Camino and the Kootenay Co-op in Peru

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One year ago, Camino took their customers and investors to live and work with the cocoa farmer owners of AGOPAGRO Co-operative in San Martin, Peru. Shannon McAllister of Kootenay Co-op talks about her experience in this interview with Camino below.

What was most surprising thing you learned from living and working with cocoa farmers?

I think the most surprising and humbling thing that I learned from living and working with cocoa farmers while in Peru was seeing how tirelessly they worked for an intangible end result – a product they can’t afford to consume and don’t often get to even see. Many of the farmers got to taste a chocolate bar for the first time because you brought them some Camino bars to try! Seeing their excitement at understanding what their products turn into and them discovering that people from way up in the United States and Canada eat and LOVE what their crops turn into as a product was pretty cool.

I also really loved experiencing the process from start to finish – from planting and grafting trees, to harvesting the cacao pods, to processing, fermenting, and drying the beans, then sending the beans to the quality inspection lab, then shipping them out to production facilities, etc. It was impressive to see how rigorous their processes are from start to finish. I now understand and appreciate how tightly they must control each step in the process to ensure proper handling, processing, and labelling of the beans to meet the strictly regulated certification standards (organic and fair trade, for example). One small mistake anywhere in the process can be very costly for farmers.

Finally, and this wasn’t really a surprise, but it was so amazing to see the pure joy and happiness of the farmers when we pulled up to their town and they were all waiting and cheering for us. They danced us through town, fed us lunch, showed us around, kept us busy, and threw a big party. The youth danced, the food was fantastic, and the people were so, so kind. I dearly hope to learn Spanish and travel back to Peru and Shepte again someday.

Your co-op ran an essay contest to select the person to travel. What motivated you to write for that?

Oooh, a few things! Firstly, Peru has been high on my want-to-see list for a few years so the thought of winning a trip there seemed epic, especially with an awesome organization like Camino. Secondly, I am fairly passionate about fair trade products. Camino’s Chili & Spice Hot Chocolate was actually the first fair trade product I ever purchased, so that in itself seemed serendipitous. Thirdly, I thought it would be neat to research and learn more about the organic and fair trade farming process for cacao, a product that I have consumed plenty of throughout my life and admittedly given very little thought to. Finally, I enjoy writing, so it was a fun contest for me.

Side note: it was also quite inspiring to read the other essays written by my amazing, intelligent, and thoughtful coworkers. I was truly very surprised (and appreciative) to have won the contest.

It was a year of travel for you — not just Peru but Spain and the Philippines as well. How have those experiences shaped your approach to work at Kootenay Co-op?

Whew, you said it! It was a BIG year of travel for me – three international trips! Yowza. I think more than anything, those experiences have increased my gratitude and appreciation for working for an organization like the Kootenay Co-op. The further I travelled, the more I understood how unusual and fantastic our member-owned natural foods co-operative store is. It’s a gem of a place, with such huge community support for our mission, vision, and values.

As an employee, to say I believe in what we stand for, what we do, and how we do it, is kind of awesome. For one quick example, we have a Buying Committee – which is a committee made up of our buyers and management team who meet regularly and are dedicated to upholding our strict buying guidelines by researching and investigating each ingredient, supplier, or producer that we bring into our store. The comfort that provides me while shopping cannot be undervalued! I trust that they are doing the work to make my shopping easier.

In my role, working in Human Resources, a big part of my job is focused on our people and making the Co-op a great place to work, which I love and am very passionate about. I am always in awe of the vastness and depth of talent, skill, and intelligence of our employees. It inspires me to work hard. The travel I’ve done this last year has definitely made me appreciate this even more.

How many people work at the Co-op and how many members does the co-op have?

We currently employ about 175 people here at the Co-op, which makes us one of the largest employers in the region. At last count, the Co-op has over 12,000 active member-owners. Which is especially amazing for a city with a population of just over 10,000 people!

Which is your favorite Camino chocolate bar?

Is this even a fair question? Okay, okay, okay. I’ll give you my top five.

  1. Dark 55% – pure, delicious, always a good choice.
  2. Salted Caramel Crunch w/ dark chocolate – sweet, salty, and savoury all in one!
  3. Mint w/dark chocolate – who doesn’t like a really nice mint chocolate combo? Seriously, who?
  4. Raspberries w/dark chocolate – I find myself buying this more and more often to satisfy my afternoon craving for something that’s sweet but not TOO sweet, as so often fruit and chocolate can end up being. I think this one is perfectly balanced.
  5. Almonds w/dark chocolate – I just love nuts and chocolate together so this is my go-to choice. Simple and satisfying, every time.