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How Single-Origin Spices Bring Far-Flung Farmers to Your Kitchen Table

Here's how Burlap & Barrel is changing the spice industry for the better.

Written by
Brightly Staff

For most of us, spices are a way to add a bit of kick to our tried and true recipes. But for Ethan Frisch, co-founder of Burlap & Barrel, spices are a way to connect with thoughtful farmers around the world. Importing only the freshest single-origin spices, Burlap & Barrel is creating a new supply chain for specialty producers to get their crops into the US market. 

How Burlap & Barrel Came to Be

Founded in 2016, Burlap & Barrel is a single-origin spice company. It works directly with farmers in over a dozen different countries and helps them export their crops for the first time. The company’s goal is to bring high-quality, specialty spices to the US in this new partner farmer format. 

Ethan and his co-founder, Ori Zohar, previously had an activist ice cream cart where they sold flavors inspired by revolutions. They closed their ice cream cart in 2010 when Ethan moved to London to study International Development. 

After graduate school, Ethan moved to Afghanistan to work for a non-profit organization. This is where he first realized that farmers worldwide were growing incredible spice crops but were only receiving a fraction of the market value. He founded Burlap & Barrel to change that system. 

Why Burlap & Barrel is a Public Benefit Corporation

Ethan's company is unique not only because of what they do for farmers—but it’s also a public benefit corporation. Unlike the 3rd-party B-Corp certification, “public benefit corporation” is a legal status that affects how a company functions. 

Although corporations always value profits over anything else, public benefit corporations have a secondary value system that is legally binding. In the case of Burlap & Barrel, its public benefit is connecting small farmers with high-value markets. 

Ethan says, “we could potentially be sued if somebody felt like we weren't upholding our public benefit. So it has teeth to it.” 

How the Normal Spice Trade Works

Traditionally, farmers sell their spice crops to a middleman. Often, this is just a truck driver who passes by a couple of times a week during the harvest season. 

The truck driver might sell the crop to someone with a small warehouse, who sells to a bigger warehouse, who sells to an even bigger warehouse until finally, the spices are ready for exportation. 

At this point, the spices might be several years old. Once imported into the United States, the spices get distributed and sold to multiple spice companies.

In the end, consumers get an old, low-quality product. It also means that the farmers get the least amount of compensation for their work out of everyone. The only people who benefit from this supply chain are the countless middlemen. 

What Burlap & Barrel Does Differently

Burlap & Barrel works directly with hand-picked farmers. The spices they sell are single-origin, a popular concept for other food commodities like chocolate, tea, wine, and olive oil. Burlap & Barrel is the first company to apply this idea to the spice trade. 

“The spices come from a specific place...The message behind it is not just that spices came from this one place. We as a company have decided out of all of the places in the world that we could be sourcing our black pepper, our cinnamon, turmeric. It’s from this place because it's so special when it's grown in that environment in that climate by a farmer who is using the particular techniques that might be local to that area,” says Ethan. 

Where the Best Single-Origin Spices Come From

Spices are just like coffee, chocolate, tea, olive oil, wine, or any other specialty, single-origin crop. Just like France and Oregon are known for incredible Pinot Noir and Costa Rica is known for coffee, each spice Burlap & Barrel sells is tied to a specific place. 

With Ethan’s experience in Afghanistan, they started importing the Badakhshan region’s best cumin. Next, the company connected with a spice cooperative in Zanzibar, Tanzania, and added nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and black pepper to their catalog. 

Today, they sell cardamon from Guatemala, paprika from Spain, sumac from Turkey, and garlic from Vietnam, among others. 

How Burlap & Barrel Determines The Price of Their Single-Origin Spices

Ethan sees Burlap & Barrel as the sales arm of each partner farmer’s agricultural operation. They work with each farmer directly to come to a fair price for their crops, including openly discussing production costs on both sides. 

For example, Ethan will show a farmer the jars, labels, packaging, and shipping costs Burlap & Barrel has. The farmer will explain the cost of raw materials, seasonal labor, water, and fertilizer associated with growing the spice crop. Somewhere in the middle, they will come to a number that gives both parties a comfortable and fair profit margin. 

Why Burlap & Barrel's Single-Origin Spices Aren't Fairtrade Certified

Although the fairtrade model works for many different farmers and artisans, Burlap & Barrel does not partner with fairtrade certified farmers. 

There are a couple of different reasons for this. The fairtrade model requires a community fund, which companies pay into on top of paying for the crop. Burlap & Barrel prefers to pay the farmers that extra money directly. 

Additionally, fairtrade certification sets a standard price for commodities. For example, the fairtrade price of turmeric in India is $1 per kilo. Burlap & Barrel can pay their partner farmer $6 per kilo because of his high-quality crop and because the company isn’t tied to the fairtrade model. 

How to Cook With New-to-You Spices

Expanding your cooking horizons can be daunting, especially if you’ve never tasted a single-origin spice before. 

You can start by joining Burlap & Barrel’s Spice Forum on Facebook, where thousands of home cooks share their creations. Some of their partner farmers are in the group, too, so that they can see how consumers are utilizing their crops. 

Next, try cooking your favorite dish that you know and love, but with a twist: add a new spice to it. Ethan says that's the easiest way that he’s “found to really understand how that particular spice is going to change the flavor of a finished dish.” 

You can also try recipes that are specific to a spice’s region or country of origin. Using cookbooks or recipes that specialize in a particular region will help you understand the area’s spices. 

Lastly, Ethan recommends keeping a new spice out on the counter. That way, you can use it frequently and learn how it changes the dishes you love.

What Spice-Loving Consumers Should Look For

If you want ethically-sourced and high-quality spices, start looking for labels that disclose the country of origin, and make sure that only one is listed. Even better, look for brands that reveal a more specific region or location, the harvest date, month, season, and even the farmer’s name. 

Ethan says that “the farmers who are growing things the right way—growing organically, growing regeneratively, paying their seasonal labor fair wages—the farmers who were thinking about those questions, in every case have also thought about quality.

They tend to be the people who are growing heirloom varieties because they want to preserve those varieties. They're growing organically not just because they think it's the right thing to do, but because the flavor of the crops that they grow is better.”

Above all, it’s essential to consider where your ingredients come from, and if you want to support the supply chain that brought them to you. Taking time to read labels and understand your food’s root origin makes all the difference for you and producers worldwide.