Crosshatch: The Community Builders

Crosshatch’s day-to-day mission involves things like loaning farmers a chicken-plucking machine, hosting a popular farm convention, helping Joshua Davis write an album, convening artists to hang out, convening farmers to hang out, holding dances, hosting skill swaps … consulting, even. The bigger mission: harnessing the power of personal connections to strengthen small communities.

This story is featured in the April 2018 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy!

Greg Heiser is retired Air Force. His wife, Libby, also retired Air Force. But like many middle-age military retirees, they headed into the post-service phase not with the goal of kicking back, but of starting a good and rich second career. They ended up with a small farm not far from Bellaire, but they had never farmed. “I’d actually envisioned a B&B with eight chickens,” Libby says. But this summer she will have 100 chickens.

As the Heisers talk, they sit at one end of a long, crowded table in Short’s Brewing Company’s Bellaire pub, here for the monthly meeting of the East Bay Small Farm Guild. Seated along the table are about 10 other farmers—from couples in their 20s to a man about 70. The range of farming knowledge is also wide. Clay Gorno, 20-something, has had no college training in farming, but his family farmed and he has a piece of land and will be planting his first orchard this spring. Kelly and Patrick, a married couple, also in their 20s, both studied agriculture at Michigan State University and are growing vegetables and mushrooms. Doug Bedell, about 70, grew up on a farm and has farmed much of his life; these days he has a small herd of cattle. “When I grew up, farming was not a social thing, it was a subsistence thing,” he says.

The guild meetings are a mix of socializing and studying, catching up over beers and discussing a specific farm topic; today’s topic is seed saving. The overall goal, though, is something bigger: creating community bonds—connections that are at once ephemeral and bedrock strong, and that build social and economic strength.

You might think the guilds are a return to the ways of yesteryear—farmers communing with farmers. But Bedell says he’s never seen this kind of cooperation among farmers. When he was a boy 60 years ago, “farmers might have gotten together on a baseball team or to play poker, but they’d talk about baseball,” he says. “They wouldn’t meet to talk about how they could help one another. That would be helping a competitor.” He likes the farm guild and sees the value of its “rising tide lifts all ships” core.

Two people who aren’t here at Short’s this night are Brad and Amanda Kik, though they are the reason this farm guild gathers. The organization the Kiks founded a decade ago, Crosshatch Center for Art and Ecology, as their slogan says, “builds strong communities through the intersections of art, farming, ecology and economy.”

Guilds, with their comfortable mix of informal chit-chat and sharing of practical ideas, are a clear, concrete example of that mission and have become a cornerstone of Crosshatch offerings. Today, guilds meet to discuss such topics as beekeeping, herb growing, green building, mushroom growing, creating and processing wool and other fibers. Crosshatch helps get a guild started, and the members run it and continue meeting. Brad calls it “the stone soup idea.”

But guilds are just one part of Crosshatch. Beyond guilds, Crosshatch offerings are a mix of philosophical/conceptual and pointedly practical. In the philosophical realm is the Long Memory Project. The project brings together community activist elders with younger storytellers and musicians.

The elders share tales of their lives—issues they’ve fought for—and the younger storytellers use the personal narratives to write stories and songs. The theory behind the long memory project is that communities need a sense of their own histories if they are to have a well-grounded future. Also more conceptual: artist residence programs—one resulted in the popular Joshua Davis album A Miracle of Birds.

In the practical realm, Crosshatch makes available a chicken-plucking machine that small farmers like the Heisers can use to avoid commercial processing fees and make more money when selling direct to consumers. Another practical project: a mobile pickling van that hosts pickling instruction gatherings. A Crosshatch aphorism, “Friends don’t let friends can alone,” is cute and funny, but also gets to the heart of the mission: alone, canning can be a dreary task, but with friends, you create community and have a good time, and still get the canning done.

Crosshatch’s highest profile event is the annual Small Farm Conference, held each January at the Grand Traverse Resort. In 2018, 700 farmers attended the Saturday sessions to hear discussions on topics ranging from the specifics of getting FDA loans to tips for vegetable farmers who want to establish relationships with restaurant owners. Crosshatch holds dozens of smaller educational events year round.

Brad and Amanda met when Brad was the assistant innkeeper at Neahtawanta Inn, on Old Mission Peninsula. They started dating. Amanda told Brad she had been thinking about starting a nonprofit for artists, a residency program. Brad said he’d been thinking of starting a nonprofit for sustainable farming practices. As they explored each other’s ideas, they came to see arts and farming are universal elements in the forming of community. People sing and dance, they share food and meals. In 2005, Brad and Amanda got engaged in the same month they filed their 501C3. When they eventually began fundraising, their first direct mail list was their wedding list.

Originally, they named the nonprofit ISLAND, but adopted Crosshatch in 2016. The Kiks concede their multifaceted offerings and grand mission can make it a little difficult for some people to understand what they are working to achieve. “We talk about the early years as the eye-roll years,” Brad says. “We thought the idea was exciting but we could not explain it. People looked at us like we were crazy … all the time. But if people came to something, they would get it.”

The Kiks hope to make the most conspicuous incarnation of Crosshatch on a rolling 50 acres they own near Bellaire. On a sunny day in early fall the land’s beauty is on full display. A dozen cattle graze in the shade of a maple, the grasses wave in the breeze. To the south, a hardwood forest edges the field, and autumn hues tint the woods.

The vision long term is to have housing and studios here to support 12 artists at a time. The reasoning behind that is also connected to community. “There’s this magic that can happen at residency programs,” Amanda says. “Artists can go to their studios or wherever they go to do their work during the day and come together in evening to share a meal and talk about what they’re working on and what struggling with, and in that moment, there can be a spark that can change their work.”

The Kiks hope to grow 80 percent of the artist community’s needs onsite. All vegetarian? That’s not part of the sustainable farming goal, because livestock is needed to keep the fields healthy. “Nature always gardens using livestock,” Brad says.

While Crosshatch’s reputation continues to grow in northwest Michigan—they now have staff in Traverse City, Bellaire and Petoskey—the organization is also becoming known in other parts of America. The most vivid example is happening in the coal country of southwest Virginia, where a family who made its fortune in coal is now investing from its foundation—the Thompson Charitable Foundation—to diversify the local economy as coal jobs wane. They invited Crosshatch to hold workshops to help people create community bonds and use those relationships to inspire and support new, small entrepreneurs—farmers, river outfitters, prepared-foods companies, makers of nutraceuticals and botanical products, and more.

“We are not anti-coal by any means,” says Jeff Mansour, an economic development specialist working with the foundation. “But there’s an understanding that times change, there’s economic transition, globalization, political change, and many things are out of our control. But this is about looking at what we can take control of, that sense of being in charge of our own destiny.”

Tapping into Crosshatch revealed one of the foundation’s core beliefs, that the ideas and initiative have to come from the grassroots, from the ground up, or the effort won’t succeed. “If it comes from above, it won’t be sustainable. If it’s from above, it will only exist as long as the outside group continues to bring resources to the community,” Mansour says. That means the one economic solution they are not trying to find is a single big employer to come in with, say, 500 jobs. It’s fully capitalism, but it’s a more cooperative form of capitalism, as Mansour sees it.

Some people say Crosshatch is about saving rural communities. “But that’s not quite it,” Brad says. “We aren’t saving them, but we are helping them to save themselves.”

Jeff Smith is editor of Traverse. [email protected] // Melisa McKolay is an award-winning photographer specializing in lifestyle portraiture & wedding photojournalism. 

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