Jim Rousmaniere, former executive editor and president of The Keene Sentinel, presented this summation of his observations from attending Radically Rural Sept. 19 and 20 as part of the event’s closing at The Colonial Theatre. He began the speech by saluting Helen the Chicken, the mascot of the event, and then went into his comments:
Pat Martin was one of the leaders of the renewable energy track during these two days. In her professional life Pat designed hardware in the electrical engineering field, and she told me about a saying that they had at her lab whenever they came up on a problem.
It was: “Today it’s a problem. Tomorrow it’s a patent.”
Perhaps not a lot of you are electrical engineers, but I expect that all of you get the point.
Innovation’s the point.
Innovation is what you’ve been talking about in one or another of the 20 sessions.
Innovation is what was behind the PitchFork prizes that were handed out at that high-energy CONNECT event at Keene State College last night.
Innovation – in this city you can’t get away from it even when you’re out walking. It’s on most of those murals that just went up: murals about companies that came up with something new that made a difference in this community and beyond – and individuals who made a difference in this community and beyond.
Innovation’s not the only word that came up in the sessions. Another was collaboration.
Innovative collaboration to be sure -- about getting things done with new partners in new ways that wouldn’t have occurred to anyone a decade ago.
Here’s an example of how the idea of collaboration is evolving in my field – journalism – particularly to the advantage of small newspapers in rural areas.
The old way collaboration was about sharing. Meaning getting this newspaper over here to let that newspaper over there reprint an article or a series of articles.
The new way is about more than sharing. It’s about joining up. Yesterday the managing editor of the Bozeman Daily Chronicle in Montana talked about different organizations – even competing news organizations -- sharing reporters to research and jointly write important stories about important public issues - a particular daunting job with all the complexities of different publishing dates, different professional standards, different community players.
And the project manager of the brand-new Granite State News Collaborative in New Hampshire talked about pulling together dailies, weeklies, broadcasters, journalism schools, a law journal, a business magazine and others to work on stories together
Daunting. But being done. Getting done.
One of the fascinating aspects of this rural summit has been the variety of venues where the sessions have taken place – each of them confirming in its own way that this community is on a good path.
A refurbished former courthouse.
A brand new performing arts center.
An expanded library, and so on.
On the interior walls of one of these venues – the big room at the headquarters of the Historical Society of Cheshire County – there was some relevant history. That was the setting for the Working Lands track with discussions about farming and farmland
On the walls the society put up posters about farming’s past, including the sheep boom of the 19th century, the dairy industry before and after refrigeration, and so on.
One of the posters was about a phenomenon known as the exodus, or sometimes the abandonment, when farmers here got fed up with the soils that they’d let go bad and headed to the Midwest.
Well, some farming eventually came back, but there’s a new threat to the health of soils today. It results from climate instability – droughts and drenching rains that can leave soils with excess moisture and reduce their productivity.
But, in contrast to the exodus of the 19th century past, the response today isn’t to abandon land but rather to invest in it - by not tilling the land as vigorously as in the past, and by being more attentive to the importance of cover crops.
The idea, as described in a Working Lands session: promote healthy soils.
And support new farming practices. For example, a locally directed program to retrofit farm equipment such as corn planters – so cultivation doesn’t mean disturbing the soil as before.
Preserving rural farmland also means watching out for the future of it. In Massachusetts, among other states, we heard that local governments have first refusal for the sale of farmland, leading to that land being protected and perhaps made available for new farmers down the line.
Protecting and advancing the way of rural farming also means coming up with new ways to finance local producers and other parties in the commercial food chain – not an easy thing to do with the sharp decline in the numbers of locally run lenders.
That’s a problem, yes, but during Radically Rural we also learned about opportunity – with new forms of lending and investing that serve the needs of small producers with loans as small as $3,000 and no or little collateral to back them up.
The answer isn’t just money. It’s also the care that new local credit unions and lending networks bring to their borrowers by linking them up with the right know-how that sets them on a productive path. They’re doing the sorts of things for their borrowers that banks, back when they were locally owned and locally managed, used to do.
The sessions weren’t all about new approaches to financing or business or community development. They were also about new ways of listening.
In the Main Street track there was talk about dealing with conflict and disruption. The course of a community is controlled by who – and who is included that who?
Does the who exclude people who cause a ruckus, and who in fact prefer ruckus as a means to getting a point across – and also who from time to time just might happen to have a good idea?
The discussion led to the revelation that addressing a conflict does not necessarily mean that a conflict has to be solved. What really has to happen is that understanding needs to be achieved. That’s a radical idea in these politically polarizing times.
In the Entrepreneurship track we heard about the needs of second-stage businesses.
We commonly talk about the importance of start-up businesses. Good! But after start-up comes second-stage, and there are challenges there, too.
Places such as the Hannah Grimes Center know that, and they’re helping make connections and facilitating partnerships and otherwise providing support that can take these businesses to the next stage. Which is good because that’s where the meaningful job growth happens.
In the Energy track we heard about new ways to make new things happen. The new ways include listening.
There’s a town near Keene by the name of Westmoreland that’s long had spotty electrical service. Eversource (the power provider) had considered building a second transmission line into town to address the problem. But before doing that its people sat down with local people and came up with a very modern and less disruptive alternative: battery storage. More costly in the short run, true, but better over the long haul.
In another town near here we heard of people speaking up in support of another environmentally smart Eversource move – to give up on the idea of piping energy into the region through gas lines and instead putting the focus on offshore wind.
The town is Rindge, one of the most politically conservative towns in the state. In a public vote its people did as voters did in many other parts of New Hampshire and told Eversource, “Sign us up for wind!”
We’re talking about change – change in how energy is supplied to rural towns and change in the ways that locals and energy-providers relate.
In the opening session of this rural summit we heard that prospects are looking up for rural regions. In-migration is up. The rural story is changing for the good.
You could feel the excitement about that at Radically Rural. The leaders of the Main Street track told me about how engaged the participants were in their sessions – about how when they tried to get the participants to circulate from one discussion table to the next they had to extract the attendees, so wrapped they were in their discussions. It wasn’t enough to simply invite the attendees to move to the next table.
That excitement and engagement confirms that the rural story has changed.
Thanks to the Hannah Grimes Center and The Keene Sentinel for arranging the setting where to tell that new story, and thank you all for taking part.