The Meadowcreek Project: A Model of Sustainability in the Ozarks

Learn about two brothers' attempt to build a self-sufficient community in Arkansas. Projects include lumbering, organic farming and community governing.


| March/April 1982



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The Meadowcreek Project is nestled in the Ozark region of Arkansas.


PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF

Most of the folks in today's back-to-the-land movement aim to discover ways of living that are more energy-efficient and self-supporting and that have a minimal impact on the environment. Now that there's a lot of good information available on such lifestyles, the next step — which has been achieved by only a handful of individuals and groups — is to combine a number of those isolated ideas and thus create a workable synthesis.
Well, that's just what's beginning to happen at Meadowcreek, an Ozark community that was born almost three years ago, when two brothers decided to build a sustainable "meta-industrial village" (to borrow a term coined by writer/philosopher William Irwin Thompson). The pair hoped their development would serve as a model of how human settlements in the future might both exist in harmony with their surroundings and offer meaningful lifestyles to their inhabitants.
Following several years of mutual musing over what they saw as a crisis facing modern industrial civilization, David and Wilson Orr sold their individual business and real estate holdings in order to finance the purchase of 1,500 fertile-but-neglected acres in northern Arkansas's Stone County. In June of 1979 the brothers moved their families to the property, and began the construction of a community that they expect will eventually be able to supply all its own food and energy. The Meadowcreek Project is more than just a futuristic model town, however. It was planned from its inception to be an educational research center where committed individuals can gather to study the challenges of creating systems for sustainable living.
In the final analysis, Meadowcreek is a step taken in preparation for the major transformation that the Orr brothers think our society must soon undergo. They see this process as altogether necessary if we're to survive in a world where inexpensive energy, unlimited natural resources, and high biological productivity can no longer be accepted facts of life. Concerned about the increasing centralization of power and capital — and about the stress that those developments place on an already fragile environment — the Orr brothers concluded that solutions to such problems could best be worked out on a decentralized neighborhood scale. Based on that, they set about designing a human-centered community that would rely on organic agriculture and renewable energy sources for its support.

The Meadowcreek Project

The Orr brothers first move after arriving in Arkansas, was to compile a detailed ecological survey of their land. That study included the examination of such environmental factors as soil chemistry, water resources, energy flow, geology, and plant and animal habitats. Using the collected data, the Orrs then drew up a general plan for the development of Meadowcreek, a proposal that emphasizes on-site energy and food production and proximity between community activity areas. Such factors will limit the project's production and transportation costs and — it's hoped — insure its economic survival. As a result of their awareness that natural ecosystems tend to operate in harmonious closed-loop cycles, the brothers decided to pattern their community after such a system that stresses diversity, complex relationships, multiple function and the efficient use of energy.

The survey revealed that they'd settled in a workable location — a three-mile-long valley traversed by Meadowcreek (a confluent of the Little Red River) and rimmed on both sides by high, rocky bluffs that rise 500 feet above the canyon floor. The site offers rich farmland, 1,200 acres of mixed hardwoods and evergreens and abundant water. Although the area enjoys the Ozarks' generally mild climate, it's home not only to the region's typical plants and animals, but also to a variety of flora and fauna that are usually found in more arid climes (including prickly pear cactus, coyotes, and scorpions).

Creating a Self-Sufficient Community

Of course, the brothers and their families — plus the few others who joined them early on in their venture — needed some source of income in order to support themselves. At the same time, they strongly believed that any economic activity that might go on at Meadowcreek should be closely tied to the ecosystem of which it would be a part. Therefore, Wilson immediately put his business experience to work in planning a wood products complex based on the land's abundant forest resources.

The community's main objective in managing the timber operation is to avoid the traditional rural economic situation, in which landowners ship out high-grade raw lumber (and, of course, usually deplete the native forests while doing so) for very low prices. To break the vicious treadmill of declining profits and resource quality, the Meadowcreek lumberjacks first harvest the forests carefully (to preserve species diversity and insure sustained yield), then add as much value as possible to the timber before it's sold by seasoning the raw lumber in a solar wood-drying kiln and converting it into handsome tables, shelves, chessboards and other finished products.

At present, the Meadowcreek lumber business includes a sawmill — which is powered by a refurbished 1902 steam boiler and engine and turns out an average of 4,000 board feet per day — plus the solar kiln and a large woodshop. The directors plan to soon begin construction of an adjacent mechanical and metalworking shop, which will further increase the community's level of self-sufficiency.





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