Information, Inspiration, and Ideas for a Sustainable Rural Future

Promoting the Entrepreneurial Community Spirit



Fri, 08/27/2004 - 10:02pmWant to entice travelers off the Interstate to come spend money in your town? Here are three different projects that are doing just that in rural America. Click here for Make it clever and they WILL come.

Make it clever and they WILL come....

Fri, 08/27/2004 - 9:25pm

Many people who live in rural places struggle to stay there as their economic opportunities continue to disappear. Some hang on because of the heritage of family held lands. Some stay because there are few opportunities for them elsewhere. But most of these hardy rural-raised folks stay in backcountry North America because of a deep appreciation for and a love of the place.

As population continues to move toward the coasts, some key strategies today that will help provide a rural future for tomorrow include: 1) creatively brainstorm for economic survival, 2) follow the progress of innovative projects, and 3) learn from each other those "best practices" that work in other rural places.

The projects described below, are ones to watch. Each uses a different approach, but the goal is exactly the same:

How can we attract travelers to our place to enjoy what we offer and to help bolster our rural economy?

The Kentucky-Tennesee-Alabama Whale of a Sale project. Started in 1987 by one fellow with an innovative idea -- today, people from all over the country come by car, truck and motorhome to take part in this week long "world's longest yard sale." Every year in August, thousands of visitors come to buy from as many as 5,000 vendors set up in front yards, fields and driveways along a 450 mile stretch of back-roads USA. Click here to read more.

The Craft HeritageTrails of North Central Montana Hands of Harvest project. Based on Handmade in America, a successful model originated in the mountains of Western North Carolina, Hands of Harvest takes toursits on their own Trip of Discovery across the Big Sky country of north central Montana. The mapped locations identify studios, local museums and shops that showcase craft and cultural offerings unique to rural Montana. Click here for more information.

Regent, North Dakota's Enchanted Highway project. Gary Greff a metallurgist from Regent, is the driving force behind the creation of a series of "the world's tallest metal sculptures" which he hopes will bring people and their money to the town of Regent and its surrounding communities. The Enchanted Highway extends 32 miles from Exit 72 on Interstate 94 south to the town of Regent, North Dakota.Click here to read more.

Cattle rustlers beware....

Fri, 08/06/2004 - 12:06pm

Cattle brands are a big deal. They have been historically and they are today. A brand on an animal identifies who owns it, and in many cases, the history of the animal as it is sold from one ranch to another. Keeping track of brands and the owners of those brands is a huge challenge in major ranching states like Texas, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, and New Mexico.

For example, in New Mexico alone, there are nearly 29,000 brands representing thousands of working ranches, each of which may use several different brands. Brands are currently kept in huge books that are referenced to locate the exact drawing of a brand and the ranch that owns it. This is terribly time consuming and vulnerable to misinterpretation and error.

The challenge is already huge, but will grow even larger as federal livestock identification regulations take effect in the next couple of years. There is also a great deal of pressure to develop a system that can track the origin of ill animals within 48 hours.

A New Mexico software developer, Nickel Brand Software, may have a good part of the answer to the cattle identification and tracking problem.

Nickel Brand Software allows a user to find the ownership of a branded animal within minutes, not days. The digital livestock identification software allows the user to either sketch the brand on a hand held computer palm pad or to scan the brand with a hand scanner. The brand database is then accessed and the brand owner is quickly identified. Click here for more general information. Click here for more details about the software.

Seeking Common Ground...

Sun, 07/18/2004 - 2:11pmThere is a widely held perception that Rural Electric Cooperatives (REC) are generally not interested in pursuing renewable energy. On closer look, this does not appear to be true. Click here for the rest of the story.

Rural Electric Cooperatives and Wind Power

Sun, 07/18/2004 - 2:01pm

There is a widely held perception that Rural Electric Cooperatives (REC) are generally not interested in pursuing renewable energy. On closer look, this does not appear to be true, although the general population and some wind power activitists would likely disagree.

To have an accurate picture of the variables involved in developing alternative energy in Montana, NARFI is taking a closer look at the Montana rural electric cooperatives and their positions regarding green power through a research aagenda "Interconnection of Small Customer Generation Facilities: A Study of Montana Rural Electric Cooperatives."

The three main goals of this research are:

  1. To accurately determine what the issues are that co-operatives face regarding wind power projects seeking to hook into their systems
  2. To assess the similarities and differences between Montana's RECs in renewable energy project policies and application/approval processes
  3. To compare Montana co-ops with RECs in other states on the same issues

The research is a four phase plan aimed at opening a constructive, non-adversarial dialog between the electric co-ops and wind activists/developers in Montana.

Phase One - acquiring demographic data for all Montana cooperatives and the distributed generation interconnection policies they have adopted, determining if and how these policies differ from each other.

Phase Two - reviewing the application and approval processes for alternative energy projects co-op by co-op, to find similarities and to determine differences among all 26 electric co-ops and then between co-ops and investor owned utilities.

Phase Three - gathering existing research that examines cooperatives in the United States particularly studying the impacts, benefits and lessons learned for those utilizing wind energy.

Phase Four - analyzing the information obtained in phases 1-3, to determine how wind energy may or may not fit into Montana's rural electric cooperative market.

NARFI is maintaining a neutral position in this research, seeking to get issues on the table on both sides, so common ground can be uncovered.

The data contained in Phase One of this study was collected through direct contact with each of the twenty-six Montana co-ops through in-depth telephone interviews and extensive email communication. Information was also obtained directly and via email from the Montana Electric Cooperative Association, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and their research branch, the Cooperative Research Network, NorthWestern Energy, Montana Dakota Utilities, Bonneville Power Authority, and the Western Area Power Administration.

Phase One is complete. Click here to access a pdf file of the Phase One findings. As each phase is complete, results will be posted here.

For more information contact Leah Noel by e-mail or telephone at 406-265-6354.

22.8 Million in Grants for Renewable Energy

Sat, 05/08/2004 - 2:36pm$22.8 Million in Grants for Renewable Energy - Farm Bill 2004 Funding Announced. Applications must be postmarked no later than July 19, 2004. click here and also here for more information.

Farm Bill 2004 Grants Info

Sat, 05/08/2004 - 2:21pm

Energy/Energy Efficiency Grants

On Wednesday, May 5th, the availability of approximately $23 million in competitive Renewable Energy/Energy Efficiency grant funds for FY2004 was announced. This program will assist agricultural producers and rural small businesses create their own energy or improve the energy efficiency of existing facilities.

Grants in the amount of $2,500 - $500,000 can be made for Renewable energy projects and grants in the amount of $2,500 - $250,000 can be made for Energy Efficiency projects. The maximum grant of 25% of the eligible project costs will be reimbursed to the grantees project.

All Montana applications should be submitted to the USDA-Rural Development State Office in Bozeman, MT to determine applicant eligibility, product eligibility, activity eligibility and other eligibility requirements.

All applications must be postmarked no later than July 19, 2004. Potential applicants should contact the State Office so that they may be provided with National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) requirements, forms, resources and guidance.

All projects will have a technical review completed by the National Energy Resource Laboratory (NREL). Once they applications pass the eligibility review and technical review they will be sent to the National Office by August 16, 2004 with anticipated funding date set for September 3, 2004.

The Notice of Funds Availability (NOFA) inviting applications is available on line. The application deadline is July 19, 2004. Click here for the guidelines.

Some of the changes from last year include:

  • Lower minimum grant levels. The $2,500 minimum grant level means that projects that cost only $10,000 are eligible for grants (based on a 25% maximum grant level). This improvement will open the door to many more energy efficiency projects.
  • 3rd party in-kind contributions can be counted toward the 75% match requirement.
  • New technical requirements based on specific renewable energy technologies.
  • Feasibility studies are only required for renewable energy grant requests exceeding $50,000.
  • Professional energy audits are only required for energy efficiency projects larger than $50,000
  • Special consideration will be given for smaller agricultural producers.(under $1 million in gross receipts)
  • .

All interested applicants should read the NOFA carefully. Then, please direct your questions to your state Program Director

For Montana contact John D. Guthmiller, Program Director, Business Cooperative Programs, USDA-Rural Development, 900 Technology Blvd, Suite B, P.O. Box 850, Bozeman, MT 59771, (406) 585-2540.

Please visit the USDA-Rural Development web site -- click here -- for further program information.

Cheap meds...

Mon, 03/29/2004 - 4:20pmEastern Ohio's Bruce Buren makes a decent living off of what most farmers dismiss as weeds and wasted land. Read this wild story!

No market? Develop your own...

Mon, 03/29/2004 - 4:12pmFour years ago, a group of farmers in northern Minnesota were having trouble accessing markets for their organic grain crops. So they bought a processing and storage facility in their own backyard. Read their story!

Stinky power ...

Sat, 03/20/2004 - 1:19pm

Industrial and municipal wastewater treatment facilities with anaerobic gas digesters are an untapped power source for hospitals, schools, universities, hotels and other commercial and industrial facilities. The methane generated from the anaerobic gas digestion process is used as fuel for Direct FuelCells (DFC).

"Direct FuelCells are like large, continuously operating batteries that generate electricity as long as fuel, such as natural gas, is supplied. Since the fuel is not burned, there is no pollution commonly associated with the combustion of fossil fuels...This high-efficiency technology generates more electric power from less fuel and with less carbon dioxide emissions than traditional methods using combustion."

A 500 kW fuel cell project will be installed at Santa Barbara's El Estero Wastewater Treatment Plant. It will harness methane gas from the anaerobic digesters as the fuel source. FuelCell Energy, Inc., and Alliance Power have formed a joint venture to sell electric power and heat to the facility under a long-term power purchase agreement - the first of its kind for FuelCell Energy.

Alliance Power is the turnkey provider to the project and FuelCell Energy will provide the DFC power plants and operations and maintenance services. The 650-degree Fahrenheit exhaust from the power plants will be used to supplement heating of the anaerobic digesters that create the methane gas for use by the fuel cells. The power plants are expected to be delivered and operational in the fourth quarter of 2004.

In a market study conducted in 1998, over 550 municipal wastewater treatment facilities in the U.S. were identified to be capable of producing enough methane from anaerobic gas digestion to fuel a 250-kilowatt or larger Direct FuelCells power plant.

Woolie Boolie...

Tue, 03/09/2004 - 12:57pm

Thanks to John and Susan Merrell of Gateway Farm Alpacas for their commitment to sustainable agriculture and their passion for alpacas. The following information is just a tiny piece from the wealth of information you can find on their excellent website:

...the term sustainable agriculture means an integrated system of plant and animal production practices having a site-specific application that will, over the long term:

  • satisfy human food and fiber needs
  • enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agricultural economy depends
  • make the most efficient use of non-renewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls
  • sustain the economic viability of farm operations
  • enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole

Alpacas are uniquely positioned as a livestock species to further the goals of the sustainable agriculture movement. Alpacas are easy on the environment. Positive traits include:

  • A desirable end product commanding relatively high prices
  • Communal dung piles facilitate manure management
  • Padded feet minimize damage to the land
  • Hardy constitution minimizes the need for chemical or medical management
  • Efficient digestive systems reduce pressure on pastures and allow a wide range of suitable forage types

Alpaca, a natural elegance, a renewable luxury, a sustainable lifestyle...

If you are looking to add to your farm, ranch or rural life portfolio of economic strategies. Check out the alpaca business. Here are some of the

Special thanks to Pam of Pam's Lambs in Chinook Montana for coming in to the NARFI office to ask us to help her find out about alpacas as a business.

No silver bullets...

Sun, 03/07/2004 - 6:11pmWe have come to believe that "out there somewhere" is the silver bullet that will fix whatever ails us. If only we can only find it, then our farm, school, town, region, economy -- future -- will be saved. Truth is, there ARE no silver bullets; there never have been. But that does not mean there isn't a here to read more.

What if we don't win the lottery...

Sun, 03/07/2004 - 6:03pm

In the best "I'm going to win the lottery" mind set, we have come to believe that "out there somewhere" is the silver bullet that will fix whatever ails us. If we can only find it and bring it home, then our farm, school, town, region, economy -- future -- will be saved.

The chance of winning the lottery is 1 in 14 million, yet desperate folks spend scarce dollars on the extreme, rare, slim chance that the answer to all their problems will come from choosing the right set of numbers.

In rural communities, no matter how many times we try to avoid the roller coaster thrill of "wow, this is IT" that plunges into an "oh well, that wasn't IT," we keep looking for the one right thing that will turn the tide of our town's depopulation, bring in high paying jobs, keep the schools open, and attract our children to come back home.

No matter how much we say it's not true, we still seem to think that "THE ANSWER" is out there and it's some magic, one great thing.

Truth is, there ARE no silver bullets; there never have been.

We need to stop looking for THE answer to rural community survival. We need to hike up our own bootstraps, take a lesson from what others are doing, do some "no idea is crazy" creative brainstorming, and come up with a menu of things that we'll work on together to help our families, farms and communities to thrive.

The key to survival in the 21st century is to develop a portfolio of economic strategies, none of which is a silver bullet, but together and in combination, they can help us to survive.

There are ideas all around us -- but none is an all saving "silver bullet." Yet each provides some great points from which to start your own portfolio of individual, family, farm, and community opportunities. Here are few ideas to get your creative juices flowing. Put on your Thinking Caps -- your Idea Incubators-- and start imagining the WHAT IFs for your own sustainable future:

Enchanted Highway - Regent, North Dakota - As the organizers of these works of art are not ashamed to admit, the main purpose behind the Enchanted Highway is to promote tourism to the area. Gary Greff is a metallurgist from Regent, and as the driving force behind the creation of this series of sculptures he hopes that increased tourism will bring people and their money to help save the impoverished town of Regent and the surrounding communities. Read more

Buy Fresh and Local - When you buy local food, you vote with your food dollar. This ensures that the family farms in your community will continue to thrive and that future generations will have access to nourishing, flavorful, abundant and local food. Look for the label, taste the difference! Read more

The Savvy Traveler - How are you going to keep

This Little Light of Mine...

Sat, 02/28/2004 - 7:03pm

In the shock 'em contest to get viewers, readers and listeners, what passes for news and entertainment these days is aimed at feeding that dark side adrenalin lust -- to be repulsed, to be disturbed, to feel disgust.

Between some weirdo's definition of reality in TV shows, the up-close and grisly horrors of the evening news reports, and the tell-all scandals that get front page headlines in the daily newspapers, you'd think that the US has become a nation full of wackos.

So, when the Great Falls Tribune ran a recent story on its e-news front page -- Fifth-grader celebrates birthday by volunteering -- this headline absolutely grabbed my attention.

For Katy Walters and three of her friends, celebrating a birthday is something special. But, instead of the typical glitz and glitter, swimming or roller-skating party that marketing tells us all kids expect these days, these four young friends celebrated Katy's birthday by volunteering their time at the Easter Seals-Goodwill Child Development Center in Great Falls. They read books to small groups of preschoolers, talked about their favorite stories, and passed out treats to the 14 young children in the CDC program.

Now that's news! And, it made me feel good to read it.

Despite all the so called reality trash that pushes us daily to become mean spirited and callous to people around us, to use deception and cunning to win in competition, to depend on force and violence to get what we want in the world --- there are still good kids out there, kids who really do care.

There IS hope yet -- for our increasingly brutal, uncaring society. But it usually doesn't take front page, and it doesn't sell papers or product, or get a huge market share of viewers -- at least that's what folks who choose what we see, hear or hear about, have convinced us to believe -- that good news is NOT news, only the seamy side of human behavior is worth giving any attention.

Like David against Goliath, Frodo against Sauron, we need to change the direction in which we're pushing the next generation.

We have to do everything we can, every moment we can to counter balance the ugliness, hate, greed and violence that is now called "entertainment." We have to help kids learn that caution is valid but fear and paranoia that colors every person as a danger is just as destructive to how they will participate in the world.

We have to show each and every young person that we come across in our daily lives, that we value who they are and who they can become.

What can You do? Whether you're a parent, grandparent, neighbor, aunt, uncle, friend, mentor, volunteer, or someone who just sees young people in the mall, in the neighborhood, or on the street corner, there are many ways you can help change where we're heading.

It's already happening, across the entire state of Alaska. Whole communities are banding together to support and encourage a more positive future for their young people

What can You do? Take a good look here.

And for Katy Walters and her friends, keep on doing what you are doing. Keep on making a difference. Keep on doing everything YOU can to help make the world a more positive place. Happy Birthday! And MANY happy returns.

This one is in memory of Karen, who celebrated her birthday every year by going to the Red Cross center to donate a pint of blood.

How you gonna keep em down on the farm ...

Mon, 12/29/2003 - 5:26pm

Rural communities everywhere watch and worry as their children grow up and leave home. Ask folks "what's the biggest problem in your community" and top on the list is "what can we do to keep our kids here?" But, is that the right question?

Without a doubt, many kids who grow up in small towns will leave home. In fact, many kids who grow up in urban centers, suburban tracts and on Native American reservations -- will leave home.

The rite of passage - from child to adult - in many cultures, including our own, is to travel out from the safety of home to test oneself in the outside world -- it's the Vision Quest, the Walkabout, the Job In The City, the Going Away To School.

"What can we do to keep our kids here?" IS the wrong question. "What can we do to get them to come back home?" is the real question to ask, and providing jobs and economic opportunities is only one part of the answer.

People will leave and come back to a place that draws them back strongly, that tugs at their hearts often and that deepens and nourishes their roots and sense of belonging. Just growing up in a place doesn't guarantee that it will be such a magnet.

The key question we need to ask ourselves in rural areas, is NOT how can we keep the kids here but rather -- how can we inspire in them that deep sense of connection and awe of place that will bring them back to the HomeTown they love -- armed with new and creative solutions to old problems that they have come to understand better "out in the world."

Communities involved in the Montana Heritage Project, have found a key that may just work to draw their young people back.

Y'all come back, now

Sun, 12/28/2003 - 7:16pmDo you want to know about the love life of chickens? About harvesting hay in Greenland? About self-discoveries while farming late in life? Celebrate life in rural places through images and stories offered here by rural folks across North America who love rural life despite its many challenges.Click here to start your journey.

Baby carrot business grows up

Mon, 12/22/2003 - 4:47pm

If rural life gives you tons of lemons, you get creative or you don't survive!

When a water shortage stunted his carrot crop in 1995, Paul Wipf, head gardener for the Riverview Hutterite Colony south of Chester, Montana, came up with an incredible solution to a six ton "too short" carrots problem. Eight years later, the only problem, said Wipf, is that his booming baby carrot business has outgrown the colony's labor force.

To solve the labor shortage and to expand the potential for baby carrots in Montana, Wipf has teamed up with economic developers to propose a large-scale carrot-processing cooperative in northcentral Montana. The plant would create more than 40 jobs and return processing profits to farmers instead of shipping the raw carrots out of state. Read more.

This is an excellent example of how creatively approaching a potential economic disaster can produce an innovative economic opportunity. By keeping up with trends in trade publications, Wipf had the germ of the idea already planted when necessity demanded a creative solution to a devastating problem.

This case also underscores the rising importance of networks and ties in rural places. The Hutterite Colony alone could not meet the expanding demand of the baby carrot market. However, by collaborating with Bear Paw Development Corporation, and local farmers outside the Colony, the baby carrot business can truly take off in north central Montana.

The future for rural places will demand, more and more, that rural citizens keep abreast of emerging trends which can affect their livelihoods and that they put aside past boundaries and biases to develop new opportunities together.

No lightbulbs in 10 years?

Sun, 11/23/2003 - 11:59amThe future of the lightbulb may be dimming. A Durham, NC semiconductor maker will begin packaging its light-emitting diodes (LEDs) - chips that illuminate - into a new product called XLamp. Light bulbs produce a great deal of heat and incidentally also generate light. Solid-state lighting produces less heat than traditional light bulbs and could reduce U.S. power consumption by 30 percent. LEDs would use 40 watts of electricity and last up to 11 years. Read more.

One step forward, three back

Sun, 11/23/2003 - 10:29amDETROIT, Nov. 21 - Diesel cars roamed American highways over 25 years ago, then largely disappeared. To lure them back, the Energy Bill now before the US Senate offers a new round of tax credits and tax breaks for a newer, cleaner, gentler version of diesel autos - the so called advanced diesels. Environmental groups say that advanced diesels are still too dirty but that the Bill's support of hybrids and hydrogen fuel cells is a step in the right direction. Yet despite claims by supporters of the Energy Bill that the point is to lessen American dependence on foreign fuels, environmental groups say that overall the Bill will increase American automotive oil consumption. Read more.

Point in the right direction

Sat, 11/22/2003 - 12:06pmWhen I was teaching in the '60s and '70s, finding exciting materials to spark students was a full time challenge. Curriculum and education materials were either self-generated, shared among teachers in a school or district, borrowed from regional/state sources, or purchased. A good teacher spent endless hours outside the classroom, designing and developing lessons, projects, experiments and learning modules that would challenge each and every student in his/her class. Today there is a flood of educational resources available through the Internet. For example, PBS TeacherSource alone offers over 4,500 free lesson plans, activities and professional development tools for PreK-12 educators, in everything from arts and literature to math, science, social studies and more. This is an exceptional resource for teachers. NARFI's growing resource for educators is the Educational Resources section of the NARFI Rural Futures Directory. I invite everyone who visits NARFI's education resource list to submit other resources for listing in the rural futures directory.
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