The grassroots citizens group Oregon Rural Action celebrated its ninth birthday in style Saturday, hosting an annual meeting that drew upwards of 125 people and provided plenty of food for thought.
Former JP Morgan executive John Fullerton said he sees a need for a shift to local economic efforts. Small scale initiatives on a local level don’t provide all the answers to the world’s problems, but there needs to be movement in that direction. ‘It’s not that I think local economy is the be-all, end-all, but without a local economy the economy is not resilient.’
The event, taking place in the re-born Bohnenkamp building on Adams Avenue, featured a keynote address by John Fullerton, a former JPMorgan executive who quit that firm to found the Capital Institute, an investment organization focused on a sustainable economic system.Fullerton’s talk centered on the need to build a vibrant local economy amidst what he calls the broken global financial system. In opening remarks, he recalled how he left JP Morgan to find ways to help build that new economy.
“Something was out of kilter within myself, and I knew I was going to make a change,” he said. “After study I knew what was systemically wrong.”
Fullerton said the global economy is a debt-based one, and that capital is concentrated in the hands of a relative few. That creates conditions that are less than resilient.
“Capital has flowed downstream. Now it’s so concentrated it can’t get back upstream. One of the challenges is to create vehicles that move it back upstream,” he said.
Fullerton also said the global economy is ill-equipped to deal with financial, population, climate and energy, soil and water crises. Environmental issues aren’t getting the needed attention, and that too needs to change.
“The rate of species loss today exceeds the rate of when the meteors hit and wiped out the dinosaurs,” he said.
Fullerton said he sees a need for a shift to local economic efforts. Small-scale initiatives on a local level don’t provide all the answers to the world’s problems, but there needs to be movement in that direction.
“It’s not that I think local economy is the be-all, end-all, but without a local economy the economy is not resilient,” he said.
He gave a few examples of businesses supported by the Capital Institute, including the Farmer’s Diner in Vermont, a restaurant that serves up locally-sourced produce.
“I would dare to say something like that could be started in any community in the country,” he said.
Some other companies in Fullerton’s “impact investment” portfolio include Grasslands LLC, which uses holistic methods to manage 14,000 acres of rangeland in South Dakota, and New Day Farms, which grows organic tomatoes in energy efficient greenhouses outside Washington. D.C.
Looking farther afield, Fullerton talked in positive terms about the Mondragon Corp., a federation of worker cooperatives based in the Basque region of Spain.
“It has its own bank that survived the financial crisis. They’ve been practicing what we’ve been talking about for 50 years,” he said.
Wrapping up talk about creative economic initiatives, Fullerton introduced a panel of local entrepreneurs including Joel Rice, Cory Carman and Wynne Auld.
Rice, a local psychiatrist, businessman and community activist, is in the process of transforming the historic but long-vacant Bohnenkamp building into a community workshop.
As Rice envisions it, the building would be a place for workshop members to learn skills in food preparation, woodworking, metal working, electronics, pottery, and much more.
Rice told the ORA audience his work in the mental health field helped him see there is a need for such a place in Union County.
“I’m a psychiatrist, and that’s led me to be interested in helping people achieve stability,” he said.
Rice said he thinks his workshop can help people overcome a lack of skill development, and can be of particular value to young people.
Carman and her husband, David, raise and sell grass-fed beef on a 2,000-acre ranch in Wallowa County. They also are involved in numerous local habitat and restoration programs.
She said she grew up on the ranch, moved away for a time, then returned. A rural lifestyle is something she cares deeply about.
“I wanted to see the ranch grow and the community continue as rural and agricultural, and I knew it wouldn’t wait till later,” she said. “I wanted to make our ranch sustainable, raise livestock in a different way and make it a profitable business.”
Auld is the project manager for Renewable Energy Solutions, an Enterprise company that helps municipalities and private companies develop renewable energy projects.
“We’re a very nimble organization that tries to help companies in the way they need help,” Auld said.
She said the effort to build renewable energy projects depends on partnerships and cooperative working agreements.
She said her company is closely allied with Wallowa Resources, the group designated by Wallowa County government as a lead agency in implementation of the county’s Strategic Plan for Economic Development.
“We depend on other businesses, and they depend on us,” Auld said. “I’d say it’s a network.”
In addition to keynote and panel discussion, Saturday’s gathering included a chili feed, live and silent auctions, a contra dance and live music.
Oregon Rural Action is a non-profit organization interested in social justice, agriculture and economic sustainability, and land air and water stewardship.
A member of the Western Organization of Resource Councils, ORA has four chapters around the state, including the La Grande-based Blue Mountain chapter.
There are unafilliated members as well.