I had a wonderful conversation with someone yesterday. This was a person who has seen a lot of this country, and been involved in government for a long time.  It was very enlightening to hear the questions that came up in the conversation:

“Isn’t that something that Cooperative Extension does?”   ( Massachusetts hasn’t had an active Cooperative Extension program that taught home skills since at least 1987, the last time I was in a Co-Op Extension Office.)

“Isn’t the number of small family farms diminishing?”  (I pointed out the recent expansion of BowTie Press into Hobby Farming, Hobby Farm Home, Urban Farm and Beginning Farmers Series. Very high quality publications that would not invest in such undertakings if that statement were correct.)

“Farmers markets are on the rise. Won’t they take care of the issue?”  (Only during growing season. I pointed out the need to shift our nation’s diet to healthy, locally grown food on a regular basis, not just once a week during market season.”

This person did a wonderful job of summarizing what the media and the general public think about parts of our sustainability program.  It’s passé. It’s obsolete. It’s redundant.  Yet, those of us on the front lines of this issue know that reality is that for decades schools have not taught basic shop, sewing, cooking and preservation skills, because school budgets were cut, and hiring or purchasing alternatives was expected.   But those days are over. Money just isn’t there, and expenses continue to occur.

Contractors are many, but so are bad ones. How do you know who to trust? How can you judge high vs. low quality workmanship? Same with clothing.  We buy inexpensive clothes, that often support unfair living conditions for workers in other countries, only to have them mis-labeled, mis-packed, poorly constructed or just plain poorly designed.  Wouldn’t it be better to either make your own or repair your own clothing, or purchase quality garments that will stand repeated uses?

But during that conversation, and others,  I can almost see a flower blooming as they see how the project works.  People with skills share those skills and supplement their income. Others who are concerned about food issues, can find good local food, or a source to learn for themselves what concerns are valid and what are not.  When the talk shifts to how does the NCSC plan to pay for its services, I explain how sharing resources, such as the riding arena, makes it possible.  Companies such as BowTie Press have market stats that indicate people are still spending money on their pets.  We’ve met a number of people looking for dog trainers, even in our little “out of the way” town.  Dog sports have grown from conformation and hunting tests to agility, earth dogs, obedience, Rally-o, lure coursing, weight pulling, and more, and the opportunities for sharing the company of others with their dogs, is increasing.  Many of those activities could be done at the arena, and spaces such as that are in short supply.

As more and more families are looking toward backyard gardening, urban chickens, and pet goats, so the number of children looking to participate in 4H is also growing. But arena, training and meeting spaces are also in short supply.  The dogs can pay for the kids to learn, and all that helps support the NCSC mission.

I also met yesterday with some people from further out in the county, the brave few that traveled “all the way” to Ashburnham.  They, too, felt that we are “out of the way,” and wondered how we could help their farmers.  When I explained about building Food Hubs throughout Central New England, and encouraging new people to enter the transport business so that a farm’s market could expand, but their travel time could be minimized, they could start to see how it can work.  The success in the “north county” can lead to success in the southern parts of the county ,and the “North Country” of the northeast, can have a healthier, sustainable food supply, lower fuel usage, and more preservation of a way of life that is valued by many people still on the farms.

So how far “out of the way” are we?  One and half hours to Boston, One hour to Worcester,  Three hours to New York City, and pretty much center of New England.  How many times do you find a jewel laying on a well-traveled path?  It’s that “path less traveled” that holds the gems that others have left behind.  If you knew there was a gold mine two miles away, but it was through a swamp, would you say “Too bad,” or would you try to find it?  We’re not in a swamp, but 15 minutes off a main route.  Our gold is the wealth of skills and knowledge, and with help from others, the spaces for people to grow their skills, their income and their community.    In the western part of the country 3 hours is a trip to the grocery store. It’s all a matter of how much the resources is desired.

These skills and resources are a “sustainability bridge” from worry and despair to a world of potential, hope and personal strength.  There is a great sense of accomplishment when you master a new skill. There is a world of possibilities that opens up when you understand  what meat came from what animal, and how to cook it. There is comfort in knowing that when resources are slim, you have choices because you have connections or knowledge of a different way to do something.

We can do this a little at a time, and put all our energy into fundraising, or we can work together to buy and change the foreclosed stables into a shining example of sustainability.  Over time we’ll change from conventional power to photo-voltaic for power and photo-thermal for hot water, biomass for heat, and hopefully micro-hydro electricity for the performing arts area.  We’ll use rain barrels, drip hoses, and the stream to show alternative water sources to turning on the tap, and show people what can be done with water conservation.

NCSC is not just about celebrating the past. It’s about recognizing the needs of the present and the future, and finding solutions for those problems.  We aren’t the only ones with the tools, but we have a unique potential property, an organization and the will to make it happen.  We don’t have employers to match, or corporations to sponsor, we just have knowledge, skills and facilities to share.

The buildings are for sale for a very reasonable price, and they present a unique situation, bringing the life of a region back from the very spot where industry grew here.  Bringing an old mill that made furniture back to a functional building that teaches furniture making, sustainability skills and celebrates community is a strange circle – a wonderful one.

Sustainability is a bridge to a new future. There are many planks in that bridge, but NCSC can put many of them together to be an inspiration for small towns and rural areas around the country. Please, help us help others.