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Butchers, Bakers, & Candlestick Makers: A Co-Op Creates Community in Rural Missouri

The Oregon County Food Producers & Artisans Co-Op. Credit: Linda Greer
The Oregon County Food Producers & Artisans Co-Op. Credit: Linda Greer

On September 12th, after a long day of travel, we arrived at last in Alton, Missouri, and stepped into the warm, eclectic and fresh-baked pie scented space of the Oregon County Food Producersand Artisans Co-Op. Seated around a table and surrounded by photos of the County’s stone homes and drawings of its residents, Citizens’ Institute of Rural Design ™ (CIRD) staff and Rachel Reynolds Luster, the Co-op’s Founder,  began building the agenda for their upcoming rural design workshop, which will be held at the Alton Community Worship Center this November.

At the workshop in Alton, MO, on November 20th, Co-op members, Oregon county residents, and representatives from area colleges, community foundations, the USDA, locally elected leaders,local businesses, and representatives from other national Rural Arts and Design organizations will come togetherto conceptualize how to transform a fifteen-year-vacant building located next to the Co-Op, into a multi-use facility. The vision is for the building to function as a public market, an edible courtyard, and an arts incubator. National and local specialists will be joining the conversation to help local residents and leadersconsider the physical space and the various ways it can function to serve as a community anchor for the County. The specialists include Kirsten Stoltz and Richard Saxton, rural design pioneers of M12 Studio; Maria Sykes, founder of Epicenter; Guy Ames, Horticulture Specialist at ATTRA; and Ben Sandel, cooperatives consultant of CDS Consulting Co-Op. The workshop will cover a broad array of interrelated topics, including design, local food production and fruit farming, vernacular architecture, and the economic development of the Co-Op and the County. 

The Oregon County Food Producers & Artisans Co-Op

The Contribution of the Co-Op to the County

The work of the Oregon County Food Producer and Artisan Co-op is a testament to how much a dedicated community can accomplish with limited financial resources, but with lots of talent and elbow grease! Just a year and half ago, local resident Rachel Luster brought togetherthe amazing and diverse culinary, artistic, and creative talent and skills of the people in Oregon County to form a network of local food producers and crafters. In keeping with the area’s tradition of bartering and exchanging goods, the Co-op is entirely run by member volunteers, and primarily funded through a small membership feeand work exchange.Local residents enjoy their weekly “pay what you can” lunch specials. Membership numbers have grown to 101 and include, “farmers, woodworkers, a chiropractor, spinners, weavers, soap makers, herbalists, artists, beekeepers, gardeners and craftspeople of all sorts.” The space itself - lined with homemade quilts, clothing, goat’s milk soap and lotions, cosmetics, jams, lamb’s wool mittens, and cutting boards made out of Alton’s infamous black walnut trees - illustrates the great talent and passions of the community.

Just a few of the homemade goods sold at the Co-Op.

The Co-op, a multi-use space, has three primary functions. First, the co-op offers a space where members can buy and sell homemade goods. The availability of this space presents an opportunity for members to supplement their existing income, and gives them a place to sell and display their work.

Secondly, the Co-op contributes to the food security of the County by providing a space to garden, cook, to purchase affordable local produce and pasture-raised meat, and pay-what-you-can lunches and desserts-- which is especially important since Oregon County is a food desert. “People should not have to drive 40 miles to buy crummy lettuce when they can get fresh, organic lettuce grown by their neighbors,” says Rachel Luster, Co-Op’s founder and CIRD workshop coordinator.

A sign outside of the Co-Op always advertises their great "pay-what-you-can-lunches"

And finally, the Co-op is a gathering place for the community. During our visit, we saw what an amazing asset it is to the community. In the small square of Alton’s downtown, the Co-Op is the one public space where people can gather. Co-op members come for community meetings, classes, “pickin' parties” (jam sessions), to cook in the community kitchen, plant in the garden, or to buy or sell local food and crafts. In the winter especially, many come to the small library in the Co-Op’s annex to read, listen to records, eat, and view the work of local artists. “Everybody’s growing something or making something or doing something but there’s no public space for people to share it, so here, it’s centralized,” explains Luster.

One of the Co-Op's "pickin' parties"

What’s Next?

The CIRD workshop will focus on pertinent issues to transforming the neighboring space into one that supports the County. Participants will discuss the architecture of Ozarks and potential designs for the space, a financial plan for growing the Co-op, and strategies for creating an edible courtyard, and encouraging community input and engagement. By the end of it, we hope to have drawings of potential designs for the space, a plan for the Co-Op’s expansion, and a ton of community feedback on how it can best serve them! We expect to have the same great turnout and excitement at the workshop in November as Alton experienced during the Ozarks Beatlemania, and we look forward to reporting back on the great gathering around rural design—stay tuned for a blog post shortly after Thanksgiving!  

On Other CIRD Workshops

CIRD offers competitive funding and technical assistance on an annual basis to communities that demonstrate the capacity to create strong partnerships, a commitment to encouraging the participation and engagement of all community members, and that demonstrate the potential to achieve actionable results. Communities selected to  host a CIRD workshop have identified design issues or challenges that are immediately relevant - not only to their own town - but to other rural communities as well. CIRD workshops have addressed a range of design challenges such as downtown revitalization, aging in place, creating a sense of place amidst population growth, community branding, designing streets as places, containing sprawl, and using recreational facilities to promote public health and celebrate the arts.  

Click here for the full workshop agenda!