Sarah Rocker

Sarah Rocker, a researcher at Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development at Penn State, delivers the keynote speech at the opening ceremony for the 2021 Radically Rural summit on Wednesday at The United Church of Christ in Keene.

Sarah Rocker’s interest in social networks — especially systems that connect local food producers and markets — began about 14 years ago on a farm in the South Puget Sound region of Washington.

But in her keynote address at the Radically Rural summit Wednesday morning at the United Church of Christ in Keene, Rocker said her research since then applies to any sector and any part of the country. In her early work in Washington, Rocker said, she realized the key to engaging her local agricultural network lay in making real, human connections, which she characterized as “soft infrastructure.”

“I became aware of a different type of scaffolding that needed to be reconstructed, and that was in the form of knowledge and relationships and rapport and collaboration,” said Rocker, who now works as a researcher at Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development at Penn State. “Farmers needed to meet other farmers, chefs needed to meet other chefs — they all needed to meet each other.”

Julianna Dodson, director of Radically Rural — a joint project of the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship and The Keene Sentinel — said this year’s fourth annual summit provides valuable opportunities to build these sorts of relationships.

“These connections are important because, ultimately, soft infrastructure is like your connective tissue,” Dodson said. “You can have the whole skeleton, but if you don’t have the connective tissue to hold it all together, it falls apart. And this is so, so important that we don’t undervalue what connections bring us. They’re worth their weight in gold. It’s a commodity, and it’s extremely important as we come out of the pandemic that we maintain our soft infrastructure as much as possible.”

The Radically Rural summit, which continues today, offers both in-person and virtual attendance options, after the COVID-19 pandemic forced last year’s event to be held fully online. More than 400 people nationwide registered for this year’s event, according to Terrence Williams, The Sentinel’s president and chief operating officer. Throughout the two-day event, more than 70 speakers are presenting at five different locations in downtown Keene.

After Rocker’s keynote Wednesday morning, participants split into seven groups based on topics: arts and culture, clean energy, community journalism, entrepreneurship, land and community, Main Street and — new this year — health care.

Regardless of the specific focus, though, Rocker said in her address that building networks, especially in rural areas, starts with determining what common goals are shared by diverse groups of people and organizations.

“Networks, I believe, are most successful when they have a clear articulation of a shared goal or purpose,” Rocker said. “Naming the goal or purpose helps to catalyze and draw in those around you to participate in a meaningful way that is something bigger than just one’s day-to-day job responsibilities.”

The summit, she added, presents a platform for groups across the country to share their big ideas and seek solutions to shared problems.

“So as you consider that first question of your big purpose, you can use this opportunity at Radically Rural to share your big-tent idea, to meet others with similar goals and values and exchange resources that you have or you need,” Rocker said.

During a session in the entrepreneurship track Wednesday afternoon at the Hannah Grimes Center on Roxbury Street, six local business leaders discussed their visions for their companies as part of the Pitchfork Challenge. The competition, which grew out of a program at the Hannah Grimes Center that started in 2016, provides the winning business with $10,000 to assist with startup costs.

The six finalists for this year’s challenge were: Jack’s Crackers, a Keene-based handmade snack company; the Sullivan Country Store, which is set to reopen this fall under new ownership; Chesterfield-based EH&P, a zero-emission lawn-care company; Air Cleaners Inc., a Bristol company that makes portable air-filtration devices; Copper Cannon Distillery of West Chesterfield, which specializes in premium rum; and WayAround, a labeling system that uses a smartphone app to create “virtual sticky notes” for people with vision loss and whose chief operating officer lives in Temple.

The winner of the challenge, Jack’s Crackers, was announced at a networking event Tuesday evening at the Wyman Tavern on Main Street, one of several opportunities for attendees to mingle throughout the summit. Masks are required for all indoor Radically Rural events, as well as proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative coronavirus test within the past 72 hours.

And while the hybrid event differs from pre-pandemic iterations of the summit, Dodson, the director, said this year’s Radically Rural still provides opportunities for direct interactions, as well as making the programs accessible to a wider audience online.

“We absolutely want to preserve that energy and connection and kind of do-it-together spirit that comes from everyone being in person,” she said. “We also know that there are accessibility issues for folks getting here, whether it’s financial or physical or whatever it may be, so we love to be able to include everyone who wants to join.”

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.