Turning Ideas into Community Action in Stevens County

It’s been almost 3 years since the Jefferson Center and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy kicked off our very first Rural Climate Dialogue in Stevens County, Minnesota! The 3-day long public deliberation gathered 15 citizens to discuss how their community could adapt to climate change and extreme weather events.

“One thousand year” rainstorms?

People in Stevens County were already noticing weather changes like warmer winters, higher temperatures, and increased thunderstorms. In fact, since 1980, there haven’t been any days with temperatures below -25 degrees, while the average used to be around 4 days per year. That may sound like a dream come true–most of us are probably okay with never experiencing what -25 (or even below that!) feels like.

But in an agricultural community like Morris, these temperature changes can threaten the crops that many residents depend on. While the higher temperatures might mean a longer growing season, they also result in an increased survival rate of pests, microbes, and plant diseases. Variations in the weather causing a freeze, then a thaw, then a freeze again can lead to crop failure. Algal blooms can form in community water systems, which can threaten the water supply for plants, people, and livestock. The area also witnessed a mega rainfall event in 2016, which led to soil erosion, higher insurance risks, and forced farmers to think about changing irrigation and tilling practices.

Many residents of Stevens County have lived in the community for years–so these changes have been hard to miss. When we convened 15 members of the community, they learned more about the weather they were witnessing daily, the long term impact these changes would have, and community actions that could help address these risks. Since then, the community has built resilience through partnerships, individual action, and community programs.

The Morris Model

Not long after the dialogue took place, the City of Morris, Stevens County, the West Central Research and Outreach Center, and the Office of Sustainability and the Center for Small Towns at UM — Morris collaborated to create the Morris Model. The model drives energy conservation, extreme weather planning, climate education, alternative transportation options, renewable energy, and resilience across the community. The partnership has been recognized by organizations across the state, like Environmental Initiative, the Minnesota Department of Commerce, and the Minnesota Climate Adaptation Partnership, to name a few.

In 2015, the Morris Model team played a key role in crafting a three-year climate partnership agreement between the city and Saerbeck, Germany, to share ideas, strategies, and goals as both communities build a sustainable and healthy future for their residents. With the installation of biogas plants to supply heat, electricity, and transportation fuels, 70 solar power arrays, and the upcoming construction of wind turbines, Saerbeck may become totally energy independent by 2030. These community innovations have boosted environmental tourism–thousands of visitors come yearly to see the “climate town” of Saerbeck. Don’t have plans to travel to Germany anytime soon? Don’t worry–you can still experience the climate town of Morris. Check out their Energy Experience Path, a guide to the energy efficiency upgrades, solar arrays, LEED certified buildings, biomass gasification facility, wind turbines, and more around the community.

Community Initiatives, Actions, and Events

With the help of Morris Model stakeholders, students, state agencies, and local partnerships, the community has developed multiple strategies to help adapt to climate change. Here are a few examples:

  • Residents, local government leaders, and business owners discussed sustainable actions that community members can do prepare for extreme weather events at the Extreme Weather Action Meeting.
  • The City of Morris replaced city-owned lights with LEDs, increasing energy efficiency and saving money.
  • The Morris Area High School incorporated climate change into its curriculum.
  • Community churches, student groups, and area leadership development programs hosted a community education event featuring a screening of the film “Chasing Ice”, a documentary about photographer James Balog’s quest to show the impact of climate change on the world’s glaciers.
  • The University of Minnesota Morris purchased an electric vehicle and is installing a charging station on campus.
  • Thanks to Seed Grants from Minnesota CERTs, Morris researchers will look at the financial viability of solar PV systems on swine and dairy farms, and a solar PV system installed at Morris High School will help save money and fund the robotics team.

To learn more about this community’s strengthened resilience, check out the Rural Dialogues website.

If you live in Stevens County, you’re invited to join our next energy conversation at the Old №1 bar and Grill in Morris! We will explore community energy questions and ideas for the future, and map out a plan to make community energy goals a reality. RSVP here.



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Center for New Democratic Processes

Center for New Democratic Processes


Formerly Jefferson Center — Designing the future of democracy. Find us @ cndp.us & @CNDP_US