To learn more about Heirloom Rice, visit the Web site at: http://www.heirloomrice.com
Choteau native helps combat poverty and save a wonder by selling rice
By KAREN OGDEN, Tribune Enterprise Editor
Mary Hensley was a 22-year-old Peace Corps volunteer from Choteau, when she climbed on a military truck bound for the Philippines' lush Cordillera Mountains.
She disembarked high in the ancient rice terraces (right), known to tourists as the stepping stones to the sky, or the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Little did she know she was stepping into a simmering civil war.
"They didn't tell us these things when we got dropped off," Hensley recalled.
But she came armed — with iodized salt.
Her mission: To fight the goiters that bulged from the necks of villagers, particularly women, mired in poverty and malnutrition.
Three decades later — having pursued an American life a world away from the Philippine mountainsides — Hensley would return to her base village of Uma with a new mission in a changed country.
Hensley's Ulm-based rice import company, Eighth Wonder, is selling "heirloom" rice — distinctive-tasting varieties cultivated for centuries by families in the mountains of the northern Philippines — in upscale restaurants and supermarkets across the United States.
While pleasing gourmet palates, the rice is putting cash in the pockets of impoverished farmers and helping preserve the imperiled terraces.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization recently recognized Hensley's work with a $2,000 grant. It's a small sum from an American point of view, but it's enough to purchase cleaning equipment so farmers will no longer have to hand clean their harvest with mortars and pestles.
"The stories that come out, they both fill you with hope and also break your heart that something so small can also have such a huge effect on peoples' lives," Hensley said.
Her story is one of risk, personal sacrifice — Hensley didn't draw a paycheck from her new business for four years — and homecoming.
After spending much of her adult life in Vermont, Hensley decided to locate her company in the Great Falls area. She found invaluable help here in dry-land wheat country, for her watery, faraway farm operation.
Timeless Seeds, a Conrad-based company famous for its organic seed, cereal grains and edible seed, helped Hensley package her product and break into the upscale food market.
Timeless Seeds CEO and General Manager David Oien gave her office space at the company's processing facility in Ulm in exchange for answering the phones and other work.
Hensley's efforts to support family farmers, even across the Pacific Ocean, mesh with Timeless' mission to promote environmentally and socially sustainable agriculture, Oien said.
"It's about saving the environment," he said. "It's about creating a social and business infrastructure that's grassroots."
Hensley's mission was born out of one of the most poignant memories of her two-year stay in the mountains.
"When that rice was cooked it smelled so wonderful I could hardly wait to eat it," she said.
Hensley graduated from the University of California-Berkley in 1976 with a degree in social work and signed up for the Peace Corps without a second thought.
"In my family it was expected that you do some kind of public service," said Hensley, whose mother was a church organist. Her father was a school board member in Choteau, where her family owned the Hensley motel.
After her tour of duty, Hensley settled in Seattle and worked with a shop that helped refugees from Laos sell handcrafted goods at Pike Place Market.
Next came a 21-year stretch in Vermont, where she found what many would consider a dream job. While working for a high-end travel agency, Hensley toured the world setting up vacations for wealthy clients.
But it never felt right.
"It didn't have a lot of redeeming qualities when you're sitting in a five-star hotel in Africa," Hensley said. "There was something uncomfortable about that for me."
She traveled across Europe, China and Central America, but never returned to the Philippines.
"I didn't have the courage to go back to see how people remember you or what sort of damage you would have done when you were there," Hensley said.
Her complacency was shaken when, in 1995, her beloved older brother and role model died of leukemia.
Franklin Hensley was executive director of Catholic Community Services for the Catholic Archdiocese in Portland, Ore.
"You sort of review your own life when someone who is doing so much for people dies," Hensley said. "So I started rethinking what I was doing."
Back to the future
Without a definite plan, Hensley returned to school in 2001. At the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vt., she earned a graduate degree in organizational management with an emphasis on social entrepreneurship.
The school's business philosophy matched hers — a "triple bottom line" that factors in social and environmental impacts as well as profit. She did her required internship with a Catholic organization in Manila and found a country changed for better and for worse. The goiters she had once set out to eradicate were almost unheard of, except in the elderly.
"You didn't see people starving like you did," Hensley said.
However, new problems had taken hold. The nation's population has doubled in the past 30 years, but the infrastructure hasn't kept up.
"Super malls" are popping up in the cities, but not the waste facilities to handle the trash of an emerging consumer society.
(right) The rice terraces of Banaue are a UNESCO World Heritage site. Harvest time near the village of Amganod in the Banaue area in Ifugao Province.
Ox-drawn carts and air-conditioned tour buses jockey for space on the two-lane road into the mountains.
Most disturbing to Hensley, the terraces are drying up and crumbling as young people abandon them in search of jobs in the city or overseas.
Hensley's return to the village of Uma lifted her heart.
"Mary, where have you been? Who did you sell your motorcycle to?" friends asked after her 27-year hiatus. One woman brought Hensley a hand-woven basket that she had ordered and paid for, but never picked up. There, among the steaming pots of rice, lay her future.
For her graduate work, Hensley developed a marketing plan and feasibility study on a rice import business. "If I asked the farmers to go out on a limb and sell it, I wanted to make sure the business part was going to work," she said.
Real cash, real change
For three months, Hensley toured almost 30 villages talking with farmers, mayors and agriculture officials about her idea. Could they, would they, produce enough rice for a shipment of at least 1,000 kilos (a metric ton)? Were they willing to meet new sanitation and quality-control guidelines? Would government regulations allow for export?
"They were looking at it as do we want to sell a piece of our culture," Hensley said "The grain, especially for the older people, is very sacred."
With everyone on board, Hensley returned to the United States. The farmers in the Philippines are trained by RICE, a nonprofit organization headed by Vicky Garcia, a Filipino community development expert.
Garcia and her staff have trained and certified 60 farmers, who return to their villages and teach others the required sanitation and quality-control measures. In an e-mail to Hensley, Garcia related the stories of farmers who brought their grain in for the latest shipment.
Many live below the region's poverty line of $240 per capita a year.
Angelina, a widow with seven children, "has not been proud of herself for once (sic) but after seeing how her inspected rice passed quality she was in tears," Garcia wrote.
One farmer produced 500 kilos and used his earnings to buy a generator. He then leveraged his investment by renting out the generator.
Hensley pays from roughly 55 cents a pound for the staple varieties to 80 cents a pound for sticky dessert rice. Most of the terrace farmers don't sell their rice for the paltry sums they'd get on the local market. Instead it's used as a staple food and bartering tool.
"What to me is so amazing is that no one ever tried doing this before," Hensley said.
Even the roughly $30 a farmer earns from the minimum crop — 25 kilos — is enough to buy school clothes or stash away capital to start a small shop.
Many of the farmers rarely have significant cash. One young woman, when asked what she would do with her cash after this fall's harvest, said she would go home and show it to her family, Garcia wrote.
Demand for the rice is growing as production ramps up.
Hensley imported less than a ton of rice her first year in business. Last year, she brought over two shipments totaling seven tons. Last month, an 18-ton shipment harvested by 395farmers from 60 villages arrived in U.S. ports. Hensley hopes to import 40 to 50 tons of rice next year.
"I've been amazed by what she has managed to do," said Mary McNally, a professor at Montana State University-Billings, who taught as a guest instructor in Hensley's graduate program in Vermont. "She's sort of bootstrapped it herself pretty much. She didn't do it through any structured program. She just sort of figured it out."
The largest chunk of financing for the enterprise was Hensley's life savings combined with money given by friends.
"You don't do this without a certain amount of personal sacrifice when you don't have any startup capital or some huge amount of money behind you," Hensley said.
As the business grows, more assistance is flowing in.
This year, Heirloom got a $40,000 loan from Root Capital, a Cambridge, Mass.-based group that promotes enterprises based on the socially and environmentally sound fair-trade model.
The loan allowed Hensley to pay farmers upfront for their rice, and be paid back when her buyers receive their shipment.
Hensley was able to draw a paycheck from her business for the first time this fall.
"My hope is that this can be a sustainable business, that it can sell enough product and it will get enough money back to the farmers that they can continue farming if they choose to do so," she said.
Hensley said she hopes the farmers' story coupled with the promise of a delectable taste, will move the rice off the shelves.
Once consumers smell it cooking, she's convinced they'll be back for more.