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On November 13 about eighty EFAO members gathered in Ethel to learn more about creating local organizations. The keynote speaker for the event was from the Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO) in Montana. AERO has been quite successful at starting many local organizations, now numbering twenty seven, and creating a strong network among them. Nancy Matheson, the Sustainable Agriculture Coordinator for AERO, outlined its history and experiences.
The initial prompt for AERO was the energy crisis of the early seventies. At that time its members were concerned with finding locally based, renewable energy sources and reducing overall inputs in their operation. By the early eighties the emphasis had shifted to soil management and other sustainable agricultural concerns. In 1990 AERO was able to offer start-up funding to local clubs working on projects exploring some aspect of sustainable agriculture. Through the years one fact was soon evident - the concern was not just for sustainable farming practices, but for sustainable rural communities as well.
Matheson explained how the local groups worked. Each Improvement Club must consist of at least four members, one of which is designated as the club's contact. They must provide an annual work plan, plus regular updates on activities.
Improvement Clubs have three goals to aim for. These are: 1) to enable farmers to meet their own needs for information about farming systems that are environmentally sound and economically viable; 2) to build strong networks between farming families, and between members and agricultural professionals and institutions during the learning process; and 3) to make their knowledge available to interested individuals outside the club.
The wide spectrum of club members Matheson described testifies to the remarkable appeal of AERO. These range from organic to conventional, from small-scale diversified to large grain growers and livestock ranchers. The size of operations involved vary from one to 6,000 acres. A sure sign of success is the enthusiasm members have for attending their annual meeting, (some travelling as much as 400 miles), just to hear what the other clubs have been doing.
During her talk Matheson outlined just a few of the projects members were tackling. Many grain farmer clubs were investigating various legumes (i.e. black medic, lentils) as alternatives to summerfallowing. (It's interesting to note that some of the varieties tested were ones developed in Saskatchewan.) Another cash grain club is looking at kamut as an alternative to wheat. A group of Native Americans pursued using sheep with a guard llama to control leafy spurge on range traditionally grazed by cattle. One group of fruit and vegetable growers, both conventional and organic, joined forces to create a farmers' market. Another club was formed to grow a superior strain of garlic (selected by a member of the group), and are currently developing markets in Japan.
Besides helping the clubs get underway, the main efforts of the AERO staff centre on providing the communication network for the group. This is an essential task considering the vast distances involved. (Montana stretches along part of the B.C. border, across Alberta, and along part of the Sask. border too.) The staff keeps records of the club's updates, and helps prepare their annual summaries. They also publish a quarterly newsletter and organize an annual conference.
AERO's work has had a greater range of impact than originally anticipated. The social and community benefits derived during the learning process are now seen to be of greater value than the actual farming practices explored. The collaboration between producers and agricultural professionals have lead to some excellent working relationships, as well as friendship. In some instances these have actually altered the direction some research activities have taken.
As with any organization, AERO still has some difficulties to overcome. One of its significant weaknesses is with the information system for documenting, organizing, and sharing the knowledge generated by the clubs. Another concern revolves around the number of clubs the organization can optimally handle. Still, with its obvious success to this point, AERO offers an impressive example of what can be achieved through cooperative effort.
Copyright © 1993 Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
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