Alltech’s business strategy is to embrace change, not fight it

May 20, 2014

Alltech1Alltech founder and president Pearse Lyons, left, presented the Humanitarian Award to Lopez Lomong at Alltech’s symposium Monday. Lomong was kidnapped by soldiers in his native Sudan at 6, but eventually became two-time Olympic runner. Photo by Tom Eblen

Nobody likes change — it’s human nature. Kentuckians seem especially averse to it, which is ironic considering our heritage.

Two centuries ago, the pioneering risk-takers who came to Kentucky seeking a better life were on the cutting edge of change in America. But their adventurous spirit was soon replaced by a cautious, conservative mindset.

Too many Kentuckians fear innovation, mistrust higher education, deny science and instinctively oppose new ideas and ways of doing things. That is one reason I attend the Alltech Symposium each May. It is always an eye-opener.

The 30th annual Alltech Symposium, which began Sunday and ends Wednesday, brought 1,700 people from 59 nations to Lexington Center. The theme was “What If?”

The discussions — simultaneously translated into four languages — revolved around a question no less audacious than how a world of 9 billion people will feed itself in the year 2050.

Alltech began in a suburban Lexington garage in 1980. The privately held animal nutrition, food and beverage company now has operations in 128 countries and annual sales of $1 billion. The company’s energetic founder and president, Pearse Lyons, who turns 70 in August, has set a sales goal of $4 billion through growth and acquisition during his lifetime.

Lyons is not a native Kentuckian, but perhaps the next closest thing: an Irishman. Alltech has been wildly successful because Lyons and his wife, Deirdre, have used their complementary skills to create a company that tries to embody the strengths and avoid the shortcomings of both cultures.

“Sometimes I think we’re our own worst enemies,” Lyons said, noting that both Kentuckians and the Irish have often been stereotyped as backward.

Alltech’s often-contrarian approach to business is about problem-solving through science, education, innovation, sustainability, creativity, challenging boundaries and anticipating global needs. “We’ve built a business by walking the road less traveled,” he said.

Alltech’s science is based on natural ingredients and processes. That has been controversial, because many corporate agriculture models rely heavily on artificial chemicals. But the strategy has become a plus with consumers who worry about food safety and nutrition.

Lyons said Alltech’s stand against the routine use of antibiotics in food animals has cost it customers, but is simply common sense in light of scientific evidence of the problems caused by antibiotic abuse. “My mum used to say common sense is the rarest sense out there,” he said.

Lyons is equally forthright about the scientific evidence of man’s role in climate change. “The carbon footprint issue is with us to stay,” he said. “Those of us who embrace it will be successful.”

Because he spends so much time traveling around the world, Lyons brings valuable international perspectives to an often insular state. That has made him more open to new ideas, and, he thinks, more cognizant than most Kentuckians of the state’s unrealized economic potential.

Kentucky is already a globally recognized brand, thanks to Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Kentucky Derby and bourbon whiskey. Lyons thinks it is the best state brand in the nation. “The name that resonates, the name that people like, is Kentucky,” he said. “It’s open. It’s warm.”

That has certainly been true for Kentucky Ale, which Alltech began producing in Lexington in 2006 and is now sold in 20 states and four other countries.

Alltech this week unveiled big plans for Eastern Kentucky: a brewery and distillery in Pikeville, whose waste heat and grain byproducts will then be used for raising fish in tanks. Alltech has been studying this at its Nicholasville headquarters.

“The question is this: What are we going to do when we can’t get all those fish from the oceans?” he said. “Where poultry is today, many predict the aquaculture industry will be in five, 10, 15 years, and we propose to be right out there.”

Alltech plans to produce trout, chickens and eggs in Eastern Kentucky and brand them to the region. “We don’t need to be in Kentucky,” Lyons said, noting that 98 percent of Alltech’s revenues come from outside the state. “But Kentucky’s still a great place to do business.”

Alltech embraces big problems, Lyons said, because the flip side of every problem is a business opportunity for solving it.

“I’m a scientist at the end of the day, and scientists look for solutions,” he said. “If we put our heads in the sand, we’re never going to achieve anything.”

April events look at environmental challenges in different ways

March 16, 2013

You can feel it in the air: Winter’s last gasp is starting to give way to warm sunshine. The Bluegrass countryside is returning to life, raising spirits after months of cold and gray.

Spring reminds us how closely we are tied to nature, despite all of our technology and hubris. Earth doesn’t care about our political ideologies, and it has become less forgiving of our greed and foolishness.

If you are interested in what is happening to the planet, and what can be done about it, mark your calendar for the first week of April. That is when Kentucky hosts a series of lectures and conferences that look at our environmental challenges from different perspectives.

Charles Mann, an award-winning science writer for Atlantic Monthly, Science and Wired magazines, will speak at 7 p.m. on April 2. Mann is author of two best-selling books, 1491 and 1493, which look at what North America was like before Columbus landed and how European settlement began to change it.

1491-by-Charles-MannThe lecture, in Worsham Theatre at the University of Kentucky Student Center, is free and open to the public, but tickets are required. They can be picked up at the Student Center ticket office, room 253, and room 200B of the Kentucky Tobacco Research Development Center, 1401 University Drive.

Mann’s lecture sets the stage for an academic conference April 3-4 about the growing problem of invasive species and how climate change is affecting their spread. Kentucky is increasingly plagued by invasive species, such as bush honeysuckle and Asian carp, that do costly ecological damage.

UK’s Climate Change Group presents a public forum at 7 p.m. on April 4, with three guest speakers discussing global warming from different perspectives. The forum in the UK Student Center ballroom is free and open to the public.

The first speaker is Katherine Hayhoe, a climate scientist, evangelical Christian and author of the book, A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions. She will talk about the faith-based imperative for addressing climate change.

“The reality is that climate change is about thermometers and trend lines, not Republicans or Democrats,” she wrote in a 2010 essay for The Washington Post. “It’s about what has been happening on our planet since the Industrial Revolution, not whether the earth is 6,000 or 4 billion years old. It’s about fundamental science that’s been around for hundreds of years, not specious theories that haven’t a prayer of being proven.”

The second speaker is retired Brig. Gen. Steve M. Anderson, a self-described conservative who will talk about the national security implications of climate change and his belief that the military must develop renewable sources of energy.

The program’s final speaker is Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina and president of the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His talk is called, “Free Enterprise Approaches to Energy Security and Climate Change.”

Inglis served six terms in the U.S. House and had a 93 percent rating from the American Conservative Union until Tea Partiers challenged him in the 2010 primary. The main issues were that he believes the scientific consensus that man’s actions are contributing to climate change, and he backed a market-based plan to reduce carbon emissions.

After being defeated, Inglis had this to say about the GOP and its Tea Party faction: “It’s a dangerous strategy to build conservatism on information and policies that are not credible.”

The three presentations will be live-streamed at

WendellBerryA final conference, which has attracted the most well-known national figures, is sponsored by The Berry Center in New Castle, revisiting Kentucky writer Wendell Berry’s influential 1975 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture.

Tickets are sold out for this conference, which is April 5 at Louisville’s Brown Hotel and April 6 at St. Catharine College near Springfield, but there is a waiting list in case of cancellations. More information:

The Unsetting of America was a collection of essays in which Berry criticized modern industrial agriculture’s damage to land and water, as well as rural communities and economies. This conference will discuss possible remedies. Participants include Berry, journalist Bill Moyers and environmental writers Bill McKibben and Michael Pollan.

As rites of spring go, these discussions could be a good start.

Local food guru Jim Embry a model of activism; UK’s John Stempel on the state of the world

January 18, 2012

As the Unity Breakfast began Monday morning in Heritage Hall, Jim Embry was working the room.

Lean, fit and hard to miss in his colorful clothing and gray dreadlocks, Embry was quickly moving from table to table, handling out leaflets to promote his annual Bluegrass Local Food Summit, March 22 to 24 at Crestwood Christian Church.

Breakfast was followed by inspirational speakers and award presentations. But when Embry’s name was called as one of two Unity Award winners — along with Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the Bluegrass — he was gone. A son accepted the award for him.

“I have to leave by 8:15 to catch a 9 o’clock flight,” Embry had told me as he rushed from table to table, handing out leaflets to the breakfast’s 1,400 attendees. “I’m speaking this afternoon at Yale.”

It was classic Jim Embry. Who has time to rest on laurels when there is a world out there in need of improvement?

Embry, 62, was the featured speaker Monday afternoon in New Haven, Conn., at a master’s tea, sponsored by Yale University’s Pierson College and the Yale Sustainable Food Project.

Jim Embry, left, talks with Richard Knittel of Versailles in October, as they both joined Occupy Wall Street protesters on Main Street in Lexington. Photo by Tom Eblen

Embry now spends most of his time promoting sustainable living and locally grown food. But the Richmond native has been an activist since age 10, when his mother was president of the Covington chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. He grew up attending civil rights events.

As state youth chairman of the NAACP, he helped organize the 1964 March on Frankfort, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Embry went on to become president of the University of Kentucky’s Black Student Union. While he was in college, a summer job in New York City sparked his interest in health and food justice. In 1971, he helped found Lexington’s Good Foods Co-op.

After a four-year stint in Detroit as director of the Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership, Embry returned to Lexington in 2005 and founded the Sustainable Commun ities Network ( He has helped develop more than 30 community gardens and taught school garden workshops for more than 300 teachers.

Embry’s other passions range from the Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice to the Interfaith Alliance and Isaac Murphy Memorial Art Garden. Later this year, he plans to publish his autobiography, Black and Green, and a book of photographs, Through the Lens of a Sacred Earth Activist.

“I come from a long lineage of activists, so I don’t know any better,” he said.

Outlook for 2012

John D. Stempel, retired director of UK’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, doesn’t so much try to improve the world as understand it.

He spent 24 years as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, including a four-year stint in the U.S. embassy in Iran before the 1979 revolution.

Stempel gave his annual State of the World speech to the Lexington Rotary Club earlier this month, saying he expects this year to be even more turbulent than last year. Among his concerns:

■ The likelihood that European debt and American politics will hamper economic recovery.

■ The possibility of cyber attacks on critical U.S. infrastructure. “Our illusion of invincibility serves us poorly,” he said.

■ The potential for an Iranian nuclear crisis, increasing instability in Pakistan and tensions between India and Pakistan.

■ Iraq’s future. “The violent sectarianism the U.S. takeover and occupation provoked has already begun to transform Iraq from a nastily ruled balancer of Iran into a traumatized society under extensive Iranian influence. Not a good trade-off.”

Stempel said he worries about a “crisis of global governance that impedes common-sense solutions to common challenges like climate change, energy and food costs and availability, plus the imbalance between expanding human needs and the limited capacity of the world’s ecosystem to satisfy them.”

The U.S. presidential election is unlikely to help, he said.

“An administration that has delivered on only a precious few of the major promises it made to achieve election in 2008 seeks re-election against an opposition that seems more intent on repealing the 20th century than addressing the real and pressing challenges of the 21st,” Stempel said. “No one expects a serious discussion of the challenges now facing either the United States or the world.”

News events show energy status quo must change

March 20, 2011

If we can learn anything from recent headlines, it is that powering our economy and lifestyle will only get more difficult and expensive, at least in the near future.

Japan is struggling to avert catastrophe from an earthquake-damaged nuclear power plant. The crisis has the rest of the world taking a second look at the safety of its nuclear systems.

Kentucky outlawed nuclear power in 1984 until the federal government came up with a plan for storing spent fuel, which it has yet to do. The ban was prompted by a leaking radioactive dump in Fleming County that took years to contain. The state Senate voted last month to repeal the ban, but the bill died in the House.

Should Kentucky reconsider nuclear power, which now provides 20 percent of this nation’s electricity? Maybe so. We’re in no position to ignore any source of energy. But Japan’s disaster reminds us nuclear power is an imperfect, unforgiving technology that can be dangerous and costly.

I spent the early years of my career covering another example, much closer to home.

The Tennessee Valley Authority, which provides electricity to parts of Kentucky and six other states, narrowly averted a nuclear accident in 1975 when one of its reactors in Alabama caught fire.

By the time I started covering TVA in 1981, the utility was raising electricity rates and writing off billions of dollars in investment because officials realized the agency was building too many nuclear reactors.

Then, in 1985, TVA shut down all its reactors after its own nuclear engineers secretly came to me and other reporters with evidence that raised questions about whether those plants had been built safely. That led to years of repairs and billions in additional cost.

Coal provides half the nation’s power and more than 90 percent of Kentucky’s power. Electricity has been cheap in this state, because many of the health and environmental costs of mining and burning coal have been ignored. That is changing, because it must.

The Environmental Protection Agency last week proposed tighter rules for how much mercury, other toxic substances and particle pollution coal-fired power plants can release into the air. The EPA claims the rules will save 17,000 lives a year, and the $10 billion cost of making plants cleaner would produce $100 billion worth of health and environmental benefits.

Utilities will fight the new rules, just as they fought many previous rules that made coal-fired plants much cleaner and safer. Expect opposition, too, from many politicians, especially those in the pockets of industries that fund their campaigns.

They will say we “can’t afford” to protect public health or the environment, and higher standards will “kill jobs.” Change is inevitable, though, because research shows that pollution and climate change are killing a lot more than jobs.

Many of those same politicians have fought against fuel-economy standards for vehicles, leaving us all the more vulnerable to political instability in the Middle East and rising demand for oil in developing nations such as China and India.

Increasing domestic oil production in ways that harm the environment isn’t the answer, because that would barely make a dent in the price or supply of what is now a globally traded commodity.

So what is the answer? There isn’t one, but many.

We must invest in research and technology to mine, drill and burn coal and oil more cleanly and efficiently. We must incorporate whatever lessons are learned from Japan’s crisis to make nuclear power safer.

We must develop renewable energy sources — solar, wind and biomass — that will be able to sustain civilization long after coal and oil are gone. Government must play a significant role in this research where private industry cannot or will not.

Perhaps more than anything, we must get serious about designing buildings, vehicles and gadgets to use less energy. Conservation isn’t as difficult as many people think. Take, for example, Kentucky’s many new energy-efficient school buildings, including one in Warren County that will generate as much power as it uses.

We have a choice: ignore the headlines and fight inevitable change, or learn from them and get serious about balancing our needs and desires with those of future generations. Anyone who thinks we can maintain our energy status quo is a dim bulb.

Think global, act local with food choices

March 20, 2010

Do you ever worry about where your next meal is coming from? Maybe you should.

I don’t mean how you will pay for it, although that seems to be a concern for more and more people these days.

I mean literally where it’s coming from, what’s in it and whether the food and the methods used to produce it are good for your body, your community and your environment.

Those issues brought more than 100 people to Crestwood Christian Church last Thursday and Friday for the Bluegrass Food Security Summit. Organized by community activist and local dynamo Jim Embry, the summit was a place for farmers, educators, social workers, government bureaucrats and even clergy to talk about how to make this region better-fed and more environmentally sustainable.

The scientific and economic revolution that reshaped American agriculture after World War II did a lot of good, and a lot of bad. Many family farms were replaced by industrial agriculture that could produce more food cheaper and more efficiently. But cheap food has had other costs.

Pesticides and herbicides have contaminated soil and water. Overuse of antibiotics in animals has led to drug-resistant infections in people. Industrially processed food and fast-food culture have caused a decline in nutrition among many segments of the population.

Cheaply produced meat, vegetables and fruits are trucked great distances to market — something that will be less possible as oil supplies diminish and prices rise.

Controlled-feeding animal operations — such as the hog and chicken farms that plague many parts of rural Kentucky — produce huge amounts of waste that pollute groundwater and create an unbearable stench for miles around.

Things are changing, though, as more people seek healthier and tastier foods. Kentucky is making more progress than many states, thanks to wise investment of tobacco settlement money in agricultural diversification. And the family farm is being re-invented in many parts of the state, thanks to groups like the Community Farm Alliance, which is celebrating its 25th year.

Kentucky has seen tremendous growth recently in organic and naturally produced meat and produce, much of it on small, family-owned farms that sell through farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) plans. The University of Kentucky now even has an organic farm and CSA operation — and a degree program in sustainable agriculture.

Co-op groceries that focus on fresh, locally produced food are becoming more popular. Lexington’s Good Foods Co-op on Southland Drive now has nearly 5,200 owners.

There also has been a lot of emphasis on starting school and neighborhood gardens, a focus of such organizations as Seedleaf ( and Embry’s Sustainable Communities Network (

In Lexington, gardens have been created in many neighborhoods, at Bryan Station High School, the Chrysalis House program for women with substance-abuse problems, the Bluegrass Domestic Violence Program and Employment Solutions, a company that provides vocational training to unemployed people.

Outside Lexington, many organizations are working to promote local food alternatives and environmental stewardship. One notable example is Sustainable Berea (, which offers workshops in gardening and related skills and helps people in the Madison County community plant berry bushes and fruit trees.

“It’s an issue of stewardship,” the Rev. Kory Wilcoxson, senior pastor at Crestwood Christian, said at the summit’s opening session. “When you read the Bible, the world was started in a garden.”

Many of Lexington’s community gardens have a strong emphasis on participation by children and youth, and there were many of them at the summit’s opening dinner and program Thursday evening. Embry believes that children are the key to steering society back to the local food and sustainability ethics that were the norm in America until the late 20th century.

“The great work of this century is to restore the sacredness of the earth and its connections to ourselves,” Embry said. “It means we have to find new ways of doing things. We don’t want our children to inherit the problems we created.”

Good design can make cities more sustainable

December 7, 2009

The most overused word in the English language these days may be sustainability.

Not that I’m complaining.

It will be a key word in Copenhagen this week, where world leaders are gathering to try to figure out ways to cope with climate change. And it comes up again and again as businesses try to figure out what kind of economy will emerge from this ugly recession.

People seem to realize that the future will be a lot different than the past — or at least different than the consumption binge that America has been on since the end of World War II. That just wasn’t sustainable.

Sustainability is usually defined as the ability to meet the needs of the present without jeopardizing future generations’ ability to meet their needs.

Facing up to those issues could be good for the country, and good for business. It will force companies and industries to think more about long-term value, and not just short-term profit. And it will emphasize the need for good planning, good design, creativity and innovation.

For example, everyone knows that crime is bad for society. But did you ever stop to think that it’s also bad for the environment? I didn’t, until I attended the Sustainable Communities Conference last week in Lexington.

The conference was put on by the UK College of Design, Eastern Kentucky University’s Center for Crime and the Built Environment, the Lexington Division of Police and the London Metropolitan Police (from that other UK across the pond).

Calvin Beckford of Britain’s Association of Chief Police Officers said London Metropolitan Police officers drive 66 million miles a year patrolling that city. Goods stolen and property damaged by crime must be replaced. And when crime makes people feel so unsafe in their neighborhood they want to move, that contributes to petroleum use and suburban sprawl.

Beckford said researchers determined that, all told, crime each year contributes about 13 million tons of carbon to the United Kingdom’s environment.

He heads an effort called Security Secured by Design that seeks to make British society safer, and its environment greener, by using good design principles to reduce crime. That means everything from more secure doors and windows to better design for neighborhoods to discourage crime before it occurs.

The conference included a discussion about development projects that are planned near the Red Mile that could bring much-needed revitalization to Lexington’s South Broadway corridor. But when some conference participants looked at those plans, they also saw the potential for trouble.

That’s because the developments have characteristics that researchers say can lead to crime and urban decay if they are not carefully designed and managed.

Residents in those developments would be renters and mostly students — people of similar ages and schedules that would leave the neighborhood transitory and lightly populated during many times of the day and months of the year.

“This would not be a place where anyone living in it has a stake in it or any particular reason to look out for others living there,” said UK architecture professor Richard Levine.

All of those issues are worth discussing now, before construction begins, so plans can be improved to prevent crime and decay, conference participants said.

Of course, these developments will serve a specific niche. But what makes average neighborhoods both socially and environmentally sustainable is that they’re places where diverse groups of people want to live and stay — rather than move away from to something newer, nicer and safer.

Michael Speaks, the dean of UK’s College of Design, said good design will be key to social, environmental and economic sustainability.

“Design has to be a more expansive practice than problem-solving,” Speaks said. “It must be about looking at situations and speculating about what might be. It means solving problems before they exist.”

Tall flowers, big vegetables and local food

July 24, 2009

Cheyenne Olson of Berea recently sent me this photo of a giant sunflower in her garden. She said she has no idea how it got that big, but notes that it falls a bit short of the world record, a 25-foot sunflower grown in Norway in 1986.

If you want to ask Olson about her sunflower, she’ll be at the Third Annual 100-mile Potluck and Auction at Berea Community School on Sunday from 5:30-7:30 p.m. The event is sponsored by Sustainable Berea and the Berea Farmers Market.

Admission to the potluck is free, but bring a dish made with ingredients produced within 100 miles of Berea. Also, bring the recipe for inclusion in a cookbook of recipes from the first three annual potlucks that will be published in October.

The auction includes a variety of items related to local food. And it features seven of the ever-popular rain barrels painted by Berea-area artists. The auction benefits Sustainable Berea, an non-profit environmental organization. An auction booklet is on the group’s Web site.

Tall flowers, giant produce and big fish have long been a photographic staple of local newspapers. So, in that spirit, email me a photo of your outstanding specimen from this summer and I’ll post it on my blog. (No PhotoShop creations or wide-angle lens distortions, please. I can tell.)

Planning an incubator for social entrepreneurs

July 18, 2009

It is a tried-and-true model: an “incubator” building with shared office space that cuts overhead costs and provides a creative community where business entrepreneurs can learn from and be inspired by each other.

Could the same work for social entrepreneurs?

In fact, it works quite well in many cities.

The Kentucky Conference for Community and Justice wants to create such a place in Lexington.

Within five years, the KCCJ hopes to have perhaps 20,000 square feet of shared work and meeting space near downtown for emerging non-profit organizations and entrepreneurs interested in making the world a better place.

The organization has a non-binding letter of intent to put the facility in the Old Pepper warehouse, a cavernous building on Manchester Street that is planned as a focal point of the Lexington Distillery District.

“When people come together, you have the space between where so much can happen,” said KCCJ Chair Shannon Stuart-Smith.

KCCJ has been developing the idea for two years in cooperation with other local groups. But the effort was jump-started late last month when a delegation visited the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto, Ontario, one of North America’s most successful social incubators.

Located in a renovated industrial building, the Toronto center rents desks, telephones, printers, Internet connections and other modern necessities to social-oriented entrepreneurs, companies and non-profits that have fewer than five workers.

The center also fosters an atmosphere — both physical and psychological — that encourages networking, brainstorming and collaboration. That includes everything from informal conversations between desks to planned events, such as twice-weekly “salad club” meals.

That atmosphere is what KCCJ hopes to replicate in Lexington.

“The tenants didn’t think of themselves as tenants; they thought of themselves as partners in the program,” said jeweler Joe Rosenberg, a KCCJ board member. “What we’re hoping to do is take what they’ve learned and build on it.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that once you put this together, you’ll fill it up,” Rosenberg said.

Debra Hensley, an insurance agent and former Urban County Council member who has been working on the idea for several years, estimates there are 100 fledgling organizations and entrepreneurs around Lexington whose mission involves social and environmental issues. Many work out of their homes, or in isolated offices.

“Within 10 minutes, I thought, this is what I’m looking for,” said Jason Delambre, a young Lexington-based sustainable energy consultant. who went with the group to Toronto.

KCCJ, which started as a chapter of the old National Conference of Christians and Jews, has worked for decades to fight discrimination and promote human equality and inclusiveness. The organization sees creation of a social incubator as perhaps the best way it can contribute to future progress in Kentucky.

The next step involves figuring out how to raise $1 million to $5 million to build the space and develop a business model to sustain it, Hensley said. Similar centers in other cities have a variety of financial models, depending on local circumstances.

“We’re making a tremendous leap with this project,” said longtime member Marilyn Moosnick.

But then, the work of the Kentucky Conference for Community and Justice has always involved making tremendous leaps. Perhaps that’s why it has been able to do so much good.

Biking to Washington to speak up for the planet

July 14, 2009

How’s this for a summer adventure: Dozens of young people are riding bicycles across the country and meeting in Washington. There, they plan to lobby their members of Congress and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on climate-change and environmental sustainability issues, such as bicycle transportation.

Six of the travelers, ages 16-21, arrived in Lexington from Shelbyville on Monday afternoon. They had started in Pueblo, Colo., a month ago, averaging about 50 miles a day with all of their gear loaded on their bikes.

The trip is called The Trek to Reenergize America,, and this group is chronicling its trip on its own Web site,

“We’re excited to be here,” said Remy Franklin, 18, of Taos, N.M., who will be starting Dartmouth College as a freshman in the fall.

Franklin and his five companions were camping Monday night in the Southland neighborhood, in the yard of Tim Buckingham, a staff member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and a member of Lexington’s Bike Polo league. Buckingham invited some of his cycling friends over and put on a cookout for the visitors.

The travelers planned to meet up with other groups Saturday in Charleston, W.Va., and together make their way to Washington by July 26.

Franklin said the group planned many of its overnight camping stops, but not all of them. “A number of times, we’ve rolled into towns and just met people,” he said. “We’ve been pretty well taken care of. Everyone has been so friendly when they find out what we’re doing.”

The group found itself in Louisville last weekend during the annual Forecastle Festival, which featured Widespread Panic, The Black Crowes and other musicians interested in environmental activism. The travelers didn’t know about the festival, but a Louisville host called the promoter, who gave them free tickets.

“People are so generous to us,”  said Lucy Richards, 20, of Durango, Colo., who will be a freshman at Stanford University in the fall. “We meet tons of people every day and tell them about what we’re doing. There’s so much interest in the environment and climate change.”

Travelers Lucy Richards and Remy Franklin do a video interview with Shane Tedder, sustainability coordinator at the University of Kentucky. At right is Brad Flowers of Lexington. Photo by Tom Eblen

Travelers Lucy Richards and Remy Franklin do a video interview with Shane Tedder, sustainability coordinator at the University of Kentucky. At right is Brad Flowers of Lexington.

Vancouver seminar brings out Lexington issues

May 30, 2009

It takes a pretty good seminar to keep me inside on a warm, sunny Saturday when I could be out biking. But Planning for Livability and Sustainability: Lessons of the Vancouver Achievement for Lexington and the Bluegrass was fascinating.

The seminar today at the University of Kentucky was organized by UK professors Ernest Yanarella and Richard Levine. It was a followup to a similar seminar at the Kentucky Horse Park in 2007.

About 40 people attended, including Vice Mayor Jim Gray, Urban County Council member Diane Lawless and David Mohney, chairman of the Downtown Development Authority. I wish some others from council, the city planning staff and Commerce Lexington whose name tags I saw on the registration table had been able to come.

Ian Smith, Vancouver’s former senior planner and now project director for the 2010 Olympic Village, gave a terrific presentation about how his city has in just the past two or three decades transformed itself by bringing many segments of the community together around the goals of making Vancouver a model for urban livability and environmental sustainability.

Early next week, I’ll write more about that, as well as about the presentation by Mark Roseland, director of the Centre for Sustainable Community Development at Simon Fraser University near Vancouver. He talked about what that university is doing, and the role universities can play in helping a city and region improve its environment and economy.

But here was an interesting sidebar from today’s session:

Gray, who has been critical of the Downtown Development Authority for supporting the secretive development of the controversial CentrePointe project, said during a discussion that Lexington’s council members and the mayor need more help and leadership from senior planning staff members to make good policy decisions.

“We don’t have the level of competence that our city deserves in these roles,” Gray said. He added that Lexington government needs a change of political culture to allow senior staff members to feel empowered to seek out innovative ideas and help lead policymakers and the public toward good solutions.

That brought a sharp response from Mohney, who in addition to being the DDA chairman is a UK College of Design professor and former dean who has worked for years to involve students in helping Lexington do a better job of urban planning.

“It’s a tough town to make this work,” Mohney said. “It’s going to take time.” (quote corrected from initial post)

Lawless jumped in, complaining that the city’s bureaucracy is too fragmented. “It’s often like a shotgun, with each pellet being powered by a different division,” she said. “We need an urban planner who has that over-arching vision.”

Lawless said the result is a slow decision-making process where each interest group works with a different part of city government, but there’s too little coordination, leadership or vision. To help with that, she is pushing to have 16 recommendations from the lengthy Downtown Master Plan process finally adopted into  law.

Mohney noted that Lexington was at the forefront of American urban planning in 1958 when it created a growth boundary to protect Bluegrass horse farms. “The problem is we did nothing after that to redefine our growth strategy,” he said.

Lawless said this is a good time to do that, noting that the current mayor and council seem to have the political will to address tough, long-neglected growth issues. “The only way it’s going to happen is for us to roll up our sleeves and do something about it,” she said. “Now is the time.”

Soon, it was time for Roseland to begin his presentation. But the discussion continued for a few minutes on Twitter, with Gray, Mohney and Lawless — along with me and local bloggers Eric Patrick Marr and Taylor Shelton — typing away on their BlackBerrys.

Thanks to that social media platform, several hundred people could follow that conversation. It even prompted one of them — Rob Morris, owner of Lowell’s Toyota repair shop downtown and a budding blogger — to leave work and come over to listen to the rest of the seminar.

Berea is Kentucky’s first Transition Town

March 10, 2009

BEREA — What if the energy supplies, food systems and other foundations of our modern economy and lifestyle suddenly changed? How would your community cope?

It’s a notion more of us have been thinking about during the past year. We saw gasoline spike to $4 a gallon last summer, then watched our consumption-driven economy slide into a deep recession.

Berea is one of nearly 150 communities around the world participating in a project called Transition Town. It is a citizen-driven effort to develop local strategies for coping with inevitable change in energy supplies and economic conditions that are no longer sustainable or good for the planet.

The Transition Town movement was started in 2004 by Ron Hopkins, an environmental educator in Totnes, England. Most Transition Towns are in the United Kingdom and Ireland, although the movement has spread to every inhabited continent except Africa. In addition to Berea, 17 other U.S. communities have signed on, including Los Angeles, Denver and Boulder, Colo.

“The next 20 years are going to be completely unlike the last 20 years,” predicted Richard Olson, director of Sustainable and Environmental Studies at Berea College and a leader in Berea’s Transition Town effort. “But what they are largely depends on the actions we take.”

Here’s why things will be different: The world’s population of 6.7 billion will grow by nearly one-third over the next 40 years amid increasing worldwide demand for dwindling supplies of fossil fuels. Fisheries are diminishing, as are forests and fresh water supplies. Climate patterns are rapidly shifting.

Decades-old economic structures, lifestyles and food-supply systems based on an endless supply of cheap oil, natural gas and coal must change. “We’re going to be using less energy — and soon — so why don’t we plan for it?” Olson said.

These changes may seem like doom and gloom, but the solutions to them don’t have to be. In fact, Olson said, smart strategies could create stronger communities, more healthy lifestyles and happier people. “A future with less oil could be better,” he said.

Transition Town Berea, an outgrowth of an organization called Sustainable Berea, has citizens groups looking at ways the Madison County town can be less vulnerable to global changes. It’s a good model other Kentucky towns should consider.

For example, how could a community increase its ability to feed itself if high energy costs made it no longer practical to truck in produce from California, poultry from Georgia and grain from Iowa? How could more support for local farmers result in healthier, better-tasting food that is less vulnerable to contamination like we’ve seen in the recent peanut scare?

Citizen groups in Berea have come up with a variety of ideas, many of which hark back two or three generations to what our conservative ancestors would have considered simple, common-sense steps.

Among them: Teach interested residents to grow gardens, put up food, plant berry bushes and fruit trees. Promote the local farmers market, the use of local food in Berea restaurants and facilitate creation of local certified kitchens and food-processing businesses.

Provide home energy-use audits and low-interest weatherization loans to promote less energy use and save people money. Partner with local builders to promote “green” construction methods and consider future energy needs in zoning and land-use decisions.

Better connect the town with walking paths and bike trails, organize car pools and convert the municipally owned utility to a “smart grid” that could gradually integrate more decentralized sources of renewable energy. Support and promote locally owned businesses, and set up internship programs at them for local high school and college students.

To challenge the community, Transition Town Berea has adopted some ambitious goals around the slogan “50 by 25.” By 2025, the group would like Berea to use half as much electricity, and have half of it come from renewable sources. It also would like to see half of local food grown locally.

More than 60 people jammed into a room at Berea College last month to see Olson’s presentation on Transition Town strategies. It was heartening to Berea Mayor Steve Connelly among them. Too often, political leaders are so focused on the next election that they’re afraid to think long-term.

Connelly said the Transition Town group’s goals for Berea are ambitious, but worth striving for. “You can’t argue that there’s a lot of truth in what’s being said,” he noted afterward. “We have to change. It’s truly in our best interest.”

Change is inevitable. How will your community survive, and thrive?