Expanding Organic Herb Production in the Northwest

by Dennis Knock

In August 2015, I made a return visit to north central Oregon to view field trials for expanding organic peppermint production and beginning production of echinacea, catnip and skullcap, three popular herbs that have suffered a recent decrease in domestic production. Frontier provided our Well Earth partner with funds for the trials in the spring, with harvest taking place in July and August.

The trials were on 102 acres of land recently converted to certified organic agriculture. I visited to see how the trials had gone for both the organic peppermint and new herbs.

Echinacea field in north central Oregon

Echinacea field trial in north central Oregon

The land is along the Columbia River and is considered high desert area, with dry conditions and high winds. With irrigation from the Columbia River, it’s very conducive to growing mint and other hearty plants such as the three herbs chosen.

On my visit in 2013 when the conversion project was being launched, there was confidence this land would be productive, but there were concerns over weed control, water usage and plant quality since the land had been used for conventional production prior to conversion.

But the results were very positive in all respects. The mint quality and yield was outstanding and superior to other organic fields in the area. Weeds were not a problem, which kept production costs down and allowed for a higher yield. The results of the field trials for the new herbs were also very positive, producing tall and robust plants with good color and aroma. Hand-sifted samples of the field trials were sent to the Frontier Quality Lab for evaluation and received high marks for quality.

catnip field in north central Oregon

Catnip field trial in north central Oregon

Full production of these items will begin this spring, with the first delivery of product expected by early fall. Given the success of the trials, we are now partnering with the supplier for field trials of organic culinary herbs, such as dill, cilantro and parsley. We hope to complete the trials this year and begin production in 2017. Frontier is also supporting the supplier in improving the drying of these items by assisting in the funding of a mechanized dryer. The faster, better drying will increase the overall quality of the products.

We’re very encouraged by the initial success of this Well Earth project, and we’re excited about the future prospects of offering more high quality domestically produced organic herbs through the expansion of organic farming in the Pacific Northwest.


About the Author:  Dennis travels the world as a Commodity Manager for Frontier’s Global Sourcing team to meet with the growers who supply Frontier. He often coordinates donations through our Well Earth sourcing program for grower communities (commonly small villages) to provide basics we take for granted, such as medical care, education, water and electricity. In Iowa, Dennis is head of our Community Giving Program and travels to nearby towns to lend a helping hand to local organizations, charities and events.

Sustainability in our own backyard

Each year, my colleagues in Frontier Co-op’s purchasing department travel the globe to source herbs, spices, and essential oils — ensuring not just quality, but that our products are produced in ways that are good for growers and the planet. aerialfrontier

Sourcing from more than 50 countries gives us a global perspective on sustainability. And we’re firmly rooted in Eastern-Iowa farm country as well. So when we were approached recently to sign on as one of the first members of the Iowa Sustainable Business Forum, a brand-new coalition of Iowa companies looking to tackle sustainability issues, it was only natural for us to join.

I recently had the chance to attend the Forum’s kick-off event, which was taking place just down the road from our headquarters in Norway, Iowa.

isbf_logoIt was inspiring to arrive and see that nearly 20 other Iowa companies also prioritized sustainability enough to be there. As I got acquainted with the others, I realized that Frontier is part of a community of companies making progress toward more sustainable business practices — from responsible sourcing to recycling to protecting bees to conserving water — right here in our Midwestern backyard. It was also gratifying to see the diversity of Iowa businesses that are working on sustainability issues. These include a small community bank as well as a multi-national financial services company, and our own natural and organic products co-operative and more mainstream food and agribusiness companies. Some businesses are just beginning their sustainability journey, while others have been focusing on the issues for years. But across the board, there was a genuine interest in making business more sustainable and an openness to sharing successful approaches with others.

I’ve been working on business sustainability for a while but I’m still a newcomer to Iowa, so to get a better perspective on Iowa’s issues and this group, I talked with Adam Hammes, an Iowa native who has played a lead role in getting the Iowa Sustainable Business Forum off the ground.

The genesis for the forum, Adam told me, came when he was working on sustainability issues for a major Iowa company and having adhoc get-togethers with like-minded people from other local businesses. The group was informal but saw real value in sharing sustainability successes and challenges. Eventually, Adam collaborated with Iowa State University to do a broad survey of Iowa businesses, including Frontier Co-op, and found that others in the state also wanted to be part of a sustainable business conversation. That set the Sustainable Business Forum in motion.

I asked Adam what he felt a group of Iowa-based companies could add to the global conversation on sustainable business. His answer was simple but thoughtful: we need local solutions to global problems. This rings true to the experience that Frontier Co-op has had over the years in initiatives for reducing waste reduction, increasing renewable energy and supporting the local community. Our challenges are often similar to those facing others around the world, but the resources we harness to address them need to be found right here at home.

I left the first Sustainable Business Forum event with a pocketful of business cards of kindred spirits from other local companies who I intend to follow up with to gain their insights, and I’m excited for the Forum’s next meeting.

Over the years, Frontier has taken many steps forward to make our business good for people and the planet, but we certainly haven’t found all the solutions. We look forward to learning from our Iowa neighbors and working together with them through the Iowa Sustainable Business Forum to find those local solutions to our global problems.


Seth PetchersAbout the Author:  Leveraging 15 years of on-the-ground experience in sustainable global supply chains — including two years working for Fair Trade in rural India — Seth Petchers leads Frontier Co-op’s efforts to deepen its sustainable sourcing and operations programs. He’s developing initiatives to further support socially and environmentally responsible suppliers; strengthen and expand Frontier’s pioneering Well Earth sourcing program; and reduce the company’s environmental footprint.

8 New Year’s resolutions that begin in your kitchen

sustainable kitchen tips

By Alan Miles

If you’re thinking about 2015 resolutions that make both your world and the world better, start in your kitchen. It’s probably a hub of activity in your life, offers plenty of opportunities to save money and — because it’s a key area of resource use and waste production — it’s a great place to make changes with an environmental impact.

Here are 8 simple, kitchen-centric New Year’s resolutions that benefit you and the environment:

The resolution: I will make fewer shopping trips.
Shop less frequently (especially for non-perishables) with a shopping list to eliminate forgotten items.
How you benefit: Save gas and time, and make fewer potentially unhealthy and expensive impulse purchases.
How the environment benefits: Less fossil fuels used.

The resolution: I will buy local food.
Take control over your purchase of food and prioritize what you can find that’s locally grown and in season to put your eating in sync with your geography. Many co-ops and natural food stores champion local food. Also, check your local media for info about farmers markets and CSAs, or look them up on the Local Harvest website.
How you benefit: Get fresh, in-season food from people in your community and support your local economy.
How the environment benefits: Lower carbon footprint with less travel and packaging for food that’s in harmony with your geography and seasons. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

6 ideas for a smaller travel footprint

FR WEB Cayenne Room - Sustainable Travel

By Alan Miles

It’s hard to do much traveling without having a negative effect on the environment. After all, moving so many people and so much stuff around on the planet’s surface is a big part of our environmental problems to begin with.

But there are some ways to keep our traveling footprint under control. If we’re working on living more sustainably in our everyday activities, why not make it a part of special activities, like travel, as well?

My wife, Karen, and I aren’t exactly world travelers, but we enjoy the occasional getaway, and we have enough family and friends spread around the country to warrant trips away from home. In the course of our travels, we’ve come up with a few ideas about traveling sustainably — tips that, happily for our limited-budget lifestyle, coincide well with traveling inexpensively.

Embrace public transportation. When we took our five-year-old grandson to Chicago for a birthday present, we took Amtrak to Union Station, and walked to and from a downtown hotel. From there, we walked to the Field Museum to see Sue (the famous T. rex), Buckingham Fountain, Memorial Park and other downtown attractions. When Karen and I went to Washington, D.C., to visit our daughter, we stayed at a hotel right across the street from a Metro station. We got everywhere we wanted to go without contributing to automobile emissions or D.C. traffic congestion. When we visit New York, we stay with Karen’s relatives on Long Island and take the trains into and around the city.

trains1

It was no trouble getting five-year-old Trice to ride the train. In fact, the trains became a source of entertainment for him during our trip to Chicago this summer.

When we fly, we always use electronic ticketing for airplane flights, which avoids paper waste as well as being convenient. Enduring layovers is usually unavoidable when flying economically out of rural Iowa, but, if you can, flying direct is more sustainable since airplane emissions are greatest during takeoff and landing. Continue reading

My organic living “Aha!” moment: Learning the benefits of eating well and sustainably

By Liz Hopkins

My organic living “Aha!” moment was when I was hired as the chef at Frontier’s employee cafe.

I didn’t really have a sudden moment of revelation when I fully realized the value of eating organically. Instead, I gradually learned about the benefits of eating well and eating sustainably. I converted over a period of years from a meat-eater to a vegetarian committed to buying organic whenever I can.

But even though there wasn’t a moment of sudden realization in my progression, there was that definite turning point — when I was hired to run the employee café at Frontier. I’d worked in hotel kitchens for many years, but when I started at Frontier Co-op, I found for the first time a sizable group of people who appreciated natural food and preferred to eat organically.

ChefLiz_Feb2013-001a

Learning on the job

The new job was definitely a learning experience — natural ingredients replaced the highly processed ones I was used to, and the nutritional value and wholesomeness of the food moved front and center. Efficiency was still important, but it didn’t trump food quality in the Frontier Café.

My outlook — and my skills — changed. I enjoyed the experience of learning to cook with whole grains, dried beans, seasonal produce and the like. It was easy converting familiar recipes to more natural versions, and it was fun to experiment with the almost unlimited seasoning palette of the spices Frontier sells. I felt great about the food I was making at work, and soon I was cooking the same way at home. Continue reading

How to eat consciously with gratitude

FS-WEB-Cayenne-Room-Pondering-Hunger

By Tom Havran

Feasting. Throughout history, humans have enjoyed transitory moments of bliss induced by the sensual enjoyment of superlative food. The food might be humble and rustic or sophisticated and composed, but when it’s beautiful and delicious, something remarkable occurs. Our eyes, noses, taste buds and minds elevate the base experience of merely eating to rapturous and rare heights of joy where gratitude finds the space to flow in.

This phenomenon creates the mental space necessary for our minds to open to the whole story of the food we’re eating and the path it took to give us such pleasure. Eating good food consciously with a sense of gratitude not only turns mere gratuitous consumption into a grateful repast, it gives us profound insight into ourselves and how our minds work in relation to food.

Hunger and faith

I was raised by a father who is a skilled butcher and a mother who is a skilled cook. They both marshaled their talents to nurture a large family, all of whom participated in the raising, killing, cooking and eating of all kinds of animal and vegetable life. On the farm, I raised pigs, cows and chickens from their births on, growing fond of them in the process. I cared for and even loved these animals, then participated in the horrors of their deaths at slaughter and subsequently savored their flavor at the table. Experiencing the whole process, I learned where food comes from, but more profoundly, I understood that getting it to the table involved a continuum of tenderness and caring through pain and death, to tenderness and caring again during shared meals. How was my mind able to hold this? Continue reading

Why we switched to biodegradable packing peanuts

Frontier Co-op customers are smart people, and it’s not uncommon for us to hear questions that start with, “Why do you …?” This first post in our new “Why We” series explains a simple but important topic: Why we use biodegradable packing peanuts in our shipments.

By Alan Miles

We’ve answered a lot of questions from our customers about our packing peanuts — both before and after our switch to biodegradable ones in 2008. The switch itself answered most of the questions we had gotten before, which were basically variations on “How can you keep sending us polystyrene packing peanuts that are a mess to deal with, pollute our planet and take hundreds of years to decompose?”

The answer then was that it was very difficult to find something truly sustainable to do the job of protecting the wide variety of packaging (including glass) that we ship. We tried various biodegradable materials with mixed responses from customers and discouraging shipping costs.

PackingPeanuts2

The compact, starch-based pellets we bring in are 1/28 the volume of the biodegradable packing peanuts we puff them into for use in shipments.

Problem solved

We’re as happy as our greenest customers to have finally found the right solution — and to have accomplished one of our major sustainability objectives. We enjoy answering the questions that we’re getting now, which are basically variations on “What’s the deal with the new packing peanuts?”

The peanuts we’ve found not only do a great job of protecting our products and quickly biodegrade — they reduce shipping emissions and save us money, too.

Each pallet of pre-puffed starch pellets (made from corn or potatoes) we bring in produces enough biodegradable peanuts to fill a 53-foot trailer. Here in the Midwest, manufacturers typically haul that truck from Minneapolis, Minn. With our shipping volume, we’d need a full-truck shipment at least once a week. Instead, we bring in four pallets of compact, starch-based pellets twelve times a year to make all the packing peanuts we need on-site.  (We’ve purchased a machine which takes the compact starch pellets and puffs them up into the fluffy peanuts that protect your orders.) We ship in about 1/28 the volume of the puffed peanuts and eliminate the emissions from 40 truck hauls — each burning about 42 gallons of diesel. With a savings of roughly $78,000 in shipping costs per year, our switch to more sustainable packing peanuts paid for itself in less than a year. Continue reading

An inspiring trip to Sri Lanka

Ravin Donald Frontier Co-op

During the trip, I helped plant a coconut tree outside the second Organic Training Center Frontier Co-op has funded in Sri Lanka.

By Ravin Donald, PhD, Frontier Co-op VP of Technical Services

It was a bit of an adventure — a trip to Sri Lanka from Iowa. And, it was certainly a long journey for me as I had taken a detour through India to see my parents before I with met up with Tony Bedard, our CEO, in Sri Lanka earlier this year. This was my first trip to personally visit a Well Earth® supplier. Our Well Earth sustainable sourcing program promotes the sustainable farming practices and production that our customers have come to rely on from us. As head of Quality at Frontier Co-op, I consider the connection to source a very important aspect in driving transparency from farm to table, and improving quality on a continual basis.

Frontier Co-op CEO Tony Bedard (left) reviews the layout of homesteads provided by Sri Lankan government.

Frontier Co-op CEO Tony Bedard (left) reviews the layout of homesteads provided by Sri Lankan government.

Sustainable sourcing in action

Our time on this trip was spent with Dr. Sarath Ranaweera, the founder of Bio Foods in Sri Lanka, a company that provides us with important spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and turmeric. Bio Foods is a pivotal partner in Frontier’s commitment to organics and Fair Trade. (Dr. Ranaweera, in fact, was given Fairtrade International’s “Fairest Fair Trader” award this year.) Our trip was focused on two key main areas — visiting Bio Foods facilities and visiting northeastern Sri Lanka, where people are being resettled in farming communities after the country’s civil war. Continue reading

5 ways Fair Trade supports communities

Sri-lanka-cinnamon-sorters

Ceylon cinnamon, which is sought after for its lighter, brighter taste, comes from the bark of an evergreen tree that is native to Sri Lanka. Frontier Co-op Ceylon cinnamon is Fair Trade Certified. Here, workers sort sticks for quality.

By Alan Miles

The basic idea of Fair Trade certification isn’t difficult to grasp — guaranteed minimum prices, decent work conditions, and fair wages prevent the exploitation of poor farmers and farm workers. I know that without Fair Trade, farmers often have no other alternative but to take whatever, often small amount is offered for their products while farm workers – some of the most exploited in the supply chain – are often subject to harsh working conditions, discrimination, and other abuses. Fair Trade certification means farmers and farm workers can earn living wages for the crops they grow which in turn helps them support their families. The certification also demands humane work conditions, encourages sustainable farming practices and supports direct trade to eliminate exploitive middlemen.

But for some time, I didn’t really understand the full impact of Frontier Co-op’s support of Fair Trade.  Hearing stories from our purchasers who have visited communities that grow our Fair Trade Certified™ spices, herbs and teas, I learned five areas where Fair Trade premiums impact overall communities: Continue reading