoj at Square, who brought it to a chocolate club meeting. He responded that “everyone unanimously loved the photos and 360 videos” and that there was a desire for “more educational content.” Win!
Check out the interactive story here.
Reviewers also wanted to see more actual cacao in the video. (Read the story here if you’re curious about why there’s so little cacao in our footage — and what we discovered instead!)
Our New Direction
Yellow Seed is thrilled to launch our new Global Farmer Voices project, where farmers tell their own unique and inspiring stories. Our online marketing platform closed last year, but its original essence — “Farmer Voice, Buyer Choice” — remains the same. We now offer digital storytelling as a service to companies, non-governmental organizations, foundations, museums, and schools — to help them better connect to their audiences and to inspire all of us to action through the compelling narratives behind the foods and ingredients we eat.
The reality is that many of us don’t have the opportunity to travel to remote corners of the planet to better understand the origins of our food supply — including the challenges that farmers face every day. Yellow Seed aims to amplify the voices of farmers, to reconnect people with the source of their food, and to bring to light the work that farmers do as stewards of our planet’s most vital ecosystems.
Through customized storytelling and cutting-edge 360 video, we’re helping to make these key connections possible and to invite deeper dialogue — from farm to port to kitchen to consumer.
Visit www.yellow-seed.org for more information.
About the Author:
Nancy Zamierowski co-founded Yellow Seed and served as the executive director until 2018. She now supports Yellow Seed in an advisory and midwife role through its transition. You can follow her work via her personal website or Collective Transitions.