Edible Bozeman

AERO Nears 50th Anniversary, Hosts Annual Expo

“Montana is a unicorn,” says Robin Kelson. “We have more land than other states and a fraction of the population. The barriers to increasing food self-reliance that exist in other states aren’t barriers in Montana. Increasing our food self-reliance is actually doable—it’s just a question of bringing people together and the will to make it happen.”

Kelson is the executive director of the Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO), a grassroots nonprofit that has worked to unite Montanans towards sustainability for nearly 50 years. Birthed during the energy crisis of the 1970s, on a front porch in downtown Billings, AERO formed to spread the word about practical, DIY renewable energy alternatives and later went on to advocate for sustainable agriculture and local food systems.

In 1974 when the organization formed, solar and wind power were novel and unorthodox, so AERO’s task was hefty. Membership grew rapidly, attracting a following of entrepreneurs, farmers, ranchers, and others who united despite differences to champion sustainable resources, economics, and community. Still, it took years of organization, education, and even a traveling theater roadshow, before renewable energy gained enough traction to become mainstream in Montana. AERO’s annual meeting, Expo, became an opportunity to share information and ideas about issues that mattered to Montanans, with the goal of finding practical solutions that worked.

In 1984, AERO established the Ag Task Force to address a growing interest in sustainable agriculture, marketing it as a program “enabling farmers to make better use of sunlight.” This task force significantly influenced food and ag policy and, in many ways, filled gaps universities and government departments didn’t, building the foundation for many of the sustainable agriculture practices Montana benefits from today.

In the late 1990s, AERO began exploring ways to get Montana-produced food to more Montanans. This led to the creation of Abundant Montana, a program of AERO that educates consumers about the value of local food and supports food and farming entrepreneurs with tools such as the annual Local Food Guide magazine and the online Find Food & Farms Map.
Today, AERO continues to educate the public about sustainable practices. Although the annual Expo has outgrown its front porch origin, the event carries on the tradition of bringing people together towards a more self-reliant Montana. Between presentations and educational sessions, attendees share meals, memories, life updates, and novel ideas, reflecting its informal beginning through an atmosphere of familiarity. Farmers, ranchers, and entrepreneurs, some of whom sat on that porch 50 years ago, are among those present.

Expo 2023, taking place October 20–21 in Helena, marks the 49th anniversary of AERO’s founding. Tours, discussions, and presentations will follow a theme of “Moving the Needle: Building Whole-Community Engagement with Local Food, Stewardship Agriculture, and Renewable Energy.”

For Kelson, the theme of whole-community engagement is key to achieving a sustainable Montana. “There’s a conscious understanding that we need to include all the voices, all the resources, and all the information, because it’s going to take all of us to do this well and in a way that’s going to last for generations to come.”

The weekend’s events will kick off on Friday morning with a choice of five community tours, each speaking to a different aspect of local food, ag, and energy conservation. Evening activities include a potluck dinner, cake auction, and celebration of life for late AERO founder Wilbur Wood. On Saturday, attendees can participate in group discussions, panels, demonstrations, and listening sessions centered around community development, sustainability, and land preservation, showcasing the innovative work and ideas of Montanans helping to move the needle around the state.

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