Big Ideas in a Small Town: Part I
By Emily Standley
The town of Winnett, population 185, is the smallest county seat in Montana. Located near the center of Petroleum County (total population, 475), Winnett would probably fit a geographic definition of the “middle of nowhere.” It’s a 53 mile drive to Lewistown, the nearest city over 5,000 people. There are no interstates nearby, and even many Montanans would have trouble locating Winnett on a map. Unfortunately, the “middle of nowhere” often paints a picture of lonely tumbleweeds in a dusty old town – somewhere with no excitement, opportunity, or growth. But Winnett, Montana defies these notions. There’s plenty going on in this little town. There are movers and shakers. There is community, and cooperation.
In November of 2016, Petroleum County residents formed the Agricultural Community Enhancement and Sustainability working group. Better known as ACES, the group’s purpose is well described by its name. Citizens came together with the vision of enhancing and sustaining their rural, agricultural community. Diane Ahlgren, a local rancher and one of those “movers and shakers” I mentioned earlier, gave me more insight into why and how ACES was formed:
“[The county] struggles, as do many of the rural western communities, to stay economically viable and survive the ebb and flow of ag prices while juggling the rules and regulation that come ‘from on high,’ and not to mention the extremes that Mother Nature manages to send our way – flood, drought, fire, hail, grasshoppers, etc.… Although the group is made up of mostly ag producers, it is a diverse mix of men, women, and ages, and since everyone in a small community wears many hats, it includes county commissioners, conservation district supervisors, stockgrower members, county planners, school board members, federal agency employees, facilitation experts, and the list goes on.”
Diane explained that the group didn’t really have particular projects or tasks in mind when ACES was formed. They just wanted to create a forum for discussion on ways to build the community. But they’ve really hit the ground running. “A laundry list of issues, ideas, and thoughts at the first meeting included, ‘Why don’t we have local beef in the school lunch program?’” In just a few months, ACES had secured enough local beef donations to supply the Winnett school lunch program for four years. FOUR YEARS. How incredible is that?!
Other projects currently in the works include a Land Committee, tasked with exploring the possibility of ACES purchasing or leasing land, which could be used as a type of community grass bank, for educational purposes, and/or as a place for younger producers to build their own farm or ranch. After only a few months, the committee obtained grant funds to hire a temporary coordinator who would gather input from the local community and examine options for the potential land purchase. Unlike the ranch-to-school beef project, Diane explained this would be a much longer process, but it would have lasting positive effects if accomplished: “This will not be a quick success story, but if perseverance and enthusiasm continue at this level, someday this group might own property that can be used and managed not only for grazing and keeping producers producing, but also education, wildlife, and continued generational ranching.”
Finally, ACES is addressing something often taken for granted: a functional community center. Although Winnett does have public meeting places, ACES is hoping to develop an accessible, useable space, dedicated solely to community events. Diane acknowledges again that this too will be a slow, but worthwhile, process: “although no dirt has been turned yet, [the committee is] well on their way with some early donations, grant applications, land acquisition, and monthly meetings to determine building direction. Good things take time.”
Good things do take time. But they also take good people who are willing to put in their time and effort. Although Petroleum County may be small in population, there is no shortage of community, excitement, or growth. Winnett may feel like the middle of nowhere to some, but everywhere is somewhere, to someone. And in Central Montana, ACES is working hard to make sure their somewhere provides opportunities for generations to come.
ACES meeting times vary. If you are interested in becoming involved with ACES, please contact the Petroleum County Conservation District, 406-429-6646 ext. 106