They’ve got the cashews. We’ve got the market. And then, nature intervenes… Part II

Small Farmers, Big Change
May 28, 2013

Read Part I here.
Part II: Nature intervenes.
Fermin Molina in front of one of his cashew trees.
The cold winter months were brightened up a bit when the Equal Exchange warehouse in Portland notified us that our first shipment of Salvadoran cashews had arrived. The nuts were so tasty they were practically sold before we could unpack the container. Once in the stores, the response was tremendous. Sales reps were hanging up the phones and reporting unexpectedly large orders. We immediately contacted Aprainores and asked for twice the quantity from the following year’s harvest. We were not going to have a problem selling these tasty snacks. Our challenge was actually the reverse: Aprainores already has two Fair Trade buyers in Europe, the trees are over fifty years old, and the co-op doesn’t have a lot of extra resources to put into farm maintenance: so how can we get more?
Shawn and Tyler receiving our first shipment of cashew nuts!
All in all, not the worst problem to have when you’re trying to build small farmer supply chains. And then, just one month later in early March, the email came. Alex Flores wrote to tell us that the whole region had been hit by four days of unrelenting winds, and the crop was destroyed. Well, 70% of the crop, to be exact. The winds had kicked up and didn’t stop for four days and nights. When the air calmed down, the trees which had been in beautiful bloom were totally “naked”. Flowers, fruit, and nuts had all come down. Frantically, the farmers ran around collecting whatever nuts they could, but in just four short days, the harvest season was over.

I was on my way to Honduras for other business and thought I’d stop in to see for myself how the co-op was faring and if there was anything we could do to be of assistance. I left my house at 6 am and by 12 noon I was stepping off the plane in San Salvador. Alex picked me up and we drove straight to the Aprainores office and processing plant in San Vicente. It was 99 degrees and humid when we stepped out of Alex’s car, and my clothes were sticking to me. Shouldn’t it be cooler this time of year, I asked him. Normally, March and April are the unbearably hot months in El Salvador and by May, the rains have cooled the air. He shrugged and told me that the hot season now lasts well into June.
The grounds were quiet. Alex unlocked the office door explaining that they had to let the staff of three go. He himself only drives to the “zone” two days per week or so to save the co-op the gasoline money and to cut down on electricity costs. He then gave me a tour of the plant, this time in operation. (When I was last there in December, the plant was finished for the year.) He pointed to where the winds had blown the roof off and he showed me the warehouse which should have been stuffed with 100 pound bags of cashews waiting to be processed and exported. It was a sad looking lot.

Alex told me they’d only managed to salvage one container of cashews from the storm. The were processing that container and were going to be shipping it to Europe to be split between their two European clients. We, being their newest client, would have to wait until next year’s harvest to receive any additional cashews. Once the container was processed and shipped in July, they planned to close down the plant to save additional costs. The 60 women who normally worked in the plant through December would have to get by some other way; as would the farmers.

It was a sad afternoon, but we did talk about ways in which they could reduce costs and we discussed the possibility of helping them to plant more trees, substitute out old trees for new ones, and take on a variety of farm maintenance work in order to increase future yields. Nothing will help us replenish our food co-op customers with tasty Salvadoran cashews this year, and very sadly, nothing will help the Aprainores farmers bring in a decent income this year, but maybe in the long run there’s a way to keep these farmers on their land and keep their cashew nuts on the grocery store shelves.

They’ve been through too much to let four days of heavy winds set them back to such an extent. Stay tuned as we continue working with our newest partners to find solutions to man-made and natural misfortunes.