Agricultural workers face many challenges in today’s labor schema, from low wages to unfair labor practices. Through the way it operates the business and its socially responsible initiatives, NatureSweet is making great strides in leveling the playing field. The company is on a mission to transform the lives of North American ag workers, and that is exactly what they are doing.
Founded in 1990, NatureSweet began as a San Antonio-based operation that built and sold greenhouses out of Divine, Texas. To demonstrate how successful its greenhouses were, the company decided to grow snacking tomatoes. As it turned out, they were really good tomatoes, and NatureSweet has operated as a snacking tomato company ever since. The company took its initiative one step further and decided it was going to do much more than grow and sell tomatoes; the company wanted to transform the lives of agricultural workers in North America. NatureSweet strives every day to:
1 – No Poverty
2 – No Hunger
3 – Good Health and Well-Being
4 – Quality Education
5 – Gender Equality
8 – Decent Work and Economic Growth
9 – Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
10 – Reduced Inequalities
17 – Partnerships for the Goals
- Be the groundbreaking leader of the produce industry through unleashing the power of people
- Serve as powerful partners with its associates to maximize effectiveness and ensure mutual success
- Create value through giving its customers and consumers products they want and trust. NatureSweet creates value by leaving all they touch better than they found it
- Remain committed to social values and preserve our planet’s resources for future generations
In addition to being one of the top producers and sellers of snacking tomatoes, NatureSweet has grown into a fully integrated company that now grows and sells peppers and cucumbers as well. The company also established a joint venture with a high-technology greenhouse grower in Mexico, which allowed it to expand its business while also translating its social responsibility initiatives over to the lives of its agricultural workers.
NatureSweet’s recognition and certifications include Non-GMO Project Verified, Equitable Food Initiative Certification (EFI; aligned with Ethical Charter), Fair Trade, American Chamber of Commerce Mexico, Safe Quality Food (SQF) Certification, Norm 035, and University of Arizona Collaboration.
NatureSweet understands that its success is only possible because of its associates and that, the more the company empowers its people, the greater success it will gain.
The challenge: A legacy of inequity
There are a number of pressures on farmworkers that can create inequity without intervention. One significant barrier to farm workers are cultural barriers, including language and education.
Additionally, because of the seasonality of the work, many of the communities where farm workers live are a long distance from their day-to-day work and educational institutions. With limited access to transportation, along with long hours and commutes, many farm workers complete only a few years of formal schooling with the average level being 8th grade.
Also, farmworkers often face discrimination, arduous work, acculturative stress, isolation, and lack of control of their social and environmental circumstances. These stressors can result in anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. Lastly, farm workers are not immune to the consumer difficulties in rising costs due to inflation, etc. Like all industries, agriculture must balance the wide-ranging differences between wage standards set at the federal and state/provincial levels, and provide incentives to attract and retain this in-demand workforce.
According to Rodolfo Spielmann, President and CEO of NatureSweet, there was a big “aha” moment. “If we want better quality and better productivity, we need to make sure that our Associates are committed to their work and are also rewarded for that work.”
The solution: An equitable landscape for all
With its commitment to EFI — an initiative created to ensure that workers are treated well, compensated fairly and engaged to ensure food is safer and responsibly grown — already in place, NatureSweet wanted to expand the cause. As a natural extension to this commitment, the company partnered with certain customers to implement the Fair Trade USA program. The program is progressive and is implemented over a span of six years and focuses on four Fair Trade USA Agricultural Production Standard (APS) impact goals:
- Income Sustainability
- Community and Individual Well-Being
- Environmental Stewardship
The APS drives these four impact goals through six thematic modules:
- Fundamental Rights at Work
- Wages, Working Conditions, and Accessibility
- Biodiversity, Ecosystem Function, and Sustainable Production
- Traceability and Transparency
- Internal Management System.
Prior to implementation, NatureSweet held discussions with key stakeholders in each facility (i.e., general manager, human capital manager, marketing, etc.) to understand what Fair Trade is, the implications of the portrait comparison (with approximately 70% overlap) with the EFI that was already in place and how to implement the added rigorous social, economic and environmental standards to ensure that all human rights are upheld in its business operations, including no child labor and inclusive diversity, etc.
According to Spielmann, “The reason we're doing Fair Trade and EFI is to hold us accountable to the highest possible bar, making sure we are not missing anything on treating our associates with the dignity they deserve.”
NatureSweet is committed to ensuring a living wage (on an equal scale) for its associates through a system called giving and demanding — the more quality work completed by each employee, the more compensation that the employee has the potential to earn. While employees earn weekly base compensation at or above minimum wage, they can also earn up to 300% in bonus compensation. Each worker’s bonus depends on their own productivity and quality of work.
Each associate’s performance is considered individually, and their compensation and bonuses are not dependent on the productivity of the whole facility or of fellow associates. Productivity is calculated based on their individual performance through an online tracking system that provides the opportunity for each associate to capture their efficiencies and be monitored and tracked by their coordinator.
As an example, a pre-harvest associate could be expected to complete pre-harvest tasks on at least two to five rows per day to receive the normal bonus, but if the associate completes more than five rows in a day, they receive an exponential bonus, which would be paid across all of what he/she did. A harvesting associate may be expected to harvest at least 8 to 11 pounds a day for which they receive a normal bonus. If the associate harvests more than 12 pounds in one day, they receive an exponential bonus.
“It starts by paying people well, so they have a stake in the work they are doing. After that, everything is a continual improvement,” says Spielmann.
But the fundamental perspective of giving and demanding reaches far beyond the compensation model. Through the Fair Trade Premium (an added sum paid by market partners to support community development projects), associates (Premium Participants) have the opportunity to positively impact their own well-being as well as that of local communities.
To facilitate the process, NatureSweet created a Board-led nonprofit organization that is managed by its associates, who oversee the use of the Fair Trade Premium funds, along with five committees that manage on a local level within each facility. The committees are democratically elected bodies (made up of associates voted in by their colleagues) that represent Premium projects, of which the associates are given voice to vote on how the Premium funds (well over $1 million per year) are spent based on a given community’s needs assessment: education, accommodation, food, and basic services.
NatureSweet educated associates on the impact of Fair Trade and their accountability within the program to make sure they understood why the company was committing to Fair Trade and the impact they have, as associates, given that each has the opportunity to vote on which project the funds are directed.
The takeaway: Happy and proud workers = company success
NatureSweet is in year one of the six-year Fair Trade implementation, and the benefits are already apparent. As part of the program, its farms and facilities are regularly evaluated by independent auditors to hold the company accountable and ensure the continuation of Fair Trade regulations, creating complete transparency in its efforts.
Aligned with its goal of offering a livable wage, NatureSweet pays its associates approximately 43% above the median of agricultural workers in Mexico, and approximately 25% above the median of its main competitors. Because of the company’s commitment to its associates and the monetary benefits that go along with that, employees remain loyal to the company. NatureSweet sees an employee turnover rate below 1.0% — which is very low in terms of the agricultural industry.
Through the Fair Trade Premium program, associates have the opportunity to create substantive change within their communities (e.g., providing internet access, building schools or ambulance services, etc.), instilling a sense of pride in their hard work and ability to help others. “It’s not just for our associates,” states Lori Castillo, NatureSweet Vice President of Global Marketing. “There are positive externalities all around.”
The reach of the giving and demanding system also extended to NatureSweet facilities, where renovations were made to improve accessibility and amenities on site, including improvements such as additional restrooms and new dining facilities. While these changes increased costs slightly, the changes proved that the system of giving and demanding works to the benefit of all involved.
To further unleash the power of its associates, NatureSweet implemented education programs many years ago that offer literacy levels of Elementary School, Middle School, High School and bachelor’s degrees.
The company realized that, while better wages and access to education would improve the lives of its associates in the workplace, these benefits may not translate to associates’ home lives. To truly transform the lives of its workers, the two could not be separated.
With its INAE (National Institute for Adult Education) program, the company has exponentially improved the lives of its associates by reducing the rate of illiteracy within its workforce and is quickly approaching its goal to eliminate illiteracy within the company. Since 2005, NatureSweet has had 1,756 students graduate from all levels of the program, which has not only increased efficiency and productivity, but improved well-being and afforded better opportunities as well. During 2021, NatureSweet graduated 130 associates from the Adult Education program.
Through its Sweet Life Program, NatureSweet provides a psychologist at each plant to unleash the power of its associates to realize their full potential through an individual program that teaches them how to improve their lives by promoting healthy thoughts and positive emotions to facilitate problem solving. A related program is the Sweet Family program that helps transform the lives of its associates, their families and their communities through a four-month comprehensive human development and training program, where they learn fundamental skills (i.e., smart optimism, self-esteem, healthy communication, positive attitude in life, positive discipline at home) to improve the overall quality of life.
“This whole business system ended up being created because we wanted to transform the lives of the workers and the way we operate; this is a sound business model that starts by believing that treating people with dignity will be the base to build a sustainable business,” says Spielmann.
NatureSweet facilities enact higher safety standards than are required in the industry. As a company it is committed to offering a safe environment to its workers and have elaborated a vast safety management, risk and well-being system for all associates in every plant, based on the international standard ISO 45.001:2018. Associates receive 31 hours of training in NatureSweet’s Health and Safety System, which has resulted in zero incidents related to regulations, voluntary codes or the health and safety of consumers.
NatureSweet is leading the Best-in-Class safety index of 0.28 in 2022. This is 3.5 times better than the world-class level for industrial safety and 16 times better than the U.S. Agricultural Industry index.
But NatureSweet does not stop there. The company further extends its social responsibility through additional programs such as Adopt a School, Academic Excellence, baby kits for associates, toy drives, food donations, et al., underscoring its dedication to social responsibility.
NatureSweet’s commitment to transforming the lives of agricultural workers and their communities has shown proven results according to its 2021 Sustainability Report. In 2021, 78,581 lives were impacted by NatureSweet’s social responsibility initiative. Between 2005—2020, NatureSweet positively transformed nearly half a million lives.
In addition to all NatureSweet facilities being Fair Trade Certified, the company broadened the initiative to include its growers. After implementing the required criteria, those growers became Fair Trade Certified, moving the impact of Fair Trade up the supply chain (to date, nine external growers and all their sites are fully certified).
According to Fernanda Suarez, NatureSweet Sustainability and Social Impact Director “NatureSweet is a proven example that this is possible. It is about human beings and human rights. We are leading by example because the people deserve it.”
Adds Castillo, “There is always an underlying tagline, implying how a company will impact a community. Our company goes well beyond [a tagline] because it’s who we are. It is fundamentally why we exist.”