An AERO Family Gathering

It was late October when the realization hit that there were four days left to finish organizing food, auction items, stuffing registration packets, pickups and drop-offs, decorations, and volunteers for AERO’s 38th Annual Meeting.  Making sure that the lasagna noodles were indeed going to ship Wednesday night from Polson and arrive on time for preparation on Thursday or that the bottle of Orphan Girl bourbon cream liqueur from Headframe Spirits Distillery could be acquired for the auction after an unsuccessful excursion the Sunday prior was only the beginning.

On October 26th four ladies piled into the car with empty notebooks, lots of auction items, snacks and anticipation.  As we barreled up 89 North through the Lewis & Clark National Forest the questions seeped out- what would this year’s Annual Meeting have in store for its attendees?  A right turn down a dirt road delivered us to our first stop, Jess Alger’s Ranch, where we toured around the grass-fed cattle operation and wind mill.  From there we were on the road again to Lewistown.

Every year AERO selects a Montana town off the beaten path to host the Annual Meeting.  Moving it around the state, in various small communities, means that AERO can inject economic activity where it will be felt.  So Lewistown it was.

As we sat down to dinner with sunshine squash and shredded beet salad, I recalled the generosity and skills of the farmers and ranchers from across the state that made the meals possible.  Some of the food came from a homestead just down the road or the local 4-H group while other items rolled out of attendees’ vehicles and gently landed in the kitchen.  The love and care that went into these meals did not come from the raw ingredients alone- the chef and kitchen staff carefully baked, broiled, peeled, stirred, sautéed, steamed, chopped and assembled the meals with a smile.

The opportunity to see great friends and catch up on the community supported innovation throughout the state of Montana and the High Country West was unparalleled.  Learning of the many projects at the Cheyenne Botanical Gardens, the creative efforts of the Livingston Food Bank or brainstorming ways of building a Montana women’s farmer network was only a scratch on the surface.  The live auction was packed with weekend getaways, carrots the size of your arm and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Board Members Kiki Hubbard and Jeffrey Funk in a bark/meow face off.  How could you miss that?

We look forward to incorporating newcomers to the Montana food and agriculture world, like first time attendee Elisa Prescott who was excited to participate in the Meeting. We are thankful for all those who put in hours of hard work to make it all come together.

Elisa, a new AERO board member, was not sure what to expect going into the weekend. And she couldn’t have asked for a warmer welcome. She felt embraced by the AERO family immediately. From sitting with new and old friends on Friday night, chatting about local food over wine, to conversing with Jess Alger about the wind turbine on his farm, the energy at the conference was contagious. No one was shy to introduce themselves and share their experiences and work. The atmosphere at the conference spurred conversation and new ideas, and ultimately will spur action.

She was ecstatic to see so many innovative individuals making small efforts in their own communities for a more sustainable, energy- and food-independent economy. Elisa has seen how communities can come together and believes if we can figure out how to bring individual and grassroots efforts together in Montana we can really get things done. If a state where it is 3 hours to anywhere can create a local food and energy economy, so can others.

At the conference, Elisa learned so much about what individuals throughout Montana are doing to create a more sustainable future, and reaffirmed her belief that small, grassroots efforts do in fact make a difference. As a Board Member, she hopes to grow the conference, so more people can be inspired, like she was, at the amazing, proactive community we have here in Montana.

The energy at the conference was hopeful and promising, and she left the meeting with new ideas, new friends, and a new community, the embracing AERO family.

In Bozeman, I’m Lyra Leigh-Nedbor for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization. AERO has been linking people with sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974. Visit us online at aeromt.org.

This commentary originally aired on Montana Public Radio on November 8, 2012.

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