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  • Kate Egelhof

The Heart of the Co-op: Why We Love Harmony

Harmony Co-op has a heart-- a living, breathing, beating organ symbolizing both warm, fond emotion and literal lifeblood. This might sound a little strange—after all, this is just a building, right? A brightly-colored metal-and-concrete rectangle with a physical location and a parking lot that gets plowed on snowy days, subject to the same whims of the weather and laws of physics as any other. Sure, we’ve got a lot of cool stuff and a friendly atmosphere, but that’s basically any retail location—right? To the contrary—Harmony Co-op is a special place, both as part of the rural Bemidji community and as a discrete entity in its own right. So where is this mythical heart located, anyway?

The first thing you may think of is the food—which, of course, makes sense. But where to start? The dizzying variety of produce even in the depths of winter-- so much citrus! (The Buddha’s Hand with its scaly yellow fingers! The blood oranges and their brilliant purple center! The tiny kumquats!) Perhaps your tired eyes spy the coffee bins, if your nose doesn’t lead you there first—and your nose will certainly appreciate a stroll past the bulk herbs and spices, fresher than you’ve ever seen in any chain store. There’s every kind of grain and flour imaginable in the bulk bins, as much or as little as you want—and then, ah, then, the cheese case! Every variety, soft or aged, from cow, sheep and goat to almond and soy for the vegans. The grocery aisles have every shelf-stable staple you could dream of (noodles from kelp to mac-and-cheese), the bakery shelves are a carbohydrate paradise (even for the gluten-free), the freezer case boasts everything from wild-caught Alaska salmon to dairy-free ice cream… and we haven’t even gotten to the delights of the deli and the daily soups! Sure, Harmony may be a gastronomic wonderland—but believe it or not, that’s not the most special thing about it.

It’s not just what we sell, it’s how it’s grown. Harmony proudly sells from a number of local vendors; whether you’re looking for local produce (year-round), duck eggs, wild rice, maple syrup, or honey, we make every effort to source and promote items made or grown in the Bemidji/northern Minnesota area. The more money that goes into the local economy, the more the economy benefits and is reinforced—these aren’t just our farmers, they’re our friends and neighbors, too. For every thousand dollars spent at the co-op, $1,600 of economic activity is generated in the local community (according to a study done by the National Co-operative Grocers’ Association). Not only are local products better for the local community, but they’re more environmentally friendly as well. Shorter shipping distances mean less fuel used; also, products stay as fresh as possible so there’s less risk of spoilage. That’s especially important given how much of our produce is organic—that is, non-GMO and grown without artificial fertilizers, hormones, or pesticides. While not all our local produce is certified organic, as the certification process is very expensive and can be difficult for smaller producers, we endeavor to make sure as much of our products as possible are grown without chemicals. Free-range and cage-free meats, dairy, and eggs are also prominent on our shelves—the well-being of the animals we consume is just as important.

Is our dedication to the environment the heart of the co-op? It’s definitely a contributor—from our solar awning (doing double duty keeping our produce fresh longer and providing kilowatts) to our new LED lighting throughout the store, Harmony works hard to provide future generations with as much of a planet as we can. We were the first business in the area to employ solar energy and remain the area’s largest retailer of natural, local, and organic products. Other initiatives include energy-efficient produce and deli cases, a high-efficiency walk-in freezer and hand dryers, and a summertime Pollinator Garden where native flowering plants provide sustenance to the butterflies, moths, and other little friends that keep our plants and our planet alive.

Our staff is dedicated—to their jobs, to the co-op, the community, and the co-operative principles. We go above and beyond customer service and make sure everyone that we encounter is treated with the same dignity and respect that everyone deserves. Our sign says “everyone welcome” and we truly mean it—whether you’re an owner or not, everyone can shop at Harmony. We proudly accept WIC and SNAP and use the Co+op Basics program, which is a selection of organic and healthy foods sold at affordable, competitive prices. If you’re looking for a product that we don’t carry, we’ll happily order it for you or help you find alternatives. Our perishables manager makes regular appearances on our community radio station (check out the Cheese Queen interviews on—not just to promote products, but for the sheer love of delicious food.

Harmony’s presence in the local community isn’t just limited to selling food, of course. From the weekly education and cooking classes (taught by local chefs, owners, and community members) to our annual Black Friday “Buy Local Give Local” celebration, in which a percentage of the day’s sales is donated to local charitable organizations, we do as much as we can to give back and provide opportunities for knowledge, support, and community growth. We have a booth at most local events, including BSU’s Community Day and the county fair, and we have community festivals several times a year showcasing local foods, producers, and organizations working to better the lives of our fellow citizens. We have recently established the Ojibwe Language Project, which aims to reaffirm Bemidji as part of the traditional homelands of the Ojibwe Nation and recognize the Ojibwe people as an important part of the Bemidji community and an important part of Harmony Co-op. This is being done by bringing Ojibwe language into the store to assist and promote efforts of language revitalization in Bemidji; we have an assortment of signage throughout the store by indigenous food items (potatoes, wild rice, strawberries, and more) and feature a new word on social media every Friday.

So what makes Harmony Co-op such a wonderful place? It’s not the kumquats, or the coffee, or even the Cheddar—it’s the people. Owners, employees, and farmers alike—everyone who comes through the doors is a valued and necessary part of the co-op. Everyone in their own way—whether it’s the managers ordering the food, the stockers setting up displays, the cashiers ringing it up, the deli cooking it, or you buying it—contributes to our operations, both day-to-day and long-term. There’s not just one “heart of Harmony”—there’s as many hearts as there are people, and that’s what makes it so special here.

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