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2019 social impact report

2019 was a big year for us. It was our 3rd full year as a company and a year where we grew our support for our partner farmers more than any previous year... combined. It's a good record to set, but also one we plan to keep breaking.

Whenever we’re asked about the latest and greatest in spices, people always expect to hear about blockchain, algorithms and robotics. We see the revolution coming from more accessible technology, and in the last 5 years, the availability of inexpensive smartphones, easy communication technology (think WhatsApp, Facebook & Google Translate) have laid the foundation for a supply chain revolution. We are now in constant contact with our partner farmers, asking questions, sharing videos, and occasionally posting to each other’s Facebook pages. 

What underpins our business isn’t technology, it’s relationships. Long-term, mutually supportive relationships with our partner farmers, who have spent decades (or generations, in many cases), caring for their land and carefully growing some of the most beautiful spices in the world.

That’s the model that we’re working with our partner farmers to replace via three approaches:

1. Regulatory

Most of our partner farmers have never exported their own crops before. We support them through the process by assisting with FDA registrations, serving as their US Agents, paying licensing fees and other expenses associated with exporting and, when necessary, hiring a licensed individual or agency in the country of origin to assist with export paperwork and other regulatory requirements.

We also assume all the food safety risk and responsibility, finding testing facilities at origin or on arrival in the US and bringing our partner farmers into the testing process to help them understand why the test results (for pathogens like e. coli and salmonella) are important and how to reduce the likelihood of contamination on the farm.

We sterilize our spices (never using irradiation) when necessary, but our preference is to improve operational processes on the farm to reduce the contamination risk and the need for sterilization.

2. Supply Chain & Logistics

Many of our partner farmers have historically sold to local brokers and consolidators, and the prospect of transporting their products to an airport or seaport for the first time can be daunting, let alone shipping it around the world to the US.

Through our network of local and international freight forwarders we’re able to support our partner farmers with complex logistics, including arranging trucks to pick up their products directly from the farm when necessary.

Our goal is always for our partner farmers to manage as much of the supply chain as possible, but when that isn’t feasible, we’re there to help bring their products to market.

3. Business Development

Ultimately, our goal is to increase demand for single origin, equitably-sourced spices. We do that in many ways, not least of which is bringing our partner farmers into the kitchens of our customers.

Most spice farmers have no idea where their spices go after they leave the farm, so we share pictures and information about how their spices are being used by home cooks and professional chefs. We also regularly engage our partner farmers in conversation about new spices they might be able to produce, or new ways to commercialize crops they’re already growing. (See the Zanzibar case study below.)

This process supports the business development of our partner farmers, as they gain a greater understanding of where their spices end up and how they’re being enjoyed. Connecting backwards from table-to-farm informs farming practices, including how the spices are allowed to ripen, how they’re dried and ground, and even identifying spices that are completely overlooked by the commodity market.

 

Below we’ve shared our social impact goals and a few case studies that illustrate our work in 2019. Thanks for being here and supporting our growing company and our goal to bring more transparency and equitable sourcing to the spice industry.

As always, we love your input and feedback, so please reach out via care@burlapandbarrel.com. 

Ethan Frisch, Co-founder

Ori Zohar, Co-founder

Impact Milestones

If you don’t feel like reading a full report, here are our 2019 milestones that we’re the proudest of:

  • 43,561 lbs: Quantity of spices we sourced in 2019, 4x more than 2018
  • $196,854: Amount we paid our partner farmers between 2017 and 2019 
  • 11: Number of countries we sourced from in 2019, including 3 new ones (NicaraguaIndonesia, and Vietnam)

And here are our sourcing stats broken down by year:

   

 

In his 70's, Mzee Mataka is the oldest farmer in the coop and a local celebrity for his expertise in growing and harvesting cinnamon, which he's been doing for 60 years. Walking through the forest together, he picked one tree branch out of thousands that he identified as perfect for making hand-rolled cinnamon sticks, and cut it down with his machete. Yumna works with our partner cooperative here, helping with sorting and packaging the gold medal-winning Zanzibar black peppercorns. Mzee Sio and his granddaughter Yusra. Sio is our partner nutmeg farmer, with a beautiful orchard an hour from Stonetown. In 2019, we started a new project with him: to harvest and dry the fruit of the nutmeg. Usually, the only parts that are used are the inner pit of the fruit (the nutmeg) and the lacy orange mace, which wraps around the shell. The fruit is tart and astringent, with a flavor like a spiced unripe peach.

Case Study: Zanzibar

Our partner farmers in Zanzibar are members of a cooperative of smallholder farmers growing primarily cloves, cinnamon verum and black pepper, with specific farmers specializing in crops like nutmeg & vanilla, and others who share the responsibilities of maintaining an integrated agroforestry operation, with minimally-cultivated farms in the jungle. 

In 2019, we sourced 82% more spices from Tanzania (3,800 lbs) than the previous year. The cooperative grew to include 29 farmers and completed the construction of a nursery for spice seedlings and a new spice drying patio paved with concrete. They also opened a retail shop for their spices in the old city of Stonetown and began offering warehouse tours of their facility just outside of Stonetown to compete with the many demonstration spice farms offering superficial tours. 

Our sourcing growth outpaced the cooperative growth, increasing payments to an average of $576 per farmer (up from $565 in 2018 and $238 in 2017),  representing 70% of the annual GDP per Zanzibari.

We’ve also continued to work with the cooperative to upcycle and commercialize food waste elements of the spice cultivation and harvesting processes, specifically cinnamon tree leaves and dried nutmeg pericarp (aka the outer nutmeg fruit). Both are byproducts that have historically been composted, but they’re also incredible ingredients in their own right.

The nutmeg fruit found a home at a new spirits company. We completed a small first shipment to use in a test batch, with a much larger shipment landing in 2020. The cinnamon tree leaves have sold out twice, with restaurants and home cooks using them as an alternative to bay leaves or tej pata, a common ingredient in Indian cooking. These new products have channeled additional revenue to the cooperative for products that they were already growing but had never sold before. 

 

If you find someone who looks at you the way Don Amilcar looks at his cardamom, you know you’ve found the one. Saveur called him "the farmer shaking up the Guatemalan cardamom trade"

Deep in the cloud forests of Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, Don Amilcar walks through his biodynamic farm that uses traditional organic methods to grow exceptional spices.

Believe it or not, Black Limes start out green. They transform from green to red to black as they dry in the sun and oxidize, developing their magnificent tart and savory flavor.

Case Study: Guatemala

What started as a custom sourcing project for Sweetgreen in 2018 turned into one of our most popular spices in 2019. That’s right, we’re talking about our tart and savory ground Black Lime. 

Don Amilcar Perreira, our partner farmer, is the only vertically-integrated cardamom operation in Guatemala. A true entrepreneur, he started picking cardamom on other people’s farms as a teenager and over several decades has built a complex, integrated business. He owns his own farm, his own drying facility, and exports his own crops, a unique combination of properties and skills that makes him a beloved partner and supplier. He’s also one of our longest-standing partner farmers, who we’ve worked closely with since our first trip to Guatemala in December 2016. 

Don Amilcar is always looking for new business opportunities, and has experimented with several other crops, including cacao, coffee, honey and limes. In early 2018, he suggested that we buy his sun-dried black limes, and by late summer, Sweetgreen had contacted us with a request for a large quantity of something they couldn’t find anywhere else: yep, we’re talking ground black limes. 

We had ordered extra just in case, which we posted on our site. We didn’t know how the new spice would be received or that anyone would be interested, but home cooks surprised us and started buying it by the pound. We had a hit! Life lesson: always order extra spices.

In 2019, cardamom harvests across Guatemala were very poor, yielding much less than in previous years. To help make up the drop in his income from the light cardamom harvest, we purchased Don Amilcar’s entire lot of black limes, more than 6,000 lbs, increasing our payments to him by 6x compared to 2018.

What a Year

2019 was a year of remarkable growth for Burlap & Barrel. We significantly increased our impact through sourcing from and payments to our partner farmers. 

In 2020, we’ve got ambitious goals to expand our scope, reach and impact, and we can’t wait for you to see what we’ve got in store.

As always, thank you. We’re honored that you’re walking this new spice route alongside us.

Want to read more? Check out all of our Social Impact Reports: