Level Ground taking the high ground

Trading company builds trade and community relationships with farmers in developing countries

Level Ground Trading sales and marketing manager Rick Stark points out some of the packaging operations at the Central Saanich-based company.

Level Ground Trading sales and marketing manager Rick Stark points out some of the packaging operations at the Central Saanich-based company.

This is the final feature story stemming from the Oct. 30 Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce Tour of Industry.

Over the last 15 years, Level Ground Trading Ltd. has operated in three different facilities, all of which have been on the Peninsula.

These days, Level Ground is roasting, packaging and shipping their coffee and dried tropical fruit out of a building in Central Saanich. It was at this location that the Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce’s Tour of Industry on Oct. 30 made its final stop.

The opportunity to see the operation gave participants in the tour a look at a company that has taken ethical and fair trade to a new level. Co-founder Stacey Toews says in all of their business dealings, they work directly with producers of coffee and fruit in developing countries. They also set their own prices to ensure what he calls real fair trade.

“Fair prices set by Europe or in North America mean nothing,” Toews said. “We’ve always paid, on average, 25 to 30 per cent above the so-called fair commodity price.”

Level Ground’s first purchase of coffee in 1997 was at $2 a pound, he explained. These days, the same beans were sitting at around $1.60 a pound. At times, the price has dropped and rebounded drastically. Level Ground, Toews said, tried to be more consistent with its suppliers.

The company, whose executives and buyers travel to the part of the world where their products are grown, documents all of the prices it pays and how much of that money goes back to the farmers they bought it from.

“Our focus is to do more than any other fair trade company is doing,” Toews said. “We are transparent about what we pay, about what the farmer is getting. The more transparent we are, the more loyal our customers are.”

The reason for all of this is the company’s overall vision — to alleviate poverty through direct, fair trade. It sounds lofty, but Toews said they started small and kept the focus on making legitimate trade deals that benefit growers and their communities, not on handing out charity.

“After 15 years, we are seeing more and more people affected. We want to find people and groups that have potential.”

In their dealings with producers around the world, Toews said their trade deals support community projects that the people need. It could be clean drinking water or a pig-rearing effort to diversify the local economy and food supply. These projects are run by local people.

“It works because it’s totally relevant to the community it goes to,” Toews said, adding it’s important for Level Ground to create relationships with farmers.

“We’ve never lost a relationship that we’ve started over 15 years,” he explained. “And that’s even if the ball is dropped at either end.”

What that offers, he continued, is ongoing access to quality products, even if they have to wait until a new growing season.

Those relationships have been beneficial to the growers and to the Peninsula-based company. Fifteen years ago, in their first year of business, sales were around $50,000.

In 2012, Toews said Level Ground is about to break the $7 million mark in sales. The company employs 29 people and is about to launch some new products, fostered by new relationships with farmers.

Out of northeast India comes a new line of teas from Level Ground. Come the new year, Towes said the company will introduce a series of teas to their customers

As well, they will launch their own brand of baking cocoa and hot chocolate in early 2013.

In the meantime, back on the Peninsula, Towes said the company is trying to eliminate its impact on the environment. It uses 13 streams of recycling to try to send absolutely nothing to the Heartland Landfill. They try to recycle as much of their own packaging as possible and even offer their employees green commuting incentives for reducing their personal impacts on the environment.

“These are the standards we strive for,” Towes said, “and we invite others to come along.”

Learn more about Level Ground Trading Ltd. at www.levelground.com.

Lessons learned from Tour of Industry

Led by Saanich Peninsula Chamber of Commerce director and Tour of Industry committee chair Wendy Everson, the Oct. 30 day-long event included local politicians and business leaders.

The focus of the tour was two-fold: to introduce community decision-makers to a segment of the community they might not have seen before, and; to raise to the fore issues they face on a day-to-day basis.

In a media release following the tour, Everson outlined five main lessons learned.

1. Infrastructure needs. Businesses require safe and convenient access to highways and municipal arteries to ensure efficient shipping routes.

2. Traffic congestion in Sidney. Relating to accessing services in town during peak daytime hours.

3. Transit links. Business owners are calling for improved links between industrial areas on the Peninsula.

4. Workforce housing. Needed to accommodate a growing, skilled workforce and their families on the Peninsula.

5. Access to more food, beverage and medical services within the industrial and manufacturing areas in Sidney and Central Saanich.