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Producer Profile: Frontier Natural Products Co-op
Co-ops: Working Together for the Common Good
The Meaning of Membership
by Lynn Olson, Member Services Manager
We couldn’t think of another cooperative better suited for the Producer Profile for National Co-op Month than Frontier Natural Products Co-op (FNPC). Much like our own cooperative, FNPC began with the same kind of passion and humble commitment to provide their members affordable, clean foods. In 1976, when they started their company, they were a two-person operation, working out of a small cabin along the Cedar River in Eastern Iowa. Now, nearly 30 years later, they are a thriving, international company comprised of over 85,000 sq. ft. of factory and warehousing and an adjacent 50 acres of land centered near the rural community of Norway, Iowa.
As a cooperative owned by nearly 17,000 wholesale customers, FNPC’s mission is “to convert the world to natural and organic products” and judging by their actions, they clearly have that objective well in hand. Their Board of Directors, comprised of five members and assisted by two inside Director positions and two at-large board-appointed positions, certainly have their work cut out for them.
Some of the current product offerings from the cooperative that you may be familiar with include spices, herbal supplements, bodycare products and herbal extracts. In all, there are three divisions all working under the umbrella of the cooperative and they are:
• Frontier Natural Products: All-natural and organic spices, dried foods, teas and herbs since 1976.
• Aura Cacia: 100 percent pure essential oils and all-natural personalcare products. Acquired in 1993.
• Simply Organic: Certified organic spices, seasoning mixes, dips and salad dressing mixes. Founded in 2002.
The accolades bestowed upon FNPC are many. They remain committed not only to keeping their systems sustainable but carry that ideal to their investors, other business owners, workers and consumers to promote social and environmental responsibility. Working Mother Magazine has rated them, for three years running, among the top 100 places to work. Employees enjoy an on-site daily lunch program providing full nutritious meals with natural and organic ingredients for less than $3.00 a day. An on-site gym and a subsidized childcare center are just a couple more of the benefits of working for their company.
Kathy Larson, Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility for FNPC, explains how the growth of Frontier has impacted their local community, “Well of course there are lots of little things, but I think the biggest impact is to women in the area. We are located in a rural farm community where jobs are scarce without driving to the city. With our benefits plan and child-care center, we are able to offer a close-to-home job for many people, but especially women earning a second income to support a farm-related first income. We have 210 employees, 70 percent women. Some of them had children in daycare who now work here as young adults. We do little things to make it easier for women to work, like allowing nursing moms to leave their work to nurse their baby or arranging for the school bus to drop kids off [here] at the end of the day.”
Not surprisingly, FNPC has been a recipient of the Socially Responsible Business Award given yearly at the Natural Food Expo and sponsored by several natural/organic food manufacturers. The award was based on FNPC’s commitment to social sustainability —recycled paper in printed materials, recycling cardboard and other materials from operations. Kathy summarizes how this work continues, “We are continually trying to ‘green’ our company. We recently underwent a waste stream audit looking for ways to recycle or reduce waste. We are in the process of converting our employee cafeteria to all organic meals and plan to be at 50 percent this and 100 percent next year.”
Regarding some of that acreage that surrounds the factory, Kathy adds, “We have a 21 acre, re-established tall grass prairie that was hand-sown 15 years ago by employees. We are planting a ‘Living Herbarium’ botanical garden to serve as a reference for our QA (Quality Assurance) staff and an educational as well as enjoyable experience for our employees, the community and visitors.”
After spending five years developing the National Center for the Preservation of Medicinal Herbs in southeastern Ohio, FNPC donated the entire $500,000 operation to the non-profit organization Rural Action. The new owners are carrying on FNPC’s commitment to providing a haven for and developing cultivation methods for traditional herbal medicines. FNPC established the Center in 1998 to save the land among the Appalachian foothills from deforestation and to preserve the many herbs that faced extinction due to popular demand.
Another outstanding program launched by FNPC is called “CON.V.E.R.T.” designed to promote their mission to convert the entire world to organic and sustainable growing systems. The CONvergence of Vendors Ethical and Responsible Transformation “establishes guidelines for vendors to ensure ethical business conduct and sustainable farming practices, and aids in their development to guarantee high quality products internationally.” Kathy says, “We are pleased to be able to start [CON.V.E.R.T.] off with such a dedicated partner in India. Our new organic Indian Select Vanilla Extract is the only new product to come through this program. We are paying a premium for the vanilla beans to make this product, and that money is going back to the farmers, the women to cure and process the beans and to a program that is feeding Indian children. In addition, there is a one percent of sales portion that also goes to helping feed children [in that area]. We are in the beginning phases with a couple of other suppliers but not really far enough along to know whether there is the kind of commitment
there to move forward yet in other communities.”
FNPC supports various socially responsible activities in their vendor/ member communities. As Kathy describes, “We have established the Frontier Foundation with unclaimed or returned patronage checks from members, which makes grants to social and environmental causes. We just donated $5,000 to the American Red Cross for Katrina relief and have an additional $2,000 grant pending to the Katrina Cooperative Recovery fund. Speaking of Katrina, we have a local person with two shower trucks, and he and his brother (a plant manager at Frontier) are leaving for Louisiana to donate the use of those trucks for the next three months. We have donated $1,000 worth of soap, shampoo and towels to stock the trucks. And we are doing a Red Cross blood drive here at Frontier.”
Speaking about ongoing support, Kathy adds, “We donate one percent of Simply Organic sales to organic farming causes. Over the last few years support has gone to such groups as The Organic Farming Research Foundation, The Organic Center and The Ecological Farming Association. One of the things that has worked well for us for community donations is the Community Giving Team (CGT) established two years ago. CGT is comprised of employees from across the company who set criteria and decide how to spend the money budgeted for social giving in local communities. These monies go to support such things as summer reading programs, summer activities for children sports, playground equipment and school activities.”
As a leader in the field of product testing, quality assurance is woven into every aspect of their business, but none more so than in their laboratories. From in-house and independent labs, all of their raw ingredients are tested and maintained to assure purity where only 40 percent of their ingredients were approved and released for production last year. Temperature-controlled storage assures that each product is maintained at its most potent/effective level. “We have a staff of nine who focus on testing and evaluating raw materials and products for authenticity, purity and quality. Quality Assurance [staff] also works with production to establish and maintain Good Manufacturing Processes (GMPs), which includes such things as sanitation, process and inventory controls, regulatory compliance, labeling and fill weights,” Kathy said.
Education is a key component among all cooperatives and FNPC fills a large part of that commitment by providing a yearly family-centered festival called HerbFest on their property in Iowa. Participants can learn about herbs, natural healthcare and sustainable living while camping on the land. An entire roster of children’s activities during the weekend includes herbal workshops, swimming, crafts and pajama parties.
But the education work never ends for an active cooperative. As Kathy describes the most current projects, “Another area we are focusing on is reliable information about natural products. We are developing a database of information that will make it easier and quicker for customer service to answer questions. And we are working on getting more product information on our website.”
If you’re interested in learning more about Frontier Natural Products Cooperative, their extremely informative website can be found at: www.frontiercoop.com. The Willy Street Co-op carries a plethora of Frontier products, from the bulk spice and tea sections to the Health and Wellness aisle.