When Arkansas native Rachel Reynolds Luster, a folklorist and fiddler, moved to Oregon County, Mo., a few years ago, she quickly scouted out local growers of meat, eggs, cheese, garden produce, honey and raw milk.
Although it meant many miles of driving in the large, sparsely populated county, Luster wanted fresh, all-natural food for her family.
Some of these local farmers traded their products in exchange for Luster’s sewing or fiddle skills. Instead of cash, a few ranchers traded homegrown beef for fiddle lessons.
“Sure, I could get paid and then go to the store and buy some hamburger, but I’d rather have grass-fed meat that my neighbor raised,” Luster said. “For me, it’s all about knowing where it comes from.”
As she drove the rocky roads from one farm to another, Luster thought about ways to bring these people together. To see if others might be interested in forming a network of food producers and crafters, Luster put up flyers and notified the local newspaper.
To her surprise, 30 people packed into Juggbutt’s Coffee House for an exploratory meeting on a rainy Saturday, the day before Easter, two years ago. Among the attendees were farmers, woodworkers, a chiropractor, spinners, weavers, soap makers, herbalists, artists, beekeepers, gardeners and craftspeople of all sorts, many of whom Luster had never met.
“People should not have to drive 40 miles to buy crummy lettuce when they can get fresh, organic lettuce from their neighbors,” Luster said. “They just have to know where to get it.”
Centralizing these homegrown products and skills in an area that has practiced an economy of neighborliness for 100s of years made good sense to Luster. With few jobs and a high poverty rate, people in the Ozarks have traded among their neighbors for generations, she said.
"Folks here take care of one another and feel a responsibility to their friends, neighbors and the land,” Luster said. “I love that so many people in our county, on whatever scale, are producing food for themselves and that there's a tradition of bartering."
Excited by the enthusiastic support at that first gathering, Luster set out to form a cooperative, find a suitable market building and learn all she could about other such ventures. After almost 24 months of setbacks and successes, the Oregon County Food Producers and Artisans Co-Op opened with 20 members in a former donut shop on the courthouse square in Alton, Mo., on Earth Day 2013.
Thirty days later, membership had grown to 47, from 11-year-old Grace Harms, who makes potato bracelets, to 95-year-old Bob Langston, Luster’s neighbor and avid local historian. In the first month of operation, sales exceeded $1,200, not including donations or membership dues.
“To see the co-op actually progressing, it’s better than I could ever have imagined,” Luster said. “I am continually blown away by the breadth of interest in what we’re doing here and the ways in which people are able and willing to contribute to our little project.”
Luster said representatives of many other service groups have stopped in to offer ideas of ways to work together. They recognize how the co-op can benefit their organizations, whether they assist the elderly, crime victims, children, low-income residents or people trying to rebuild their lives for whatever reason. Money also showed up unexpectedly after Luster spoke at the Ozarks Area Community Congress and posted co-op updates on Facebook. Strangers from as far away as Louisiana and Oklahoma mailed Luster money just to boost her efforts.
Co-op membership is $10 per month, or $5 with one hour of service. Dues can be paid in cash, service or product. All labor is by volunteer members, including special tasks such as accounting and public relations. Members set the price of their goods, with 70 percent of the net going to the member and 30 percent to the co-op.
While organized as a for-profit business (to avoid bureaucratic reporting and other requirements), the co-op functions more as a non-profit agency. After store rent, utilities and other overhead is paid, the co-op’s profits are reinvested into the community, with members deciding on recipients, possibly a local charity, school or to a family whose home burned, for example.
Besides the market, which includes a wide range of handcrafted and homegrown items, the co-op serves as an information center. A bulletin board in the store identifies who has a surplus of potatoes, makes leather horse bridles, sells hay or who will barter for beans.
Also, members and guest speakers are set to teach an assortment of classes on such things as canning produce, spinning wool and gathering wild edibles. Members will draw on the skills and knowledge of each other to provide workshops on various aspects of a land-based economy and other cultural activities. The shop also exhibits the work of local artists and will hold cultural events such as locally relevant film screenings, readings, and host a weekly jam session, or “picking circle” as they’re referred to here.
Luster said many more projects are being considered, including starting an heirloom seed library. Because the plants are raised here, the seeds will be tolerant of the Ozarks unique growing conditions, pests and diseases. Regional gardening tips, such as scooping in Epsom salt, sugar and lime when planting tomatoes, are freely exchanged.
Long-term co-op goals include a certified community kitchen with space for canning and baking, either for personal use or sale. Another goal is a year-round covered community garden plot for individual use and/or as a small-scale land-based business incubator.
The co-op has plans for a cultural lending library of local music, art, seeds and books that can be borrowed and added to by co-op members. A reading and listening area allows visitors to peruse rare Ozarks-based music albums and books.
The co-op’s chief goal is to nurture the culture of our place from below-the-ground up and by working together, Luster said.
“Our approach is intended to be holistic by encouraging the ecological, physical, spiritual, economic, and cultural health of Oregon County through our work in the belief that a vibrant and dynamic culture is both the flower and the seed of a well-tended community,” Luster said.
To learn more, visit the co-op at www.facebook.com/OregonCountyCo-Op.
Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off grid, and invented the WaterBuck Pump.