spotlight series

Regina Frahm | newton, iowa

Regina Frahm may be best known for transforming an unsightly bar into a modern day mercantile in her hometown of Newton, Iowa, but this sheep-farmer-turned-small-business-guru has mastered the art of building community as well. In 2019, Frahm, who was partially raised by her grandparents, opened her mercantile, Esther & Company on the town’s main square. Named after her grandmother, Esther, Regina hoped to have a space to sell her locally spun yarn. The retail space evolved and has become in the eyes of many, the heart of this agriculture-rich community. Here’s what Regina has to say about flocks, community, and the importance of supporting local.

I married into the sheep business 35 years ago. The flock I married into were Dorset Suffolk crosses, which was pretty typical for the midwest. At that time, the family thought that wool had no value, it was just a byproduct of having a small flock. I started reading and learning that there were more breeds out there and people were selling wool. That there was income from wool.

My experience with wool growing up was very old itchy army blankets and boiled wool jackets. There was nothing about wool that seemed desirable at that time. Looking to fill my partially empty farm with sheep wasn’t something that came naturally, but we thought maybe we’d try to do things a little differently. My sons, husband, and I drove to New Jersey and picked up some Cormo sheep. That’s how we got started with wool. That was 17 years ago.

When Regina began to explore different ways to use the wool from her sheep, she had no idea it would end up being the catalyst helping to change the face of her small town in the heart of Iowa. But when she got the chance a couple of years ago to renovate a building in the town square in tandem with a dear friend, she took it. Built in 1870, the space came complete with aged drywall, the stench of an old bar, and tattered window coverings. With a little bit of vision and a whole lotta faith Regina was able to rehabilitate the space, and bring to life a spot where she could not only sell her homespun yarns, but also host a myriad of local retail vendors, and as an added bonus she figured out a way to build a workshop where she would be able to dye and wash her wool on-site.

I always said if I was ever going to open a real, grown-up retail space there was no way I could open just a yarn shop. There are too many other interests in my life and there are too many other people in our state and in our country that are actually trying to do this — to make a go at doing what they love. But it’s hard when you’re a small producer to be able to have enough of your own things to open and sustain a full-on brick and mortar

I have friends who are amazing bakers, we know great artisan cheese makers, and we have a great source for high-quality meat. So here we all are. Working together to bring this amazing new space to life. Here to help bring this community together.

COVID has made us really stand on our own two feet. Shipping prices have tripled since the pandemic started. There’s a fine line between what I want to do and ‘is this profitable?’. I want to support the cheese makers in Northern Iowa, so I might hop in my car and hand deliver the cheese to Ester & Company. We have to work with each other now, we have to make the world move when COVID kind of wants us to stay still.

We’ve reverted back to the old barter system and it’s working. People want to help. It’s important for this community to feel helpful because we don’t know what to do to fix the economy. To fix any of the problems that COVID has brought. But at least if we feel like we’re helping our community it encourages us to keep going.

Regina and her business partner renovated the interior of the building, but they didn’t stop there. They knew what an important factor curb appeal played in helping to build the type of Main Street area they envisioned for their community. So they added new awnings, redid the alley entrance, and spruced up the window displays. When the Main Street Preservation Group saw what a difference these types of updates made to the face of the town square they negotiated a deal where everyone on the square could have their awnings cleaned and washed up and they’d pick up half the tab. Esther & Company’s success inadvertently became the linchpin to creating a vibrant and economically sound Main Street area.

My passion is helping people understand that when you buy local, when you buy direct, you’re actually making a difference to that one family. To that local community. Your money is going so much further than when you spend at the big box store who doesn’t even know what products they’re selling. You’re going to feel good about what you’re wearing and what you’re eating when you support small.

I really kind of stink at marketing. I’m definitely not an expert at marketing. I’m really serious, I’m a lazy marketer. Any success we have had has been because of word of mouth.

Growing wool, building a yarn shop, and constructing the retail space all stemmed from marrying into a sheep family. Regina couldn’t have envisioned how her small flock and the wool it provided would transform her life and also the landscape of her hometown. But she’s grateful for it.

Bringing the sheep to our farm gave our land purpose. We don’t have a lot of land. But having  sheep here gave us another way to use what we had.

I can take one year’s fleece off a Cormo and sell it directly to a handspinner in my area. This is another crop for us. We’ve figured out a way to make sure that every bit of our fleece is useful. All the skirting gets sent off and turned into comb top. The tags go to a local gardening club. Everyone is happy and now we’ve used every single bit of our fleece.

Sheep have given me and my family a sense of stability. Farming is too unpredictable anymore. Sheep and wool have helped provide income to compensate for years like this one where crops fail and are lost. Because of our sheep and the wool they provide, we have felt very fortunate.

When you have a space like Esther & Company stocked with renewable and sustainable wool yarns; organic, locally-produced meats and cheeses; and baked goods from neighboring communities, it affords smaller towns, like Newton, the opportunity to experience something other than the dollar store or big box reseller. The mercantile gives people the chance to see that their neighbors and friends are working hard to be makers. Townspeople can choose healthier options. Not just for themselves but for the planet.

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