The Green Economy Grows in Rural America

Authors: Julie Roberts, Director of State and Local Initiatives

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Some of our readers who live in cities may wonder what the green economy looks like in rural America. The Northwest Area Foundation (NWAF) has long supported organizations who are leading the way in ensuring that the promise of a green economy reaches rural and tribal America where low income communities and communities of color face some of the same issues that we're familiar with in cities.

Opportunity Link, a NWAF partner, invited Green For All and The Write Choice Network to meet their partners in Northcentral Montana, celebrate the successes of local organizations, and share tools and best practices from across the nation. While we brought information on energy efficiency, stormwater management, healthy communities and renewable energy, I feel like I learned as much as I shared.

It's interesting to see what opportunities are being developed in Montana. Opportunity Link developed a bus line connecting isolated rural communities, improving lives and creating economic opportunities for riders in so many ways. The response has been dramatic. They expected 300 riders a month, and are now serving 1500 riders monthly! Riders include commuters who are now able to reach jobs, youth who are connected to opportunity through Youthbuild programs and the colleges, and elders who are now able to make it to doctor appointments. These riders show that there is a real demand for public transportation! It was also interesting to see how this project physically connects people and communities while also spurring collaborative regional partnerships that are sure to help grow the "sustainability sector" – which is how folks in Northern Montana refer to the green economy.

Biofuel is an area that we hear a lot about when we work with rural communities who recognize both the promise of cleaner renewable fuel, and also the danger of competing with food production. Montana State University in Havre has a recognized bio-fuels research program that studies the process from ‘seed to tail pipe', and focuses on research that tests real world applications. The people I met from all over the globe who have been drawn to Havre (population about 10,000) to participate in the program were a delightful indicator of its cutting edge innovation.

The university is working on fuel for many different applications, from powering tractors, to cars, as well as trains and jets. While some are pushing for large, centralized bio-diesel refineries, many of the participants in the convening saw more promise in small distributed processing that would support isolated communities in becoming more independent. To explore this potential, farmers are producing canola which is first processed as food grade oil. Local restaurants switched from harmful transfat oils and transitioned to healthier canola. The oil is recaptured and processed as bio-diesel which is returned to farmer's tractors, providing about 10% fuel independence. This double use makes it more feasible for farmers to grow oil seed, and is seen as addressing some of the concerns about biofuel competing with food. Another way that they are looking to address the issue of competing with food is by testing growing oil seed as part of the crop rotation while the land is recuperating. Some oil seed types may contribute to the health of the soil, rather than depleting it, so it could potentially be grown on fallow land that is supported under the USDA land retirement program. This could add income for farmers without competing with food crops.

One of Montana NeighborWorks's projects sparked interest among participants. They help people buy new manufactured homes which are dramatically more energy efficient and less toxic than the approximately 23,000 remaining homes in Montana that were built prior to 1976. Even with a new mortgage, the drop from a $500 energy bill to a $75 energy bill means that families save money. There are twice as many manufactured homes in MT than the national average, and there was an interesting conversation about the potential to manufacture homes locally. By helping to set up co-ops and putting the new homes on foundations, the home owners control the land their homes are on and their homes appreciate rather than depreciating (like most manufactured homes do).

There were more projects than I can mention here, and interest in taking them further. A few other promising ideas included rebuilding a native community damaged by two ‘100 year floods' (in the span of two years) with sustainable elements, supporting local contractors to move into the sustainability sector, and using high road agreements to enable local businesses and workers to share in the prosperity created by upcoming projects. Havre partners asked Selim Sandoval and Monica Niess of the Write Choice Network to invite some of their partners from New Orleans and Appalachia to come to Havre and exchange models and experiences. I'm excited to see what comes of all the great ideas and next steps that partners identified. While the language and projects were a little different, Havre, MT is one part of rural America that is already realizing the promise of a green economy!

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