We’re looking back on some bright moments in a difficult year, and asked each member of our team to name a few of their favorite stories. This is one of Robert Chappell’s.
The COVID pandemic hit a lot of businesses hard — including farmers in South Central Wisconsin. Already on shaky economic footing, farms suddenly found themselves with no farmers’ markets, restaurants closing down and dairy prices reaching all-time lows.
Enter Kingsley Gobourne.
In his day job, he oversees diversity and inclusion for UnityPoint Health’s 35,000 employees in three states. He was also the only Black kid in his class at Pecatonica High School in Blanchardville, a village of about 800 people nestled in the Pecatonica River Valley, on the border between Iowa and Lafayette Counties. It’s an agricultural community, and Gobourne has remained friends with the farm kids he grew up with — many of whom still work on their family farms. So he heard about the tough times they were having and thought perhaps he could leverage his sales experience to help out.
Seven months later, Artemis Provisions and Cheese is selling $20,000 worth of beef, pork, poultry, eggs and cheese every month.
“This wasn’t really a plan,” Gobourne said in an interview earlier this week. “We had some people in Iowa (County) and Lafayette County that were hurting and there were people that I knew. I was connected.”
Gobourne and his wife decided to start small, trying the idea out among the employees at a Meriter clinic — one of the clinics in the UnityPoint network.
“We actually did it at one clinic just to see what type of products individuals would like. And we’ve used that to help build what our menu will look like based on what people were interested in,” Gobourne said. “And what really started as just a pilot at Meriter … has really evolved into this great opportunity that my wife and I now have been spending time and trying to figure out, how do we maximize it?”
Now that it’s starting to take off, Gobourne says he’s working with the Urban League of Greater Madison, the Madison Black Chamber of Commerce — Artemis participated in the MBCC’s Black Restaurant Week in August — and SCORE to form a business plan.
“It was like, ‘Hey, Kingsley, we have a cow going in and we have about a thousand pounds of meat, what can we do?’ And so you just kind of reacted,” he said. “And now we’re to the point where, okay, we were doing a lot of reacting, let’s plan this out and we can be a little bit more efficient and successful.”
Gobourne said the growing company is trying to “do everything, and maybe that’s too much,” and “trying to figure out what we do best.” Right now that means they’re selling produce boxes for pickup and delivery every two weeks, pre-cooked dinners and gift boxes for consumers, while moving into the wholesale space, supplying restaurants and groceries, and providing private dining experiences for families.
So far, Gobourne is working with three farms — Greenfield Farms, Pecatonica Valley Farms, and Leonard Family Farms — as well as Brunkow Cheese, located in Fayette, near Darlington. But they’re looking for more.
“As we grow, there are different areas that we will need partners for and there are areas that we want to grow in,” he said. “We’ve been speaking with other creameries because we’d like to access some different types of cheeses. Brunkow’s famous for their cheddars and goat cheeses. We’ve been working to try to find a place that will make Swiss or Lindberger and some other options as well. We’re looking at how we can identify more poultry farmers and kind of grow that out because poultry is one of the areas that we’re growing the fastest. We’re really, really excited about that.”
Gobourne noted that local, antibiotic-free produce is good for your health — and for the local economy.
“When you buy your chicken, that money goes right back into Wisconsin farmers, who are in turn, will get to spend that dollar again here in Wisconsin,” he said. “All that money is churning in our economy. It grows our economy. There’s also this opportunity to grow jobs, and it’s also to grow jobs for underrepresented people. I was talking to someone the other day and they said, ‘You know, Kingsley, we have distributors all the time. You’re the first black distributor that we’ve met with.’”
Coming at it from that perspective also has Gobourne thinking about getting his product into the hands of those underrepresented communities.
“One of the things that I’ve been trying to identify is, how do I get what I have into the hands of communities at risk? They’re the ones that have the hardest time affording organic, free range chicken, grass-fed beef, and all these other products,” he said, noting that it’s also a matter of access — grocery stores in Black and brown neighborhoods often don’t carry those kinds of locally-grown produce.
Despite being one of the very few Black people in the wholesale food distribution business, Gobourne said he’s been welcomed.
“I have not run into a situation so far, knock on wood, in which people haven’t welcomed the products and welcomed me and given me an ear to speak and to share what we’re doing,” he said. “I feel it’s just part of Southern Wisconsin, ihe Midwest, whatever you want to call it. People do want to treat everyone fairly.”
Produce packages and gift boxes are available to order at Artemisprovisions.org, along with cooked chicken and other items for Christmas dinners and other occasions.