How I buy ‘local’ cinnamon

vanilla beans

Frontier Co-op CEO Tony Bedard tries his hand at vanilla bean sorting at our Madagascar supplier’s facilities.

By Alan Miles

I like local food. On our last visit to the weekend farmer’s market in nearby Cedar Rapids, Iowa, my wife and I bought produce and flowers, nut butters and jams, and even dishcloths and soaps from small, local farmers and businesses. On a regular basis, we shop from the roadside produce stand that we drive by on our way to visit the grandkids. One of the things I like about my membership in New Pioneer Co-op (my local food co-op) is that they champion local products. And it’s not just because the price is right that we’re thrilled when our friends with big gardens stop by with their overflow harvest — the taste of those vegetables from down the road puts trucked-in produce to shame. Besides the quality of local products, I like the community, social, economic and environmental aspects of local buying.

At the same time, I also eat a lot of food that comes from the other side of the world — with the same enthusiasm. That’s because I look at the cinnamon from Vietnam, the vanilla from Madagascar and the other Frontier Co-op products I bring home from work as “buying local.” Here are my reasons:

The spices are sustainably grown. Okay, I can’t make the case that eating something that comes from nearly 10,000 miles away is minimizing food miles. But when it comes to something like cinnamon, I’m not going to find it locally grown. So short of simply not eating anything that doesn’t grow in Iowa, I have to make another assessment — I look at how sustainably foods that are unavailable locally are grown where they do grow.

A big part of our Well Earth® sustainable sourcing program is helping small farmers access the resources and knowledge they need to grow their crops organically and sustainably. The organic training center we funded in Sri Lanka, for example, does just that. Thousands of farmers, from numerous countries, have been trained in organic, sustainable agriculture — and the center does research to improve organic growing methods as well. (We’re funding a second training center in Sri Lanka that’s opening soon.)

Most of these small farmers are already committed to biodynamic, no-chemical farming. Their use of the land is efficient, low-tech and hands-on, with intense intercropping, natural fertilization and sound land-conservation methods. They improve their land rather than deplete it.

Frontier Co-op Purchasing Manager Kai Stark talks with farmers in Sri Lanka.

Frontier Co-op Purchasing Manager Kai Stark talks with farmers in Sri Lanka.

The spices are high quality. One of the advantages of buying local is that quality is a key component. The vendors are people with a personal stake in their products. The small farmers who grow much of Frontier Co-op’s spices have that same stake in maintaining the quality of their products — and the same pride. We work hand-in-hand with the growers to ensure the highest quality possible, often finding that their firsthand know-how is the key factor to achieving it.

The spices reflect the values of the community. We see ourselves here at Frontier Co-op as a part of many communities — our Iowa community, a community of employees, our member community, the co-op community, the natural products community and our supplier communities. At the core, the values of all of those communities — fairness, quality, integrity and respect for the environment — are very much in sync. We feel our business understands what those values mean. None of our communities want to see any of the others exploited, none want to see our product quality compromised for any reason, all want to be dealt with honestly and openly, and all want to see a healthy planet for future generations.

The spice purchases help the community financially. Local buying supports independent farmers and eliminates your money going to marketers, middlemen, processors and suppliers. Instead, your purchases put money directly into the hands of the farmers. Frontier Co-op’s direct spice-buying has the same effect.

Many small-scale spice growers have very hard lives. A non-exploitive means to sell their crops is crucial to their well-being. Programs like Well Earth and Fair Trade go even further and offer them and their communities a substantially better way of life with guaranteed contracts and funds for community support. Frontier works hard to develop direct purchase relationships with growers and grower groups — and the money saved by eliminating middlemen through our direct buying goes back to the supplier, not to us. Most of our supplier groups are co-ops or similarly structured groups, and they share their proceeds fairly among their growers and workers and support their local communities.

Children in our Vietnamese cinnamon supplier communities can attend school due to Frontier Co-op funding.

Children in our Vietnamese cinnamon supplier communities can attend school due to Frontier Co-op funding.

The spice growers are accessible. I don’t visit growers personally, so it’s not quite the same as chatting with folks at the farmer’s market — but Frontier Co-op has “local” relationships with the people who grow our spices. If you talk to one of our frequent travelers, it’s clear that we have personal relationships with our suppliers. It’s commonplace to get firsthand tours of the fields and facilities, share family and community meals, and even spend the night in growers’ homes. (After his first trip to Vietnam, Tony Bedard, our CEO, told me how spending the night with a small farmer and his family there reminded him of his childhood on an Iowa farm — everyone getting up at the crack of dawn to do chores just as he had.)

We see how things are done, just as you might if you stopped by to tour a local farm you were buying from. Most of the small growers, like those here in Iowa, are eager to show us the quality of their crops and talk about things — like their commitment to preserving their land for the next generation.

We meet the people in the communities, too, and come to understand how our doing business there impacts them. Most of the communities are centered on agriculture, and a fair, caring partner like Frontier Co-op means a greatly improved way of life.

Frontier Co-op CEO Tony Bedard lends a hand building wells in Madagascar villages.

Frontier Co-op CEO Tony Bedard lends a hand building wells in Madagascar villages.

The spices are authentic. Frontier Co-op spices come from real places and real people with stories — positive stories that we’re glad to share. In the 31 years I’ve worked here, those stories have only gotten better. Our co-op’s success has provided the resources to make a greater and greater impact in the local communities around the world where we do business — sending kids to school in Vietnam and Madagascar, digging wells in Madagascar and Sri Lanka, providing hungry kids meals in India, and much more. We continue to build on the idealism of our founding values, striving to be an open and honest cooperative business that makes the world a better place.

The values behind the “buy local” movement and our sourcing are almost identical. Both champion quality products that are grown organically and sustainably and support local families, communities and economies. My cinnamon comes from a lot farther away than my tomatoes, but I feel just as good about the relationships and impact Frontier Co-op has on the local growers, their communities and the environment as I do about the effect of our farmer’s market on my own community. When the values are there, I feel like I’m buying local, no matter where the products originate.

What does “buying local” mean to you?

Alan MilesAbout the Author: Alan explores ideas and issues related to a sustainable lifestyle — from cooking and culture to social and environmental responsibility. He enjoys Shakespeare, but not as much as college basketball (Go Hawks!). Alan is a family man, liking nothing better than spending time with his wife of 35 years, his four kids and four grandkids.


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