I’ve lived my whole life in Wisconsin. It’s a great place to be from, for sure! Right before my last semester at Northland, however, I decided I wanted to live somewhere completely different. I landed on a plan to move to Oregon, primarily because of the many different ecosystems throughout the state—valleys, mountains, high deserts, and coastal areas—all of which make Oregon very unique for outdoor recreation! Since my post-college plan was to spend a few years working in my field (community development/climate science) before attending graduate school, I began interviewing for jobs in communities throughout Oregon.
In one of my interviews, I learned about an AmeriCorps program called Resource Assistance for Rural Environments (RARE). RARE’s mission is to increase the capacity of rural communities to improve their economic, social, and environmental conditions by placing unique, graduate-level individuals within these rural communities. It sounded interesting, so I looked into it and immediately knew it was an important opportunity that was perfect for someone with my skills, interests, and future plans. Just a few months before graduation, I applied for the RARE AmeriCorps program, and was selected to join in May.
I ended up being placed in Lakeview, one of the most rural communities in the state. While I pictured that it would be rainy and surrounded by tall pines like the rest of Oregon, I was surprised to see that it was actually a beautiful desert landscape! Even more beautiful, I found, is the warm and welcoming community of Lakeview itself. Having attended Northland for community development, and having done some really interesting projects with smaller communities in Wisconsin, I have a special interest in community building and a love for rural communities specifically. I had no doubt that I would fit right into Lakeview. I packed my whole life up and spent the end of August 2022 moving from one rural place to another.
RARE AmeriCorps placed me with Lake County Resources Initiative (LCRI), a nonprofit with just three full-time employees. LCRI provides energy (both renewable and efficiency) assistance to residents of Lake County and Klamath County, as well as rural business owners and agricultural producers throughout the state of Oregon. My title with LCRI is “rural energy coordinator,” which allows me the opportunity to assist rural business owners and agricultural producers statewide with their USDA Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) grant applications. The grants are earmarked for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. Solar is the most common project that I see, however, microhydro, wind, biomass, geothermal, ocean generation, and energy efficiency upgrades to existing equipment also qualify for the REAP grant.
My favorite part of my job is the site visits! These “boots on the ground” interactions with business owners and agricultural producers allow me to better understand their energy needs and more easily visualize what their project could look like. My favorite site visit (so far) was to a trout farm in the desert. Yes, you read that right! Desert Springs Trout Farm produces trout for restocking lakes and streams throughout the Pacific Northwest. The trout farmer even works directly with Indigenous Tribes in the region—he recently delivered four thousand pounds of rainbow trout to the Shoshone-Paiute Tribe in Idaho to help them restock their waterways.
This producer has a dream to install a microhydro system, which would likely allow his operation to run completely offgrid. You might be asking how that is possible and here is the answer: The eight-hundred-acre property that houses this trout farm happens to be on a natural fault line, which causes artesian water to spew out of the ground at rates of about ninety gallons per minute. The owner has harnessed this naturally-flowing water into wells that feed into his trout runs. This unique geologic feature, the only one of its kind west of the Mississippi, was hands down one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen! We are hoping to complete a drone fly-over in a few months to document the exact spot where this microhydro system would be installed. Our next step would be to connect the producer with a company that specializes in microhydro systems and potentially assist him in applying for the REAP grant which would fund up to 50 percent of his project.
Being able to learn more about the energy sector has given me a new lens on community building. It has made me realize just how important it is for communities and the farms and businesses that lie within them to be resilient and self-sufficient when it comes to energy. I am learning how best to connect individuals and entities to money-saving technology related to energy—we’ve facilitated everything from a simple ductless heat-pump install in a residence (to decrease dependency on propane, gas, and kerosene) to completely switching a farm’s wheel line irrigation system to a more cost-effective pivot system. Every day I learn something new.
Working in the energy sector is something that I never pictured myself doing, yet I feel that my placement with AmeriCorps landed me right where I need to be. The energy sector is a critical one, and my experience at Northland helped shape me into the mindful, caring person that I am today. Without the “Northland experience,” I’m not sure I would have ever had the courage to leave Wisconsin in pursuit of something greater than myself.
Alaina plans to continue her work at Lake County Resources Initiative after her year of AmeriCorps service ends in July 2023.