TriplePundit is a proud sponsor of this year’s BALLE conference in Denver, CO, which is happening yesterday, today, and tomorrow. BALLE is the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. And while membership in BALLE is not restricted to green businesses, green has certainly become one of the biggest, if not the biggest, driver for social innovation at this year’s conference.
Supporting and growing local economies and locally owned businesses, and creating communities has long been BALLE’s mantra. The statistics are well known: buying local creates good jobs; supports local entrepreneurs; increases the community tax base; and fights the causes of poverty, disease, and hunger. This community creates a ripe and fertile ground for seeds of the green economy to prosper, and BALLE’s 2009 conference has been inspiring for its focus on sustainability.
The conference opened with two keynote speakers last night that focused on rural economic development, with one story leading to the end of this joke: Did you know the toothbrush was invented in Hardwick, Vermont? Yeah, sure. Because if it was invented anywhere else, it would have been called the teethbrush. So why is no one laughing at this joke anymore in Vermont?
Judy Wicks, Chair of BALLE, and Michael Shuman, Director of Research and Public Policy.
One green theme that provides a solid foundation for this year’s event is sustainable food. Hardwick, Vermont, historically the butt of rural-centered jokes in the state, has now become the darling of the state’s rebuilding economy, thanks to a focus on local and sustainable food. The area has the highest per capita number of organic farms in the world, according to Tom Stearns, founder of the Center for an Agricultural Economy, and owner of High Mowing Organic Seeds, one of Hardwick’s three biggest employers. Commenting on the current economic crisis, Stearns said, “We need to address our food system, as we look for solutions to these issues. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if we don’t address the food system, we won’t achieve success in our efforts anywhere else.” Indeed, as Stearns noted, agriculture is the biggest user of land, water, and energy, as well as the biggest contributor to health (for better and worse, depending on what people are eating). 70% of people in the US are expected to die from food illness.
Hardwick rebounded from economic malaise by focusing on local and sustainable agriculture. 50% of the farms are organic in Hardwick. Thanks to a focus on buying local, entrepreneurs rose to the occasion and started to produce the value-add manufacturing to the local agricultural mix. One entrepreneur blew a hole in the side of a hill on his farm to make a cheese cave so that the area’s significant milk production could be further processed locally rather than shipped out as a commodity. The cave is now one of the area’s top three employers. Warehouses that had been shuttered for 60 years were reopened to manufacture cabinets out of the area’s timber resources, significantly adding to the local economy rather than shipping the timber out for processing elsewhere. Of course, both of these developments lower the carbon footprint of products, as well as costs of those products for local people.
June Holley, President and CEO of the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) for 20 years and the night’s other keynote speaker, told the story of southeastern Ohio’s rebuilding economy around local food production. One worker owned co-op became a business incubator, as workers got trained in skills as various as customer relations, fundraising, procurement and financial analysis, and then left to start their own business. Some formed restaurants. Others found an underutilized resource in the kitchens of those restaurants that weren’t being used at night, but were certified as commercial food processing facilities, and began to make salsas, sauces, jams, and other goods from locally produced agricultural goods (especially the ones that are “imperfect:” apples and tomatoes with blemishes, for example, which also increased the margins for organic farmers in the area that now had a new market for their produce). Now the local grocery stores have entire aisles full of locally produced (and uniquely southeastern Ohio) food products, including beer made from PawPaw fruit, another unique gem that was underutilized and under-appreciated. And it has become a source of pride for the community: they’ve even got an annual PawPaw festival.
The first day also included an introduction to Transition Towns, an exploding social movement centered on preparing cities and towns for peak oil and the end of cheap energy. The underlying theme of Transition Towns is that the end of cheap energy is coming, so will we go there gracefully and with dignity, or will we crash and burn? It is one of the fastest growing social movements in the world, with groups being formed in hundreds of towns and cities around the world. The local groups think globally about environmental problems, think locally about solutions their town can start to incorporate, and begin to lay the groundwork for a new master plan for their locality that will allow them to gracefully enter the new economy.
Scott Cooney is the author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill), and is reporting live from the BALLE conference in Denver, Colorado, where he is enjoying Fat Tire beer pint by sustainable pint.