I spent this past weekend at the AERO Conference in Lakeside, Montana. Perfect weather, a gorgeous facility, and a supremely energetic group of people made the trip east well worth while. I started the weekend with a tour of a fledgling biodiesel, omega-3, and camelina jetfuel plant in Kalispell, Montana and met a weatherization expert who spends his time trying to insulate mobile homes while not falling in through the roof. As it would be, Friday afternoon and the rest of the weekend continued to present a version of Montana that I was surprised to find.
Friday was pretty casual, lots of meeting and greeting, eating good food, and making apple cider by bicycle power. I quickly came to realize that I was amongst people who really cared about the same stuff I did. More importantly I noticed that they weren’t particularly wealthy, didn’t tend to have fancy degrees, or sound preachy. I was with a group of practical, hard-working, staunchly independent, and very intelligent people who are seriously concerned about the sustainability of their local communities.
The conference was equally focused on renewable energy, local agriculture, and sustainable food systems, and attracted a broad range of participants. Saturday morning we enjoyed an inspiring keynote from Phillip Ackerman-Leist on the challenges of homesteading (yes, people still actually homestead and aren’t just crazy recluse types). After lunch was a panel discussion followed by small group discussions with leaders in a variety of topics. I spent all 90 minutes with 8 other people and the owner of Kalispell Kreamery, who recently stood up to two of the largest corporate dairy operations in the country, told them to screw off, and is selling milk right and left (BOOYAH!). Following that I enjoyed some time with my friend Jeremy who had invited me to the conference (buy his book!) and vaguely listening to the AERO Members meeting, but frankly I was glad to get a break from networking.
An amazing dinner of local food set us up for the live auction (I’m going to take a blacksmithing class) and a lively night of contra dancing (like square dancing, but less redneck). Sunday included small group discussions with more local entrepreneurs (who I aspire to emulate), and a great closing address from Pam Gerwe (of Montana Public Radio amongst other things).
So what did I “take home” other than a bunch of business cards and some notes I probably won’t read again? Inspiration, curiosity, respect all jump to mind. I came to Montana for the conference with the consideration of moving here permanently in mind. I also came with the idea of trying to be an entrepreneur, and the thought that life in Montana might fit well. All of these ideas are still true. I feel both daunted by the challenge and inspired by the opportunities. Many people this weekend have said “if you want a job in Montana, you have to make yourself a job in Montana… but I will help you.” I leave convinced that amongst the numerous groups concerned about sustainability, AERO is truly unusual in both the willingness of its members, and the honest humility with which they approach things. There’s something going on here, and I think I want to be a part of it.