Brenda Smith: 60 miles from nothing, there's innovation

The resilience of Harney County shines in tough times. This is a culture of can do and a piece of the Oregon Way.

Current director of High Desert Partnership, a nonprofit organization in Harney County, Oregon that seeks to find common ground through collaboration.

Thinking on your feet is a necessity of life in rural areas. It’s not so much the tools in your toolbox that matter when you live 60 miles from town but rather the creativity in how you use them.

Need an example? I’ve used horse hoof nippers to cut wire, and turned to baling wire (twine these days) to tie up a bracket on an alternator (which saved me from being stranded on the road). That alternator fix was quite a few years back, but I’ll never forget how good it felt figuring my way out of that roadside problem.

As you likely have heard or know, it’s true that baling twine and duct tape solve a multitude of problems and necessity is the mother of invention or I might say innovation. The reason I tell this story is I believe it's a piece of the rural culture that can promote entrepreneurism. Entrepreneurship is more about how people approach problem solving than it is about having all the pieces in place to start a business in a rural area. Personal traits like about having a bit of courage and recognizing that failure is a lesson can mean as much, if not more than, material resources in the innovation process.

“Innovation, diversity of ideas and people, and new concepts don’t need to be imported to rural communities – they’re already there. Rural entrepreneurs and community leaders have always, by necessity, been innovative,” as Chris Harris of the Kauffman Foundation pointed out in his article, “Stop Trying to Save Rural America.” Channeling Harris’s spirit, I’d like to think the resourcefulness needed when miles of sagebrush stand between you and the nearest store creates that deep down sense of innovation. It’s that inherent innovation required to get by in rural areas that leads me to think of ranchers and farmers as the original entrepreneurs.

Rural entrepreneurs are having an impact on their rural Oregon communities. Harney County, for example, is benefiting from a sustained initiative to support local microenterprises: the BizHarney Opportunity Collaborative supported by High Desert Partnership.

Formed in 2017, the collaborative exists to "help rural Harney County businesses start, grow, and succeed while also helping to build a thriving business environment.” The Collaborative has made one thing clear: an entrepreneurial spirit pervades Harney County—we just need to nurture it and support it.

Thankfully, supporting our businesses is just one of the things that Harney County does well. Case in point, this past Fall with the pandemic continuing to wreak havoc on our rural economy, the need to support and lift up our businesses drove a search for and implementation of a community directed gift card program—ShopHarney. Each card purchased keeps local dollars in the local community, while also highlighting and supporting some of the wonderful businesses Harney County has to offer.

We like to think this is one part of spreading our spirit of entrepreneurism and culture of innovation. In the just over three months the ShopHarney program has been up and running, more than 75 local businesses accept the card and $43,000 of cards have been purchased. 

The resilience of Harney County shines in tough times. We just keep keepin’ on and work together to help out. This is a culture of can do and a piece of the Oregon Way; it is and certainly will continue to be a part of Harney County.

So, who is innovating in your community and how you help celebrate and spread the sources of that innovation?

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