Designing a Community Hub in the Ozarks, Welcoming the Whole Community to the Table

The Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Co-Op is a market and community center located in the Missouri Ozarks in the town of Alton, pop. 879.

The Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Co-Op is a market and community center located in the Missouri Ozarks in the town of Alton, pop. 879. OCFPAC, which serves as both an economic and cultural driver in the county, was the idea of Art of the Rural founding member and OCFPAC Project Steward, Rachel Reynolds Luster. Almost three years ago, she set out to organize farmers, gardeners, ranchers, crafters, artists, and musicians as part of her efforts to develop a holistic approach to community wellbeing and cultural practice. A year and a half ago, efforts to organize gathered momentum as the co-op opened its headquarters on the square in the county seat of Alton. Since then, they’ve expanded to add a community kitchen, garden, and exhibit space which also host skill-sharing workshops and a resource library of local and regional books, music, and art for visitors to use.

This summer, OCFPAC was one of four community organizations across the country to receive an award from The Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design, a project of collaboration between the USDA, The National Endowment for the Arts, Orton Foundation, and Project for Public Spaces. The award facilitates a three-day community engagement workshop bringing in a resource team of designers, horticulturalists, market specialists, architects, artists, and more to help OCFPAC and the communities of Oregon County develop a vacant property into a community hub.

Last week Matthew Fluharty had the pleasure of asking his fellow AOTR colleague about the latest on the Co-Op and the upcoming workshops.

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Rachel, what can you share about the cultural landscape of the Ozark region of Southern Missouri and how the prospect of a Co-Op that features art and agriculture responds to this community texture?

We are at the southeast edge of the Ozark Mountains in Missouri. The mountains here are old, beat down to rolling hills. A large chunk of Oregon County is held in National Forest land, the remainder is sparsely populated. Unemployment is high, more than a quarter of the residents live below the national poverty line. There is no real industry here. Most people craft a living out of several part time jobs or entrepreneurial efforts, mostly deriving from relatively small-scale agriculture ventures. I’ve lived here nine years now, although I grew up in the Ozarks just over the line in Arkansas. I began to think about using my skills as a folklorist to address this need. To that end, I realized that there was actually a really wonderful sense of community life that came from what some would call abysmal statistics. There had never been any real industry here. Jobs had always been scarce and incomes low. Consequently, it was part of a cultural continuum that people produced more for themselves and relied on a barter exchange with friends and neighbors as a means to stay here, and they did/do it, because they love it here. Why wouldn’t they? It’s beautiful, unpolluted, crime is low, and recreation is high. So the Co-Op began as a sort of effort to centralize this exchange with the hope that we would not change but rather nurture this. What was unforeseen, and what has been the most interesting thing to me, has been that we have become the connective tissue between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Newcomers and people of very different backgrounds, opinions, and belief systems find us and join.

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Can you tell us a little bit about the current status of the Co-Op, and why this seemed like an opportune moment to apply for a Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design grant? 

In some ways, I always imagined us being able to develop our own space, but now we’ve arrived at a moment where it all, anything, seems possible. We are in the process, thanks to the great generosity of one of our members, of purchasing an old vacant bar on the square and the property that it sits on. We were in the process of making the decision on whether or not to pursue this when I saw the release for applications for CIRD. I really thought that if we received this award, which was a huge longshot for a small organization that had never applied for funding, we would be able to get so many of our questions answered about the structural integrity of the building – and that this would be the nudge to help our members make the decision of whether or not to take on this responsibility. To my surprise, we not only got the award, but the members voted unanimously to pursue the property. Through the upcoming workshop we can learn not only how to develop these plans but also how to further our mission and fill in the gaps in terms of our collective sense of what is needed within the community to develop a true hub.

Who are team of folks that you’ve collaborated with CIRD to bring to the community?

I feel very lucky to have been allowed so much freedom in selecting what I believe will be the perfect resource team for our project. M12’s Richard Saxton and Kirsten Stoltz will be there along with Maria Sykes from Epicenter. They will be holding the reins on the design aspects of the project along with Guy Ames, one of the nation’s foremost experts on community orchards and sustainable orchard practices in the Ozarks. He will be helping us to imagine an edible courtyard and other edible landscaping that is bio-regionally specific. Finally, Ben Sandel of the CDS Consulting Co-Op is on our resource team. He is a nationally-renowned expert in co-operative markets. In addition to the resource team provided through CIRD, we’re very lucky to have architect Mark Wise of KEMStudio, a Rural Studio alum who’s worked in the Ozarks extensively; Jesse Vogler a designer, architect, and cultural geographer and visiting professor at the Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis; Emily Vogler a landscape architect from Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc.; and Barbara Williams, a regional artists doing multi-media pieces based on native stone houses in and around the county. All of these specialists believe, as I do, in the critical need of community engagement in each facet of project design. So, our largest resource will be the attendees, co-op members, local organizations, and other interested community members that will help envision our community hub.

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This is such an exciting list of folks! How has the community reacted to the news of this grant and the upcoming workshops?

People seem very excited about it and anxious to participate in the workshop. I think the property in question is seen as an eye sore, and many from civic government on down are excited by the possibility of both us expanding our reach and a new public space that’s beautiful and useful. The last day of our workshop on Saturday, November 22, we will host an open community forum where we present what we’ve all come up with over the course of the first two days. Then we will have a community celebration to acknowledge the award and what we’ve all been able to accomplish. I have to say, this is one of my favorite aspects of OCFPAC programming and we usually do it a couple times a year, at least. We block off the square, bring in a flat bed, cook a bunch of food, give it away, and have live music and fellowship for hours on the square. I’m particularly excited for this event because we’ve got a couple of special treats. Jesse Charles Hammock II, who lives about 20 miles up the road and just got a nod form the Washington Post, is playing along with two other bands. Also, Neil from our locally famous ice cream joint, The Spring Dipper, has crafted us some special fall flavors of his award-winning ice cream to give to all of those attendees to the community forum.

After the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design workshops become part of the Co-Op’s own history — and we’re looking five years down the road — what kinds of activities and services might you and your fellow members provide to the community and the region?

I see us fulfilling all of the functions we do now on a larger scale. For instance, our community-certified kitchen expands to a commercial kitchen with storage and the possibility to be a regional distribution point for fresh Oregon County grown produce. I see our space where we exhibit local art and have pickin’ circles having the possibility of providing stage space for local productions of all sorts. I see incubation spaces, whether that be artist’s studio space, business, agriculture or something totally different that I haven’t even imagined. I see people playing dominoes on our porch, and eating paw paws, and sorting out differences and similarities. I see it all.

I also see more co-op’s popping up. We’ve got our first two sister co-ops in a neighboring county starting up, based on our models. As the story of our little co-op has expanded to a national one, there is more interest in locally adapting the model to other regions of the country, which is very exciting to me.

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Please find these links for further reading on the Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Co-Op and this week’s Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design workshops:

Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Co-Op Facebook page

Butchers, Bakers, & Candlestick Makers: A Co-Op Creates Community in Rural Missouri, Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design site

Food Co-Op Promotes Bartering, Sustainability, Linda Holliday, Mother Earth News

Food Producers, Artisans Co-Op in Alton to Host Rural Design Workshop, Terry Hampton, West Plains Daily Quill

Profile on Rachel Reynolds Luster and OCFPAC on the Penzeys Spices website

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