• Lara Birkes

Rural Impact Entrepreneurs

The Emergence of a Fourth Sector


For those inhabiting the rural landscapes of the American frontier, the West is synonymous with a predisposition to ingenuity, resourcefulness, independence and determination.


The origins of the American West also harken back to a more unforgiving time, periods when the elements took their forfeit, be it from a blizzard, wild animal, prairie fire or the devastation of a crop. Pick your surrender - those days were unrelenting, and though the abilities required to live “out West” may no longer depend on the skill of the hunt, or a hardened physical fortitude, the association still applies and it’s grit all the same.


Now, as with all that endures, what this means is changing with time. The evolution of those who are able to persevere now hinges on an ability to challenge convention in the face of new facts, and adapt.


This is especially true with ranching and farming, the foundation of the Mountain West’s economy. We also know the traditional approaches to food production; as it’s been industrialized over the years, does not hold the economic or environmental means to sustain communities and livelihoods into the future.


In the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to address the climate crisis, Project Drawdown identifies regenerative agriculture as solution 11 of 100 in order of impact to effectuate change. The scientific findings challenge an orthodox premise that the world cannot be fed without chemicals and synthetic fertilizers, pointing to new evidence that the solution lies in restoring soil health and adopting agricultural techniques that work in tandem with the landscape.


Change is never easy, no matter how necessary, but those at the heart of this transition are defining a modern day western resiliency. They’re evolving away from a rigidity that stands against the wilds of the West, to an approach that embraces the natural rhythm of the landscape, striving toward a living in concert with their surroundings.


These are the individuals reframing old paradigms, casting themselves as grass farmers knowing that nutrient rich soil ensures healthy crops and livestock. They’re rotationally grazing cattle, sheep and maybe goats. These innovators are devising ways to ranch alongside wolves and bears, not in resistance to them. Controversially, they may be raising bison, thus ensuring a species that roamed the Earth for millions of years, and faced extinction, remains on the landscape. They’re pondering mobile processing facilities, in response to the inefficiencies of distant feedlots, to keep production local and respect animal welfare.


Enter Ground In Common. As a periodical, we highlight solution-based approaches to social and environmental issues facing the rural mountain West. What’s increasingly clear is the individuals with solutions to these challenges are in our midst.


Based on causal conversations, chance encounters and observations of a persistent few, I see that many of those who depend on the land, in turn understand what’s missing, what’s needed and are starting to invent new methodologies. I’m calling them rural impact entrepreneurs.


Sometimes those individuals don’t have access to the ecosystem required to activate an idea into a business. Equally, those with business experience often don’t have insight into the local challenges in need of business solutions. This is the opportunity Ground In Common seeks to highlight as we identify solutions to activate, and challenges to solve.


The former includes solutions under development, like Malou Anderson-Ramirez and TEAL Tags, a business proposal that leverages technology to enable shared landscapes with livestock and endangered species. Here we seek to weave together the resources required to ignite a mission-driven social enterprise. The latter are those challenges in need of an impact entrepreneur to further develop, for example the notion of Rethinking Roads, or integrating plastics and glass into pavement to address recycling barriers in the West.


More broadly this signals how a “fourth sector” might evolve, referring to the traditional three-sector system (government, business and non-profit) to include a fourth for-profit sector that broadens a businesses objective to include social and environmental causes, alongside revenue. The World Economic Forum outlines the potential in this piece about economic models. The point is, deliberate efforts to foster “for benefit” organizations that respond to local challenges, and circumvent the need for ongoing fundraising efforts, are needed in the rural mountain west.


As we develop an ecosystem to for mission driven enterprises, please reach out if you have solutions to activate or challenges to solve! In the words of Mohammed Yunus, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for creating accessible microfinance models, “wherever I see a problem, I develop a business to solve it.”

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