Sustainability executive speaks in Ashland

Surrounded by dairy farms in Bellingham, Wash., Michelle Long saw an opportunity when she noticed bags of Texas cow manure for sale in a local store.

Burning diesel to truck the manure half way across the country didn't make any sense in a county where environmentalists and dairy farmers clashed because there was too much of the stuff, Long said.

The executive director of Sustainable Connections in Washington state, Long now uses the example of the imported Texas manure as a lesson for how businesses and consumers should focus on buying local.

Sustainable Connections launched a "Think Local, Buy Fresh, Be Local" campaign in 2003 that helped change business and consumer practices in Bellingham.

"The idea is to think, 'Which friend, neighbor or locally owned business might be able to offer this to me first?'" she told a crowd of 50 people Wednesday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship building.

At its core, Long said all sustainability is local.

She said the campaign to promote the local economy in Bellingham has proven so successful that 89 percent of business owners now say they always or often think of a local source first. Of residents, 58 percent said they are more deliberate about choosing local, independently owned businesses.

A "local first" coupon book is a bestseller at the local bookstore, Long said.

And while Bellingham and surrounding Whatcom County used to have an unemployment rate that was higher than the Washington average, in the last five years it has had a lower unemployment rate. During the recession, the area's unemployment hasn't fallen as much as the rest of the state, she said.

Meanwhile, the success rate for start-up businesses is higher than average, Long said.

Bellingham had the highest rate of renewable energy use in the nation after its rate grew from 0.6 percent to 12 percent. It recently lost the top spot to Corvallis, which uses 13 percent renewable energy.

Long said that because of economies of scale, the cost of renewable energy for Bellingham has dropped by 40 percent. The community uses solar and wind power, as well as energy from a methane digester powered by — of course — cow manure.

Building connections

Sustainable Connections has helped promote sustainable practices in a broad array of categories, from local organic farming to green building.

It held a home and landscape tour for the public so that people could meet green builders and landscapers. In 2008, about 1,500 people in building professions went through workshops, and two-thirds say they are using what they learned, Long said.

Chefs went on a tour of farms to find where they could get local food, and 20 new farms were incubated through an apprenticeship program, she said.

Sustainable Connections' new goal is to identify five land use rules that are barriers to innovations in green building. The nonprofit organization hopes to get those rules changed by the end of this year, she said.

To get more people to embrace a sustainable lifestyle, Long said advocates have to make it fun and focus on how it can improve people's lives.

For example, research shows that a customer who visits a local growers' market has 10 times more interactions with others than a person who goes to a supermarket, she said.

One key to changing behavior is to overcome people's feelings that some actions aren't "normal," Long said.

For example, she said officials in Boulder, Colo., noticed that young professionals weren't riding the bus. So they gave out free bus passes to some young professionals. When their peers began to see people like themselves on the bus, they also began to ride the bus.

"It became normal for them," Long said.

Above all, she said people should avoid "analysis paralysis." With so many problems in the world and so many options for tackling them, sometimes it's best to just act.

"Just pick something to do and do it well," she said.

Steps in Ashland

Ashland Planning Commissioner Melanie Mindlin, who prepared a Sustainability Inventory of activities going on in Ashland and the surrounding area, said there are many steps being taken here, but different sectors are not tied together as well as they are in Bellingham.

Mindlin said she would like to have Ashland examine which of its land use rules might be blocking green building, as is being done in Bellingham.

She said the time is right to build more connections between local investors and green entrepreneurs.

"Many people are questioning how they've invested their money," she said.

Mindlin said the Ashland-based organization Thrive is doing work that is similar to that being done by Sustainable Connections.

Thrive promotes locally grown food, works to preserve farm land and fosters connections between farmers, ranchers, processors, restaurants and institutions.

Thrive Executive Director Wendy Siporen said her organization and Oregon State University have teamed up on a food producer incubator project.

Thrive also has an Enterprise Development Program with business counseling, classes on creating a successful small business and a monthly business peer discussion group.

Thrive wants to get more volunteers involved in its different projects, Siporen said.

She said Thrive has not tried to tackle green building initiatives because work is being done by other groups on that front.

Local architect Jason Zook has helped organize Rogue Valley Green Drinks, a casual monthly meeting for people interested in sustainability.

He's also working with Ashland School District officials on a renewable energy education program, is planning a sustainability conference and is working to win passage of a bill in the Oregon Legislature that addresses green building codes.

Zook said people in Ashland are taking steps in all areas of sustainability, even though they may lag behind the residents of Bellingham.

"I don't know that anything's missing. Everything just needs to be increased," he said.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or

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