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Bonus: A Conversation with Covilli Brand Organics
Bonus Episode30th March 2021 • What is American Food? • Hannah Semler & Ali Berlow
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Covilli Brands Organic operates both a farm in Sonora, Mexico, and a marketing and distribution business out of Nogales, Arizona. What makes Covilli unique is that they are the only operation in North America that's 100% organic certified, and 100% fair trade certified. We hear from second generation farmer, Alex Madrigal, and his life and business partner, Iris Montano, as to their commitment to these approaches to both farming and the business side of things.

We are grateful to have opened up this space for such important topics, shedding light on all the different farming and food production methods, whether we see them or not. They're a part of our daily lives, our daily choices, helping us understand the impact we create for millions of people along the supply chain with the food we choose to eat or not eat every day.

This podcast is funded by the Betsy and Jesse Fink Family Foundation, with production support by Melody Rowell, and Ian Carlsen. Check back because soon we'll be dropping our next deep dive series focused on the nonprofit, Red Tomato.

Transcripts

Ali Berlow:

Welcome to this edition of What Is American Food?, a podcast about the food we eat, don't eat and why. I'm Ali Berlow. This is a special episode of What Is American Food, that grew out of Episode 3, about the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona's new focus on sourcing from fair trade business partners that are empowering workers across the border in Mexico. When we interviewed Robert Ojeda, the food bank's chief program officer, he mentioned Covilli Brands Organic as an example of the kind of business that the Community Food Bank is looking to strengthen their partnerships with. Covilli Brands Organic operates both a farm in Sonora, Mexico, and a marketing and distribution business out of Nogales, Arizona. What makes Covilli unique is that they are the only operation in North America that's 100% organic certified, and 100% fair trade certified. We hear from second generation farmer, Alex Madrigal, and his life and business partner, Iris Montano, as to their commitment to these approaches to both farming and the business side of things. Here's Hannah Semler, co-host of What Is American Food, leading the interview.

Hannah Semler:

So why don't we start by asking you, Iris, how did you find us?

Iris Montano:

Well, we heard your third podcast, where Robert Ojeda from the Southern Arizona Community Food Bank spoke highly of Covilli Brand Organics, and some of the work that we are doing, and we decided to reach out to you guys and tell you a little bit more of what we're doing. And we find that the podcast is just very informative and touches on subjects that we hardly hear about. So we definitely wanted to jump on board and, and share our experiences and learn along with you guys.

Hannah:

Great. Where are you today?

Iris:

We are actually in Sonora, a northern state of Mexico, that borders with Arizona in the city of Guaymas, because the farm, Covilli's Farm, is an hour away from here in Valle de Empalme. So this is where we are at the moment, being close to the farm and projects that we have going on here.

Hannah:

And you also work in Nogales, Alex?

Alex Madrigal:

Yeah, I also, we also work in Nogales. We're based out of Nogales, Arizona. That's where we receive our produce and where we ship it from. But I'm also very entwined in production, which is actually my first love before I got pushed into the marketing side of things.

Hannah:

So explain to us a little bit, before we get into the fact that you were the only North American food business food producer and distributor out of Nogales, that is 100% organic and 100% fair trade-- and this is a really exciting thing for us to understand how you got here. So we'll, we'll want to get to that for most of the time that we spend talking together today. But tell us a little bit about how your farm has evolved from being a farm in Sonora to being a distributor in Nogales. And so you know, we did speak to Wilson Produce, the regenerative organic farm that works both in Sinaloa and in Baja, California. But you're the first farm that we're talking to that's out of Sonora. But it'd be interesting for you to give us a little bit of your background and and story around, how did it become a farm with a marketing arm? And how does that work really, for our listeners.

Alex:

First off, I just really quickly want to touch on what Iris said and, about your podcast in the episodes that we listened to. I think it was, for us it was, for me in particular, it was a breath of fresh air, because those are really big topics that are not on a lot of people's radar. And don't people don't understand how the food that we consume at the grocery store is so connected to several different countries, and to neighbors to the south, neighbors to the north. And we're, how big of a part we play in that food system at the grocery store. So thank you very much for that. As far as for us, we're relatively new to the game. We're not as, we haven't been around as long as let's say, the Wilsons of Nogales. There's families there that have been like the Wilson story have been doing this for a long, long time and the warehouses exactly run with the train tracks right through the middle. Actually, we bought a new warehouse to us not too long ago, and it's one of those old warehouses with a storied history in Nogales. And exactly in the back, there's a set of train tracks that run right through it, where they used to unload produce by train. My father started this company back in the late 60s, early 70s in Imperial Valley, California. So that's Calexico, El Centro, Heber, Brawley, which is still a big farming community today. And then over the years, we progressed into farming in Mexicali, in the Mexicali Valley, and it was a conventional operation. We're actually, we're still farming in the Mexicali Valley today, but it looks-- in Baja California-- but it looks a lot different, that operation, than it was back years ago. Now we mostly

Alex:

grow and pack for other shippers in the Salinas Valley there, for conventional agriculture, things like green onions and radishes and those items. And then he went bankrupt. And then he came back to the business in the 70s. My mother came on board, I would say, probably sometime in there, in the late 70s. And then they built the company basically from the, from the ground up from there. In the late 80s, he started seeing organic agriculture as a cleaner way to farm. So he began that journey in Mexicali, but it was very difficult just because of the intense competition in Mexicali, and the number of farms, is very difficult to grow organically there. So we started pivoting to the state of Sonora. We had remembered from years past, where we had a watermelon program here, which is Sonora typically our area here, Guaymas is known for watermelons and citrus. And we remember that there was hardly any, any other farms around us

Alex:

, in the very early years. By:

Alex:

path. But when he got sick in:

Alex:

Hannah:

Before we go to speak directly with Iris about that and what your story was, I want to get back to something that you said which makes me feel like this is a very personal thing for you. The fact that your father died of cancer, the fact that the fair trade and organic choices had to do with your family saying, you know-- was there a connection between the history of how your father had farmed conventionally, or, and health? Or what was the connection that people made in their minds in your family when when your father got sick? To switch over to full on organic, full on fair trade? Can you explain that to us?

Alex:

Well, we were already full on organic way before then, like I said in the in the early 90s. The fair trade was, I guess, I guess I should also explain that my mother and both my father grew up very modestly. My father from the Midwest, you know, the second of three boys, didn't have a new pair of shoes until he was old enough to buy them for himself. Otherwise, it's hand me downs. My mother is the second of 16 children. My father was a butcher. And actually, my mother's vacations, and my grandmother who just passed away also recently, will tell stories that their vacations consisted of piling all the kids in their van and heading up to the Central Valley in the summer, because I had an uncle and aunt there that would set a home aside for them, and that they would pick fruit. That was their vacation, you know, for a month, two months during the summer. And then they'd come down, and all the girls would get up early in the morning make all the burritos, tortillas, and everything for all my uncles and my grandfather, who would go out in the field. And that was, that was what they did in the summer. So we have this very unique connection to the field and where we come from. So that's always been from the start, before even you know, organic certification before fair trade certification, we've always had a very strong

Alex:

connection for our workers. And we pride ourselves in taking care of our workers. It's, it's, it's the backbone of everything, of every society, it's the workers, the people bending down in the field, picking those beans and putting it in a box. You know, that's, that's it. So that's kind of always been our guiding philosophy. So that, I think that's where the connection comes in. And we're always looking for that next thing. And so fair trade, for me, fit that very well, because it allows us to do that. There's a certification. And again, for me, the power comes in that it's a, it's a tool for the end consumer, for that person, that that, you know, has a nine to five job in the city, that doesn't necessarily understand farming, but can understand a certification, you know, which carries some weight. But the work there then is on us to educate. And it's a big task, educating people on fair trade. Even just organic, you know, it's huge, it's a big undertaking, is educating everybody on the importance of these certifications.

Hannah:

Thank you so much, Alex, that was really a, I felt goosebumps when you're just talking about how, you know, that's the backbone of any society, and therefore any company should be taking care of their workers. And speaking of, you know, communication, the emotion that I just felt from you telling me directly, and me being able to see your face-- for our listeners, hopefully the voice-- but a lot of times with a product and just a logo certifying, it's difficult to communicate that emotion. So Iris, how do you communicate fair trade? How do you communicate the incredible work that, that your company is doing? And what do you, what do you wish to accomplish through your communication efforts in the future?

Iris:

It's, it's been very interesting, as Alex set it up. And first of all, it tries to educate simultaneously on organic and then the difference with conventional and why it's higher priced. And also, fair trade, basically, what we're trying to do is, is talk about how this transforms and empowers people's lives, people, the farm worker directly, and um, and bringing that-- for us, it's a lot about bringing them back into the picture. You know, for most of us, we go into a grocery store, and all you see is the vegetables. But there's, there's nothing to remind you that there's hundreds of people behind that product that you're choosing, or putting in your table. For example, you know, with our kids, whenever they tell me, oh, I don't like that. I was like, What do you mean, you don't like that? Do you know how many hands, how much work, how much time and dedication had to be before it got to your plate? And for us, it's a lot of that bringing back the farm worker, and how we are linked, whether we know it or not, whether we even care about it or not. It's a reality. We are linked to other people that are doing

Iris:

this hard work on a daily basis. And so we rely a lot of course on social media and trying to tell the story of how, you know, somebody in Northern California or New York choosing one of our products, one of Covilli products or, or another product that has a fair trade certified logo-- how a few cents from a pound of whatever they purchase, go directly into a bank account. Or these farmworkers that have created an association, a legally recognized association, are able to democratically choose what they do with these funds, and they are dedicated to community projects. All this is designed, in our case, by Fair Trade USA because it's the standard that we follow, and it's who certifies us, but it, there is a process that has to be followed and the idea is for community projects

Iris:

ied fair trade on December of:

Hannah:

Wow.

Iris:

So this has allowed-- and it's big. And just to explain a little bit about what, what makes us 100% fair trade certified. For most producers, they will usually just certify their most sold commodity. And they will give the option to the, to the clients to either choose fair trade or non fair trade. So what Alex decided to do was, we're selling everything, all of our products, which we have about 20, it varies from year to year, 20 to 30 different products, we will-- everything was going to be fair trade certified, and unless you wanted a non fair trade product, then you had to request it as such. So all our, all our line is fair trade, unlike other producers. But so this has allowed us to be 100% certified and 100% organic, and to be the only producer distributor in North America to do it that way.

Hannah:

Incredible. Can I ask one clarifying question? How do you communicate about the assumptions in general about Mexico grown product? Which is an additional hurdle? And also, how does the organic certification and the assumptions about the differences between the US certification and the Mexico certification affect how consumers perceive an organic product from Mexico? Have you run into this at all? Because I think that there's a lot of misunderstanding in the public, as to whether there's a difference, because as I understand it, and I have some training, of course, you would not be able to sell organic produce in the US if you were not meeting all the requirements of organic certification in the US. And yet, there's a sense that there's somehow an inferior certification process if the product is coming from, from Mexico. And I know that this is getting into very touchy, and sort of misrepresentation, areas of Mexico grown in general, but I think it's important to talk about.

Alex:

You're absolutely right, and yes, unfortunately, I've head on have slammed into those misconceptions. When I started off after my first couple of years in the field, I did a small internship in, at OGC in Eugene, Oregon. And in one of those, one of my experiences was setting up product in a su-- in a grocery store, and a lady came up to me and asked me, you know, it was Mexican produce, and what I thought of it being organic, and if it was true, that we used human feces to fertilize fields in Mexico. And exactly, exactly, I can see your face and that was, inside I cringed as well. And I explained to her that no, that wasn't the case, that we'd meet the same standards, and you're absolutely right. I mean we get certified yearly organic, we meet the same standards as any US growers. We all play by the same national organic produce, the NOP, guidelines regarding organic product. And so, and then also we're subject to random tests at the border crossing, 100% inspections, microbiological testing, you know, all those, all those type of things. We get we get inspected at our warehouses in Nogales randomly from year to year. So some years we've even had USDA inspectors visit our farms to verify what we're doing. So I can only speak from my

Alex:

t's just by talking to people:

Hannah:

Let's talk a little bit about that relationship between Covilli Brands Organic and Community Food Bank, if you will.

Alex:

That relationship actually started-- We donate to our local food banks, but it started in earnest-- actually we spoke to Robert first, because we were trying to tackle this, this issue of food waste. And we noticed that we have a lot of high quality produce that we either have to compost, because we have very rigorous composting program that goes year round. And we use all of our farms' clippings and product that we don't sell or we don't move into our compost. But we're trying to tackle this, this issue because we, if you can believe it about 50%, maybe 60% of our yield is-- it's not, we can't sell it because it has some sort of defect. The product is still good, but we just can't sell it into the export market because there's some sort of defect. So we had this idea to try to bypass the retailer because not all retailers, I can't paint all retailer the same brush, but the majority don't lower their prices. Even when there's a flush, when something is in season, there's a lot, and all the shippers are trying to push our product, they don't they don't necessarily lower them. So we saw this problem. And we wanted to set up a direct distribution from grower to consumer and like mobile, mobile trucks or mobile vans in the Tucson area

Alex:

because Tucson, believe it or not, as a, has a huge problems with food deserts. It's kind of hard to believe being that you have so much fresh produce in Nogales. But Tucson has a hard problem, a big problem with food deserts. So we wanted to have these mobile stations going around to these food desert areas and selling product almost at cost. All the number twos that the farm produces. And that's where our relationship began with Robert, at Arizona Food Bank. He was one of the first proponents, tried to help us use their infrastructure, their cold spaces, their distribution points either to set up our sale or to set up pallets of product that we would then later take it to communities that aren't easy to reach. And that's kind of how it began with them and the city of Tucson.

Hannah:

Very interesting. And so one of the programs with Community Food Bank is looking at their sourcing through their produce rescue program in Nogales from a rights-based lens. And this was of course, the topic for Episode 3 of What Is American Food? And so thinking ahead about how food banks can participate with 100% organic 100% fair trade Covilli Brand Organics and other partners like yourselves, who are already doing this work, how do you see their partnership benefiting the ultimate goal of supporting the workers and supporting the health of, you know, the soil? And like what, what is it that they can do-- is that the purchasing power that food banks may have to actually bring you a return for that otherwise, you know, sort of wasted or donated product? Is there a programmatic Opportunity for Community Food Bank to learn from you about the ways in which you're operating your business, and how that community impact and community organizing that those workers are doing to improve their lives? You know, what, what is the exchange, do you think, in the future?

Alex:

Yeah, that's a big question. For sure. You know, and I think it's a multi, there's a multifaceted answer to that, you know. I think they're probably, for one, again, I'm a firm believer in giving people information and having them decide for themselves. I again, I've had the opportunity, I've been very blessed with being able to talk to a lot of different people from all walks of life, from holding meetings to a whole team of produce managers for a retailer talking about fair trade, to just the regular consumer that stops me, you know, in the grocery aisle, we have a, we have a conversation. So I'm a firm believer in letting people, giving information. So I think also if there could be a better job maybe in providing information at the food bank level, again, where produce meets people, providing them like, Here you go, Hey, do you know that where this comes from? Do you know, here's a quick, you know, or check this link out or something? I think is big also. I think what I just touched on is, in order to save all this food from going to waste,

Alex:

they're going right into, back into the ground being tilled right under. I think if there could be bigger cooperation between food banks and farms direct, is a big step. Because even though-- again, for me, for example, just talking about myself, if, if I could save maybe half of that 60% that I can go to food banks, and even if they do purchase, even if this is a, it's at cost, if I'm, if I as a middleman, I'm not earning anything, it's fine. But as long as there's some sort of return to the farm, to the farm worker at cost, just so that you're able to plant the next year, have enough, you know, that you don't have to worry about that little 30%. That's huge. That's that's a major win for everybody. So I think if we can get to that, you know, really close, close, working relationship between food banks and producers, direct producers, I think that would go a long way to solving this issue.

Hannah:

Well, I think Community Food Bank and Robert Ojeda and Dana Yost are going to be extremely excited to hear this bonus episode of What Is American Food with Iris Montano and Alex Madrigal, of Covilli Brands Organic, especially because as they're developing and sort of evolving and transforming their program, they're really looking at how they can become better partners, to the farms that are ultimately growing the food that they're rescuing. And we're talking about 100 million pounds over the course of the last three years that Community Food Bank has rescued. So changing sourcing practices towards that sort of an equity lens sourcing, in which they're able to directly support the fair trade practices by getting you a return to support the programs that, that you're upholding. And the people that you're uplifting with how you're doing business, I think is an incredible, an incredible goal. And I'm going to give you the last word, Iris, as we close up today.

Iris:

Well, again, I would like to highlight the importance of the topics that you're touching on. It's very critical for people to understand more, more so than we think, where our food comes from, and, and why. You know, like you were saying, we-- some people are biased into not buying Mexican produce, also because they feel that they need to support local, but the truth is that we are, we are binded. And we supply most of what, of what is not produced in the US during the winter months. And one last thing that I would like to mention is that we are expanding our vision. And we have just recently opened up Covilli Mexico, with the idea of also distributing in Mexico. Finally the Mexican market has-- it has-- they have been looking for it for a while. But logistically it was also, it has also been a challenge. But we are becoming, we're aimed at becoming the main distributor in Mexico for organics and also looking into bringing fair trade into Mexico, so that you know, everybody partakes in this notion of knowing and, and willingly supporting the farmworkers that do the everyday hard work that puts food on our plates.

Hannah:

Thank you so much for feeding the US, and thank you so much for feeding Mexico. It is at our local Blue Hill Co-Op in downeast Maine that I can enjoy Covilli Brand Organics squash and heirloom tomatoes. And so it's a beautiful, beautiful product, and I love having it in my home. And I very much love having the backstory to why we're so lucky to have this product in the winter months in our communities. So thank you both so much.

Alex:

Thank you, Hannah.

Iris:

Thank you.

Ali:

That was Iris Montano and Alex Madrigal of Covilli Brand Organics with Hannah Semler, my co-host for What is American Food. And I'm Ali Berlow. Thank you for listening to Alex and Iris tell their story. It was a brief and mighty discussion. We are grateful to have opened up this space for such important topics, shedding light on all the different farming and food production methods, whether we see them or not. They're a part of our daily lives, our daily choices, helping us understand the impact we create for millions of people along the supply chain with the food we choose to eat or not eat every day. You can download this episode from your favorite podcast player and off our website at What Is American Food dot com. We hope you'll listen to all our episodes, and we'd love to hear what you think. So leave us a review. It helps other listeners find us too. This podcast is funded by the Betsy and Jesse Fink Family Foundation with production support by Melody Rowell. Check back because soon we'll be dropping our next deep dive series focused on the nonprofit, Red Tomato. Stay in touch, sign up to get our newsletter, and have a peaceful day. Thanks.