Farmers Võ Ngọc Dũng and Vuong Huu Thanh move closer together so both their faces fit into the Zoom camera frame. Behind them, in the central Vietnamese province of Dak Lak, lush vines snake up tall trees. The wobbly camera moves up to a vine, showing off a cluster of tiny berries: peppercorns. Their audience, a group of mostly American spice lovers, quiz them through the chat function. How tall are the ladders they use to harvest the pepper? How do they like to cook with peppercorns? How much pepper does a single vine produce? The pair answers through a translator: around 20 feet high; grilled with snails or stewed with beef; about two kilograms. The comment section lights up with praise.
Ethan Frisch, who’s facilitating the conversation from his own screen in New York, loves this sort of interaction. For the co-founder of Burlap & Barrel, a single-origin, direct-to-consumer spice company, connecting farmers with the people who cook with their crops is essential. While this usually occurs via social media and Burlap & Barrel’s website, the company’s first Zoom event grew out of the “Meet the Farmer” sections on the company’s online shop, and the “culture of online events” the pandemic has created. Frisch says more virtual farm tours and chats with partner farmers are in the works to teach consumers about how spices are grown.
Burlap & Barrel is just one of several businesses to emerge over the last five years that urge chefs and home cooks alike to think about who grows their dash of cardamom or heaping spoonful of chile. Despite the growing demand for spices around the world, the industry remains opaque when it comes to regulation. For centuries, colonial powers grew, sold, and transported spices at the expense of the communities that cultivated them, and the structures that Europeans established to subjugate and disenfranchise farmers linger today. According to Frisch, from India to Zanzibar to Guatemala, in spice-growing regions around the world, “the system is built on farmers making no money.”
Traditionally, in the spice trade, middlemen take a large cut of the profits. By the time a jar of nutmeg from a farmer in Sri Lanka arrives in your grocery store, there could be up to 15 collectors, brokers, traders, processors, wholesalers, and distributors involved, estimates Nadee Bandaranayake, owner of Cinnamon Tree Organics, another mission-driven spice company. This also means it usually takes years for that nutmeg to reach a supermarket shelf, Bandaranayake says. And when it arrives, it could be mixed with nutmeg from a handful of countries, not to mention artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives to make the seeds or ground powder look homogenous and stay fresh. By that point, she says, “the whole purpose of adding spices to a meal — the flavor, the aroma, the color, the health benefits — to me, they’re all kind of gone.”
But Frisch, Bandaranayake, and a crop of other entrepreneurs are working to change this. They’re combating deeply entrenched systems that not only treat farmers unfairly, but also shortchange shoppers, and they’re utilizing modern technology and social media to connect directly with farmers from across the world, cut out middlemen, and shed light on the workings of a notoriously closed off industry. Here, get to know a few of these founders.
Harnessing Technology to Grow Farmer Relationships
Frisch, a chef turned humanitarian aid worker, started bringing spices back in his luggage from trips abroad around 2012. Food-industry pals couldn’t get enough of the wild cumin from Afghanistan or black pepper from Zanzibar. He and co-founder Ori Zohar, an entrepreneur and longtime friend, sensed an opportunity. “If chefs were this excited, we knew home cooks would be excited, too,” Zohar says.
They have been. Since founding the company in 2016, Burlap & Barrel has grown to include around 300 farmers according to Frisch — in 2020, Frisch says, Burlap & Barrel imported 40 tons of spices from 14 different countries — and amassed a devoted following. “People say, ‘I didn’t know cinnamon could taste like this.’ You see their eyes light up,” Zohar says. “Even if you don’t know or care” where they come from or who grows it, “good spices make your food taste better.”
But that “lightbulb moment,” Frisch says, does get people to care. When they taste a particularly floral, woody, or smoky spice, cooks realize they aren’t “just ground colorful powders,” but potent plants. After that, “it’s a short step to realize the farm itself matters,” he says.
The company aims to help partner farmers grow their businesses by being clear about who uses their spices and how, and by finding new markets for their crops (such as selling the leaves of cinnamon trees rather than composting them, or finding a wholesale buyer for a farmer’s black limes when there was a poor harvest of their main crop, cardamom).
Farmers, the duo says, appreciate the transparency. Typically, once growers hand their wares over to a local broker, such as a truck driver or small shop owner, or sell their harvest at an auction, they have no idea where it ends up. Burlap & Barrel’s farmers can see how cooks use their spices on the brand’s Facebook spice forum, and Frisch and Zohar bring the finished, packaged product to farmers when they visit.
But visits to farms have been put on hold by the coronavirus, just as Burlap & Barrel has seen demand spike from more people staying in and cooking. It’s made an already tricky logistical operation even more difficult. Still, Frisch and Zohar, who both caught and recovered from the virus (and temporarily lost their sense of smell), are expanding the business. Working with nonprofits and local governments for the past few years, they say, has laid a solid groundwork of partner farmers. Word has spread quickly, too, among farmers, with new growers reaching out via WhatsApp or Facebook. This technology, Frisch says, lets them “work as true partners,” plus keep up that two-way interaction between farmers and shoppers. “In what other Facebook group can you message the farmer who grew the spices you made in your recipe? It’s unprecedented.”
Pushing for Greater Equity — and Better Taste — in Turmeric and Beyond
“We’ve grown so much in the last couple months,” says Sana Javeri Kadri, founder of direct-trade, sustainably farmed spice company Diaspora Co. “It is a wild time right now.”
Dismayed by how little had really changed about the spice trade, in 2017, Kadri began Diaspora Co. “We’re rooted in equity,” she says. “I started this company so farmers could have a market to earn really, really well.” She started by selling heirloom turmeric from India, where Kadri lived until moving to the U.S. for college (she now splits her time between the two countries). Three years later, fans of that original heirloom spice can also buy black pepper, cumin, cardamom, coriander, black mustard seeds, and chile from the farms Kadri partners with. She’s been able to provide health insurance to 250 laborers, rolling out a pilot program with the Lona Project that provides preventative and immediate health care, as well as fresh produce, to the mostly female farmworkers; the goal is to keep expanding the program.
Diaspora Co.’s website provides a wealth of information about its supply chain, including how the commodity spice trade works. A bottle of grocery store turmeric, for example, is likely a mixture of multiple farmers’ crops and multiple varieties, rather than, like Diaspora’s, of a single variety or from one farm or region. That approach, the company says, allows it to ensure a better product and work closely with individual partner farms.
Kadri is also working on helping people better understand that spices, like many other crops, are seasonal. “People don’t understand why we sell out, but it’s the same as how the best tomatoes are only in season in the summer. We grow at the rate of nature.” Sometimes, she says, if “you want the best stuff, you’ve got to wait for it.”
Kadri is hopeful that other independent, direct-to-consumer food companies — including other mission-driven spice companies — are similarly pushing consumers to think differently about how we eat and where we spend our money. “We’re all growing the industry for the better so that 10 years from now, this will be the norm.” But taste alone wins people over, too. Some shoppers “may not love our politics or that we’re queer-owned, but they love our turmeric.”
The Sustainable Spice Subscription Box
A decade ago, Rushi Sanathra was volunteering with cotton farmers in the state of Gujarat. There, he saw that “folks wanted to do organic farming, but there wasn’t an outlet to sell the product,” he says. And the alternative he witnessed wasn’t just disenfranchising these villagers, it was making them sick. “They would spray pesticides on their cotton and be ill for days,” he says. The farmers often asked him if he could find a market for sustainably grown crops in the United States.
An avid home cook, he began to explore creating such a market for spices instead; he pictured American cooks building their own versions of his mother’s spice box — a staple in every Indian family’s kitchen, he says. He spent two years “ideating and researching and doing background work” on the side, while working in operations at a children’s subscription box company. When he lost his job in January, and then the pandemic hit, he decided it was time to devote his attention to spices.
Sanathra called his company Zameen, which means earth in Hindi. He also decided on a subscription box model: Each month, subscribers receive a mini Mason jar with 1.3 to 2 ounces of a spice, information about the farmers, tips on storing spices, and recipes. This way, he figured, he could gauge interest for his products. Upon launch, he sold most of the subscriptions almost immediately. Turns out “people get excited about spices,” he says.
The recipes included in Zameen boxes are Sanathra’s creations, inspired by family recipes or dishes he learned to make when living in the village, such as kheer eaten around Diwali or a dal served at weddings. But, ultimately, he wants people to feel comfortable cooking intuitively with the turmeric, cardamom, black and white pepper, cinnamon, and allspice. “When I lived in the village, if a spice wasn’t available, they’d just omit it and keep going,” he says.
As a brand-new business, Sanathra works with Krishi Janani, an organization that supports organic, sustainable farmers. Through them, he’s found family-owned farms and sustainable foragers in the Kerala and Tamil Nadu states. He’s also looking into adding star anise, Indian bay leaves, garam masala, and chai masala to his roster, along with grains like rice and millet.
Less than a year into running Zameen full-time, the self-described one-man show says he’s still learning how to manage demand, how to explain to consumers why Zameen’s spices cost more, and how to expand the business responsibly. It’s been “an eye-opener to different world,” especially “as a gay man running a business like this. I’m just doing the work and representing [the farmers] to break the colonial cycle.”
Preserving Small Farmers’ Spice Traditions in Sri Lanka
Nadee Bandaranayake immigrated from tropical Sri Lanka to Calgary, Canada, at age 20 with her family. It was food from home, she says, “that kept us grounded and comforted.” But, no matter how hard her family tried, recipes never turned out quite the same. Though she was able to find staples such as turmeric and cinnamon, she says, “the flavors were off. We just were not finding what we remembered.” It’s something she says she heard from many other South Asian immigrants.
In Bandaranayake’s case, it was especially true for cinnamon. Ceylon cinnamon, or “true” cinnamon, is native to Sri Lanka; it’s something she says is a matter of national pride. In North America, though, it’s more common to find cassia, a less expensive, more potent variety, she explains. “It’s a completely different spice to me, and completely throws off” the savory dishes — lentils, meat, fish — in which Sri Lankans typically use cinnamon.
Bandaranayake left her Washington, D.C., marketing and communications job last year to focus on selling this Ceylon cinnamon with Cinnamon Tree Organics. Her company also sells black and white pepper, nutmeg, moringa, lemongrass, cardamom, clove, turmeric, chile flakes, ginger, cayenne, masala chai, and a Sri Lankan curry blend. The more she got into the business, the more she felt “it was high time somebody tried to disrupt” the supply chains that, she quickly learned, haven’t changed much in centuries.
She hopes that consumers who already buy fair-trade coffee, chocolate, and tea, and who drink turmeric lattes in droves, “are more open to hearing the details” when it comes to where their spices come from — details like how the mass market values spices for uniformity and color, not necessarily flavor and aroma. Growing cardamom pods to be the greenest and most uniform, rather than for their taste, for example, puts pressure on small farmers to leave behind generations of farming practices and heirloom spice crops. “They want to keep and preserve our nature, culture, and knowledge,” she says. And with a market to sell to, they can.
Bandaranayake says she pays the handful of farmers she works with more than what other buyers or middlemen offer. With better pay, she explains, these farmers can grow their operations, become certified organic, and buy machinery. However, “there are some things that can’t be done with machinery,” Bandaranayake says. Those neatly rolled cinnamon sticks? Called “cinnamon quills” in Sri Lanka, “they’re all done by human hand,” she says, an “art and science taught in families from generation to generation,” and one that’s in danger of dying out. “We have to treat them well and pay them well to keep it going.”
The Saffron Specialist
Saffron is one of the world’s most famous, and famously expensive, spices. But Mohammad Salehi has found, beyond that, Americans don’t know all that much about what he calls the “queen of spices.” When he first tried selling the delicate crimson threads from his family’s farm in Afghanistan to grocery stores, they didn’t bite.
It was with chefs that Salehi’s business got going. A former translator for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, he was forced to seek asylum in 2013 after his life was threatened. On the advice of a friend in the army, he settled in Chicago. Looking to go into business for himself and support small saffron farmers, such as his own family, which has been farming in the Herat province for generations, Salehi started selling saffron to restaurants. He won over enough of them — including Gibsons Italia in Chicago and Black Shoe Hospitality in Milwaukee — to leave his job at a real estate company in 2017 to run Heray full time.
Although restaurants were his main customers, Salehi sold online to individuals, too. And while he suspects chefs posting about his saffron on Instagram gave an initial boost to this direct-to-consumer business, pandemic home cooking has seen it take off. “Millennials, they care,” he says. “They want to know, ‘Who built this product? How can I buy something that has a positive effect?’”
Salehi explains to his customers that, by working with him, they’re directly supporting his family and other saffron farmers; today, he works with a group of 24 growers. “I know each single farmer and their family’s names,” he says. Heray also uses a portion of profits to buy school supplies for children in danger of dropping out due to poverty.
Harvesting saffron is highly labor intensive — it requires plucking the threads by hand from crocus flowers. It takes 75,000 flowers, Salehi estimates, to yield just a pound of the precious threads, making it more expensive than many other spices. Currently, Heray sells one gram of saffron for $17. The delicate and limited nature of its harvest, and the resulting cost, means saffron is typically sold in small quantities, just a couple grams at a time. But Salehi says, Heray customers need to use only a few saffron threads to robustly flavor and color a dish.
Salehi is keen to one day add cumin, black pepper, and dried figs and apricots to his offerings. Right now, though, he’s focused on educating customers, teaching them how to cook with saffron and the best ways to suss out the real deal from saffron that’s adulterated (saffron swindlers have been known to mix the spice with corn silk or safflower petals and add dyes to bump up the color). Salehi, who’s finishing up a master’s degree in business and information technology, also wants “people to know Afghanistan through its beauty, to give a picture of the country besides the war,” he says. “When you feed someone, it’s the best influence a culture can have on others. When I do a transaction in saffron, I am not only helping someone, but transferring a cultural legacy through food.”