Ecovillage Tour: Our College Class Visits Dancing Rabbit
By Diana Leafe Christian
In early March of this year, twelve college students and I traveled an hour and a half through the snowy American Midwest to visit Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Missouri. (If you’re not familiar with Dancing Rabbit, please check out their website or see this good, four-minute video about them.)
The college students were the first in a brand-new course on ecovillages, one of several month-long intensives offered by the new Sustainable Living Department at Maharishi University of Management (MUM), in Fairfield, Iowa. I was the instructor.
Our guides, Jennifer Martin and Brian Toomey, showed us around, accompanied by two romping dogs. We toured the insides of various straw-bale and cob buildings under construction, and Milkweed Mercantile, a new two-story strawbale designed to serve visitors as a café, retail store, seminar center, and B&B with four guest rooms. We saw a school bus renovated as a passive-solar dwelling and painted beautifully.
That morning we were surrounded by a landscape of white, brown, and blue. Snowy fields dazzled in the sun, contrasting with brown trunks and branches of bare trees and two tall wind generators outlined against the bright blue sky. The small strawbale cabins were either white, with white lime-plastered exteriors, or brown, with facades of recycled lumber. Most cabins had white-metal roofs (using white to reflect away heat in summer), and most were topped with deep cobalt-blue PV panels. It was lovely.
At noon we gathered inside the large, peach-colored community building for lunch and to learn more about Dancing Rabbit's ecological practices, governance, and economics.
Ecological Covenants guide their lifestyle choices. Thus Dancing Rabbit is 100 percent off the grid, powered by individual photovoltaic systems and two wind generators. Residents don't use fossil fuels for space-heating and cooling, refrigeration, heating domestic water, or powering vehicles. Instead they heat their buildings with passive solar design and wood-heat backup, run refrigerators on electricity they generate onsite, and heat their water with solar hot water heaters and/or wood heat.
No one owns a private car or stores their car on the property (although new members have a six-month grace period which sometimes gets extended). Instead, everyone who chooses to drive is part of the Dancing Rabbit Vehicle Co-op, where people sign up to use one of the community’s three vehicles, at 60 cents a mile. They almost always carpool so that several people share the trip. Exceptions arise though, when the co-op cars are already full or there’s an emergency, and then a new member’s private car may be used.
All lumber used for building must be re-used or from the bioregion. Since this part of Missouri doesn’t have much of a lumber industry, this means that most of the lumber used for buildings is recycled lumber. Sometimes the Rabbits get the OK to dismantle old barns and other structures in the area and use that wood.
They also use OCIA (Organic Crop Improvement Association) standards for gardening and landscaping, and agriculture (although sometimes people use seeds or plant starts that are not organic). They don't use commercial fertilizer or biocides and don't even store any on the property. They use composting toilets and recycle humanure.
For these reasons, I believe Dancing Rabbit may be the most ecologically rigorous of any ecovillage in the U.S.
DR is an independent-income community, which means each member earns their own living and saves or spends their money as they wish, although it has one income-sharing sub-community, Skyhouse, with four members.
Unlike most independent-income communities in North America, there is no joining fee. Dancing Rabbit receives an annual payment of $12,000 from the US Department of Agriculture, because 180 of its acres are in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays landowners to let overworked farmland land lie fallow and recover from decades of nutrient-depleting unsustainable farming practices. This annual payment and monthly lease fees from members provide the income to pay off their land and develop physical infrastructure — income which most communities raise through joining fees.
(1) Dancing Rabbit, Inc. is a 501(c)3 nonprofit that offers educational outreach through the visitor program, onsite workshops, a website, and a newsletter. It’s funded by workshop fees, donations, and a membership fee — two percent of the annual income of all members.
(2) Dancing Rabbit Land Trust is an affiliated 501(c)2 nonprofit that owns the land. The Land Trust receives income from the CRP program and members’ lease fees. A residential lease, for example, is one cent per square foot per month: a typical residential area is 50 feet by 50 feet, which brings in $300 a year per member in lease fees. Garden leases are one-tenth of a cent per square foot per month. Agricultural leases are one-one-hundredth of a cent per square foot per month. The Land Trust pays off land-purchase loans, builds roads and common buildings, and pays part of the cost of liability insurance (the other part is paid by the Educational Association).
(3) Cattail Commons Co-op (CCC), comprised of all members, repairs and maintains the property, community-owned buildings, and other community-owned equipment. (The wind generators are privately owned.) The CCC also manages smaller co-ops which fund and manage shared services — the shower co-op, the telephone co-op, the Internet co-op, and the humanure co-op — with only those members who want these services participating in these smaller co-ops. The community also has two dining co-ops for people who want to purchase food, prepare meals, and eat together. Cattail Commons Co-op is funded by member dues, which vary in amount depending upon which other co-ops the member participates in.
I was especially interested in onsite social enterprises. In the case of an ecovillage, this means a business or nonprofit that provides needed goods and services as well as jobs to help create a village-scale economy. While Dancing Rabbit’s co-ops provide important onsite services, local jobs opportunities are almost nonexistent in this rural dairy and soybean farming area, so DR members must earn a living onsite. Expenses are kept low, ranging from $3,000 -$15,000 per person per year, by providing for needs directly (for example, growing some food onsite) and by minimizing consumption. Of their roughly 35 adult members, 8 earn most of their income through tech and service-based telecommuting jobs (web designers software engineers, a graphic designer, a line editor/copyeditor, and 4 or 5 others earn part of their incomes this way. One member is a fundraiser for a nonprofit and travels out of state several months a year. Another member, a community consensus and facilitation trainer, also frequently works out of state.
Besides Dancing Rabbit’s rigorous Ecological Guidelines and effective car co-op, perhaps the most impressive aspect of the community is their ELMS local currency system. It doesn’t involve paper scrip, but is a LETS-like method (“Local Exchange Trading System”) in which members and residents extend and receive community-currency credits called "ELMS” and keep track of their positive and negative balances online.
“We’re the only intentional community I know of where people can pay for all their daily living expenses with locally currency,” said Nathan Brown, the DR member who designed the system. “And to my knowledge, we are the only local currency in the world in which this can be done.” We were impressed! (An article on Dancing Rabbit’s ELMS local currency system will appear in a future issue.)
In mid-afternoon we piled back into our small green bus. As you can imagine, our class field trip to Dancing Rabbit was the highlight of the ecovillage course!
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- Our Whirlwind Aussie Road Trip, Part I — May '09
- Svanholm Goes Carbon Neutral — Nov-Dec '09
- What We Can Learn from Ecovillage Sieben Linden — Jan '09
- Whole Village Moves Ahead — Oct '08
- What Visiting Huehuecoyotl Taught Me — May '09
- Will Earthaven Become a “Magical Appalachian Machu Picchu”? — May '09
- “In Grave Danger of Falling Fruit” — Jan '09