What is an equitable economy? How do you engage the underserved in the process of sustaining localized economies, especially in isolated spaces? How can underrepresented communities be the writers of their own collective and individual futures? These were some of the questions I set out to answer when I began organizing artists and food producers in Oregon County, Mo., in 2011.
Like most tangible acts, it began with an idea, a hypothesis. I had been working for a nearby local arts council and their chamber of commerce to explore possibilities for capitalizing on the culture of the Ozark Mountains as a way to boost the economy through tourism. As both a folk musician and a trained ethnographer, I had questions about this model. The more I examined the lives of my community—both historically and in its current state—and worked within this framework, the more problematic it became. I viewed this model and process as an extractive economy, one that was not sustainable for the economy or the culture. No doubt the statistics were dismal, but I wanted and needed more in a solution.
I moved to Oregon County in 2005, coming from the other side of the state line in the Arkansas Ozarks. Oregon County is a geographically large, sparsely populated county with a population of approximately 10,500. A majority of residents rely on public assistance of some sort; poverty rates are at 25 percent with a median income of $30,000. The statistics are similar across the Ozarks geography, with a few exceptions of bustling towns across Northwest Arkansas and more urban areas such as Springfield, Mo. One of the characteristics I found most interesting about Oregon County was that there had never been any employers to speak of there. Ironically, this was an asset. I learned from talking with neighbors that making and doing for oneself and family was a cultural continuum. It had never died out. It was too difficult to rely on mass consumption. A byproduct of this continuum was residents depending on each other for an exchange of goods and services to supplement their needs and desires.
Among the disappointing statistical data about Oregon County was that the entire county, except a single two-mile stretch, was classified as a food desert. There are only three grocery stores in the 790-square-mile geography. But what I had learned was that almost everything you wanted—and certainly enough to survive on—was being produced, built and crafted in the county, from heritage pork to organic Japanese greens, homemade laundry soap, quilts and hydroponic systems. Still, word of mouth was the only way to know about goods, and they were produced in individual homes, gardens and workshops, spread far and wide across the county.
I began a list from every slip of paper I saw stapled on a pole with a phone number, from farm fresh eggs to cards at gas stations and more. I began to think about what it would look like to centralize this exchange and what that could mean for the cultural economy of the community.
So, we began to find out. At a local festival focused on the idea of ecological sustainability, I grabbed a mic, made up a date, named a location, blurted out the idea and invited attendees to show up and vision quest this idea with me. A couple of weeks later, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, 35 people showed up. We talked, we listened and we dreamed. For the next two years, we met regularly, hosted community events, and grew and formalized our group. We came up with a name—Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Co-Op; lengthy, but it made clear who we were. Together, we built a model for what we thought would support our community. Eventually, we were able to rent a two-sided storefront that became a combination of community center for collective visioning, skill sharing and performance, and a market that carried items that were handmade or homegrown in and around the county. Our model was as follows:
We made the conscious decision not to incorporate as a nonprofit because we wanted to have an equitable process devoid of a governing body. We also wanted the ability to be immediately reactive to community needs as they arose. This served us well; in 2014, we received a Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design award and were featured in national publications such as Mother Earth News. I was afforded the opportunity to share the model around the country and engage in policy conversations around rural creative placemaking.
As we grew, we made additions to our facility, including the addition of a community kitchen that served as an incubator for local value-added products and meals, and as a space for skill-sharing workshops on food preservation and preparation. The co-op served as a voter registration site, hosted social justice Bible studies and Pay-What-You-Can yoga classes, exhibited local art and created a Co-Op Youth Council that started enacting their own creative placemaking projects. We became not only a hub for the community and its culture but also a way for people to substantially subsidize their income while helping others in their community.
While I handed over my post of project steward in 2017, the model had always been predicated on the fact that it was not mine or any one person’s. It was a community model that could and should be passed on.
In the poorest county in Missouri, an economy of neighborliness has prevailed. This, I believe, is the strength of the model. This project, which continues on in a new iteration, brought people to the table, literally and figuratively, who had never before been asked. They had never been empowered to envision their future. Many had been told it was impossible to stay and make a living, much less a difference, in the community that they so dearly loved. What they found was a sense of ownership and responsibility to be the support they wanted and needed. They found that in themselves and in each other, in community.
Rachel Reynolds is the founder of the Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Co-op (OCFPAC) initiative, director of development at the Artist’s Laboratory Theatre, and the head project steward at Cultural Continuum Consulting.