Two sides of the completed Farm Art barnside mural.

Two sides of the completed Farm Art barn mural. Left by Aaron Horkey; Right by Malena Handeen.

Y’all know what a cooperative is, right? I always thought I did—that funky building with the mural on the downtown corner where hippies and hipsters gathered to get their granola, tofu, and quinoa. A magnet for the capital-disillusioned who believe they can create a better world if they help stock shelves and put their coin in a pool to benefit The People rather than The Man. All for one, one for all, tofu-rah!

Full disclosure: I have a soft spot for this species of bootstrap thinking. Regardless of a wide range of success/failure arcs, co-ops are clearly different animals, trying to survive on the leavings from our corporate landscape. But, sigh, any serious player knows to go Wall Street or go home, right?

Close-up of Pete Hodapp’s completed Farm Art mural. The red thread links all three murals, representing the connection and cooperation of all life.

Then there’s our own CROPP Cooperative, creator and keeper of the Organic Valley and Organic Prairie brands. This co-op of family farmers is a whole different fauna, which is to be expected when an organized bunch of determined small-business people take matters into their own, co-op-weary, soil-tested hands.

CROPP was created by farmers drinking from a deep well of frustration in the late 1980s, when family farms were disappearing faster than Pac-Man biscuits. It’s easy to imagine they started CROPP on a whim, in a devil-may-care, last-resort, what-have-we-got-to-lose mindset. But after years trying to figure this thing out, I’m here to say that that imagining is dead wrong. They had a stone-cold plan. A vision. True love.

Food shouldn’t be about how little it costs, and farming shouldn’t be about pain and sorrow. They should both be about making things better and healthy again. Food, people, community, animals, plants, soil; all of these should be improved, starting on the co-op’s farms. Thirty years later, it’s still that simple, and that focused.

Close-up of Aaron Horkey's mural showing the incredible detail he created using spray paint.

Close-up of Aaron Horkey’s mural showing the incredible detail he created using spray paint.

Which is at root the subject of a new thing we call Farm Art—a celebration of the amazing stuff a cooperative can do when its vision drives its mission and vice versa. As we like to say, we are a social experiment disguised as a business. After all, CROPP Co-op itself has never been about profit in quite the same way that other organizations are about profit, and our most cherished balance sheet—the number of organic family farms thriving in our fold—has grown steadily and recently rose above the 2,000-member mark. Based on all the good that flows out of this sum, I suspect that America itself might some day look at this ledger as a unique record of its own unexpected profit.

For now, we’ll just paint it big and bold on our barns and see if anyone notices.

The farm and the why

CROPP’s first Farm Art took place early this year near Cashton, Wisconsin, on the family farm of Becky and Tucker Gretebeck. A quarter-mile from the milking barn on the ridgetop, the retired tobacco barn stands on the flat bottom of a coulee—a French word for deep valley with steep surrounding hills. The long, winding drive downward creates the impression that you’re headed toward a doomed place, but the final turn onto a worn tractor path welcomes you to heaven. A more beautiful, calming valley may not exist.

The Gretebeck family stands in front of the barn showing the completed Farm Art mural.

The Gretebecks, Organic Valley dairy farmers near Cashton, Wisconsin, hosted our first Farm Art installation. Photo by Stephanie Neprud.

This raises the question: why make a mural here, where no one will see it from the road? Think modern technology. Farm Art is rural geek, made with the interwebs in mind. While the combined art of Malena Handeen, Aaron Horkey, and Pete Hodapp is breathtaking to view in person (please come out to see it!), millions of folks are city-bound and never would come here even if the barn did allow views from the road, so we’re bringing it to them via a short film on social media. CROPP’s own hard-working Tobias Staffanson filmed it all, from the barn’s preparation through the finishing touches, including farmer and artist interviews and even a Go-Pro drone swoop or two. This is how most will come to thrill at Farm Art and the fabulous farmer-owned cooperative it stands for. Watch for it coming soon to a smartphone near you.

About the artists and the art

The artists Aaron Horkey, Malena Handeen, and Pete Hodapp stand in front of the Farm Art barn.

The artists, from left, Aaron Horkey, Malena Handeen, Pete Hodapp

Y’all know what street art is, right? Cities around the world are practically covered with it. It’s a quirky phenomenon on social media as well. Google it, I swear. As descendants of pioneer, frowned-upon, inner-city “taggers,” today’s street artists are often commissioned and celebrated as transformers of urban decay. Riveras, O’Keeffes, and Van Goghs of the Millennial generation, as it were. What would happen, we wondered, if we invited a few street art masters out to a CROPP farm to have their creative way with it? We set out to de-wall this urban/rural divide and maybe freak out some hipsters in the deal.

As agronomists fighting rural decay who know what it takes to make a difference, we set our sights on spectacular skill and work ethic, and we got that and much more. Each of the artists has in the past tagged a building or two (none admitting on record that they have actually been chased by police) AND generated gasps with online displays of their more recent art. Each is also rooted in and dedicated to bettering rural condition, community and cooperation.

 

 

Handeen, in addition to her stunning studio and mural work, runs a thriving community supported agriculture (CSA) farm called Easy Bean Farm with her husband in western Minnesota.

Artist Malena Handeen paints a swirling pattern on the side of the barn.

Artist Malena Handeen. Photo by Stephanie Neprud

Hodapp paints and draws sensationally, small and large, throughout Wisconsin and the Midwest, while teaching the next generation of street artists in small-town Viroqua, Wisconsin.

 

Artist Pete Hodapp, wearing a red bandana, painting his mural on the side of the barn.

Artist Pete Hodapp. Photo by Stephanie Neprud.

Horkey grew up on the prairies of southwest Minnesota, mostly on his hands and knees obsessively observing life’s daily struggles and textures, which he’s parlayed into his jaw-dropping works of mysterious beauty.

 

Artist Aaron Horkey wears a gas mask as he paints his mural with spray paint.

Artist Aaron Horkey. Photo by Stephanie Neprud.

The artists were jazzed when they first saw the old barn, its weathered boards (so different from the brickwork of cities), the fabulous coulee setting. We asked them to do their thing without direction from little ol’ us—unless you consider our single request that it reflect our cooperative spirit.

The old barn before it was painted with the Farm Art murals.

Before.

The old barn is now covered with colorful, whimsical murals.

After

You see what they made. The triptych visual narrative takes us from the circle of organic life…

Pete Hodapp’s completed Farm Art mural. Notice the red threads that connect all three murals in a representation of interconnectedness in the present and throughout time.

through our assumed role as its stewards…

Artist Malena Handeen's completed Farm Art mural depicting a woman surrounded by many hands, as well as ants, flowers, and a patterned background.

Artist Malena Handeen’s completed Farm Art mural.

to an altered creature world that will be what remains if we fail ourselves and our earth.

Aaron Horkey's completed Farm Art mural depicts a prehistoric creature rising from red and blue flames, symbolizing a warning of what will remain if we do not cooperate amongst ourselves and with our shared earth.

Aaron Horkey’s completed Farm Art mural. The creature symbolizes the altered world that will be all that remains if we fail to cooperate among ourselves and with animals and our shared earth.

Along the way, stringing it all together, the words “Common Purpose” float like a defiant balloon figure, a woodland sprite hinting at cooperation, the best path through to the whole world.