Episode 74: AEROMT | Jennifer Hill-Hart | Helena, MT

Jennifer Hill-Hart AERO ex Director

AEROMT – Alternative Energy Resources Organization: Linking People, Sustainable Agriculture and Energy Solutions since 1974

AERO is a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to solutions that promote resource conservation and local economic vitality. AERO nurtures individual and community self reliance through programs that support sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, and environmental quality.

AERO was founded during the energy crisis of the 1970s to promote local alternatives to non-renewable energy sources. In the early 1980s, AERO began addressing the need to protect renewable resources, especially the natural and human resources on which agriculture and rural communities depend. AERO’s members share a commitment to facing the challenges brought by change. By bringing people together, AERO offers a vehicle for collective action and a sense of common purpose for citizens within their communities to shape a more sustainable future.

AERO’s programming is grounded in the conviction that communities are the best place to create the kind of change we envision. We believe, and our programs reflect, that the best way to effect change is by empowering people in their own communities to work towards sustainable solutions.

AERO Expo Sept 25-27

Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m the executive director of AERO, this is our 41st year, we’re a state-wide non-profit in Montana dedicated to growing sustainable communities. We’ve done a variety of programs over the years. We started out of the energy crisis in the ’70s, when a lot of environmental and non-profits, and other groups were fighting fossil fuel development. But no one was really talking about alternatives, the proactive side of how we power our systems. So AERO got started by a group of folks who wanted to help show people how to say yes to alternatives! And so, it took off from there.

They started out doing this new Western energy show where they traveled to communities, and they parked their bus and did a bunch of skits on why alternative energy is important, education curriculum, policy work at the legislature, and then started doing workshops and research opportunities.

One of our big programs that came out in the ’80s were called Farm Improvement clubs where we had a big foundation that gave us some money to give mini grants to do research for farmers to find out about organic farming methods, so they could find out ways to convert their conventional farms to organic and then the farmers would report back what worked in what parts of the state and what didn’t and what they learned from it. Cause at that time no one was really funding that kind of research. So those were some programs that were pivotal in changing the organic farming landscape in Montana. There’s a great book about it,


called The Lentil Underground by Liz Carlisle.

Talking about our farmers and how they used that program. They started the food business, Timeless FoodsTimeless Seeds, by growing lentils and chick peas and that kind of stuff! Very exciting! The little “d” in democracy!People getting together and coming up with programs they want to do. 

So we picked up sustainable ag because of just the trend how fossil fuels driving how people have to farm these days and in an effort to save the family farm, how can we make it more affordable, and not have to use chemical fertilizers and petroleum based fertilizers and pesticides and learn how to grow food that aligns with our values that works with the planet and the environment and not against it.

I saw that you’re having the annual meeting. And the woman who wrote that book The Lentil Underground is going to be a speaker.

Liz is traveling with David Oien Timeless Foods who is the main protagonist in the book The Lentil UndergroundShe is going to be one of our keynote speakers. Every year we have an annual meeting and it has workshops where you can learn about hands on experience for sustainable farming, agriculture, or renewable energy. We have people who come who talk about how they put up a community greenhouse, or put up solar panels or how they converted their old home to make it more energy efficient. We do that every year. This year we’re calling it:

AERO Expo and Annual Meeting Sept 25-27

Small workshops and some fun stuff, we actually have a really good time! It’s actually kind of like a camp! for the weekend!

At the Arrowpeak Lodge outside of Great Falls

Sept 25-27th


Starts on Friday with Farm Tours

Tour of a Straw Bale house



Friday Sarah Calhoun from Red Ants Pants!

Liz will be there as well! to talk about the Lentil Underground and why it’s so important to change

workshops all day Saturday

panels, Q&A time

Staturday night we will have a live auction

mixer with new farmers meeting seasoned farmers

live music

Local Yokel!

Live their values in their daily lives

David Oien

CEO- Timeless Foods.

I really do see people practicing what they preach!


More about the expo

A good balance

Tours on Friday will start around 9 in the morning. We set them up so when people are driving

Prairie Heritage Farm – with the Cowgills in Power, Montana

Timeless Foods – with David Oien, in Ulm, Montana

Gardens from Garbage – with Mike Dalton in Great Falls, Montana

Kamut Organic – with Bob Quinn in Big Sandy, Montana

Straw Bale House – with Heather Hadley in Great Falls, Montana

Mike Dalton took basically an abandoned lot and put up garden boxes, and helped grow food in this area! He’s helping kids at boys and girls club, and senior center. The kids grow the food, learn how it grows, how to keep the vegetables happy, harvest and eat it and give

It’s called the West Side Orchard Garden.

Nice! And how does the Senior Center fit into it?

Meals on Wheels

Most of food give to head start, boys and girls

more than 800 meals, more 400 lbs

way of changing the local food system

kids need to be part of the conversation

Lentil Cooking with Claudia Mesa talking up lentils

Sarah Calhoun talking that night

A couple of activities

Cottage food and you

We have this new law about selling food in Montana,

there are certain restrictions. We’re gonna talk to people about what that means. what they can do, need. It’s really a great opportunity for people who are growing food. Want to sell it, to make products to add to income sources, this is a great way to do it!

Another panel on how to finance your food and energy products. step it up from your garden and selling food. Or if you want to look into how to get a solar panel, house or business or you want to look into alternative energy options. what’s that process

we’ll give you some resources

Q&A directly

One activity I’m really excited is on Sunday morning, we’re having regional round tables. People have been asking for for a while. As more local food, or energy citizens groups have popped up, people have been finding, that they have similar ideas, but not sure how to meet others so it will be an opporutnity to share and collaborate

break up into regions

So people can set big goals on how to make your communities sustainable.

We’re finding a lot of people want to do a lot of great things in Montana. There’s so many non-profits to align missions, so we can give everyone a more united front how we power and how we grow food.

I love the whole collaboration piece, people working together. I’ve learned so much since I started the 

Instead of everybody protesting Monsanto, I just went and saw this speech by Bill McDoram and something about what he said about Saving seeds, and also my interview with Peter VAsilis about how when his dad or garndfather came home and thought Roundup was the greatest thing! And mother Theresa, i’m pretty sure said, don’t ever ask me to go to a protest or anti-war rally, but I’ll go to a pro-peace march any day! To me it’s like that’s a great way for people to meet and work together!

One thing AERO has done successfully, we don’t talk about partisan politics. We do support certain policies

It really does get down to how we develop relationships with each other and our memberships. We talk about those realities

the costs of pesticides

people who join aero because of the impact it has on the environment.

really aware of financial issues of converting your farm

but then there’s the long term impacts of having to rely on chemical pesticides and government subsidies and how that threatens keeping the farm in the family. So we are able to have those conversations in a frank and engaging way because  we aren’t political,

More populous feel.

Are there other AERO orgs in other states? Like an AERO Idaho? 

There aren’t really

a statewide organization, not a national organization. A brain child of some passionate energy activists in the 70s there are

groups who do similar work, traditionally groups

energy lag overlap

a lot of groups like AERO,

a lot of overlap

people talking about sustainable communities and resilitent communities and how we power and

how we grow and eat our food

people are starting those broader connections. We’re not part of any national organization.

Every time I go to your website, I’m just fascinated and excited about what I see. I talk a lot about the Milenials. 

I was born in 1979. I’m a Carter baby.

I think that too. I’m a little older then that. It’s right about 1980.


I listen to a lot of Millenials who are business people. I think technology has brought about a lot of that. 

Did you want to go into the tour that you’re on?

I’m a new director to AERO, I’ve been here for almost a year. I still say I’m new, some people say I can’t say that, I’m trying to hang onto 3 years as being new.But part of being new, I wanted to travel around the state and meet our members and meet people in their communities. Find out what are people doing on their own?

to create sustainable communities And have conversations about what kind of barriers are they running into? Where do they want to go? What’s standing in their way? Is it Financial, compacity, not knowing what the answer is? but they want to do something different. We’re very grassroots based. All of the programing comes from members. See if I can develop some common themes to develop projects and programs about that.

A lot of people are wanting to do more

instead of one person do the work of ten, if I can connect 10 people to do the work?

so passionate about creating communities

once you start connecting people, do the work that aligns with the work that you’re already doing Positive forward thinking,

proactive changes in their community it doesn’t seem as overwhelming and then you can actually get stuff done!

Getting people excited about it! And coming up with ideas for programs that can help people move forward.

Sustainability Tour image

So I have my blog up, talking about the tour

Posts I visited in Western Montana


Harlequin Organic Produce

they have a bigger farm then most produce farms in Montana. There’s a couple of mid-sized farm.

They have a really exciting story, they’re young farmers in their 20s

Golden Yoke! They’re opening up a creamery. They’re gonna be selling ice cream made from cows on a natural

Place in St. Ignatius

I’ve had some proto types very delicious

County Rail Farm out by Dixon more young farmers who are growing produce as well.

Then I’ve been out to Eastern Montana and visited with some community members as well. Part of the tour I’ve been meeting with outer groups, working on sustainability issue

hoping to connect people

went to Missoula


Exciting stuff they’re doing there

Had communitee meetings there as well, one thing they’re working on is protecting ag land in Missoula keeping it from being developed. Something like Let’s keep the “Ag in our culture”

good program going on for new farmers

learn more about it and connecting with mentors helping people get internships

Also been up in Hinsdale

Patty Ann Brewster

NFSA teacher and she’s just built a dynamic

getting it in their own cafeteria, teaches other teachers how to do a program in their own school and really passionate about Growing local food. That area is a Food desert region

Means that when there’s a, I’m not sure how many miles.

people have to travel a long way. Montana has over 30 counties that have a food desert in them.

Even a gas station

Highline Eastern montana region

getting access to local food is a real barrier. Teaching kids how to grow organically

how plants work to keep pests off of the stuff. She has bees up there as well.

I have to say a ocupdle of things really quick. In Kalispell, there’s a corner, where there’s Home Depot, and now there’s a Cabbalas, and there’s an apartment complex, and the Honda Dealer and what bother’s me is the school is right there! They just built this huge high school, like a 1000 kids going to the school. McDonald;s the closest place. There is a brand new Naturals, they have to cross a giant highway. To me that’s a food desert right there, there’s 

There’s the USFS right there, there is a Walmart that sells food. An example of a food desert right there

One of our programs, our membership that we have identified

regional food networks, at least with our farmers

growing their own markets

developing relationships so they can have more access tp local food in their community

develop community action groups

for example Kalispell could have one

folks could talk about food access issues in their communities. Then the could set,

set a big dynamic goal

70% of all food

identify steps to get there.

part of the focus area could be

we want to have local food in the schools

what exists right now

that’s a really important conversation to have

if it’s not in the school

do they have a deli

community group could talk about that food access gap

Farm to food truck

folks are talking about that

develop a food partnership

food truck that comes out at lunch time

local veggie sandwiches

meat, salads that have been prepared or maybe the school gets a school garden

harvest sell it

There’s so many skills there the kids learn, besides cooking

balancing a budget

running a business

not only to create healthy food options but other things that would align with the ocoking!

John Lee Dumas who’s big in the podcasting world. He just came out with a product called the “Freedom Journal” that helps you accomplish a goal in 100 days. Laura Behenna talked about AERO in Episode 58. I’m very big on gardens in school. I’ve told my husband that I thought if you just provided the potatoes and carrots the school uses.

I also have taught elementary school in the past. I taught lower elementary school special ed. We had little plants in our classroom. I would alwyas incorporate that into my lessons

One being an elementary school teacher there are so many things you have to teach. The core curriculum. I felt that how working with food, cooking food, growing plants, following directions your doing math, reading, science, explaining things, so much overlap. And the kids, especially working with special kids, I think in elementary school in general, they have their hands in something,

good command o reading and literacy

gardening and cooking

really great fun way to teach so much stuff!

And they love it!

And they love it! I’m on the Farm to School steering committee, we here back from teachers. The kids learning about beets growing them, and eating them, and when they put all the effort into it.

When they grow beets and they eat beets and they love them!

it’s powerful!

I’m pretty sure the Special Ed kids in Eureka I’m pretty sure put in a green house here. … There’s so much math etc you can get.

Soemtning about hands on. Kids just remember it better. That’s just one of the cool project were’e doing. Starting relationships is for people to start identifying project they want to get going.

whether it’s around renewable energy

getting those communities together

is there a way to work together

regional conversations

trying to help farmers grow their supply chains, you need those regional connections to decide, how are we going to get the food to and from farm to those institutions, grocery stores, restaurants. And how to meet that demand.

I have heard from grocery stores, etc they need consistency and food all year round. So they are not that interested in buying from local resources since our season is so short. I saw that Flathead Electric just came out with the new solar panels. I am curious about the different landscape about the east side and west side, and maybe about the coal plan 

He’s not very happy about the clean power plan, well maybe he is, and I shouldn’t speak for the governor. They put up the rules, but they have changed significantly, had a paper on the previous rules I don’t know if they have

AERO has a limited focus on policy, more about keeping up on what’s going on and sharing that info with our membership and then encouraging them to respond and comment because that’s who legislators need to hear from. During the 2015 legislation I shared with members about net metering laws

if people have a solar system

can sell it back

one of their energy resources

our metering laws haven’t been updated since the 90s so we’re looking at ways to expand it so if they have a bigger system. Or if they have a solar panel

if they tap into the grid for their irrigation system and also community net metering was another one. The legislature is doing a study

greater opportunities for people.

Are people concerned about enough sunny days? I’m sure on the east side there’s enough.

We have some installers on our membership, it really just depends, they’re not gonna be a sole energy source. With the net-metering, you’re still gonna be connected to grid

coop or nwenergy

windmill on his farm

typically doesn’t pay

does need to get energy off the grid

at least to have it supplement energy costs. But it definitely varies across the state.

It seems like it’s only gonna grow. 

Yes, the wind potential for the state is incredible. We really believe in small scale energy systems, not putting our in one coal fired

We think people should have more options and clearer options. A diversified including solar and others.

What I’m really excited about. Why I love AERO, and thrilled to work here is AERO does bring people programs that they want, that help think outside the box, but very forward thinking but proactive. I’ve been traveling around the states.

talking about what folks are doing.

collaboration Being a resource so people know what is going on across the state.

community action groups that we’re helping start,


one of helena working with a group of some citizens, but also some state agencies, no kid hungry, united way, Helena food share


carrol college and all these people talking about how we’re gonna grow a local food system in helelna. People talking about what people are already doing with their agencies

currently working on a plan to set long term goals on how we’re gonna develop a food system in Helena that alligns with the work people are already doing

10 people doing the work

really fun and really exciting

has a lot of momentum

Livingston has something growing similar

If members are interested in that kind of collaboration that’s something we can help with, you know helping facilitate that conversation

helping people setting local goals

growing local food. Creating fundraising for solar panels on the food bank.

How does somebody become a member? And I’d be really remiss, my husbands very interested in biodiesel. IS there any of that going on?

A lot of converstaions about biodiesel

currently don’t have a lot

not focusing

converstaions first, energy efficient first

then talk about

There’s definitely information out there. I would encourage him to connect with MSU,and also

Bob Quinn, organics, neat thing going on, makes an oil he sells to schools, takes spent fuel back, then treats it, runs 20%

That’s a project a community could help

how can we change our buses, get them to run on biodiesel

how can we convert that system

how can we get those people

debunking the myth that renewables create jobs

We have tools. That’s the kind of stuff we like to do. I would also encourage your husband to come to the farm tour he could learn a lot there.

I want to say the buses in Las Vegas somewhere in Nevada. I want to say the largest biodiesel project in the US is down in Nevada. I wrote a blog post about it last Fall when school was starting!

I voluntaire at AERO, from 2006? AERO drafted the blue print for

debunking the myth that renewables don’t create jobs, that’s something that needs to be debunked! We talk about biodiesel in that as well!

How does some body become a member?

You can sign up online at AEROMT.org

You can get a membership! I think $40 for an individual, but feel free to take more, we will take more!

Do get a discount to annual meeting and any other events we have! Which is a perk! and you get a connection to a cool group of people!

I love about podcasting! I finally get to meet my real peeps!

How do we connect with you?

AERO at 432 N. Last Chance Gulch, Helena, MT 59601

Can call 406-443-7272

I would encourage everyone to come to our EXPO!

Gotta give one more shout out to the Montana Road Trippin’ podcast! Dia and Jewels! I learned most important tip about how to use your bear spray! And they just talk about fun things.

On Friday, September 11, 2015 AERO is going to be holding an event in Kalispell at the Purple Frog Gardens.

OGP is dedicated to encouraging gardeners and people who want to grow food and flowers to choose an organic approach

About the author, Jackie Marie

I'm an artist and educator. I live at the "Organic Oasis" with my husband Mike where we practice earth friendly techniques in our garden nestled in the mountains of Montana.

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