About This Newsletter What is an Ecovillage? Ecovillage Resources Diana Leafe Christian, Editor

Ecovillage Tour: Our College Class Visits Dancing Rabbit

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By Diana Leafe Christian

(May/June 2010)

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.

The students and I pushing our school bus out of a ditch!
The students knew quite a lot about the subject already. For four hours a day for two weeks we’d explored ecovillage basics — community mission and purpose, consensus decision-making, membership policies, finding and financing land. We even had a visit to our class from Dancing Rabbit co-founder Tony Sirna, who described how the community got started in 1993. So the students were ready to appreciate the place when we clambered out of our bright green school bus that sunny late-winter morning.

One of our tour guides was Brian, far right. A wind generator rises behind the buildings in the distance.
Currently about 60 residents — full members, provisional members, and work exchangers — share Dancing Rabbit's 280-acre property. Their mission: “To create a society, the size of a small town or village, made up of individuals and communities of various sizes and social structures, which allows and encourages its members to live sustainably. To encourage this sustainable society to grow to have the size and recognition necessary to have an influence on the global community by example, education, and research.” By “sustainably” they mean that resources are consumed no faster on their property than they can be replenished naturally, and their way of life can continue indefinitely without degrading the property’s internal resource base, the rest of its ecosystem, or ecosystems outside the property, and without reducing their simple standard of living. They hope to become a village of from 500 to 1000 residents.

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.

Our other tour guide, Jennifer, showed us the site of the future village center.
Jennifer explained that Dancing Rabbit only plans to develop a small portion of their land for residences or agriculture. By clustering buildings and integrating gardens and orchards within the village, they hope to minimize their ecological footprint and conserve the prairie. In their various small neighborhoods the cabins face each other to create plaza-like outdoor rooms, with enough space for each household to have small gardens. Although they have a half-acre community orchard, and a new one-acre food/fuel/medicine forest garden project (and a private, individually owned half-acre orchard, and another member’s half-acre vineyard), Dancing Rabbit isn’t focusing on many larger-scale agriculture projects yet because their current goal is getting enough homes built.

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.

One of our students, Alex, especially liked the beautifully painted school bus-turned-ecovillage home.
The community’s 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.

We also visited strawbale homes still under construction.
(The Rabbits formerly made biodiesel fuel, and converted one vehicle to run on used fryer oil for warmer months. Unfortunately fryer oil doesn't work well as vehicle fuel when it’s cold, making it difficult to use in the winter. So the community has sometimes used petro-diesel as vehicle fuel in winter months, and is currently discussing ways to solve this problem, including possibly getting a large wind generator to power electric or hybrid-electric vehicles.)

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.

Dancing Rabbit's habitat is tallgrass prairie. It looks different in the summer!
Like most ecovillages, Dancing Rabbit (which its members call “DR”), makes decisions by consensus. They decide policy issues in a weekly business meeting, and about 40 different committees carry out tasks. Recently, however, they’ve begun talking about possible modifications or alternatives to consensus, wondering if it might become too unwieldy when they grow to 100 people or more.

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.

Dancing Rabbit is completely off the grid, with PV systems and two wind generators.
DR manages its money, property ownership, and activities through two nonprofits and two co-ops.

(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.

DR's Community Building in the summer. This is where we had lunch and learned about DR's governance and finances.
(4) Dancing Rabbit Vehicle Co-op. This co-op funds and manages the car co-op, which almost every DR 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.

Dancing Rabbit members make decisions by consensus, holding meetings in their community builiding.
One member works as the executive director of a non-profit. Thirteen members work in the construction trades, and several are creating a new natural building business. Two members work for the nonprofit Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC), which has offices nearby. One member provides massages. One woman works locally as a midwife. A member who planted the half-acre vineyard is developing a winery. Four others have gone in together on Milkweed Mercantile, the B&B/retail store/seminar center. However, both businesses are still in the start-up phase. Besides the people whose incomes are derived from social enterprises or sole proprietorships, at least three members support themselves mostly from inheritance (and at least two others have significantly relied on inheritance to acquire buildings). Another two support themselves through savings they brought with them to the community. And at least three support themselves entirely, or almost entirely, through disability income. And at least three receive Food Stamps.

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.

DR members are reseeding the tallgrass prairie as part of their Earth-restoration process.
An ELM has the same purchasing power as $1, and each person is extended 280 ELMS upon joining. They can use ELMS to pay lease fees, annual community dues, and for meals, car use, laundry, showers, telephone, etc. (through the co-ops). A DR member can have a positive balance because they’ve received more ELMS than they’ve spent, or — rarely — a negative balance because they’ve spent more than they’ve received. Most people keep a positive average balance. If anyone got more than 280 ELMS ($280) in debt, the ELMS committee would ask them to get caught up, but so far this hasn’t happened.

“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!

Diana Leafe Christian, editor of this newsletter, lives at Earthaven Ecovillage in North Carolina, US.

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    CRSP; ENA; Urban Ecovillage Network; Los Angeles Eco-Village, US
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    Permaculture designer; publisher, Permaculture Activist, US
  • Albert Bates,
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    Consensus & Facilitation Trainer; Cofounder, Walnut St. Co-op, US
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    Ecotopia, Ecotopia Emerging; US
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    GEN; ENA; Huehyecoyotl Ecovillage, Mexico
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    Cohousing Association of the US; Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC); Berkeley Cohousing, US
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    Peace journalist & writer, Peace Research Center & Ecovillage, Tamera, Portugal
  • Chuck Durrett,
    Cohousing; Senior Cohousing; Architect, The Cohousing Company; Nevada City Cohousing, US
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    Ecovillages; Findhorn Foundation, Scotland
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    Yarrow Ecovillage, Canada
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    Guidestone Consulting Group, US
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    Earthaven Ecovillage, US
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    Editor, Permaculture Activist, US
  • Hildur Jackson,
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  • Kosha Joubert,
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  • Elana Kann & Bill Flemming,
    Co-developers, Westwood Cohousing, US
  • Joseph F. Kennedy,
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  • Fred & Nancy Lanphear,
    Northwest Intentional Communities Association (NICA); Songaia Cohousing, US
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    GEN's EDE Program; Village Design Institute, US
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    Canadian Cohousing Network; Cranberry Commons Cohousing, Canada
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    Architect/Developer, Cohousing Partners, Inc.; Co-author, Cohousing; Nevada City Cohousing, US
  • Dr. Bill Metcalf,
    Findhorn Book of Community Living; Professor, Environmental Sociology, Griffith University, Australia
  • Ina Meyer-Stoll,
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  • Tim Miller,
    The 60s Communes; Professor of Religion, University of Kansas, US
  • Hank Obermayer,
    Mariposa Grove Cohousing, US
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    Professor of Economics, Chuo University; GEPA (Global Environment Project in Asia), Japan
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  • Michael Rios,
    Network for a New Culture Summer Camp East; Chrysalis, Washington DC, US
  • Jim Shenck,
    Enright Ridge Ecovillage, US
  • Nicola Shirley,
    The Source Farm Ecovillage, Jamaica
  • Tony Sirna,
    Communities Directory; Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, US
  • Jan Steinman,
    EcoReality Co-op, Canada
  • Liz Walker,
    GEN's EDE Program; Ecovillage at Ithaca; EcoVillage at Ithaca, US