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Happy World Fair Trade Day

Today is World Fair Trade Day.  I’ve been meaning to write a post about fair trade for some time now.


Vanilla flower, by Russian in Brazil on Flickr


A couple of years ago I met a wonderful woman, who inspired me very much with her stories of the vanilla growers around the world.  Much as the small coffee, sugar cane, tea, and cocoa growers struggle against corporate giants, so too, do the vanilla workers.


And there is another battle the vanilla growers fight:  the battle against synthetic vanilla flavoring.  Did you know that most of vanilla “flavoring” is not vanilla, but synthesized chemicals from a laboratory?  Check the label:  if the label says “vanillin,” it is likely synthetic.  And if it is an imported bottle, unless it is at least $20 and is 35% alcohol, it is probably synthetic or at least partially so – regardless of what the label says.


Hand Pollinating a Vanilla Orchid, uploaded by glowingz on Flickr


It takes 3 years before a vanilla vine is mature enough to produce a vanilla bean.  Once a flower forms, it must be hand pollinated within a few hours of opening, and then the bean sits on the vine for 9 months before it is ready to be picked!  Once picked, it must go through a curing, drying, and resting process which gives it its rich flavor and aroma.


Vanilla Grading, by World Resources Institute Staff on Flickr


Small vanilla growers care deeply for the vines, the earth, and the rain forests in which the vanilla grows.  And yet often they don’t earn enough money to adequately feed and clothe their families, pay for schooling for their children, nor have access to basic medical care.


Patricia Rain with Vanilla Growers in Tahiti, courtesy of


In 2005, Patricia Rain nearly single-handedly created a distribution and information network of thousands of vanilla growers around the world, to help empower them.  She has persevered in her work, despite cancer that has hit her body more than once, and works against the odds to do whatever she can for the growers: helping create strategies for marketing their crops – including creating an online distribution hub, navigating Fair Trade and organic certification, and creating a united position for fair wages and the opportunity for better lives for vanilla farmers and their families. Many call Patricia “The Vanilla Queen”.


But Patricia would be upset with me if I made this post about her.  Because it is not about her, it is about the vanilla growers and their ability to change their own industry for the better.   And it is about you and I, who have the power to help them:  we can help each of the vanilla, coffee, tea, cocoa, and sugar growers around the world – simply by be conscious of our buying choices.


Juanita Family Courtesy of TransFair USA


It is worth it to buy Fair Trade, organically grown products because we are all in this one world together.  Fair Trade reflects the true cost of a product, so that the people that grow and cure the crops are able to live a decent, happy life.


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8 comments to Happy World Fair Trade Day

  • What a lovely tribute to vanilla farmers and the hard work of Patricia Rain. I didn’t know all that was involved in one single vanilla bean but do support fair trade and organic, as you know.

    Fair Trade has come under fire in recent months again that it doesn’t adequately protect the workers but I think it’s a good start and we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water, so to speak, or just give up because it’s not perfect. It’s at least better and the Fair Trade label, like the Organic label, does mean something.

    Thanks for the post!

  • Rob

    I always try to find fair trade products- never knew about vanilla though. My mom always laughs at the chefs on Food Network when they say “Use good vanilla” but nice to know there is a reason.

  • Thank you for the insight into vanilla. I never knew – though I do always buy the fair trade, organic vanilla. I figure, if they sell it fair trade, there must be a reason why. Now I know.

  • Great post! I make my own vanilla extract by soaking a vanilla bean in vodka. It is so good! I wouldn’t think of going back to buying vanilla extract.

  • monica

    Thanks for the great post. We tend to forget about all of the things it takes to produce the things we so often take for granted. As our economy continues to fall apart, I am thinking very carefully about what I buy and where it has come from–coffee, sugar, teas, meat and grain, fruit & vegetables. How much of it is grown in a way that if I KNEW how it was made–Would I still buy it???? Our family is very close to becoming vegetarian, just for the simple fact that the meat is not grown in a healthy manner.

  • monica

    I forgot to mention that the chickens are about six weeks from laying eggs.

  • [...] can then serve this over vanilla ice cream (fair trade of course) or creme fraiche.  Or you can use it as a sweet, tangy sauce for tofu, chicken, or [...]

  • great tribute… i think its very important to purchase fair trade products… these people live a honest living…

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