Here Comes the Neighborhood: Growing AERO, Growing Community

AERO on the Air

Montana Public Radio Commentary: Aired January 6, 2011

By Jeremy Smith

As a journalist and writer, I found a recent invitation to attend the annual meeting of Montana’s Alternative Energy Resources Organization both exhilarating and intimidating. You see, everyone at AERO was an expert: on alternative energy, on twenty-first century transportation, on green building, on sustainable agriculture, and so on. All we had in common was that I’d just finished writing a book whose topic was local food.

Being a public radio listener, you’re probably familiar with one of the most popular concepts in the local food movement: Community Supported Agriculture. In this, community members subscribe to a local farm like a magazine subscription. Customers benefit because they get the best and freshest possible food, at prices lower than stores and farmers’ markets. Farmers benefit because they have a secure market for their goods.

My book talks about that, but its real topic is something new and bigger, a concept I call “Agriculture Supported Community.” Here, rather than a diverse group of neighbors coming together to support a local farm, it’s the local farmers and gardeners themselves joining up to support the diverse residents of an entire city.

One example is a Missoula farm work therapy program, giving drug-addicted teenagers a new sense of self by employing them at an organic community farm. Another is the community garden in Helena, whose produce supplies the local food bank. Bozeman boasts a student farm and farm-to-school program and Ronan hosts an Ag Innovation Center, helping produce value-added food products by and for Montanans.

But why stop at agriculture? Montanans are energy, building, planning, and transportation leaders in towns across the state, too.

In AERO Neighborhood Conservation Clubs, for example, neighbors get together to conserve energy and save money at home, from better water heaters and lights to something as simple as a shared push mower and laundry line.

In the last six months alone, AERO energy tours and neighborhood work parties have taken Montanans to 2.4 KW, 10 KW, and 65 KW wind turbines in Lewistown and Fort Benton and Big Timber, to solar-powered homes and offices and even a carwash in Bozeman and Butte, and to a biodiesel lab for heating and transportation in Havre.

All the while, AERO staff and members produce key reports like “Big Sky or Big Sprawl” a few years ago, and, more recently, “Repowering Montana,” a blueprint for homegrown energy self-reliance state-wide.

Shop at a farmers’ market or dine out at a cafeteria or restaurant serving local food? Enjoy home and business solar panel rebates, shade trees, water-wise lawns, or a neighborhood communal tool shop? Informed that biofuel has basically nothing to do with recent global food crises, or that the cost per megawatt hour at Judith Gap wind farm is almost exactly *half* that for the Colstrip Unit 4 coal plant?

You live in an AERO-supported community!

As Montanans, we should be proud of these facts. And we should be active in communicating them. Speak up for yourself, and for AERO.

If someone asks, how you got to have a supermarket that sells guaranteed non-GMO food, say, “I live in an AERO-supported community.”

How did that new farmers’ market appear overnight? “Oh, I live in an AERO-supported community.”

Are those solar panels on City Hall, wind turbines on the university campus, and open space just minutes from Main Street? Shrug: “AERO-supported community.”

The hope is, they’ll ask, “What’s AERO?”

And you can say: “AERO is a grassroots membership organization that builds communities by linking people with sustainable agriculture and energy solutions. They have been for four decades. And they will be as long as Montanans, no matter how independent, are also both wise and humble enough to look to each other for support.”

Jeremy Smith is a writer and freelance journalist. His work has appeared in Saveur, Gourmet, The Christian Science Monitor, and elsewhere. He is the author of Growing a Garden City, which was published in 2010. He lives with his family in Missoula, Mont.

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