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Pine Needle Baskets, part 2

Peggy Stein baskets butterflies Michoacan monarch pine needle

No hay mal que por bien no venga."There's nothing bad through which good doesn't come".

My original story about our pine needle baskets was written in March of 2019. This post includes some of that story-- plus an update.

In the past 17 years I have bought and sold thousands of pieces of handmade artesania (crafts) from Mexico, including dozens of pine needle baskets. I’ve acquired the baskets various ways-- sometimes from the artisans themselves while I’m in Mexico and they happen to be selling in Morelia or Uruapan, and other times through my assistant who arranges a purchase for me and ships them to California. All of my family has at least one pine needle basket, and in addition to them being a popular product for Mexico By Hand, I often give them as gifts. Who doesn’t need a beautiful basket, right? So when I got an email in October of 2018 inquiring about making a large purchase of some kind of Mexican basket for a food blogger with a YouTube channel, I convinced the buyer that everyone needs one of these pine needle baskets. Could we handle an order of 600? Well, yeah, I think so. Why not? If Mom and Dad could visit the butterflies in Michoacán without breaking numerous bones, we should be able to deliver some baskets to a company in Pennsylvania. But, being that it is Mexico we’re dealing with, and the fact that I have racked up a little experience working with artisans, I immediately began to contemplate the challenges with this order, and to worry about what could go wrong. The lead artisan contact confirmed they could handle an order that size by the target date-- and the deal was a “go”! The next and biggest issue of course was would the artisans actually complete the order on time. I estimate that half the time I make a special order of crafts there’s a delay, for one reason or another. Someone got sick, the rains slowed things down, it was fiesta time, etc. We hatched a plan designed to prevent such delays-- we would offer a generous bonus for delivering a month early-- an idea that we had never thought to employ before. The bonus was such a good idea and so appealing to the artisans, that the baskets were finished 2 months ahead of time! It seems that the entire village was called in to work on the baskets, and they got it done. Great news! Not only were they finished early, which meant I could have a box sent to me in time for my Christmas sale, but I could also personally see the quality of the work before the client received them. Quality control is another very important concern when one places a large order. And one can’t be sure --even with a photo-- that the artisans understood exactly what I wanted. I held my breath as I opened the box...the baskets were fantastic! Exactly as I had envisioned. Wow, this was really working out!

I sent the final payment to the artisans, and I let the client know they would receive them in mid-January. Everything was going great!

My holiday sales events were hard work but successful, and afterwards it was my time to relax for a bit.

Then, on January 2, 2019 as I was casually checking my emails, the following message arrived: Peggy, I hope you had a nice holiday.  I am emailing in reference to the basket order # 1357 we purchased from you. Unfortunately, our investor funding did not come through and we can not pay for the balance of the order. We are closing the company. I am very sorry but we need to cancel this order.”

Whoa. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. How could this be? They had already paid me quite a lot of money and were just going to walk away from this deal? I had never received such a large order for a single product, and I never had a client cancel on me. Of all the things I worried about with this deal, this never crossed my mind. And then after I got over my initial shock, it hit me: I have 600 baskets to sell!

It’s time to tell the story of the Pine Needle Baskets.

At the end of February, about six weeks after the basket order was cancelled, I went for my third visit of a Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary--Sierra Chincua in Michoacán. It was again a magical experience being in this gorgeous setting and seeing thousands of butterflies flying around us. And the good news is that the numbers of butterflies who overwinter in the Mexico mountains have increased in 2018 and the efforts of conservation appear to be working.

 

But there is another story that the millions of tourists who visit the area each year don't see. Because of the prohibition on logging in the forests to protect the endangered butterflies, many of the indigenous people who live there have lost their livelihoods, and they are barely surviving. Tourism does not bring in as much money as lumbering, according to the group Monarch Watch, and “action must be taken soon if the Monarchs are to survive the 21st century, but it will require creativity, hard work, and compassion for both the butterflies and their human neighbors.”

I spent several hours with a few artisans who weave beautiful pine needle baskets in the community of Donaciano Ojeda, high up in the sierra not far from the butterfly sanctuaries.The sale of the baskets provides much needed income for families, and helps protect the butterflies.

In my fourteen years of buying Mexican artesania for resale, I have visited dozens of artisan homes in numerous rural villages--mostly in Michoacán, a very poor state, where the majority of artisans struggle to make a modest living. But I have to say that I have never seen such poverty as I did in this community. The surrounding scenery is stunningly beautiful, the air was fresh and clean and the sun was warm, yet the children we saw there appeared dirty, listless, and sad--and most likely hungry as well.

 

The women we spoke with are part of a cooperative called Grupo Florecito, which was formed about 18 years ago.The artisans go into the nearby forest and gather up pine needles (called ocoxal) and spend hours cleaning the needles and carefully weaving them into baskets. Most of the weavers are women, as many men travel to either Mexico City or the U.S. in search of jobs that pay better.

Finding customers for their work is always challenging. Cooperative members have to travel by bus to crafts fairs several hours away a few times a year [photo] and there’s always the hope they’ll be lucky and find a buyer, such as myself, who will purchase a large quantity. The group has no website or social media presence, and contacting them by phone can prove to be challenging. But my last order was completed quickly and the quality of these sturdy baskets is remarkable.

Mexico By Hand's customers love these baskets. They’re great for serving tortillas or bread, are extremely sturdy and have the added bonus of smelling like the pine tree forest where they’re made. Plus the issue of survival-- of both the people who make the baskets and the magnificent Monarchs-- can’t help but move customers to want one in their home.

UPDATE: It's December of 2021. The Covid pandemic looks like it will never end, and while we go about shopping and preparing for the holidays, most of us are concerned about the health of ourselves and our loved ones. As Doug is scrolling through Next Door, he sees a notice and gofundme campaign about someone we care about who is battling cancer and needs financial support. He's a friendly long-time worker at our favorite market who also happens to be from Michoacán. Doug and I have known Simon for decades, since our kids who are now in their thirties were small children. And to hear he is sick now was a real blow. 

Enter our pine needle baskets. We came up with the idea of collecting money in front of the market, and in exchange giving the donors a basket that was made in the sierra of Michoacán, near where Simon grew up. In case you forgot, we have a lot of baskets. We figured since they make great gifts, they might provide an incentive to donate a little more. It was very cold that morning as Doug and I set up our spot. We were worried passersby might ignore us or even worse they'd distrust our motives. But in fact what happened was the opposite. We were repeatedly thanked for being there, and many who contributed shared their stories about Simon and how much his presence meant to them-- especially during the pandemic.The generous support from the community was fantastic and we surpassed our fundraising goal. Plus, some of those pine needle baskets we ordered three years ago were in the hands of appreciative neighbors who now feel another personal connection to them. After so many ups and downs with these baskets-- this moment feels really good. 

To purchase our pine needle baskets, here's the link: https://mexico-by-hand.myshopify.com/collections/frontpage/products/handmade-pine-needle-basket-medium-1

 



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