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Madelia, Minnesota is a small town with a big plan to produce fuel made from local materials for local markets. (Maggie Koerth-Baker)

A Little Independent Energy Experiment on the Prairie

If you can fight your way through the dirt storms of Madelia, Minnesota, you may be able to find the future of renewable energy

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In the middle of the Minnesota prairie sits Madelia, a town of a little more than 2300 people that is surrounded on all sides by miles upon miles of brown soil, tilled into neat rows. If you flew there in an airplane, Madelia would look like a button, sewn into the middle of a patchwork quilt—each farm divided into fields shaped like squares and circles, bordered by pale yellow gravel roads and by the narrow strips of bright green grass that grow alongside creeks and drainage ditches.

When the residents of a town such as Madelia think about the future of energy, the solutions they come up with are unsurprisingly centered on the land and what it can grow. In Madelia, however, those solutions look a little different from what you might expect. When Madelians imagine the future of energy, they don’t see prairie dotted with big ethanol refineries, where corn grown by hundreds of farmers is processed into fuel that will be sold all around the United States. Instead, they’re thinking about something much more local. Madelia is a small town with a big plan to produce fuel made from local materials for local markets. From the native grasses that easily grow in prairie soil to leftover beaks and pieces from a nearby chicken canning factory, anything that can grow within a 25-mile radius of town is fair game.

Why would a generally conservative town, populated by a lot of generally risk-averse farm families, want to stake a decent amount of time and money on the cutting edge of alternative energy? When I traveled to Madelia, I ran headlong into the reason before I’d even reached the town itself. My moment of enlightenment happened a few miles outside the city limits, on the narrow blacktop of Highway 60, when I came very close to driving my car into a ditch.

The wind had started the day full of bluster, and it was positively furious by the afternoon, while the open, empty fields that flanked the highway offered nothing to slow the wind down. This alone wouldn’t have been a big problem. I grew up in Kansas, and I know how to steer a car through a windstorm. The issue was what I could see ahead of me—or, rather, what I couldn’t see. Out of nowhere, a gray cloud rose up to hover over the highway, swallowing semi-trucks and digesting them into sets of disembodied tail lights. I had barely enough time to realize I wasn’t looking at fog before I plunged into the thick of it.

The sun disappeared. Gravel pinged against the car windows. I couldn’t see anything that wasn’t artificially lit. In a panic, I turned on my headlamps just as I drove out the other side of the gritty haze, back into a normal, windy spring day. The “cloud” was made of dirt, and a mile or so up the road, another gray ribbon of it stretched across the horizon. I went through three or four of these dust clouds before I reached the exit for Madelia.

Even in town, the dust was not easily vanquished. I parked my car downtown, beneath the prow of a movie theater awning, and stepped out into air so texturized you could almost gnaw on it. Flecks of dust stuck in my sun block. When I opened my mouth, grit came in.

I had traveled to Madelia to meet with Linda Meschke, the woman who had become the driving force behind the Madelia Model, and I’d left my house dressed for the occasion, wearing the tidy business-casual wear of a young reporter. Those dust clouds knocked me down a peg. By the time I’d walked two blocks through downtown Madelia, my skin was turning pink, and my hair was a winded red whirl glued into place under a layer of grime. Meschke didn’t seem to mind my sorry state. Instead, she just nodded slowly and said, “It’s a little windy out here today.”

At that point, I still didn’t quite understand what I had seen. Dust clouds such as this, I knew, were related to soil erosion, but it wasn’t until I talked to Meschke that I was able to connect the dots between the dust in my hair and the goals of the Madelia Model.

I found out early on in my research that people tended to describe Meschke brain-first. “She really knows her stuff,” they’d tell me. “She’s a very, very smart woman.” They seemed to be a little in awe of her and a little intimidated, as if she were a force of nature—the opposite of a tornado, she blew through town leaving everything more orderly than they it had been before. From the secondhand accounts, I’d expected to meet a big, brassy Delta Burke of a lady. Instead, Meschke turned out to have the quiet, drawling demeanor of the good ol’ gal farmer she had been for 25 years. She was heavyset with short brown hair, and her tropical-print, button-up shirt was the loudest thing about her, but she really does know how to get the job done—whatever the job in question might be. A former county agriculture inspector, she got involved in rural water-quality issues in 1988. Within a decade, she’d completely revamped the way the counties around Madelia did the work of water protection. Pre-Meschke, the county water programs were all very separate from one another, even if they shared the same watershed. She launched a program that treated the Blue Earth River system—one of Minnesota’s dirtiest waterways—as a single unit, helping ideas and money cross county lines. The big-picture approach led to a 9 percent reduction in pollution by 2001.

The cadence of Meschke’s voice plodded along, but her hands were restless—fidgeting with themselves, drawing little circles on her notepad. She dealt in the small, deliberate details that got public works projects accomplished—the boring stuff for which bureaucracy was basically invented. Yet she talked in the language of a rabble-rouser, about tossing out the old ways and taking risks on new ideas. It was this part of Meschke’s personality that led her to see small-scale local energy as a solution, both to the water-quality problems she’d been fighting for decades and to the threat of soil erosion—which had created the dust storms that plagued my trip to Madelia. Meschke thought that local energy could solve both of those issues, because it could give farmers an opportunity to get paid for growing something other than corn.

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