The Medusa General Store, in collaboration with small farmers, area producers, as well as supportive organizations such as Sustainable Hilltowns and the Helderberg Hilltowns Association, proposed to investigate the viability of constructing a Makerspace for small farmers in our upstate New York hilltowns, commencing in the fall of 2015. The inquiry took the form of numerous workshops, outreach, and self-administered questionnaires throughout the fall and into the spring of 2016. Conclusions suggest that while the construction of a makerspace is a novel approach, and any efforts made in our region help to bolster confidence in our ability to reconstruct our faltering economy, it is not necessarily the most expedient way of assisting area farmers. Many create their own “makerspaces” of a sort at their own farms, for example.
Feedback did produce a number of interesting results. Small farmers would benefit from a kind of “grangerspace” where they could collaborate regularly, building a stronger presence and identity. This space need not be always physical, either: it seems what is missing is the availability of communication among farmers in our communities, and the lack of time and energy to build something from the ground up.
Moreover, there is a continuing emphasis on the need to support the transition movement. Small farmers in our region are deeply concerned with the effects of fossil fuels on our farming sector, the impact of climate change and the growing unease with which they view global stability. This Makerspace inquiry was not designed to affect change in any of those areas directly; the conversations it brought about, however, have proven invaluable to our community as we move forward.
The Medusa General Store, in collaboration with numerous farmers and a supportive community, proposed, in October of 2014, to conduct a feasibility study to investigate the potential community benefit to developing a Maker Space for local farmers and small businesses in our region. This project has served as the first step in a larger project to boost sustainable economic development in our largely agricultural region.
The Maker Movement, a grassroots initiative that has inspired everyone from community activists to the White House, proposes that everyone can and should have the opportunity to design and create, to be builders, hackers and innovators, not just consumers. From 3D printers and robotics to DIY transportation and sustainable technology, the Make movement is inspiring communities to create and explore together with promising outcomes.
Surprisingly, while the Makers have left their mark on organizations from big business to education, and inspired designers, young and old, it tends to be an urban movement. We decided that perhaps we should change that: we sought to reach out to our community and discuss the possibility of a maker space that promised to support our small farmers, especially in a region that has not yet recovered from a recession economy. Farmers are, after all, the very first “makers” and have longed thrived on their ingenuity and entrepreneurship. Our version, we have proposed, could include an extensive resource library, a workshop with relevant tools and a space for sharing ideas and collaborating with other farmers and small businesses. It could precede a complementary effort to build a full scale rural business incubator in our region.
We developed several education and outreach workshops in the four town region that makes up Albany County’s hill town community, introducing the concept of a Maker Space, sharing success stories and soliciting feedback about what might be the most useful design for a sustainable agriculture maker space. We also developed survey instruments, one aimed directly at the farmers and producers who might make good use of the space, and another aimed at the rest of our community that queries the types of on-farm and value added products that might be developed in our own region by Maker Space participants. As it turns out, one of our insights was that farmers are consumers are homesteaders are land stewards; multiple survey instruments proved less than ideal, so they were combined into one tool.
We then held a series of follow-up workshops and finalized our study with a community conference, inviting farmers and residents to share in the results of our analysis, and based on those results, we identified a workable plan for action.
We were interested in identifying the community’s needs with regard to small farmer and rural business development. Specifically, we were interested in understanding to what degree providing resources, space and tools to the farming community will allow for more creative expression of entrepreneurship in our region. Is there evidence that a Maker Space would help to ignite more small farm and business development in our region? What would a proposed space look like? What kinds of tools, resources and services would be most useful to our budding small farming sector?
This feasibility study was designed to answer these questions, via direct outreach and education meetings with residents in the fall of 2015 (4 workshops in Berne, Knox, Medusa and Rensselaerville) and spring 2016 (3 additional workshops, in Rensselaerville, Berne and Westerlo), through self-administered questionnaires (attached), and by inviting our community to brainstorm a plan for the future (throughout the duration, in person, via electronic exchange and online discussions).
Our strategy combines education workshops, surveys and outreach to our four town community.
Our objectives and matching methods for this study are as follows:
- Develop and implement a series of education and outreach events that will provide a working knowledge of the benefits of a Maker Space. There are four townships, Berne, Knox, Westerlo and Rensselaerville, within our south western Albany County hilltown region, and we planned for at least six workshops. In order to achieve reliable results, we eventually completed seven workshops and an additional community gathering in May, with attendance of between 2 and 18 per workshop. See attachments for two powerpoint presentations which were used to start the conversations during workshops, and a timeline with dates of actual workshops (three workshops in November 2015 and four workshops in March 2016)
- Develop and execute self-administered questionnaires. We originally planned to develop different survey instruments, dependending on the population – one for small farmers and producers and another for residents. As it became increasingly clear that those two groups are far more overlapping than originally perceived, we settled on one instrument.
We distributed the questionnaire in a paper version, as well as electronically. Access to broadband is another struggle and we were interested in ensuring the widest possible participation.
See attachments for a copy of the survey tool. Additional attachment includes a Frequently Asked Questions document.
- Compile the results from the outreach events and the surveys into a final report. The results will be provided to our town and regional policy leaders. A final community conversation was help during our MedusaFest this past May. A version of this report will be distributed to local and regional policymakers in the coming months. (See Impact of Results/Outcomes for additional information.)
Outreach for all of these activities included a multipronged approach of press releases to area papers, event scheduling and posting on social media, and through flyers and direct communication. Local and regional papers included the Greenville Pioneer (Greenville, NY: Andrea Macko, editor and publisher), the Altamont Enterprise (Altamont, NY: Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor), and to our regional Times Union (Albany, NY: various staff writers). Social media (Facebook, on both the Medusa General Store and Sustainable Hilltowns pages) primarily captures an audience who is already aware of our continuing activities, but is useful for hosting conversations and reminders about upcoming events. We also found it was useful to remind other organizations who support this work that we were hosting workshops and gatherings; Helderberg Hilltowns Association was particularly helpful with regard to this piece, as were staff from our local libraries.
Flyer posting around our four townships has the potential to generate an audience, but it is difficult to measure. (When asked, participants usually did not cite flyer posting as their method of hearing about workshops.) Nonetheless, rural post offices, libraries, our volunteer fire departments and churches still represent another way of letting the community know about gatherings. To an even lesser degree, both because their numbers are dwindling and because they don’t always have community boards, small local businesses will post flyers and help get the word out.
In general, we have been pleased with the amount of people who attended meetings, and who continue to follow our work and express an interest in future involvement. Our community represents four townships, with an average population of less than 3000 people per township. Moreover, as our demographics have shifted over time, there is a diminishing population of farmers and producers within this region. The attached table provides more details about our demography.
Community preferences were identified by a survey instrument (we used SurveyMonkey online, as well as a printed out version of the SurveyMonkey questionnaire) and through workshops held in Berne, Rensselaerville, Knox, and Westerlo. Additional feedback, post-survey, was collected during Spring 2016 workshops held in the same townships, and via a short community gathering help during a yearly festival in the Town of Rensselaerville.
Survey results were consistent with our understanding of the region and its challenges. After outreach in newspapers, online and during workshops, 30 responses were generated.
In general, respondents were eager to support any initiative to assist small farming, as they perceive a general lack of assistance available for regional agriculture. Many, though were unsure of whether this particular idea would necessarily alter their current circumstances.
Moreover, there is widespread support for the types of projects that are perceived to be of general value to small farmers, producers and businesspeople.
From a demographic perspective, those who are willing to complete surveys (as well as those attending workshops) tend to mimic results from rural areas throughout our county: those who are younger than 44 represent less than 20% of our respondents.
Our questionnaire asked several open-ended questions, as well, querying respondents about what they felt were our hilltowns’ most pressing concerns and what projects they would be most interested in having local organizations pursue. Most pointed to economic concerns, and with particular concerns focused on whether a community could survive only relying on local dollars. Several expressed concern that the Hilltowns lack a crucial level of community cohesiveness, without which it seems near impossible to move toward a more vibrant economy. More optimistically, one respondent questioned whether there was a way forward that might allow for us to “try” ideas before committing to any one in particular.
Several themes coalesced through the course of our workshops:
Farming = Homesteading. We began this project with a focus on rural small businesses, specifically farmers. We have since expanded it to include homesteaders, who have come to occupy many of our former farms. They have come to meetings and filled out surveys. And they have convinced us that they play a vital role in our economy, providing many of the same services and products that traditional farmers do, and with an ethic that supports the vitality of community and the land. A MakerSpace, participants report, would support both groups.
Incidentally, encouraging the growth of homesteaders, who are, after all, also farmers, helps for another reason. As a four town region, we are losing population. Our villages and small town centers are far less populous than they once were – we would benefit to have more people, especially those who are interested in working our land and contributing to the well-being of our landscape.
A 21st Century Grange. Farmers – and homesteaders, and maybe lots of others – could flourish if we had a grange. This isn’t exactly a Makerspace, although ideally it would be integrated into one, but a physical (and perhaps virtual) place that can link farmers and neighbors, provide a place for discussion, collaboration, networking, and do all that regularly. (Someone called it a “grangerspace”.)
This also relates directly with the suggestion that we investigate what it would take to develop a food hub. How can we deal with our seasonal abundances? How do we keep prices reasonable for our locals? Can this solve the ever present problem of needing more farmers, but not having the wealthy population seemingly necessary to support the products coming from our farmers? (We want more farmers, one farmer insisted, but we don’t have the markets to support them; encouraging more investment into farming, at a time when we are unsure of where those markets are, strikes many as imprudent.)
Food and Fuel. Every workshop eventually evolved into a conversation about climate change, its effect on our land and people, and how we can prepare our rural communities. How do we provide energy? How will we feed our communities? These questions are repeated often, with passion, and, more often than not, with lots of suggestions about how we meet the challenges of the next 5, 10 and 50 years.
Circuit Riders. Farmers, and rural businesspeople of all flavors, DO NOT have the TIME to engage in the kinds of activities that would make them more prosperous, we are told. So while they would like to, for example, apply to more farmer grants through SARE, they simply do not have the resources to face the task of preparing proposals. Having help with this piece – someone to help write grants, someone to negotiate the political process involved in garnering local government support for projects, someone to organize and promote regular grange meetings – would be a huge asset to our farmers.
Attached below is a table of the workshops and gatherings held, including the number of participants.
Generally, the tone of the surveys, in particular when asked to respond to open-ended questions in detail, was negative. Workshops did not produce the same tone, perhaps because there is substantially more information being presented, or because of the camaderie of fellow participants. Workshops seemed to bring residents and farmers together around a common goals, and the conversations seemed to revolve around what next steps were, how to solve problems, and what the future could look like.
As social capital continues to erode, however, it is difficult to gain the kind of traction necessary to engage in large scale policy change. As pointed out during several workshops and during our end-of-grant community forum at MedusaFest, perhaps reigniting a passion for community through regular festivals and celebrations, through frequent communication and informal gatherings, should happen in tandem with any economic initiatives.
Plans for the future
This project has acted as a solidifying force for lots of individuals, and for our organization. Sustainable Hilltowns, in collaboration with the Medusa General Store, is in the process of completing the necessary requirements to attain our 501(c)3 status, and undergoing several changes. Sustainable Hilltowns is transitioning to the Council on Rural Prosperity, which will allow us access to additional grant dollars, and gain a more solid footing when dealing with numerous public officials and political leaders. It is also a primary goal of the organization to understand lessons learned in rural communities and facilitate the development of replicable results that can be shared in the thousands of similar communities throughout the United States that face the same struggles of loss of agriculture (in terms of both farmed land and actual farmers), dwindling markets and loss of social capital.
The Medusa General Store has been a placeholder for a new business since January of 2015. Most recently, the Albany County Chamber of Commerce and the Albany County Executive’s Office has partnered to fund an Albany County MicroEnterprise Grant program. We have proposed a reuse for the space which is closely aligned with the feedback we have received during this last year’s SARE funded inquiry. We have proposed the development of a cooperative, offering shared space to local merchants and entrepreneurs. The Council for Rural Prosperity is anticipated to be our nonprofit partner, applying through the USDA’s Rural Development program for additional rural cooperative grant funding, to supply small business training and start-up capital.
Perhaps even more importantly, this small project has ignited an effort in our hilltowns to establish a stronger connection between rural communities through the United States. Although we began this project with a firm understanding of the nature of the transition movement – mostly that it tends to be an urban movement, without a lot of momentum in our rural communities – that reality has become a bit more stark. As the impetus for action strengthens, so has our resolve to focus not only on our pilot projects in our hilltown region, but to undertake them with the intention of sharing them, and forming a number of template projects that can be undertaken in the sparsely populated rural areas in the rest of our country.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
A version of this document, as well as a number of shorter pieces, have appeared (or will soon appear) on line. Fact sheets detailing our preliminary work were distributed during several workshops this spring, and during a local festival (MedusaFest, in early May).
In order to get results out to a larger audience, we also compiled a press release early in the spring, which detailed the preliminary results from fall workshops.
April has also met with Dan Harp of the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, who facilitates the collection of data, compiles it into useful chunks for town supervisors and supporting organizations, and helps analyze it. She proposed that the results of this work be linked with the CDRPC’s continuing effort to provide a better data snapshot of the Hilltowns, and culminate into the development of journal article.
As one result of this inquiry was to recognize the need for a supportive organization in our region that could focus specifically on the local economy, Council on Rural Prosperity plans to distribute a version of this final report of town supervisors and regional policy makers as soon as our legal requirements for formation are met.
In response to the stark question: should we build a makerspace in the hilltowns, the answer was not exactly a resounding “no”, but it was tepid. The workshops did give our farmers and small producers the opportunity to offer feedback on what exactly *would* help, though, which was useful and will act as a guide for numerous projects in the future. In all, about 10 farmers became engaged in this process and form a base to tap into if any follow up will happen.
Areas needing additional study
There are a number of areas that need further study.
- We understand now that there is very little good economic, land use, population and demographic, and social data available for our region. Now that we know this, and have expressed our concerns to the local organizations that can remedy this (i.e. the Capital District Regional Planning Commission), we are looking forward to understanding the state of the region better.
- If a MakerSpace is not necessarily the answer (or the only answer), what is? We have a number of ideas, and several forming projects based on the feedback from our workshops and informal gatherings, but we are still synthesizing a larger general plan for the future.
- A thorough understanding of what it means to become a resilient foodshed has become a specific area of interest. While there are many anecdotal accounts of regions rebuilding their agricultural economies with this particular idea in mind, it is unclear whether many of them are replicable. We anticipate concentrating on this particular idea as we move forward.