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Selling Minnesota's "Goods from the Woods"
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This backpack, made entirely from birchbark, is one of John Zasada's favorite creations. It's not intended to be whimsical. Similar backpacks have been used to carry loads in northern Europe. Zasada has worn and used this pack many times. (MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher)
The folks in Grand Rapids are hoping for a big turnout this weekend, for their showcase of products made from the region's forests. They call it the Up North Marketplace. This isn't about plywood and two-by-fours. It's about arts, crafts, and economic development. It's part of a bigger effort to create a new cottage industry.

Grand Rapids, Minn. — John Zasada's workshop is buried in bark. Broad swaths of white birchbark cover the workbench. A jumble of bark strips is piled on the concrete floor. Zasada is ripping the thin bark into long narrow strips, which dangle like strings from his hands.

Zasada was a forester. Now he's an artist.

Thin birch whips become birch baskets, a pair of birch shoes, or even a birchbark backpack -- straps and all woven from birch. He works in a traditional style used by Finns, Swedes and Russians.

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Image John Zasada

"Part of the reason that I do this ... is that this is one of many of the values that come from the forest," Zasada says, "from which an individual can either have pure enjoyment, or, if they really want to, they can turn it into a money-making proposition at some level."

Zasada's birch weavings will be on display in Grand Rapids this weekend. So will the crafts and artworks of dozens of others.

John Reihle sells flowers in his store in downtown Grand Rapids. He also carries a lot of other items, many by local artists. He picks up a multi-colored mushroom, six inches high, and made from polished wood.

"It's amazing some of the things that they come up with," Reihle says. "Over here, there's some turned mushrooms. You know, I have a whole little village of mushrooms. We also have pine needle basketry. I mean, some of this work is just absolutely incredible."

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Image John Reihle

Each item represents just a tiny part of the Grand Rapids economy. Grouped together, they become something more substantial -- a regional cottage industry.

"Our goal was to have items made locally in our shop, so not everything said, 'Made in China, made in China, made in China,' that you can find in every gift shop from Minneapolis to up north of here," Reihle says.

Now in its second year, Goods from the Woods is gaining momentum. People are trying their hand at crafts like woodcarving, or weaving wreaths from grapevines. Most turn out crafts or artwork. But Reihle says others produce something more practical and often more profitable -- handmade guitars, canoes, and bent willow furniture.

"I have a friend of mine that manufactures muskie lures from the local woods. He carves them. He paints them," says Reihle. "He started doing it for himself. And now he's at a point where I hardly see his head poking out of the door, because he's got orders for 500 lures at a time."

Our goal was to have items made locally in our shop, so not everything said, 'Made in China, made in China, made in China.'
- John Reihle

Now, a one-time hobby is a full-time career.

"And now his wife is working with him." Reihle says. "They're making it their full-time venture at this point. It's gone really well for them."

Goods from the Woods takes people from their first interest to a small business. There are community classes -- how to harvest materials from the woods, how to turn the materials into products, and how to turn a pastime into a business. Reihle says it helps people sell forest products in local shops -- or just about anywhere else.

"The marketplace is just the fun show where they all get to display their works. The Minnesota Wood Campaign helps them take it to the next level, to start selling their products nationally and internationally, to connect them as wholesalers to suppliers," says Reihle. "From start to finish, we're trying to create the avenues for the local artists to go from cottage industry to as far as they would like to take it."

Goods from The Woods and the Minnesota Wood Campaign are both projects of the Grand Rapids-based Blandin Foundation. The Foundation is also a financial supporter of Minnesota Public Radio.

The weekend begins Friday in Grand Rapids with a panel discussion on forest certification. Gov. Pawlenty is taking part. The Up North marketplace is open for business Saturday and Sunday.

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