Into the wild green yonder

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Donna Mae Bevelhymer, owner of a yarn store in Montevideo, Minn., chuckles when she talks about the rookie shop owner a few miles down the road who was ready to put her winter goods away in the spring. Don’t you dare, Bevelhymer told her: those mittens and hats and scarves are about to start flying off the shelves.

“In June and July I sell the most mittens,” said Bevelhymer. “The tourists come through and because it’s wool and handmade … they gobble it up like candy.”

Bevelhymer makes her mittens herself, from yarn she spun herself, from wool she sheared from the three sheep in her backyard: Revella, Rosie and Baby Girl. She also sells vests, purses and other items she’s made from the yarn. “If it’s hanging up, I made it,” she said.

She likes to boast that nothing in her store is factory-made, but she admits she bought the buttons to sew on the vests. “The buttons are made out of bone, but not from my sheep,” she laughed. “Gotta stop somewhere.”

This summer, Bevelhymer may sell more mittens than ever. Her store, Donna’s Delights, is one of 166 destinations highlighted in Green Routes, a collection of self-guided tours through rural Minnesota. Green Routes, billed as “an alternative to conventional tourism,” is designed to help travelers do good while feeling good: the hope is that when Green Routers take road trips out into the countryside they’ll spend their vacation money at small, independent businesses that make local products and operate sustainably. Dollars that would normally go to the likes of McDonald’s and Marriott will instead nourish the local economies of small towns and farming communities in Minnesota and, at the same time, boost the fledgling green industry.

An idea sprouts
The road to Green Routes is long and winding. It started with a student, Jan Joannides, who sought out Minnesota farmers and other rural landowners who were using innovative methods to conserve resources even as they ran financially successful ventures. In the late 1990s, when Joannides was doing her research, there was no website, agency or database to consult on these folks: she had to find them through word of mouth and sheer luck. Then she came across a book from the Netherlands called (in translation) Renewing the Countryside, which featured exactly the kind of farms and businesses she’d been documenting. She and a handful of others founded a Minnesota group called Renewing the Countryside (of which Joannides is executive director) and a few years later, in 2001, published a full-color coffee table book by the same name.

The book took on a life of its own: there are now Renewing the Countryside books for North Dakota, Iowa, Washington, the Southwest and one for Europe and North America. For several years the group has also published calendars on the same theme for different regions.

One thing no other state has—yet—is a program like Green Routes. This program was born in 2004 as Renewing the Countryside’s attempt to answer a need that Joannides recognized in small, rural businesses struggling to be green and successful: the need for more customers and more revenue. She also hopes that the program will help communities fend off growth that is fundamentally destructive to the environment or the economy.

“The main goal is to bring money to these businesses and [help] communities think about how they can grow in a more sustainable way,” she explained. “They’re faced with ‘Do we bring in a coal plant, because we really need jobs, but we know that with that coal plant we’re going to mess up our lakes.’ Are there ways that we can build sustainably? That doesn’t mean towns can’t bring in manufacturers, but … is there a way to maintain your rural community, your character, but still generate income so that you can still have hospitals and schools?”

Sustainability factor
The green traveler can choose from six Green Routes road trips, each of which is described and mapped out in a pocket-size brochure: Upper Minnesota River Valley (in and around Montevideo), Pine & Lake Country (including Brainerd and Detroit Lakes), North Shore, Tamarack (around Mille Lacs), Agassiz (Bemidji and northwestern Minnesota) and Bluff Country (including Red Wing and Lanesboro).

Choosing which destinations to include in Green Routes wasn’t easy, said Beth Munnich, a program associate at Renewing the Countryside who spends about half her time on the Green Routes program. In each region, one paid organizer worked within the community to contact potentially suitable businesses and sites, help owners fill out applications and direct an all-volunteer review team. In order to make the cut, businesses had to demonstrate environmental stewardship, economic viability and social and community responsibility.

“Businesses that contributed in some way to all three components [were accepted],” said Munnich. “Some were familiar with green terms and for others it was completely new.”

Sustainable strategies ranged from low-flush toilets to educational programs for high school students. The project wasn’t always clear cut, though, admitted Munnich. “I’ve never found a good way to define a sustainable business,” she said. “But there are businesses that are contributing economically—the money’s circulating in the community—and ideally they’re making things better environmentally, and [they’re] not sustaining just based on capital but on sustaining relationships.”

Each business owner receives a stack of Green Routes brochures to hand out to customers, and although the pocket guides are a handy way to get the word out, Munnich hopes most people will use the interactive “website”:htp://www.greenroutes.org to plan their next green jaunt.

The light is green
Given that all Joannides’ projects have a way of expanding, it’s no surprise that she expects Green Routes to do the same. “In two years, we will have Green Routes sites in all 50 states,” she said. “I really think people who are interested in these issues will be using this as the site when they go traveling or even when they’re in their own neighborhood. I think the demand is out there, the technology is out there—this is so doable.”

In the meantime, there are related projects underway. Another Green Routes brochure is in the works for the Renville-Redwood Falls area, and a book will be out this fall featuring restaurants that use local produce and the chefs who are leading that trend. The Green Routes folks will also host a series of workshops for owners interested in “greening” their businesses, and they’re planning Green Routes tours for policymakers and members of the media—hoping to use the businesses on the trip to illustrate the importance of sustainable practices and policies.

“[We want] to build awareness about sustainable rural development, highlight some of the issues that are impacting rural areas,” said Munnich. “[We’re] connecting rural and urban issues, and [building] support for these small Green Routes businesses. They might be small businesses, but collectively they have a huge impact on the state, economically and otherwise.”

Joannides believes that impact will increase in coming years. “In five years I think there will be a lot more green businesses,” she said. “There’s growing interest—I don’t think it’s going to be a niche for much longer. Businesses know this is something they need to think about if they’re going to be viable in the future.”

It’s clear to her that Green Routes will play a central role in this expansion. “We won’t be the next Google, but…”

She laughed.

Out in Montevideo, Bevelhymer’s hopeful too, but her goals are much more modest. “I don’t know if it’ll make a difference, but it doesn’t hurt to have something like that going on,” she said. “Everybody loves the natural thing. Because it ain’t all about money. There’s more important things than money.”

Then she cackled. “I just need to pay my light bill.”

Share your thoughts on the Green Route in our “Environment forum”:https://www.tcdailyplanet.net/forum/63.

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