People have been using these Meadowcreek facilities, nestled in the Ozark Mountains, to promote sustainable living since the 1970s.

 

A NEW LEASE ON LIFE FOR MEADOWCREEK

Former commune becomes rural business incubator

By: Lisa Herndon Armstrong   Photography: Gary Valen

Located in a secluded valley in north-central Arkansas, the Meadowcreek Project has hosted farms and retreats for educational and environmental groups across the United States since the 1970s, when brothers David and Wilson Orr founded the project. Its wonderful, pristine setting features a bed and breakfast, crystal clear springs and swimming holes surrounded by a 1,200-acre nature preserve. A series of ups and downs since the 1990s has seen the property change owners several times, but the announcement of a new initiative has given new life to the area.

In May, the nonprofit expanded its mission into promoting and supporting agricultural entrepreneurs, changing its name to Meadowcreek Rural Enterprise Incubator (MREI). “I see Meadowcreek as an incubator that will provide enough income to allow residents to live in this beautiful, remote location,” says board chair Gary Valen. 

The organization’s new mission is represented by several new business startups, including Little Fox Foods Co-op. Little Fox founders Patrick Collins and Kenny Grand met while Collins was working as a community organizer in Detroit. The two men soon realized that they had many shared interests, including building a cooperative agricultural business. Getting startup money through a Kiva Zip loan, the men bought seeds and equipment to start what they hope will be a self-sustaining farm venture, including value-added products like boxed holy basil tea.

The MREI facilities include barns for livestock (left). Groups like this one from Mississippi come from all over the country to use the educational facilities (middle). Fresh spring water is one of the most valuable resources at Meadowcreek (right).

Little Fox Foods uses a managed co-op approach, where workers comprise the governing board and are required to put in 75 hours “sweat equity” before getting to vote in the business. The goal is to train these worker-owners so that they might become managers themselves. Once they get their first holy basil crop processed, Little Fox wants to present seminars and workshops with others. There are plans for a mobile unit that will enable them to process crops in or near the fields. 

Collins and Grand are also helping the MREI initiative by recruiting new farmers. They recently visited eastern Kentucky, where they talked to workers who are seeking a replacement for income lost from the decline of once-profitable tobacco and coal-mining industries. They are studying how to develop cash crops such as holy basil and other herbs. 

Meadowcreek wasn’t always focused on helping farming entrepreneurs start. At its founding in 1979, the project’s mission centered on creating a community focused on environmental preservation. “Back then, there was a lot of money in environmental grants,” says board member Beverly Montgomery Dunaway. For almost 30 years, the Meadowcreek Project showcased educational and innovative programs. During those years, they also built an 18,000-square-foot conference center, two dormitories, seven houses and a woodworking shop.

“Our goal is for this place to evolve into a focus on farmland business.”

—Bob Gee

However, during the end of the 1990s, “things went awry and the money began to dry up,” Beverly says. Board chair Gary Valen stayed with Meadowcreek, and worked with the Kerr Center in Oklahoma to keep the doors open. Later, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) visited the Ozark facility during a retreat, taking over the property and debt from the Kerr Center.

As a result of its agreement with HSUS, the 1,200-acre area that Meadowcreek holds in a land trust with HSUS is a designated wildlife refuge. “The front 400 acres was given to Meadowcreek and Gary Valen,” says Bob Gee, MREI’s executive director. Partners started showing up, too. Charles Rosenbaum, and his wife, Shirley, bought property and now have a horse rescue mission. Another partner, the Linville family, leases 300 acres for a large cattle operation.

“Our goal is for this place to evolve into a focus on farmland business. By 2020, we will be able to provide training on various levels of agriculture and marketing,” Bob says. Current arrangements call for partner-entrepreneurs to pay a nominal fee the first year to lease a house and to use leased acreage to practice their skills. “Tenants are typically housed for only 2-3 years before relocating to their own land.”

The general public is invited to tour and stay at Meadowcreek. MREI is jumping on the entrepreneurial bandwagon by opening up a bed and breakfast. The Lodge at Meadowcreek is run by resident Amy Smith, and can sleep up to 11 people in four bedrooms with private baths, and can provide both breakfast and other meals. And the newly renovated bunkhouse, which sleeps 26, is offered for corporate retreats, family reunions, educational seminars and other purposes, Gee says. 

Plans are also afoot with the Arkansas Innovation Hub in Argenta and its new Food Innovation Center Hub. “That arrangement will train local farmers in a rural environment,” say Beverly. “It’s going to take a lot of people to change the idea of access to local food. It’s scary to change the status quo, but in areas you can find more people who are passionate about local food. If there is a food hub where a large amount of local food is brought in from various parts of the state, it will have a beneficial effect on access to that food,” she says. 

For more information about the MREI, visit meadowcreekincubator.org.