In 1985, Shanna Ratner founded a consulting firm specializing in rural community economic development. At the time, Ratner wanted to name her company Rural Development Associates, but the name was already taken.
Thus Ratner, New College ’72, had to brainstorm for a new company name, and Yellow Wood Associates, Inc. was born – inspired by the Robert Frost poem “The Road Not Taken.”
“I wanted to do something that I didn’t know many people or anyone else was doing, and I wanted to do it in a way that was unconventional. So the poem spoke to me,” she said. After more than 30 years, Ratner has lived up to that goal, taking on complex research initiatives and envisioning new ways to strengthen economies in rural communities from Mississippi to the Adirondacks to Nepal.
Ratner, 61, works closely with rural communities to build opportunities—from exploring a framework of economic development concepts to examining the ins and outs of specific options like food processing or nature-based tourism. “I learned how important it was to work with people, as opposed to just giving them a report,” Ratner said.
One of the economic solutions she was instrumental in getting off the ground in the Appalachian states region is now becoming a national model for merging high-efficiency home design with affordable housing programs. Yellow Wood worked closely from 2009 to 2015 with the Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises to “take a big-picture look” at creating a market-scale model for building efficient, affordable homes for low-income families, without using subsidies.
In 2010, Ratner traveled to southern Mississippi and Alabama, where a quarter of African-American owned farms in the country are located. Many of the minority farm owners in these states had a wealth of know-how, but were disconnected from lucrative markets because their farms are small, in low-population areas, and without access to capital.
But that’s beginning to change.
Yellow Wood helped initiate a plan to unite the farmers so they could have access to larger markets, engage young people and redefine farming as a path to prosperity. The firm worked to secure funding from the Ford Foundation.
After the first year of the Deep South Wealth Creation Network (DSWCN), 50 minority farmers worked together to generate over $250,000 in sales of collard greens, turnips, cabbage, sweet potatoes, and pinkeye peas to high-end restaurants, schools, and groceries. Farmers who didn’t know or didn’t trust each other are now working together to take fresh produce to wholesale markets.
“It’s a really moving story when you realize these are groups that had no history of working together and very little experience in wholesale markets,” Ratner said.
It was at New College that Ratner’s interest in the heartbeat of America’s rural communities grew. As a freshman, she designed her own course of study around the beliefs, attitudes and values of small towns and how that was linked to geography, history, and the culture of settlers.
Ratner grew up as a child of the sixties. During high school, she had protested the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C., and she took off for Europe and later New York City during her college years.
At New College she was allowed the creative liberty necessary for her to think independently and develop her ideas. “New College was a place where you could make your own way and connect to other people who were passionate about learning,” Ratner said.
But she also received the support and mentoring she needed. During her fourth year, in 1975, her academic advisor Jan Van der Veen convinced her to abandon a notion of dropping out of college to move to New York City, where she wanted to expand her research on economic development and values to an urban setting.
“Bless his heart. It is unbelievable to this day,” Ratner said. “He said, ‘Go to New York and do your research, and we’ll figure out a way to get the credits.’”
Without Van der Veen’s advice, Ratner believes she might not have completed her undergraduate degree, her graduate studies in agricultural economics at Cornell University – or to have helped communities around the world.