An Ethical Approach to Agriculture: Beyond Organic & Fair-trade
When Terry Poiriez founded Covilli Brand Organics, he had a simple vision—take no shortcuts and do things right. Long before the world had caught on to the benefits of organic produce, Terry and his co-founders, Ernesto Moreno and Susan Solis, were growing great food, free of harmful pesticides, chemicals, additives and genetic modification. They did it because they knew that it was the right thing to do for consumers, farmworkers and the planet.
Mission To transform the food paradigm by uniting families, farms & communities through life-enriching experiences, fairly grown and traded organic food
Vision Equitable, organic food systems for healthy people and a healthy planet
Core Values Transparency, integrity, family, quality, boldness, grittiness, efficiency and empathetic service
Fun Fact Covilli is the maiden name of Terry’s mother, Clara Covilli
In the 1970’s Terry Poiriez, Susan Solis (husband and wife) and Ernesto Moreno, started Agricola Omega in Mexicali and Circle Produce in Calexico. This conventional farming operation grew winter vegetables for the USA/Canadian markets. They were one of the first producers to do so on a large scale. Today this conventional operation continues and is marketed through Desert Pacific Growers, which is owned and operated by Terry’s stepson Alex Madrigal and partners.
A few years prior to the birth of Covilli Brand Organics, the organic movement had just been making its way onto the produce scene and the partners knew it was time to transition into organics. The Guaymas area of Mexico was known to be fertile, far enough away from large scale producers and perfect to establish a new organic farming operation. Terry’s personal interest in organics began to peak in the 1980’s when he lost his father to cancer. It was a natural next step for the family and for the farm.
In 1992, the trio took the leap into organic agriculture and into the blazing Sonora desert, next to the brilliant blue Sea of Cortez in Guaymas. With that, Agricola Ciari was born. The hot and arid conditions proved perfect for growing organic winter vegetables and for creating a family business that would continue to grow into the conscientious agricultural company it is today.
The original 400 acres (six of which were protected growing structures), located in the Empalme Valley on the southwest coast of Sonora, have grown into over 2,000 thriving acres of open fields and over 67 acres of greenhouses. About 1,200 acres are in active production at any given time and farmed under intensive crop rotation programs. The rest of the total acreage is left fallow, with some used for pest and erosion control by encouraging natural habitats. Covilli’s growing season at Agricola Ciari is short: October through March. The remainder of the year is too hot for production.
Covilli’s agricultural practices and standards go beyond organic regulation and encompass a much more holistic approach to farming. This approach takes into consideration the people that work in and around the farmlands. Sustainability and environmental stewardship are intrinsic values of what Covilli considers organic. At the core of Covilli’s farming philosophy is regenerative organic farming, which not only prioritizes soil health but is comprised of farm systems that work in harmony with nature to improve quality of life for all living creatures. Regenerative organic farming builds off basic organic and sustainable systems and goes well beyond them.
The highly detailed crop rotation program in Covilli’s regenerative program helps increase soil fertility and build soil health. It combats pests, reduces erosion, increases soil nutrients/soil structure, conserves water and boosts yields. This also aids in the mitigation of climate change—a hard to deny obstacle of farming today.
The farm has a very intricate longstanding compost and soil building program, in which they make all of their own compost. No outside compost is purchased or brought in. The compost is used to both fertilize the crops and also to create soil for the nursery, where only organic seed is used and almost every plant grown on the farm gets started.
Onsite permanent beehives house bumblebees that pollinate crops. In particular, tomatoes and peppers have greater success with what’s called buzz pollination, a particular vibration used by bumblebees that is helpful when pollinating the downward pointing flowers of tomatoes and peppers. Bumblebees can unhinge their wings and vibrate their entire bodies. When they do this, the flowers explosively release pollen.
Covilli has been 100 percent organic since the onset, and today is the only 100 percent organic and 100 percent fair-trade fresh produce operation in North America. Their practices and philosophies go far deeper than is required.
Over 85 percent of Covilli’s seasonal labor force is migratory, and the other 15 percent come from the surrounding area. Diverse indigenous communities make up the majority of the labor force. This can be challenging, but since the company’s onset there has been purposeful intent to improve worker conditions and satisfaction.
As one of the first growers in the Empalme Valley, Covilli took great care to create a family business that was socially and environmentally responsible. They continually reinvest in the community. Covilli has proven that ethical business models work, even in the complicated marketplace of today where too often register price is valued over farmworker well-being and the environment. Worker well-being is woven into the Covilli fabric.
Terry comes from a French/Italian immigrant family, all of whom worked in the Midwest coalmines from a young age. He never owned a new pair of shoes until he was old enough to work and buy his own. He put himself through school by way of the military, with the desire to give back any success he earned. Alongside his wife Susan, he built the family companies. His sincere empathy and compassion came from living on the other side. He could understand the complexity of need, without judgment. Terry passed in 2014.
Susan was born caring for others. The second of sixteen children, she worked from a very young age at home and at church. During high school, she picked up miscellaneous jobs. After two years of junior college, she dropped out to work full-time to support her family. Growing up, vacations consisted of driving to Fresno to work the fields among relatives. It was normal to wake up at 2 am to make flour tortillas, breakfast and lunches for everyone in time for 5 am departures. Susan is known for her generosity of heart. This is exemplified by countless stories such as getting a list of every single farmworkers’ children by name and age and picking out Christmas gifts for each child specifically. Susan is now retired and continues to live in Calexico, California.
Ernesto has been farming since he was 20 years old. Terry and Ernesto met early on in Mexicali. They partnered up initially with the conventional farms and then later with Covilli Brand Organics. Ernesto has been heading farming operations ever since. He is pivotal in Covilli’s successful output of high-quality vegetables. In the beginning, Ernesto was the farmer and Terry ran sales and books. Eventually the two became equals where they picked up the skills the other originally lacked. The skills and viewpoint that each brought to the table complimented each other, and the outcome was quality and efficiency. Ernesto continues to oversee the farming operations but is slowly handing the reigns to younger generations who have worked alongside the team for many years.
The trio’s compassion for others, including their workers, was always quiet, behind the scenes. The “fair-trade” concept was always working its magic, even before there was a name and certification for it.
Today, Covilli’s farm, Agricola Ciari in Guaymas, Mexico, grows the Covilli brand’s core items (warm weather crops) in multiple varietals: tomatoes, zucchini, summer squash, green beans, peppers, peas, cucumbers and brussels sprouts. All of these crops and the farm are certified organic and fair-trade.
Covilli’s popularity among retailers has attracted farmers from all over Mexico as well as locally in Arizona, where the company is headquartered. These farmers want and need help to achieve the holistic balance that Covilli works to achieve in Guaymas—producing and distributing high-quality, safe crops profitably, while prioritizing giving back to the farming communities. This attraction has led Covilli down a path of cooperative expansion, extending their “service-oriented” approach to sustainable agriculture. This allows them to make meaningful and substantial impact on other growers and communities throughout Mexico. Expansion would not be possible without the retailers and consumers asking for more long-season, year-round, ethical, organic and fair-trade offerings, and the Covilli brand.
A few of the new burgeoning partnerships and commodities include:
- Organic Pineapple: Yucatan & Veracruz
- Organic Limes & Lemons: Yucatan, Veracruz, Sinaloa
- Organic Apples: Wilcox, Arizona
- Organic Oranges: Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico
- Organic Dragon Fruit: Guaymas (coming soon)
All of Covilli’s new projects are set up as long-term partnerships and/or stake partnerships. These are either set in motion for fair-trade certification or currently in the process of certification with Fair Trade Certified™ (Fair Trade USA). All Covilli and affiliated farms are recognized with the highest possible food safety ratings and certifications in addition to USDA Organic Certification.
The Covilli Community
The dusty desert that encircles Guaymas on all sides is demographically diverse. The majority of workforce for the area are low-income, migratory and indigenous. About 85 percent of Covilli’s workforce is migratory, most hailing from Mexico’s poorest states, Guerrero or Chiapas. These states have significant numbers of indigenous populations who are extremely marginalized.
The two main indigenous groups that make up Covilli’s migratory work force are the Mixtecos and the Nahuas. Both of these indigenous groups speak many variants and dialects of the ancient Uto-Aztec language. The workforce comes from many different municipalities throughout Guerrero and Chiapas. The Nàhuatl language is the most common language spoken by Covilli’s workforce, but it’s important to note that many different dialects and languages are spoken. The Nàhuatl language has been spoken since before the 7th century; it was considered the first language of the Aztecs. Today, Nàhuatl is the most spoken indigenous language in Mexico, with an immense amount of dialectical variation. Many of the signs at Agricola Ciari—signs that are common at commercial farming operations and most often mandatory for the organic, fair-trade and food-safety certifications—are written in Spanish and Nàhuatl. This aids in workforce understandings. Managing a workforce that speaks several different dialects of an ancient language is challenging, as is the migratory nature of it.
Most of the migratory workers return year after year, often bringing more family and friends with them. Covilli has seen generation after generation return and excel at their work. For example, Fermin, originally from Guerrero, has been working at Covilli for the last fifteen years, and he has been foreman for the past four. Now his adult son is part of the team, as well. This is rare and speaks loudly for Covilli.
The farming jobs at Covilli tend to be more nuanced by nature, requiring well-developed skills and more detailed training, such as greenhouse tomato and pepper production typically does. It’s not uncommon for many in the migratory workforce, like Fermin, to return and rise up in skill and rank each season. This not only improves their own livelihoods and pride, but highlights a direct link between high-skilled, knowledgeable and prideful workers to higher quality crops and finished products.
Covilli understands that, to create high-quality, safe produce and build their family business, all the idiosyncrasies of the people that make up their workforce, must be considered. The spectrum of diversity, the challenges of poverty and oppression, and the lack of access to education and training, must all factor into the big picture. The holistic, circular nature of “what goes into each community, must come out” draws the bottom line for Covilli.
Covilli Ventures into Fair-trade
In its most simple definition, the focus of fair-trade is on the farmworker, not the product. The guarantee that all of Covilli’s workforce is treated fairly and justly, is founded upon a clear, detailed definition of what that means. This is then independently verified by fair-trade certification.
Covilli and Agricola Ciari are certified by Fair Trade USA and, thus, audited under Fair Trade USA’s Agricultural Production Standards. The process and standards are outlined here: Overview & Standard of Fair Trade Certified™. Fair Trade USA is a nonprofit working to promote sustainable livelihoods for small producers and workers in the agricultural sector, as well as other industries. All the while, the certification, verified by independent, third parties, includes protection of fragile ecosystems and building strong, transparent supply chains.
Fair Trade USA’s Agricultural Standards focus on continuous, long-term improvement to achieve superior social, economic and environmental practices. The Fair Trade Certified™ seal on Covilli products signifies that these rigorous standards have been met in the production, trade and promotion of Covilli’s fair-trade certified products. Regular evaluation by independent auditors ensures all requirements are met on an ongoing basis.
The main credos of the Fair Trade Certification™ are:
- Income Sustainability
- Individual & Community Well-being
- Environmental Stewardship
- Biodiversity, Ecosystem Function and Sustainable Production
- Traceability and Transparency
- Internal Management System
Covilli breaks the main fair-trade tenets down like this:
Worker Safety and well-being of the worker is separate from food safety. Worker safety offers farmworkers safe working conditions, proper training and fosters a safe atmosphere and culture. Optimal worker safety systems enable workers to feel safe in his or her surroundings at work.
Workers’ Rights ensures workers understand what they are getting paid and if their wage is fair, according to the hours they have worked. To ensure rights are met, workers must be made clear on how much they should work and have freedom of movement within their work. The tenet also ensures that child labor is prohibited.
Worker and Community Empowerment involves providing information, rewards and decision-making power so workers can take initiative to solve problems. Empowerment is based on the acquisition of skills, resources, authority, opportunity, motivation and accountability for the outcome of one’s actions. Continuous and self-initiated growth and change increases positive self-image and the overcoming of stigma.
Biodiversity, ecosystem function and sustainable production and promoting traceability and transparency in internal management systems are also main tenants of the Fair Trade Certified™ mark.
Covilli’s venture into fair-trade was a transition for which they were prepared. The company has never treated workers as transactional figures, and the tenets were already embedded in their mission and vision. Covilli saw the path into fair-trade certification as a crucial opportunity to learn more, improve and evolve their existing practices.
They learned that nurturing a workforce that felt safe and was empowered by knowledge of their rights and opportunities, took constant practice (especially with the nature of a migratory workforce). They have seen the process deliver expertise, knowledge, pride and happiness to their workers. Through it, a mutually beneficial relationship between employer and employees has emerged.
In an industry that has long neglected worker well-being and ethical, sustainable supply chains, Covilli leads with integrity. Ethical treatment of workers is the cornerstone of this integrity and the force behind the company’s all or nothing commitment to supplying 100 percent organic and fair-trade certified products.
The fair-trade certification process has advanced an agenda started by the Covilli family in 1992. Certification has expanded and authenticated this agenda with a system of accountability, supported by standards and oversight.
In 2015, Covilli Brand Organics and Agricola Ciari obtained Fair Trade Certified™ status from Fair Trade USA. This made Covilli the first (and only) completely organic and fair-trade grower/shipper/marketer in the USA and Canada. The certification process was, and continues to be, a long, expensive process, but the impact continues to grow at both the community and market level.
This all or nothing approach is not so much about the marketplace. It is more about doing the right thing at the farm level for the farmworkers. Terry’s vision for Covilli always involved doing the right thing no matter what. Almost 30 years later, that vision is as clear as ever. As more and more companies come under scrutiny for ethical sourcing, those like Covilli will continue to thrive, lead, learn and give back.
Roughly 20 months after obtaining Fair Trade Certification, Covilli’s farmworker association received over half a million dollars in Fair-trade Premiums, and today (almost three years later) has completed four major projects with almost one million dollars in premiums collected.
Fairtrade Premium Funds is the amount of money paid by the certificate holder/farm (in this case, Agricola Ciari), to the Fair Trade Community Fund, regardless of the final sale price of the product. Premium dollars for all Fair Trade Certified™ products are set by Fair Trade USA. The premiums are determined by pound, product, country of origin and whether the products are organic or conventional. Fair Trade USA conducts an in-depth analysis—assessing market prices, published pricing, partner polling and a deep dive into the nuances of prices per each commodity and categories listed above before setting prices.
When a farm first becomes Fair Trade Certified™, a legally recognized entity consisting of an organized body of workers is created. In the case of Covilli and Agricola Ciari, the workers formed a civil association. The name they chose for their association speaks volumes: “Nuchi Sansekan” is the indigenous native language of the majority, Nàhuatl, and means “All Together.”
Next a democratically elected and demographically fair body of representatives, called the Fair Trade Committee, is formed. Then, a Fair Trade Constitution is written and a Needs Assessment takes place. The Assessment identifies the social, economic and environmental development needs of the farmworkers. A Basic Needs Poll is conducted to determine the needs of the workers and their families, this helps prioritize spending. The poll also attempts to ascertain the “root cause” and “diagnosis” (which in turn informs a proposal for spending. In the case of Covilli’s Nuchi Sansekan, in-depth personal interviews were conducted with over 450 workers. The information collected by the Needs Assessment and Basic Needs Poll included the following categories, based on Fair Trade Certification requirements:
- Food Security
- Heath Services (Access)
- Heath (general health issues, chronic illness, mortality)
- Basic Services (potable and running water, bathrooms, etc.)
- Services available in other communities
- Gender Equality
Covilli Brand Organics/Agricola Ciari, along with the Fair Trade Committee, then analyzed the collected data (as obligated under certification rules) and concluded that health was a primary need of the workers and their families. The Fair Trade General Assembly and the committee then determined that the projects would be self-sustaining, or partially self-sustaining. This means they would generate income where possible to support this project and utilize future premiums for new developments.
The Fair Trade General Assembly (comprised of all Covilli farmworkers, since Covilli is 100 percent Fair Trade Certified™) agreed upon the following Fair Trade Community Projects for the Fairtrade Premium Funds:
- Medical Transportation Unit
- Health Center/Clinic
- Nutritional Meal Service
- Day Care Facility Upgrades
All of the initial Fairtrade Premium Community Projects, determined at the onset of Covilli’s Fairtrade Certification, have been completed. The committee is now moving onto the next phase of sustaining them and planning new ones.
Read more about each of the completed Fair Trade Projects in Covilli’s Fair Trade Community Projects 2017 Impact Report.
A Basic Needs Assessment happens every three years, and the General Assembly then designs a number of projects based on findings. Under the certification, Covilli is required to monitor, educate and assist the Committee and the General Assembly as needed. Covilli’s oversight of the process is also monitored to ensure the workers’ democratic rights are upheld.
The entire process is extremely detailed and takes significant time and energy. The difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that most of the workers do not have significant education or experience in business, financial management and other skills needed to manage large sums of money and sizeable projects. There is a considerable amount of cost involved in training, assistance and oversight absorbed by the certification holder—Covilli, in this case. These absorbed costs often get neglected when accounting for the anticipated cost of the certification process.
See the Fair Trade Certified™ glossary for more details on Fair Trade definition of terms.
Covilli continues to flourish in Guaymas and in their expansion, as they seek new outlets for learning and ways to improve on the original mission set in 1992.
In addition to Agricola Ciari, and the newer organic farming programs throughout Mexico and Arizona, Covilli has two USA centers of distribution, one in Nogales, Arizona, and the other in Pharr, Texas. The company headquarters is in the Nogales distribution center.
As Covilli Brand Organics shifts into the next phase of ethically-fueled development, new partnerships are being forged and a long-lasting sustainable business is being built. Along the way, better jobs and new opportunities for some of Mexico’s most marginalized workers are being created.
At the helm remains a powerful, family-oriented trio, much like when the company was founded. Alex Madrigal (stepson of Susan and Terry and President of the company), Iris Montaño Madrigal (wife of Alex and Director of Marketing & Communications) and Ernesto Moreno (original Co-founder and Head of Farming Operations) steer the company today.
Each of them contribute unique qualities that expand on the original vision, evolving with new generations and with time. The foundational characteristics of passion and compassion thrive in each of them, nourished and supported by Agricola Ciari’s Farm Director, José Miguel Ayala Quiles, and Sales Manager, Garland W. Hatfield III (and the many others that play a pivotal role as the company continues to grow and provide a decent, joyful life for all the 700+ family of employees in the USA & Mexico).
The future has no shortcuts.