Posts Tagged: community builders

Adrian Lipscombe

By Sara Walters • Originally published in the Holiday + Winter 2020-21 Inspire(d)

Adrian Lipscombe of 40 Acres and a Mule

Photo courtesy Adrian Lipscombe

Farming in the Midwest is a deep-rooted tradition. Grounded in a history of agriculture, cultivating the foods that end up on our tables has long been the legacy of the region, particularly in the Driftless. But for the black community, the same isn’t true.

This striking reality presented itself loud-and-clear to Adrian Lipscombe, owner of Uptown Cafe in La Crosse, Wisconsin, earlier this year, and it eventually led her to launch a black farming initiative, 40 Acres and a Mule. But as passionate as she’s been about supporting the black farmer, it’s surprising to learn that she became involved in the cause almost serendipitously.

After the events surrounding George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis the summer of 2020, Adrian received a check in the mail. Confused, she thought maybe she had forgotten to collect from a catering job. But then came the requests for Venmo payments. Adrian, a black woman and small business owner, couldn’t figure out what it was for, so she finally asked. Turns out, people just wanted to support her during this moment of racial inequality and unrest.

Adrian went to bed puzzled. Should she take the money? What would she do with it?

A good night’s rest was all the inspiration she needed. Adrian woke and immediately knew, “I’m going to buy black land and I’m going to concentrate on black farmers,” she says, thinking back to that pivotal moment. As an entrepreneur and former city planner, Adrian immediately kicked it into high gear, reaching out to contacts on the East Coast – this epiphany happened early in the morning and she needed resources that were awake. “I was asking them, does this exist? And I learned that this is a real need. So I launched 40 Acres and a Mule within 24 hours,” she says.

40 Acres and a Mule strives to provide resources and connections for black farmers. The name comes from a term derived from Union General William T. Sherman in his 1865 Special Field Order No. 15. This reparations movement promised to pay restitution to African Americans for their enslavement.

This seemed fitting to Adrian as she began digging into the history of black farming. Reaching out to different organizations, she started to see that her community was a perfect example of where black farming could thrive, but hasn’t. “Wisconsin is a homogeneous farming community. But where is the black farmer today?” she found herself asking.

The fact that she asks these questions, launches initiatives within 24 hours, and is the first person people think of when they have extra money to support a business, is why Adrian is the epitome of a community builder. With roots in the South, she’s not a La Crosse native, but the city has welcomed her, and her leadership, with open arms. “La Crosse is such a great community. It’s the smallest city I’ve ever lived in,” she says. “People here are really sincere in wanting to help make it a better place, a diverse place, an equitable place.” Though she was surprised by the monetary outreach this summer, she wasn’t surprised that her community wanted to help. “They come out when there is a need – they get behind that and they support that. It’s difficult to do in a large city with a large population,” she says, joking that she wishes she could keep her beloved community the well-kept secret it is. “They all care and they’re all so genuine. It’s magical.”

What better place for Adrian to kick off 40 Acres and a Mule than a place “surrounded by organic farmers and great people”? Though her cause has garnered a wide following, media attention, and donations from across the country, it’s the day-to-day in La Crosse that Adrian credits with providing the support to press on, and to continue to be a black business owner in America. “Our restaurant’s relationship to the community has gotten stronger. Especially during a time like this. For people to come by and check on us. Just to wave at us in the window to make sure we’re okay. Here in La Crosse you have those opportunities to take deeper breaths, to understand what is happening in your community and the world around you,” she says.

When she’s not out researching, speaking with farmers, meeting with the media, raising awareness, and just generally spearheading the project, Adrian still has responsibilities at her restaurant. Like many small businesses during the pandemic, there has been so much pivoting that “my hips hurt” she laughs. Uptown Cafe has added outdoor dining and has made space to accommodate more bakery items. “We have to adapt,” she says.  “It’s an unprecedented time, we are able to chart the way. There’s going to be some mistakes but we’re going to find the good, too.”

That’s how she’s approaching 40 Acres and Mule, too. She admits, “What I thought was a gap is really like a canyon.” Black farming, black foodways, agricultural disparities, lack of education, lack of profitability, and lack of black mentorship in the industry are just the tip of the iceberg and Adrian knows it. Though she wishes she could do it all, “we’re focusing on what we can realistically do,” she says, adding, “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel, we want the wheel to go faster.”

There are lots of avenues Adrian sees for increasing the speed of the wheel. At first, she thought it needed to be specifically just land for black farmers. But land is expensive, and though she still has her sights set on this, she has pivoted again (sore, sore hips) to address other issues for black farmers. She’s learned that many are over the age of 55 and have no one to whom they can pass down their legacy. Others are young and interested, but have no place to turn to for education and mentorship. She also acknowledges that historically, black farming has been tumultuous and violent. She wants to help control and shape this narrative going forward – to give it some positivity, to point black communities in the right direction, to make lifelong connections between black business and farmers. Adrian sees the Driftless as a great case study for change. She’s currently working to understand community needs, working directly with both black and white farmers to learn more about their work and the economics of farming.

Her short-term goal is to serve as a conduit between black farmers and available resources. She knows there are trustworthy organizations and systems that can help them, but the connection isn’t there. “It’s difficult for black farmers to find the aid that they need. It’s really huge that that is missing,” she explains. And ultimately, her long-term goal is to produce more black farmers in America. To help provide that education and open up that pathway to “give black people the chance to be farmers if they want to,” Adrian says.

As a chef, Adrian knows full-well the importance of supporting farmers of all ethnicities, so restaurants like hers can continue to bring quality dishes to the tables of patrons. “Understanding agriculture and understanding how food is produced is important to my job and my restaurant. I’m getting the chance to understand from the ground to the plate. Being involved in that process, to me that’s so joyful to know where my food comes from,” she says. “It’s like putting my hands in the soil.”

Adrian continues to build this community with the support of donors far and wide. 40 Acres and a Mule’s GoFundMe page has already raised over $131,000 as of printing. And locally, in the Driftless, people continue to do what they do best – provide support. “Farmers are mentoring me, both black and white. To have the opportunity to talk to them about where their food goes is an honor. It’s a rare opportunity.”


Sara Walters is a freelance writer and mom living in La Crescent, Minnesota. She is the daughter and granddaughter of lifelong farmers. 

Holiday + Winter Inspire(d) – Read it Online Here!

Holiday + Winter Inspire(d)

The Holiday + Winter Inspire(d) is about Looking for the Bright Spots in every day – even through the darkest days of winter. Inside, you’ll find tons of inspiration to make the most of this time of year – and lives:

Focus on Mental Health • GrandPad • Make the Most of Winter • Pete Espinosa • Adrian Lipscombe • Cross Stitch Gnome Card • Q&A with Dr. Michael Osterholm • Ferndale Market • Moxi + Riedell Skates • End-of-Life Doula • Probit – Ruth Woldum • More!

Read the whole thing online here!

A note from Aryn:

You know those winter days when you head out for a walk and the sun is shining…and you tilt your face up to meet it and it feels like everything is going to be alright?

This is feeling we’d like to encourage you to find in your day-to-day lives – even when the sun isn’t shining (and everything doesn’t feel alright). We want you to Look for the Bright Spots everywhere.

2020 has been a year where we’ve had to frequently reinvent ourselves.

How we communicate: We found platforms like Zoom to stay social, something that is more important than ever, according to nationally renowned epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm. I got to chat on the phone with him for 15 minutes to talk COVID-19, Zoom, and how his path took him from Waukon, Iowa, to his current role at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. See the interview on page 29. For our relatives who have a little more trouble with tech, or needed a little more help on a regular basis, we turned to devices like GrandPad, based out of Wabasha, Minnesota. Decorah native Scott Lien and his son created a tablet purposefully sans complicated features – but with large, easy-to-use buttons and instant access to online help (pg 14).

How we think: We have had to dig deep to find positivity this year. And we’ll have to keep digging. Learn some strategies from regional mental health counselors like Olivia Lynn Schnur, who joins us as a new contributor this issue, plus tips on staying positive from yours truly, too. I’ve spent more than 13 years running Inspire(d), and it’s offered a great foundation for keeping on the sunny side of life. I’d love to help you do the same (pg 33).

How we find joy: Contributor Erin Dorbin found it in a pair of super colorful and totally awesome roller skates – Moxi’s Lollys. Then she discovered they were made right here in the Driftless Region at Riedell Skates Co. in Red Wing, Minnesota. It led her down a path of a pretty darn cool collaboration, and the story of how roller skating popularity has surged across the nation during this pandemic.

How we live: We carry on, Building Community, like Pete Espinosa and Adrian Lipscombe. And how we die: Kristine Jepsen takes on this important topic about choice and comfort, end-of-life doulas, and how we need to be having these conversations.

Through it all, we find the Bright Spots. Making the most out of winter and holidays, cozy reading, cross stitching, kits in the mail, cooking a big fancy meal just because, and small town charm.

Speaking of, every issue, we hope to get suggestions for probituaries. This issue, we got a few from a Decorah resident, and we reached out to one: Ruth Woldum. She agreed to be featured, and not long later, we got an email from her granddaughter…Britney Bakken! The same woman who interviewed her grandfather in the Summer/Fall issue! We had no idea that Ruth was her grandmother (on the other side of the family), and we all laughed at how perfectly “small town” this coincidence was!

Finding creative ways to overcome the challenges of the year has definitely highlighted bright spots for me. That said, I am looking forward to next year with…what else?…hope and optimism! As we come to a close with 2020 and take tentative steps into 2021, let’s keep looking for the Bright Spots.

Looking forward,

Aryn Henning Nichols

Pete Espinosa

By Sara Friedl-Putnam • Originally published in the Holiday + Winter 2020-21 Inspire(d)

Pete and Kari Espinosa (and dogs) / Photo courtesy Pete Espinosa

It’s 1964, and Pete Espinosa is five. He’s riding in the car, a little boy accompanying his mom and older brother Paul on the 80-mile drive from Mason City to Decorah, Iowa, to drop Paul off at Luther College. The trip, as Pete recalls, was bittersweet – as the trio hauled bins of possessions into Olson Hall, first there was laughter, and then there were tears.

“When you are five, nothing is more important to you than your mom, and I can remember my mom being so sad on the way home because Paul was her first child to leave for college,” he says. “That is impactful when you are that young.”

That visit would be the first of many. Pete returned to Decorah again and again through the years to visit Paul and then older sisters Pam and Ann at Luther. “Decorah was ingrained in me early,” he says with a smile. In 1977 it was Pete’s own turn to enroll at Luther, where he majored in speech communications and political science and, as a senior, met his future wife, Kari Tollefson, then a Luther freshman.

“When I graduated, I took a job with IBM in the Quad Cities, but came back to Decorah a lot over the next three years to visit Kari,” he says. “I spent a lot of time in Decorah for someone who did not live there.”

Pete steadily climbed through the ranks at IBM over the next 18 years, eventually serving as executive assistant to the company’s chairman and CEO. In 1999 he left IBM and went on to hold senior executive leadership positions at a handful of software companies before landing at Mortgage Cadence, where he currently serves as CEO.

As jobs took him literally all over the country – “I have lived in New York, Boston, Kansas City, the Quad Cities, Omaha, the Twin Cities,” he says – Decorah remained a constant, as he and Kari returned for Luther Homecoming and other events throughout the years even as they raised their three children, Josh, Justin, and Rachel. There was just something about this scenic small town.

In 2013, after spending a fun and memorable long weekend with Kari’s siblings and family in Decorah, the couple was inspired to put down roots in town, and join the community on a more tangible level. They bought a lot and built a house on Iowa Avenue. “We chose Decorah, and because of that we very much want Decorah to be successful,” says Pete. “We are not just rooting for it but want to do something positive.”

That has been their mantra time and again over the last six years. In 2014 the couple purchased and renovated Bottle Tree laundromat on College Drive, an investment that, while not necessarily very profitable, served the Decorah population in an important way. Then in 2015, Pete, teaming up with a few family members and friends, opened Pulpit Rock Brewing Company. The brewery was one of the reasons – Toppling Goliath Brewing Company being the other – that Decorah is on the map for craft-beer connoisseurs worldwide. “I am not even a beer drinker, and there was no financial plan that made any sense when we opened,” he says. “But we want to do good things for Decorah, and we thought this would be a good thing for Decorah.”

Pete and Kari at Pulpit Rock Brewing Co. in Decorah, Iowa / Photo courtesy Pete Espinosa

And it has been. As it turned out, says Pete, head brewers Bob Slack and Justin Teff, make great beer: “I was blown away. We started winning awards, and we were getting more and more requests to rent out our taproom, next door to the laundromat.” Those requests inspired another change. When he received an offer to buy the laundromat, he accepted it, contingent that the laundromat would stay on the West Side of Decorah to serve that population. The move left the former laundromat space available to remodel into an event venue, which has been popular from the start.

In 2019, the Espinosas created another anchor for the community. Pete and Kari had long had their eyes on 211 College Drive, a spacious (11,000 square feet) building next door to Pulpit Rock that housed a furniture business. When that business closed, Pete and Kari bought the building to, once again, do something good for Decorah. “We wanted to build an establishment unlike anything else in town,” says Pete, “It was important that we didn’t put anyone out of business.”

The Landing Market opened in July 2020. Modeled after the Lynhall in Minneapolis, it offers a range of food and drink options, from fresh-brewed coffee sourced from Impact (also in town) and other items from distinctive wines to grab-and go sandwiches (made from fresh, locally sourced ingredients) as well as what Pete calls “the best French toast around.”

French toast at Jusin’s at the Landing Market in Decorah / Photo by Sara Friedl-Putnam

The French toast is a featured menu item at Justin’s, an eatery in the Landing Market named after Pete’s son, who has cognitive disabilities. Providing meaningful work opportunities for adults engaged in the Spectrum Network (which serves adults with cognitive disabilities) has been an integral part of the mission of establishing the food hall. “There aren’t a lot of employment options for Spectrum clients in Decorah right now,” says Pete. “But here they can help make yummy, reasonably priced food in a cool setting. That is a home run.”

The Espinosas are also supporters of the arts. Pete and Kari purchased the former Wonder Bread store on Broadway Street in Decorah to ensure ArtHaus, a space for visual and performing arts, had a home in which to grow and thrive in the Decorah community.

Pete, center, with some of his family outside Pulpit Rock Brewing / Photo courtesy Pete Espinosa

“My wife and I believe that the more people you can help in a community, the better everything else turns out. That is the essence of the laundromat, the brewery, the Landing Market, and ArtHaus,” says Pete. “And it all goes back to the fact that we chose to be here so we want to do what we can to make this a special, unique place.”

In 2016, Pete was honored with the Luther College Distinguished Service Award. And in 2017, he joined the Luther College Board of Regents. “I said, sign me up, when asked,” says Pete. “I felt like I could help.”

Delivering Pete’s Distinguished Service Award, Eric Runestad, then Luther vice president of finance, summed up his essence thusly: “Pete is the kind of person that makes you think ‘I could do more.’”

That he is.


Sara Friedl-Putnam has tried the French toast at Justin’s in the Landing Market and can attest to the fact that it is the most delicious French toast in town, if not the region.