Discovering how ‘co-op’ means ‘community’

By Kailee Meskimen

Stepping foot into my local food co-op, New Pioneer Co-op, for the first time earlier this year made me feel alive again. Rainbows of local produce as far as the eye could see, a make-your-own nut butter station and a tall display of more spices, herbs and teas than I could imagine (even working at Frontier!). Grass-fed beef and cage-free eggs surrounded by towers of natural care products and organic snacks. A scratch bakery and sandwich bar that produced the most heavenly aromas. Passerby shoppers smiling and suggesting their tried-and-true favorites.


Stopping in front of the Frontier Co-op bulk display during our visit to New Pioneer Co-op earlier this summer.

Food co-ops hold a whole new meaning for me now — community. Living in Iowa, we boast some of the world’s most fertile soil, yet, unfortunately, we are surrounded by genetically-modified crops and supermarkets filled with processed foods. Finding organic and locally-produced food is like searching for a needle in a haystack, unless you make it to the weekly farmer’s market, join a CSA or grow it yourself. Although supermarkets are striving to provide more organic and natural products, I discovered the day I visited New Pioneer why food co-ops are the go-to place and why that community is so special.

Co-op principles

The food co-op community begins with an established set of principles. According to the National Cooperative Grocers Association (NCGA) consumer website, “unlike their conventional counterparts, co-ops are owned and governed by member-shoppers and rooted in principles like community, voluntary and open membership, economic participation and cooperation. Because of these principles and practices, food co-ops inherently serve and benefit the communities where they are located.” Co-ops partner with local farms to offer consumers fresh and wholesome food. When you shop at the co-op, you help support sustainable production methods and feel good about doing it. By becoming a member, you not only feel good investing in a community-owned business, but you have the opportunity to vote and voice your opinion. Continue reading

What makes co-ops great

By Alan Miles

When people ask me why I’ve stayed at Frontier Co-op so long (I’ve worked here more than 30 years), I tell them I enjoy working at a place that shares my values. And underpinning most of those values — such as our environmental and social responsibility, openness, integrity and fairness — is our cooperative business structure. I believe that being owned by our customers has been a key not only to our financial success, but to maintaining our values as well.

And people seem to agree. We recently found that most people — from regular customers to those who have never heard of us — react very positively to our being a co-op and assume we conduct business fairly. Co-ops have a great image with the public. It’s something they’ve earned by, for the most part, reflecting the society-strengthening values of their cooperative owners.

What makes co-ops great

In most ways, cooperatives are like other businesses. Their facilities and equipment are much like those of their competitors and, to be successful, the businesses must be run well. Co-ops are even incorporated in most cases, filing papers with the state as a specially structured corporation. There are bylaws and other necessary legal papers. There is a board of directors that sets policy and oversees the management that runs the day-to-day operations.

But co-ops are different in that they are owned and controlled (through the election of the Board) by members who have direct participation in the business. There are many types of co-ops, but often the participation is as a customer of the co-op — as it is with Frontier Co-op. Members of the co-ops collectively supply the capital the business needs and share its earnings.

A surprise rainstorm made leaving the temporary parking area of our 1983 Member Meeting a cooperative effort.

A surprise rainstorm made leaving the temporary parking area of our 1983 Member Meeting a cooperative effort — exemplifying what the co-op business structure is all about.

Continue reading

Sustainability’s next generation

By Alan Miles

My hope for the future has been encouraged by meeting some of the smart, energetic and hardworking individuals in the emerging generation of sustainability leaders. I’m optimistic that their commitment to organic growing and social justice will have a positive impact on our world.

If we’re to have a sustainable future, these leaders will have to continue to build upon our current consciousness and practices of sustainability, addressing both the environmental and social issues of a growing world. The annual scholarship our co-op endowed in 2009 for the farming apprentice program at the University of California Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) is one way we’re helping build this next generation of leaders — and one that I’ve personally enjoyed being part of.

Alex Vaugh, this year's scholarship recipient.

Alex Vaugh, this year’s Simply Organic 1% Fund scholarship recipient. Alex hopes he can develop a combination CSA/food bank sustainably farming operation to produce fresh, organic food for families in need.

Responsibility and awareness

When the scholarship was being set up, our thenVice President of Sustainability Kathy Larson visited the Center and said afterwards, “I was impressed with the quality of the program — and even more so with the apprentices enrolled in the program.”

Having interviewed all five of the apprentices who have received the scholarship so far for their profiles on Simply Organic’s website, I agree completely with Kathy’s assessment. Our scholarship recipients’ sense of social responsibility and awareness of the role our food systems play in it are qualities that can help build a better world. Continue reading

One member, one vote: How co-ops meld business and democracy

Tony Bedard, right, and Dr. Sarath Ranaweera, an organic agriculture and tea specialist who founded the agricultural processing and exporting company Bio Foods Bio Foods (Pvt) Ltd and helped create the growers organization the Small Organic Farmers’ Association (SOFA). Dr. Ranaweera, who is our partner in a program to build wells in northern Sri Lanka, spoke at this year's Annual Co-op Member Meeting.

Tony Bedard, right, and Dr. Sarath Ranaweera, an organic agriculture and tea specialist from Sri Lanka. Dr. Ranaweera founded Bio Foods (Pvt) Ltd (an agricultural processing and exporting company) and helped create the Small Organic Farmers Association (SOFA). A partner in our program to build wells in northern Sri Lanka, Dr. Ranaweera spoke at this year’s Annual Member Meeting.

By Tony Bedard, Frontier Co-op CEO

This year a national election follows on the heels of both our recently completed Frontier Co-op Board of Directors election and Co-op Month in October. It seems a good time to reflect on the democratic nature of our co-op and cooperative business in general.

The second of the seven Cooperative Principles states that co-ops must have democratic member control. (These principles were set out in Rochdale, England, in 1844 and have remained the foundation on which co-operatives around the world have operated ever since.) This principle gives all members equal voting rights on a one member, one vote basis.

Frontier Co-op democracy
Frontier Co-op’s 40,000-plus members are represented by its elected Board of Directors. The members elect seven Board members, two advisory positions are appointed by the Board and Frontier Co-op’s CEO is automatically a Board member. A Board election is held each summer to elect about half of the Board members. (The terms are staggered to provide continuity.)

The Board directs co-op business, representing the members in approval of strategies and budgets, long-term planning, hiring and evaluating the CEO and other ownership responsibilities. The membership has direct responsibility for changes to the co-op’s business structure through modifications to Frontier Co-op’s articles of incorporation. Changes to those documents must be approved by a full membership vote. Continue reading

My organic living “Aha!” moment: Connecting micronutrients to organic food

By Charlynn Avery

My organic living “Aha!” moment was during my study of micronutrients for a holistic nutrition diploma.

The word “organic” has always been important to me. What is derived from living matter is organic – not only in the context of plants, but all life. Organic means authentic, real and alive.

Charlynn (1)

My conscious choice to live organically was an early moment in adulthood when I realized that I wanted to live a life that was authentic and real. I had already began surrounding myself with organic products and making choices that reflected that ideal. However, it wasn’t until I educated myself about the impact of organic living on my health and wellbeing that I made the shift to where I am today. Organic ceased being an idyllic word and became a life priority. Continue reading

Community giving: Doing a world of good

By Alan Miles

Dennis Knock knows how to lend a hand to communities — whether it’s providing much-needed processing equipment for a farmer co-op in South Africa or rescue equipment for a volunteer fire department in a town just down the road from Frontier Co-op’s headquarters in rural Iowa.

Frontier Co-op in Bulgaria

Dennis (left) visiting our lavender supplier in Bulgaria. This field is located near the villages where Frontier Co-op is building soccer fields and establishing other outreach programs for underprivileged youth.

As a commodity manager for Frontier Co-op’s Global Sourcing team, Dennis travels the world to meet with the growers who supply Frontier’s high quality herbs and spices — often poor farmers with very small individual plots of land who form co-ops to work together. The growers’ communities (commonly small villages) often lack some of the basics we take for granted, like medical care, education, water and electricity. Through our Well Earth® Sustainable Sourcing Program, Frontier Co-op helps these communities with projects like digging wells in Madagascar. One project Dennis has been instrumental in coordinating this year involves building soccer fields and establishing other youth outreach programs in underprivileged villages in Bulgaria.

When he’s home, Dennis travels to nearby towns in Iowa to lend a similar helping hand. As head of Frontier Co-op’s Community Giving Program, Dennis gives $10,000 to our employees’ communities each year. The funds are allocated by an employee committee, going to organizations, charities, events and causes in local communities.

I asked Dennis what it’s like being on the front line of our company’s community donations both at home and around the world.

“I love being able to see the expressions of gratitude for the people, communities and events we help support,” he said. “It’s an honor to work for a company that recognizes the needs that exist both locally and globally — and then walks the walk when it comes to taking an active role in meeting those needs.” Continue reading

My Earth Day wish: Treat climate change as an alien attack

FR WEB Earth Day Wish 04-14

By Alan Miles

During a speech before the United Nations in 1987, President Ronald Reagan suggested the world would stand together as one if aliens invaded Earth:

Perhaps we need some outside universal threat to make us recognize our common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.

I suggest that on Earth Day, the governments of the world announce they’ve discovered that climate change is the work of extraterrestrial beings intent on destroying earth, rather than something we’re foolishly doing to ourselves. Perhaps that will unite us in worldwide action. It’s not too late, but we need to get going. Continue reading

Dedicating The Kathy Krezek Larson Tallgrass Prairie

By Alan Miles

tallgrass prairie

Kathy with the sign for the newly-dedicated prairie.

The Frontier prairie located at our headquarters in Norway, Iowa, was dedicated as The Kathy Krezek Larson Tallgrass Prairie upon the retirement of Vice President of Sustainability Kathy Larson this spring.

tallgrass prairie

Kathy with Frontier CEO Tony Bedard at the surprise dedication ceremony, where she saw the sign and dedication plaque for the first time.

Kathy had a profound influence on Frontier in her three decades of work here. Her knowledge of herbs and aromatherapy was key to establishing Frontier’s expertise in those areas, she established our uncompromising product standards as quality assurance manager, and she was central to the development of Frontier’s social responsibility programs. Continue reading

The signs are obvious: Facing cinnamon supply pressure


By Cole Daily

One of my favorite movies, The Man with Two Brains, has a scene where Steve Martin’s character is talking to the portrait of his deceased wife and asking her for a sign — even the smallest of signs, anything at all — to indicate whether he should marry a new love he’s come across. As he asks the portrait above the fireplace for guidance, the house starts to shake like a violent earthquake has hit, a voice out of nowhere says emphatically, ”No! No!,” and the portrait begins to spin like a roulette wheel on the wall. It all stops, and Martin implores, “Just give me a sign, any type of sign.” He then goes about marrying the new woman.

“What does this scene have to do with the price of cinnamon in Indonesia?” you ask. We’re getting signs from all over the world that are about as subtle as the ones Martin’s character was getting from the portrait — signs that things are changing in the realm of spices.

A changing environment
There’s not a trip that I go on where a farmer doesn’t express concern about changing climactic conditions and how it’s affecting his crops. Also, land is becoming scarce. Land that was once used for growing spices is now being utilized for food crops or alternative fuel crops like jatropha (an inedible, evergreen shrub cultivated in tropical and sub-tropical regions), switch grass and corn. Companies as well as countries are buying arable land in Africa and Asia so that they can feed growing populations and meet the need for more fuel. There is every indication that spice prices will continue to rise (they have risen in the marketplace by over 50 percent since 2008), quality will probably suffer, and overall availability will be hindered.

As a spice supplier, we are constantly confronted with individual situations growing out of this changing environment. Continue reading

Kathy Larson: An essential Frontier ingredient

Kathy Larson allspice seedlings

Kathy (in blue pants) delivers organic allspice seedlings to native growers in Guatemala.

By Alan Miles

Almost 33 years ago, a woman dressed as a witch stopped by a converted grocery store in Fairfax, Iowa, to pick up her buying club order from the then fledgling Frontier Herbs. She started talking to the guy who brought her order out, excited that there was now a place to buy herbs within driving distance of her rural home. As she was leaving, she remarked, “It’s so cool that you guys are here!” The Frontier staff member replied, “Do you want a job?”

Back in her car after accepting the offer, the woman realized that she had never mentioned during her conversation that she was going to a Halloween party. She wondered if they would be expecting her to show up the next day in a black hat and cape.

That impromptu interview and job offer had a profound influence on Frontier. The woman hired was Kathy Larson. Currently our Vice President of Sustainability, Kathy has been instrumental in helping make Frontier what it is today. Continue reading