OPN recently caught up with Tropicals and Specialty Buyer Ken Yoder to learn all about Four Seasons' fair trade organic Haitian mango program.
Can you give us some background on the Haitian mango program?
The program is done in partnership with Tropic Trade who handles all of the business from Ralph Perry Import-Export in Haiti. Ralph Perry is the only exporter that is Fair Trade Certified and organic certified for the Haitian mango. Originally, the program started with Whole Foods, and after a few years, John Musser from Tropic Trade was looking to grow the program, so he reached out to me to see if we would be interested—and of course we definitely were! We've been doing it for four years now; this’ll be our fifth year.
Ken Yoder, Tropicals & Specialty Buyer, Four Seasons Produce
What is special about Haitian mangos in terms of their taste and quality?
We refer to them as Haitian mangos, but the variety itself is the Francique variety (or Francis in English). It looks very similar to an Ataulfo mango, which is yellow and a little bit more elongated as opposed to round. As the Francique ripens, it goes from a green to a bright yellow. It's the most juicy, most sweet variety of mango that we can get in the Eastern Hemisphere. As opposed to an Ataulfo, which is very smooth and creamy, the Francique is a little bit more stringy. But you're going to need a napkin if you bite right into one because it's so juicy that it’ll be dripping down your chin.
“Originally, the program started with Whole Foods, and after a few years, John Musser from Tropic Trade was looking to grow the program, so he reached out to me to see if we would be interested—and of course we definitely were!” -Ken Yoder
When are the Haitian mangos available?
The season typically runs from the middle of April to the middle of June—and sometimes it can go as late as July. Certainly, Haiti has fruit longer than that, but as the season progresses, it gets riper, and it's tougher to ship. Availability also depends on the weather—any kind of significant rain event can affect the crop pretty quickly.
How many mango growers are in the fair trade grower cooperative in Haiti?
There are 831 growers that are organized into 41 producer business groups (PBGs). The growers in each PBG vote on how they want to use the fair trade monies in their community or village.
What is the grower cooperative’s total acreage?
The cooperative doesn’t really go by acreage but by tree, and they currently have 9,832 certified trees. This was one of the most surprising things I learned during my visit to Haiti in 2018—that the ownership structure is organized literally down to the tree. The trees aren’t marked or anything, but the growers know whose tree is whose. When they harvest the trees, the owner (or someone who represents the owner) has to be there while the fruit is being picked, so they can count the mangos as they're being harvested.
“There are 831 growers that are organized into 41 producer business groups (PBGs). The growers in each PBG vote on how they want to use the fair trade monies in their community or village.” -Ken Yoder
What are the logistics like in terms of getting the mangos to Four Seasons?
The mangos are washed and palletized in Port-au-Prince and then put on a container that’s shipped to Miami—and typically that's just a two-day trip. Four Seasons has drivers down in Florida at least three times a week, and they bring the mangos north to us.
It takes such a tremendous effort for the growers to get their fruit to Port-au-Prince. It’s literally by cart and donkey for some people, while others have a pick-up truck. There've been times when they weren't able to ship because the dirt roads were flooded due to heavy rain, and they couldn't get the fruit to the packing house. The roads have also been blocked at times by riots and protests.
“The trees aren’t marked or anything, but the growers know whose tree is whose. When they harvest the trees, the owner (or someone who represents the owner) has to be there while the fruit is being picked, so they can count the mangos as they're being harvested.” -Ken Yoder
This program can definitely be really, really challenging, but it’s also super rewarding. I just can't stress enough how much it has opened my eyes to life in Haiti. And it’s so exciting to know the things that are done with the fair trade premiums that have improved the quality of life for the growers and their families and communities.
Are there any particular improvements that have been made with the fair trade funds that stand out to you?
A lot of times the biggest thing these communities need is wells—clean water. Large portions of their day would be spent walking miles to get clean water and bring it back. We don't think of that as a reality in the Eastern Hemisphere, but that was a reality for a lot of these villages.
One of the things that impacted me most was the heartbreaking story of an accident that occurred in a village that is built into the side of a steep hill. At one time, there was a worn path on the hill, and when it rained, the path turned to mud. There was a pregnant lady that slipped and fell and as a result ended up losing her baby. So the local PBG decided to use the fair trade money to put in cement steps so that the path would be much safer.
“This program can definitely be really, really challenging, but it’s also super rewarding.” -Ken Yoder
Where does Four Seasons distribute the Haitian mangos, and who are some of your major retail customers?
Four Seasons’ customer base is pretty broad, reaching on the East Coast as far down as North Carolina and as far up as Vermont. One of the biggest customers that we have is MOM’s Organic Market, and they are a huge supporter of the program. There are a bunch of co-ops that I could mention as well, including Flatbush Co-op, Park Slope Food Co-op, Honest Weight Co-op, and Lexington Co-op. And we also service the island of Bermuda. We send containers there twice a week, and they love the Francique mango and have been a big supporter of the program too.
What has the consumer response to the Haitian mango program been like?
The consumer response has been great—and the incremental business and sales have shown that. A lot of the customers at different co-ops and other stores have gotten behind the program, and they know when it's coming up on Haitian mango season. The eating quality speaks for itself, and the fact that the fair trade premiums are making a difference is just so exciting. This piece of fruit is so good, and it's doing so much good—a perfect combination!