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The science behind the art: Potter uses precise measurements to create art

Where art and functionality meet you can find pottery, and where pottery is, you are likely to find Shawn Bagley.

The St. Peter resident has been honing the craft for seven to eight years and will be showing his ware at the Owatonna Arts Center from Aug. 2 to Aug. 30, alongside Owatonna resident and painter Lynette Yencho. This is the third art show for the 23-year-old potter.

Bagley says he has always had an artistic side, including playing with the art of drawing and photography. In high school he attended the Minnesota New Country School in Henderson, a charter school focused on project-based learning. It was at school where he first witnessed a student throwing a vase on the wheel.

“That was something I saw and thought ‘wow, I want to give that a try,’” Bagley said. “I became hooked. I kind of fell in love with the whole process of making pottery.”

His junior year project was focused on pottery. He spent around 200 hours on the project. Bagley is a visual learner. At night he would watch YouTube tutorials on the art form and try out the techniques at school the following day.

Bagley has been renting space at the Arts Center of Saint Peter, which has both a studio space and gallery space, for about two or three years. At one point it was suggested that he display his work in a show of his own. On Monday, he started setting up his gallery at the Owatonna Arts Center, after recently taking down his gallery at the Paradise Center for the Arts in Faribault.

“I want to keep on doing shows and I want to do exhibits, but then also do shows where you can sell,” Bagley said.

He hopes to eventually participate in the invite-only St. Croix Valley Pottery Tour. The annual pottery sale event is typically held in early May and features multiple well known potters.

“It’s something that I can work toward,” Bagley said of the tour.

Shawn Bagley really enjoys making handles. A teapot and mugs show Bagley’s technique of attaching the top of the handle to the vessel and pulling it to attach to the lower side. He aims to make the handle aesthetically pleasing as well as functional. (Ashley Rezachek/People’s Press)

Similar to science, pottery involves specific steps, measurements and chemicals

Bagley enjoys making vases, mugs, items with handles and vessels with lids. He begins his process by determining how much clay he needs and begins wedging it, which he describes as similar to the technique used for folding bread dough. This step will help remove any air bubbles trapped in the clay and make the clay stronger for when he throws it later.

Next he centers the clay on the wheel.

“Centering took me a while, it took me about a year before I felt like I could center it,” Bagley said.

With some water to prevent the clay from sticking to his hands, Bagley pushes the material to the center of the wheel and creates an opening hole while making sure to avoid hitting the very bottom. He begins to pull the clay outward and shape the ware. For vases, he uses a tool called a rib to help shape the curves in the clay.

The piece is then dried and put into the kiln for the first firing. Firing strengthens the clay, while maintaining its porous state, which absorbs any applied glazes.

There are several types of glazes which can be used. Some are commercial grade which are more predictable in their outcome. Other glazes are made by the potters themselves. Different glazes require different temperatures during the second firing.

Another variable in pottery is the type of firing — oxidation or reduction — which can impact the color. For example, when firing in oxidation, copper glazes turn green, but when fired in reduction, copper glazes turn red. Other elements, such as chrome and cobalt can be added to a glaze to produce the colors green and blue respectively, according to Bagley.

He hopes to learn more about making glazes when he heads to Minnesota State University, Mankato this fall to get his bachelor’s in ceramics.

“I’m excited about that because that’s where I’ll learn about the materials that are used in making the glazes.”

Bagley uses a wood fire kiln which gives pieces a unique finish.

“Wood firing is probably my most favorite way to fire and to finish pottery because it has to do a lot with the surface of the pieces,” Bagley said.

As the name suggests, the kiln uses burning wood as fuel. A continuous supply of wood needs to be thrown in. Wood firing usually takes 48 hours or more to complete a firing, meaning potters have to take shifts watching the fire.

The kiln creates a natural draft which pulls the heat through the clay and to the chimney. Using a tool called a pyrometric cones a potter is able to visually determine when the kiln reaches the desired temperature. The cones come in a variety of ratings, and bend depending on the temperature.

Shawn Bagley holds one of his vessels. He is showing alongside painter Lynette Yencho at the Owatonna Arts Center. With seven to eight years of experience Bagley has made his pieces thinner and lighter. (Ashley Rezachek/People’s Press)

Bagley draws inspiration from going to pottery events, such as the St.Croix Valley Pottery Tour and the Minnesota Pottery Festival, to see what other potters are making. He also follows other potters on Instagram and tests out their techniques and ideas.

He has been given the opportunity to demo his work for others at a local school and has been asked to teach a class at the Paradise Center for the Arts. Although selling his work is the future he would like to see for himself.

“Thanks to Silvan and the Owatonna Arts Center for having me and Lynnette, for allowing me to show alongside her,” Bagley said. “I’m excited for the future being able to go through my BFA. I’m excited to learn as much as I can.”


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U report: Meat processing issues continue to hinder state's farmers

A report from the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Sustainable Agriculture highlights just how difficult it is for many small- and medium-sized livestock producers to access the meat processing they need.

The University’s Livestock Processing Survey was sent out in May, so as to capture some of the effects of COVID-19 on the market. At that time, COVID outbreaks in some parts of the state had hit local processing plants particularly hard, limiting capacity.

The results, finally released last week, paint a dire picture of a market that was overtaxed even before COVID. Out of 11 farmers who responded to the survey, 64% said that processing capacity was already inadequate for their business.

Now, just 17% of farmers report they have adequate access to processing facilities, with the majority of respondents saying that processors of all types are booked out for months. Astoundingly, one processor reported they are booked out through fall of 2021.

The lack of access to processing comes at a time when consumer demand for locally raised meats from small producers is growing — and could grow even larger. According to the survey, 65% of respondents have seen increased demand.

A majority of the survey’s respondents told the University of Minnesota that if processing was available, they would definitely expand their operations. However, with capacity as limited as it has become, many farmers have instead been forced to cull their herds.

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said that the state needs to encourage facilities to stay open and keep employees working. Drazkowski said that the best way to do that would be to work with each individual facility on a customer plan.

“I think that will see better results than a dictatorial approach,” he said.

State Rep. Jeff Brand, who serves as vice chair of the House Agriculture Committee, said that he and the committee had heard extensively about the issue even before the pandemic hit. That shortage of capacity hurts small farmers the most.

“A lot of our farmers couldn’t sell the hogs for free, because they were having such a hard time getting people to process them,” Brand shared.

Brand said that in rural areas throughout the state, the number of small processors used to be much higher but declined along with the number of small farmers. While the number of small, family-owned farms has again begun to increase, processing capacity hasn’t yet returned.

The issue has only been exacerbated by COVID due to the series of outbreaks at processing facilities. While reports of outbreaks have slowed in recent weeks, he said that’s largely because they are now operating at reduced capacity.

When it comes to the state’s meatpacking plants, Brand said much more needs to be done to protect the safety of workers. He attributed the early outbreaks to a failure on the part of many plant owners to ensure adequate protections.

“We have to do better on making sure employees are safe,” he said.

Employee safety

In next year’s legislative session, Brand said that he hoped an agreement could come about to support smaller producers. That’s a top priority for Stu Lourey, director of government affairs for the Minnesota Farmers Union.

Lourey touted the federal Requiring Assistance to Meat Processors for Upgrading Plants (RAMP-UP) Act, introduced by House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson, D-MN, and co-sponsored by local Rep. Angie Craig, D-Eagan, as a potential model.

Under that bill, introduced in Congress last month, a new federal program would be created to provide funding for existing plants to make facility upgrades and as well as planning grants to help plants meet federal guidelines, so they can sell their meat across state lines.

“Amidst disruptions in the food supply chain due to COVID-19, our farmers and local processors have continued to innovate to get safe food on the table for millions of Americans,” Craig said in a prepared statement. “By continuing to support our local meat processors, we are safeguarding our food supply and stimulating rural economies.”

Lourey said that for the system to work efficiently for farmers across the state, a different processing model is needed. He said the consolidation toward larger plants has badly hindered the system’s ability to cope with the stress of COVID.

However, he noted that a major challenge for meat processors is that the capital costs associated with getting into the business are so high. As a result, he says that public investment is needed to avoid market distortions.

“What we’ve seen, and what Farmers Union has known for awhile, is that when the processing system is too consolidated it becomes brittle and vulnerable to disruption,” he said. ““We need a strong and sustained investment in local meat processing.”

Rice County Farmers Union President Steven Read said that in addition to providing additional funding, difficulties with the licensing and regulatory system also need to be dealt with. He also said the industry is dealing with a major labor shortage.

“The last meat processing program in Minnesota closed down years ago, and now there’s not a vocational program dedicated to meat processing,” he said. “So it’s very difficult to find the skilled labor you need for those facilities.”

When farmers can’t get an animal processed within a certain period of time, Read said that the meat can quickly lose its quality. As a result, small- and medium-sized farmers can have a hard time bringing their best quality product to market.

“There’s a sweet spot for when an animal should be processed for its best result,” he said. “If you can’t have those animal processed during that period, it isn’t as good.”


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Medford CARES Act funds may be used for small business grants

As Gov. Tim Walz begins distributing funds from the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, small communities such as Medford are trying to quickly form a plan on how to put those funds to best practice.

City Administrator Andy Welti told the Medford City Council during its regular meeting Monday that the city will receive $96,737 – all of which must be spent by Nov. 15. He said that any unspent funds must then be sent to Steele County, which will then return that money to the state.

“The city must follow federal guidelines in spending the funds,” Welti said. “The funds may only be used to cover costs that are necessary expenditures incurred due to the public health emergency with respect to [COVID-19], were not accounted for in the budget most recently approved as of Mar. 27, 2020, and were incurred during the period the begins on Mar. 1, 2020, and ends on Dec. 30, 2020.”

While CARES-eligible expenses include payroll, medical, actions to facilitate compliance with COVID-19 related-health measures and any other COVID-19 related expenses reasonably necessary to the function of the government, one of the key areas the dollars can be spent is in economic support of the community’s small businesses.

“The city has incurred expenses for sanitization supplies, [personal protective equipment], and germ barriers for elections. At this time the city’s expenses are minimal,” Welti said, adding that the city will also likely seek reimbursement for unemployment insurance. “The city will likely be able to provide grants to help businesses within Medford city limits and purchase pandemic related supplies for the Fire Department.”

Welti said that the plan is to develop a small business relief fund grant program using the CARES Act dollars to help stimulate the businesses which may have been negatively impacted by the pandemic. He said that the program will like be administered through the city’s Economic Development Authority.

“We will contact businesses to make sure they are aware of the program and then likely get the applications out to them so they can submit it toward the end of September,” Welti said. “We would like to award the grants in October.”Welti said that the process will prove to be a challenge for cities as they are not set up to distribute grant funds. He said that they will need to develop the administration, application and guidelines – and that all of it will have to come into place quickly.

“The CARES Act funds is definitely welcomed and the city appreciates the state and federal governments for providing the funding,” Welti said. “But it is going to be a challenge for us to administer. But with that said, it is a significant benefit to small business in our community that have incurred costs related to the pandemic.”

Welti anticipates that the program come before the council for a vote next month.