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Rebuilding Communities Through Pork, Parsley and Pottery

June 13, 2012 By Lee Egerstrom, Economic Development Fellow

Two sets of entrepreneurs that sometimes struggle to make their businesses economically viable are teaming up.

Community-supported agricultural operations (CSAs) already have an organized logistics chain to deliver those delicious farm fresh goods to your door. At least two CSAs are leveraging that asset by teaming with CSP (community-supported pottery) artists to deliver their goods as well, helping small local artists enhance their marketing reach.

Put in other words, Minnesota CSAs—whereby consumers contract in advance for a certain amount of produce or meats with farmers—are diversifying with a value added service.

“It’s like an informal cooperative,” explains Jack McCann, who with his wife Betsy operate True Cost Farm, an organic and CSA pastured meats and eggs farm at Montrose that works with other small, sustainable and organic farms in the Twin Cities metro area.

Through their state-licensed butcher shop, they also supply customers with pasture-raised, organic beef, pork, chicken, duck, lamb and egg products from animals they’ve raised or secured from other farmers who practice agriculture in the same way.

In addition, the McCanns acquire fresh herbs from Sleepy Root Farm at nearby Howard Lake, on which Brandon Wiarda is a CSA supplier of fresh herbs and vegetables to customers. The McCanns then use Wiarda’s herbs for seasoning the sausage they make on their farm.

Expanding the circle of producers and consumers, Sleepy Root Farm in turn offers its customers a “pottery link” on its website that encourages customers to contract for ceramic dishware and related products from a group of aligned artisans.

When it makes delivery of contracted boxes of fresh herbs and vegetables to homes or to urban drop off points, Sleepy Root will also deliver boxes of contracted cups, mugs, plates and other pottery products the customers have ordered.

“We think this is the first pottery share arrangement in Minnesota. There might be more, but it’s a pretty new concept,” said Eric Mullins, a St. Paul artist who supplies pottery products through the Sleepy Root Farm web site in addition to galleries and sites in the Twin Cities.

A variation of this system is operated through Springboard for the Arts, a site and program of MNartists.org, an organization started with grants and support from the Walker Art Center and McKnight Foundation. It offered a CSArt link this year that was filled for the 2012 season.

Meanwhile, Mullins and his wife Kelly Cox operate a collaborative studio, Mullox Studios, in which they market ceramic sculpture on down to functional pottery, such as the table ware, through their link on the artists’ nationwide web site.

They are currently working with other galleries and art groups in the Twin Cities. Cox works as an artist in residence with a mental health organization that helps people learn and cope with problems through artistic involvement.

Unfortunately for the Twin Cities area, the relatively recent Mullins-Cox duo is about to leave the area. High school friends from Madison, Wis., they went to the University of Montana at Missoula together for their undergraduate art degrees. After living in the Twin Cities in recent years, they’ve now decided to go to graduate school in Boise, Idaho. Mullins and Cox are already working to set up similar CSA-CSP arrangements in Idaho.

William Cook, a St. Paul artist colleague and supplier through Sleepy Root Farm, will continue supplying products to the farm’s customers. Other artists will join in as the movement grows, Mullins predicted.

Good working models for such collaboration mixing local entrepreneurs through community-supporter commerce can be found in North Carolina, the Cambridge-Somerville area of Massachusetts, and areas around northwestern Chicago, to cite a few examples.

It is almost certain to grow in Minnesota as well. For instance, the University of Minnesota supports such developments through several programs including Linda Kingery’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships program at the university’s Crookston campus.

The university has a directory of 333 Minnesota farms like Sleepy Root and True Cost; collaborating groups are also identified at Localfoods.umn.edu.

There are a number of valid reasons why Minnesotans should support such enterprises—cultural and economic.

First, conventional, or traditional agriculture is becoming highly science driven and is no longer labor intensive. Supporting local food systems and their entrepreneur-farmers reconnects people with the land and end users, the consumers. This builds communities.

Second, there is a multiplier effect that comes into play when you have people connected to the land and it extends beyond the purchasing power of people involved directly in the food chain. Expanding the portfolio of products produced locally supports the economic vitality of other local entrepreneurs, such as Minnesota’s artists.

This builds communities in ways that economic development analysis can measure and in unquantifiable behaviors that contribute to a greater quality of life.

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