Weathering the Storm: spices, stop-gaps and long-term organic partnerships

Today's low prices are tomorrow's shortage, and the day after tomorrow's high prices are overproduction and, therefore, low prices. The cycle goes on and on – but we can commit to a better way

The flavour foundation of most Asian cooking, ginger and turmeric have become ubiquitous ingredients here in the UK, ever-present in the fresh produce aisles – or they were before the perfect storm hit our supply chain. 

Consumers are becoming increasingly familiar with the realities of food insecurity. The weekly groceries shop impacted by a global pandemic, Brexit, the Ukraine war, changing weather patterns leading to harvest shortfalls and farmers squeezed to breaking point – all of which have created enormous challenges that are driving up prices and contributing to global shortages in everything from salad crops and fresh veg, to eggs and olive oil. 

At Riverford Organic Farmers, it’s Lee Martindale’s job as Supply Chain Manager to not only anticipate shortfalls before they happen, but to find sustainable solutions when they do. 

“We don’t operate kneejerk, stopgap measures at Riverford – if a supplier has issues with harvest shortfalls or poor quality due to factors out of their control, we don’t cut ties and go off to find someone to replace them. Every single farmer and producer we work with right now is having a tougher time for a number of interconnected reasons and it’s part of our long-term responsibility not only to them, but to our customer who trusts us to deliver food that’s grown organically by people who are treated and paid fairly, to help them weather that storm,” says Lee. 

With ginger and turmeric, consumers who source from other shops or supermarkets may well find that their roots arrive dry and fibrous, lacking in flavour or freshness, while increased demand and lower availability also lead to inflated prices for poorer produce. It’s a lose-lose situation.

This is a vicious cycle that Riverford steadfastly avoids, choosing instead, to be honest about produce shortfalls and harvest challenges. “We’re quite unusual in that we would rather not sell something at all for a period of time rather than sell the same things that others are selling, at a quality we’re not happy with, or from producers who don’t meet our standards. Unfortunately, this does sometimes mean that our customers may have to look elsewhere for that item, but it may not be organic or of the quality we’d expect.”

Riverford’s ginger and turmeric are sourced by La Grama in Peru, founded in 2006, by three former organic inspectors. They spent two years travelling around rural Latin America to certify extremely diverse farms, from small-scale quinoa farmers in the highlands, to large banana-growing multinationals in Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. This experience heightened their awareness of the need to support small-scale farmers and impoverished agricultural communities – and they created La Grama to do just that.

Riverford’s main crop from La Grama is fresh, spicy ginger roots. “Ginger is an annual crop,” co-founder Diego del Solar says. “In Peru, it is planted in September. The first shipments by sea to Europe are ready in late June, when the ginger is mature enough to hold during the three-week journey.”

“The issue with ginger and many other export crops grown by small-scale farmers in underdeveloped countries is much more nuanced than the price paid to the growers at the farm gate,” adds La Grama co-founder, Rodrigo Bedoya. “Most retail procurement buyers’ driver is exclusively low prices. They don’t see reality, or they don’t want to see it. Only certificates on paper and ticking the boxes of their compliance systems while sitting at a desk matter.”

The cycle goes on and on, and nobody ever complies with their fixed volume, fixed price programs. La Grama co-founder, Rodrigo Bedoya

In 2023, Rodrigo posted the following about the situation ginger growers found themselves in: “Heavy rains, mudslides, floods, and political crises ripped through Peru at the time of the year with short ginger supplies and low quality. Peru’s supply chain has innumerable difficulties due to the lack of roads and infrastructure. On top of that, the Chinese ginger season started with low volumes and very high prices. Importers call Peru from every corner of the world, asking for ginger every day.”

Speaking to him today, Rodrigo had this to add: ‘In September 2022, prices had been so low for two years that most growers decided not to plant ginger or planted much smaller areas. Less planting led to the low volumes available in the season that started in June 2023 and is finishing now, two months earlier than usual. The low volumes led to very high prices. Now due to the high prices, a lot of ginger will be planted in September 2024. That will lead to overproduction and extremely low prices, and the cycle will repeat itself.”

“In Peru, it is mandatory by law to provide health insurance, a retirement pension fund, paid vacations, overtime payments, and a share of the company’s profits to every worker in the produce industry,” says Diego. “Despite this requirement, seven out of 10 people in Peru are not classed as ‘officially’ employed, and in the agriculture sector, this number rises to 9.2 out of 10. If we consider that labour costs represent approximately 20 percent of the cost of a box of ginger, it is clear how following the official route impacts costs.”

“Unfortunately, in Peru pesticides that are forbidden in Europe or the US are still being used, especially by small scale farmers who haven’t received a good education and are often tricked by salesmen into using them,” says Diego. “Teaching these farmers to grow their crops organically not only protects them, their families and the environment from toxic pesticides, but also makes them less dependable on external farming inputs, use cheaper local resources and therefore make their farms more sustainable.”

“Additionally, organic farming has given them the opportunity to access international markets that value organic (compared to the local market where organic consumption is still insignificant), and therefore get better prices to invest not only in their farms, but in their families and improving their quality of life.

Rodrigo concludes, “Riverford stands out as one of the very few companies committed to doing the right thing: they deeply understand and transparently share the origins of their products. Rather than offering mere narratives or certificates, they are dedicated to revealing the true essence of their offerings. We are immensely proud and grateful to be included in their exceptional assortment.”

Learn more about La Grama


3 Comments

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  1. So, do we hope to have good, organic ginger available again late June/early July, allowing for the sea voyage etc? I will try to remember to freeze some when next available, to even out any future gaps. Better frozen chemical and slavery-nation free, than fresh toxic and morally toxic.

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  2. If you have any ginger left from previous orders, it’s possible to grow your own from the little buds that appear on ginger that you forgot at the back of the larder 🙂 It takes a while, but it will give you something to anticipate while we wait for the ginger from Peru to recover and reappear 🙂

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