Friday, June 1, 2012

Jute Sacks and Abandoned Kitten

Are there times when you look at something that you use in your home and wonder about the people who labored to produce it and deliver it to you? I caught myself having that thought recently and decided to take it further.

I have been collecting coffee sacks from Old Bisbee Roasters to use around the house and garden. I use the sacks made of jute fiber to haul wood chips from the recycling center and to collect and move yard waste around. They do not easily tear like plastic bags and hold up for repeated use. In winter, I roll them up and place them at the base of our doors to block the drafts. Recently, I came up with another purpose.

The weather temperature has been steadily in the 90s and is speeding up the decaying rate of the straw bales I’m using for my vegetable garden. You can read about that here. Some of the straw bales are beginning to lean significantly enough to prompt me to consider ways to prevent them from toppling over into the pathway. I needed to line them with something in addition to the adobe bricks. I thought that the natural fiber used for the coffee sacks, labeled food grade, would be a perfect material to line the straw bales.

As I’m sitting on the porch unthreading the sacks by hand for this purpose, I wondered about the places the coffee came from and whose hands touched the sack before mine. Some clues are printed on the sacks marking the origination of the beans; Indonesia, Ethiopia, Honduras, Costa Rica, etc. Some labels tell me that they went through the port of Oakland, California before making their way to Bisbee, Arizona. Inside the jute sacks, I found the manufacturer labels telling me they were produced in India. Digging deeper on the Internet, I developed a better sense about the anonymous hands that touched the sack sitting on my lap.

I found the manufactures of the sacks that I was using on this site: Jute Mills in Bangladesh. I learned that the mills are divided between government operated and privately owned companies. The government set the standards that both agencies have to abide by.

Cultivation & Growing of Jute - Sowing to Fiber Extraction
This short documentary shows how the jute is cultivated. The footage contains information of jute cultivation from sowing to fiber extraction. This low quality video is the best I could find but you can get the idea. Below is another video (from a manufacturing company) showing the process from harvest to manufacturing the jute twine.

Facts About Jute from Victoria Jute Mill
"India is the largest producer of raw jute and jute goods. This Golden Fibre is grown in the Gangetic Plain with alluvial soil, supported with adequate rainfall which are the ideal location for its growth. The major Raw Jute growing area in India are the states of West Bengal, Assam and Bihar. 
This green plant is dipped in water, essentially in rivers, and allowed to be remained there for a period of 2 weeks to 3 weeks. The above soaking is necessary to loosen the fibre from the pitch and also to remove the skin from its surface. The fibre is then peeled out and cleaned. The peeled and cleaned fibre is dried in the sun. They are then segregated into ‘Top’ , ‘Middle’ & ‘Bottom’ portions and then graded according to quality. The quality-wise segregation is bundled into ‘Morahs’ and baled for transportation."

"Victoria Jute Mill, Chandernagore, West bengal, India. Established in the 1880's by the English after the 1857 revolt as an economic measure for improving the economic condition of Bengal so that there is no repeat of the 1857 revolt against the British Empire."

During my research, I found myself distracted with a folk song. I was fascinated by the woman who wrote it and the working conditions for the women (cheap labor) who worked in the jute mills in Dundee, Scotland. From Wikipedia:
Dundee Jute Barons
The entrepreneurs of the Dundee jute Industry in Scotland were called The Jute Barons. They generally traded in finished products made from jute. The industry was the gateway for jute products in Europe for almost half a century, starting from the early 19th century to the middle of 19th century. The Dundee Jute Industry started to fall when the Jute Barons started to invest money in setting up jute mills in the Indian sub-continent, making the products cheaper by utilizing cheap labour of India.

An online collection about An Amazing Woman: Mary Brookbank 1897-1978

From Union Songs A song by Mary Brookbank
O, dear me, the mill is running fast
And we poor shifters canna get nae rest
Shifting bobbins coarse and fine
They fairly make you work for your ten and nine

O, dear me, I wish this day were done
Running up and doon the
Pass is nae fun
Shiftin', piecin', spinning warp, weft and twine
To feed and clothe ma bairnie offa ten and nine

O, dear me, the world is ill-divided
Them that works the hardest are the least provided
But I maun bide contented, dark days or fine
There's no much pleasure living offa ten and nine
First recorded by Ewan MacColl: Steam Whistle Ballads

Mary Brookbank herself a jute worker wrote:
"The life of the women workers of Dundee right up to the thirties was ... a living hell of hard work and poverty. It was a common sight to see women, after a long ten-hour-day in the mill, running to the stream wash-houses with the family washing. They worked up to the last few days before having their bairns. Often they would call in at the calenders from their work and carry home bundles of sacks to sew. These were paid for at the rate of 5 pence for 25, 6 pence for a coarser type of sack. Infant and maternal mortality in Dundee was the highest in the country."
When folklorist Hamish Henderson asked Mary Brookbank how much of the song came from mill workers she replied:
"Only the ditty, 'Oh dear me, the mill's gaen fest, the puir wee shifters…' The verses are all mine. And that verse, 'to feed and cled my bairnie' was brought to me by a lassie who was worried. It wis hard lines if she, ye hid an illigitimate child and you had to pay for it aff that meagre wage, you know what I mean, and she used to say, oh I wish the day was done. And eh, tell me her troubles, her trackles, what she hid tae dae for her bairn and that, nae help that sort o' thing, and that brought that tae mind. And then I used to think on my own aboot how ill divided the world wis.

Getting back on track, I focused on the story of the jute sacks in connection with the coffee industry. I want to share with you part two of a three-part video series. You can find part one and three on the side bar at YouTube.

The Mexican Coffee Company founder Rafael takes us to the streets of Yahalon to show us how he buys his coffee from independent farmers offering them a direct payment. He tells us about the delicate balance between wanting to improve the lives of the people here and maintaining perfect quality in his coffee at all times.
While I’m on the subject, I want to promote awareness about Fair Trade USA movement. Fair Trade Story video.
I have been concerned about product packaging for some time. The practice of using plastic for packaging must be addressed. The little knowledge I have gleaned from the Internet about the process of making a natural packaging product also gives me pause. Are today’s jute mill employee’s working conditions any better off than their predecessors’? Shouldn’t there be a system in place to reuse the coffee sacks since they usually have enough strength for more than its initial purpose? The balance between the resources used to produce a coffee sack and the life span of its intended use does not seem appropriate to me.

My grandmother, who lived through the Great Depression, influenced me to reuse many things considered to be one-use products around the house. Just to give a couple of examples, she used coffee cans for storage, saved paper that had a blank side for notes, and pie pans to catch excess water from watering potted plants.

Over 20 years ago, I made it my business to know how meat came to my plate. It didn’t take very long before I knew that I didn’t want to eat it any longer. I believe that if we all knew more about the process that brings to market the things we consume we would demand a more sustainable solution. I would also go so far as to suggest that this would be an appropriate subject to be included in the curriculum within the education system.

Garden with coffee Sacks

While I was working on this project an unexpected event diverted my attention. It was on a blustery evening when I heard a kitten howling for help. I followed the sound of the desperate meowing to see what the problem was. At first I didn’t see anything, until what appeared to be a white rock in the road, darted directly toward me. Looking down at my feet, I realized it was a tiny kitten looking straight at me and pleading for assistance. I looked around for any sign of its mother or its siblings but neither was visible. I decided that I had better bring it inside and attempt to comfort it. The kitten was famished and I did the best I could with what I had on hand. Surprisingly, the kitten seemed to understand a human could be a friend and that solid cat food was to be eaten. The next morning, I walked around looking for any evidence that would explain its predicament. The only thing I found was a baby crib sheet in the water canal, not too far from the road. These facts put together lead me to question the idea that a feral momma cat lost or abandoned her baby.

Did someone wrap the kitten in swaddling clothes and abandon it in the ditch? The Internet can’t help me with that question. I will never know how the toddling kitten came to be in the street outside of my home.

The kitten's eyes were caked with crusted dirt from an oozing eye infection that made it appear more like something the cat dragged in rather than a cat. We have determined that the kitten is a male so I call him Yoda, because he was the spitting image of the Star Wars character. Of course, I became attached to the little guy so my partner and I have accepted him into the family. Moonshadow, our one-year-old cat, acts anxious about Yoda’s cries but on the other hand is exhibiting signs of jealousy too. He will need more time to adjust to our decision. For now, we are keeping them separated until Yoda is infection free.

We are fortunate that our community offers choices for folks who cannot care for an animal. The obvious choice would be the animal shelter but there is an even better option with the local volunteer operated Border Animal Rescue. They publicize their services using all of the community avenues. I have noticed posters on the bulletin boards, notices in the local newspaper, and they are visible at the Farmer’s Market with their cages of animals ready for adoption. The dedicated volunteers provide an important service for our community so there is no excuse for someone not to take advantage of their services when the situation demands it. It is a shame that there are still uneducated people who think that their best option is to abandon their animals at roadsides, leaving them to their fate.

We can take the responsibility for the hands and hearts of the workers living in poverty that produce the things we consume by striving to be ethical consumers through our purchases. We can also reuse and avoid waste whenever possible. We can also assume the responsibility for the care of a precious soul that the hands and mind of an anonymous person was capable of leaving behind in the dark of the night.

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” — Dalai Lama XIV


  1. Are you keeping the kitten? It's funny you named him Yoda, I know someone else whonamed a kitten they ate fostering Yoda also. Working at the Bisbee Animal Shelter we've had a lotof kittens come thru that we have put in foster homes. Good luck with him!

    1. Yes, we are keeping Yoda. I became attached to him the first night. Thanks for your work finding foster homes for so many kittens and I appreciate your best wishes.

  2. I am really impressed by the work you did in this article. It’s great enough to pull my attention and in reading this article for once to understand that your pen is really mightier than the sword.
    Jute Bag

  3. How did you wrap the jute bags around the decomposing straw bales ? With sticks and zip ties placed everywhere to hold the bags up ?