Nonprofit seeks social responsibility in agriculture abroad

Rene Featherstone/For the Capital Press Mary Hensley holds up a bag of the gourmet heirloom rice that comes from the Philippine Cordillera tribe.

Fair trade effort aims to help Cordillera sell their rice to U.S.


For the Capital Press

ULM, Mont. -- When Mary Hensley hands you a pound package of rare rice, she's inviting you into a world so agriculturally amazing that modernity peels away.

Her photos of the Philippine Cordillera show how enormous a task she's taken on at Ulm, Mont., in marketing heirloom rices.

Indigenous farming all done by hand makes the site "a living cultural landscape."

In one picture we observe a winding line of 80 knife-wielding farmers cut panicles, bundling them into sheaves for drying. Everything has to be carried -- most of the terrace terrain is too steep for horses and too tight for motors, Hensley said.

How a little of that harvest, branded Eighth Wonder, ends up in upscale Seattle to the delight of gourmands, ethnic foodies and high-end restaurant chefs is Hensley's story of "social entrepreneurship" that she studied at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vt.

Hensley was raised in Montana. After high school she attended University of California-Berkeley before joining the Peace Corps, which sent her to a Philippine Kalinga village of 17 families.

"I was the first white woman in that village. They're animists whose whole culture revolves around agricultural phases. They grow rice mainly, and some dry beans, and they gather greens like watercress from the waterways."

Back stateside, Hensley was a social worker in Seattle, and then a travel agent in Vermont.

"At that point I needed something to feel passionate about," she said. "Being a responsible person in the world means caring about social justice. I have empathy," she said, explaining that the past three decades have not been kind to the tribes of Kalinga and Ifugao.

"I read that the terraces were being abandoned because of environmental and cultural collapse. I thought about what I could do if I went back there with some skills. I remembered the wonderful rice they grew on the terraces, I thought those rices could fit into the gourmet rice market that was developing here in the United States."

For practical experience she interned with a Fair Trade group in the Philippines.

Hensley then became a member of the Fair Trade Federation.

"The Fair Trade movement has its roots in social initiatives of churches," she said. "The federation screens companies to make sure they're operating in a socially responsible manner."

Finally, armed with a feasibility study and a business plan she returned to "her" village.

"The men had left, they went abroad to find work," she said. "Women, children and old people are left in the villages -- they're some of the most marginalized people in the world."

When Hensley proposed her Fair Trade scheme, the Cordillera farmers were skeptical. "They'd never sold anything, no one had ever offered them money."

In 2005 Hensley helped form the non-profit RICE Inc. -- Revitalize Indigenous Cordilleran Entrepreneurs. It's managed by Vicky Garcia, a friend of Hensley's since grad school.

Currently the Eighth Wonder product line consists of seven specialty rices that Hensley receives from RICE's 250 farmers in 190 villages.

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