Putting the farmer first in Bali

Organic producer Big Tree Farms puts Indonesia's salt producers in direct contact with buyers in the United States, boosting the returns for the farmers.

Sara Schonhardt
Bali sea salt ready to be packaged and shipped to gourmet markets in the US.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

The salt producers who toil on Bali’s black-sand beaches seem to have little in common with shoppers at US gourmet food markets, but a farm company here that bills itself as socially conscious is helping to connect the two.

Big Tree Farms, which started in 1999 as a small organic farm, is now one of Indonesia’s biggest certified organic producers. Its flagship products are cashews, coconut palm sugar, and cacao, but it is sea salt that transformed the company.

Cofounder Benjamin Ripple says Big Tree aims to balance economic development with ecological sustainability by relying on demand from consumers who are willing to spend more if they know their dollars support small farmers. Boxes of Big Tree’s sea salt, for instance, carry a $5 price tag, Mr. Ripple says.

Sea salt was once a golden commodity, but an influx of imports tainted the industry and decimated farmers’ wages and social standing. In parts of Bali, families now compete to sell their products to tourists, since sea salt is still disdained by local consumers. Big Tree pays their partner farmers double what most make in Bali by cutting out the middlemen and connecting farmers directly to the market.

“We try to break apart the entire supply chain and determine who can add value, and in doing so the farmer becomes the priority,” he says.

High-end retailer Williams-Sonoma remains a big buyer of Big Tree products, and so now is Whole Foods.

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