In 1974, AERO formed with the intention of helping build a sustainable Montana. In the early decades this meant promoting and aiding the development of renewable, non-polluting energy through research, education and legislation, and helping launch Montana’s sustainable agriculture movement through farm clubs, producer conventions, and organic certification. In recent years the mantle of AERO’s groundbreaking work has been taken on and developed by other, talented organizations, and Montana can proudly claim a strong foundation in renewable energy and sustainable agriculture.
Now, AERO is focusing on our next step in building a sustainable Montana – support communities in developing robust community-based food systems across the state. The data is clear: long-term sustainability is a local, community enterprise. To be successful in providing quality food and ensuring responsible stewardship of a community’s land and energy resources requires participation from all community members, just as in any thriving ecosystem. Surprisingly, in an era of ubiquitous digital connection, we are experiencing profound disconnection at the interpersonal level, losing the experience and knowledge of what it means to be neighbors. Bringing people together and creating the community empowerment that comes from neighbors working together is what AERO excels at. It’s how we built the renewable energy and sustainable agriculture platforms Montana enjoys today, and it’s how we will help create the resilient Montana of the future.
We believe – the key to a sustainable Montana in this millennium is robust, resilient, community-based food systems, which require engagement by all members of a community. Agricultural endeavors have some of the largest impacts on Montana economies, resources, landscapes, and energy use. Therefore, every AERO program and project helps Montanans achieve robust, healthy, and energy efficient community-based food systems. Forty five years of building trust and relationships with producers & communities have uniquely prepared us for this task.
We believe – that the best solutions are rooted in meaningful relationships. Therefore, every AERO program and project achieves its goals through a mechanism of community building. We convene communities to facilitate changemaking. Our gatherings provide space for Montanans to identify common values and challenges, and empower them to take action in their communities with the purpose of nurturing and promoting robust and resilient community-based food systems development across the state.
We believe – the power of demonstration influences and inspires people to take action. Therefore, every AERO program and project showcases examples of successful improvements to Montana’s community-based food systems and shares them widely so others may learn and be inspired to make their own changes. One of the largest challenges to building resilient community food systems is getting buy-in from all participants: producers, consumers, processors, distributors, and recyclers. AERO expands community buy-in by documenting and sharing the processes by which change occurs. Through compelling storytelling and direct access to examples, we connect participants with resources, tools, and knowledge.
While there are a number of academic and layman models outlining components of a food system, the figure below captures the way AERO summarizes the complex elements of a community food system. Inherently values-based, community food systems are defined contextually by the communities we work with, to determine the appropriate scales for their projects. However, regardless of differences, communities are participating in a collaborative network that integrates sustainable food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste management in order to enhance the environmental, economic, and social health of a community. This emphasis on environmental, economic, and social health runs counter to the dominant model of industrial food production and seeks to mitigate negative impacts inherent to that model.
A project, program, or event is an AERO opportunity if it fulfills the following criteria:
In 2016–2019, AERO’s role in this producer-led and community driven MFEI was to assist four regions in establishing group identities, expand the circle of participants in each group, and facilitate multiple regional discussions that resulted in the identifying specific needs that the groups could target with strategic plans for improving their regional food systems. In 2020, AERO will expand the number of Montana communities and projects where community-based food systems development occurs through MFEI.
Funded in perpetuity with dividends from our endowment, AERO honors the legacy of Jane Kile with a competitive scholarship opportunity for a farmer or producer of any age with a vision for improving the health of the land. The scholarship (currently set at $600) is awarded to one recipient, along with a one-year AERO membership, and a ticket to the AERO Expo in October. Scholarship winners agree to be interviewed and to offer a public opportunity for others to learn about the project they implemented, usually taking the form of a workshop or farm tour.
AERO will continue to operate and promote its long established Abundant Montana Directory, the most comprehensive online local foods directory in the state. With nearly 400 listings, and collaboration with statewide nonprofits and government agencies, the Directory aims to be the singular “go-to” tool for dissemination of local foods information, with a goal of reducing the confusion, capacity needs, and overlap of the current system of multiple maps on multiple platforms. AERO is working with a website designer to update Abundant and improve its functionality. By doing so, we are cultivating production, consumption, and knowledge of Montana-grown food, helping to keep more Montana land in agriculture, and more Montanans acting as resource stewards.
After meeting with more than a dozen organizations and businesses dedicated to realizing a sustainable energy future for Montana, AERO determined that its niche will be to help farmers and ranchers attain peak energy efficiency, moving to renewable energy options whenever possible. AERO has worked with a foundation to develop a survey that assesses the current energy make-up of farms and ranches in Montana, and gauges the interests, challenges, and opportunities that exist for improving energy efficiency and renewable energy options for producers. AERO is seeking support to assist producers in filling out the surveys and conducting data analysis of the results. AERO continues to welcome farm tours that connects farmers and ranchers seeking examples and ideas for improving energy efficiency and renewable energy use to farms and ranches who have already taken these steps.
Wild Dinner’s goal is to bring together Montanans of differing backgrounds and ideologies who might not otherwise share a meal or discussion, to celebrate the harvest and enjoy the conviviality of a good potluck. The event recognizes that hunters, farmers, ranchers, growers, and others who have a close connection to the land share the common aim of protecting and preserving the resources, beauty, and stability of our natural and cultivated landscape. This event series bridges those united in their desire to see increased self-sufficiency, resilience, stewardship, and those focused on responsible, local, healthy food consumption in Montana. The gathering, and the remarkable food provided by hunters and growers alike, provokes valuable discussion and connection, nurturing ties not only to Montana’s landscape and its bounties but to one another and our shared values. This collaborative effort among diverse organizations helps connect Montanans around a shared commitment to food, land, and stewardship, and bridges gaps in communication and understanding.
Each year In October, AERO hosts a three day event filled with workshops, keynote speakers, panelists, demonstrations, and regional food showcase. Hundreds of participants from around the state gather to learn, be inspired, and connect to each other. The Expo exemplifies AERO’s coalition building, collaborative work, and grassroots engagement, while serving as a resource exchange opportunity for sustainably-minded Montanans. AERO welcomes Montana students to showcase their work and interact directly with speakers and presenters who are leaders in their fields. This is the most popular event AERO puts on each year, and feedback from over 40 years of attendees suggests it is one of the most inspiring events Montanans experience in the state.
Recognizing that a sustainable energy future for Montana is inherent to the model of robust and healthy community-based food systems, AERO has determined that one of the best ways we can contribute to that future is to mobilize our members to respond to policy threats and opportunities addressing agriculture, food, and energy issues. As a member of the Grow Montana Coalition, AERO elevates member voices and concerns by collaborating with other organizations to propose and lobby for improved agriculture legislation. In addition, AERO is seeking funding to support a coordinator for Grow Montana. We also work with partner organizations to empower, organize, and transport AERO members to legislative and policy making spaces so that their voices may be heard and amplified by others.
Convene groups regionally & regularly to have a consistent presence in all regions of the state, ensuring good ideas are nurtured and communities have the resources and encouragement to maintain their motivation and achieve success.
Build a formal internship program that provides opportunities for students to work on real-world improvements in local and regional food systems.
Expand Wild Dinners to more communities throughout the state and include more conservation partners.
Expand Expo capacity to accommodate the growing interest and need for the education and examples the event provides.
Expand Farm Tours to include more of the many Montana producers who are participating in the improvement of local and regional food systems, and to include more diverse audiences.
Offer more scholarships for local sustainability projects to incentivize improvements in local and regional food systems, and to reward and acknowledge those who are making positive change.
Collect more oral histories that document the profound impact AERO has had on the sustainability movement in Montana.
Identify the best suited home for the Abundant Montana Directory to ensure it fully realizes its potential and maintains its relevance with accurate, accessible data.
Build regional demonstration sites across the state that will house staff and act as a local hub for showcasing how sustainability can be built into every aspect of the local food system.
Who we are: AERO has been at the forefront of sustainability efforts in Montana since 1974, constantly evolving to address new challenges with creative, collaborative solutions. Hundreds of members, dozens of partner organizations, and community businesses across the state form our grassroots network.
What we do: Led by member engagement, every AERO program and project helps Montanans achieve robust, healthy, and energy efficient community-based food systems. By encompassing all aspects of the food system from production, processing, transportation, access, and waste, our projects are uniquely positioned to improve community resilience.
How we do it: Every AERO program and project achieves its goals through a mechanism of community building. Examples of success are shared widely so others may learn and be inspired to make their own changes. All AERO efforts meet these criteria: