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Employee-Powered Idea Blooms at ECE

Grass near the pond at East Central Energy (ECE) Headquarters in Braham will soon turn from emerald green to brown. After months of research and planning, ECE has teamed up with MN Native Landscapes of Otsego, MN, to transform roughly two and a half acres of turf grass into pollinator habitat. Another habitat is planned near the Superior Operations Center.

Both projects started as the seed of an idea in 2018, when Member Account Analyst Alicia Kroll learned how ECE utilizes pollinator-friendly practices in its vegetation management system. Kroll soon discovered that other electric cooperatives were modifying their lush, green lawns for a higher purpose: providing much-needed habitat for pollinators.

“I’m lucky to work for a company that encourages employee engagement,” says Kroll. Knowing that nothing was out of bounds, she went straight to the top and emailed President/CEO Steve Shurts with the hope of gaining his support.

“I immediately agreed with her notion that ECE could do more for our pollinators,” Shurts recounts. He gave Kroll the go-ahead to form a committee to begin researching potential sites.

With a degree in zoology and many years in animal rescue, Kroll now spends her days ensuring billing accuracy while working on the pollinator project, which includes a blog on the co-op’s website. “ECE has provided me an opportunity to use my knowledge and passion in a new way,” Kroll says. “It’s always been important to me that I make a positive impact in the world, however big or small.”

Pollinators are responsible for creating one out of every three bites of food. Yet pollinator populations are declining. Monarch butterfly numbers have fallen by more than 80% in the last two decades, with habitat loss as the key driver. Milkweed, the host plant for monarchs, is often seen as a weed and eliminated.

“It’s amazing what can happen with the right support,” states Kroll. “Great River Energy, our power supplier, has their own pollinator habitat and they’ve given us great advice.”

To create a diverse and well-maintained pollinator habitat, EPA-certified herbicides will be applied to existing vegetation and the site will be tilled or burned. A custom mix of native seeds will then be planted.

“Braham has a tall grass ordinance that prohibits the growth of vegetation over six inches in height, so we needed to submit an Interim Use Permit,” explains Kroll. The permit was approved via unanimous vote on June 4 and work has already begun. Because native plants have such deep roots, it can take up to three years for the garden to fully establish.

“Alicia is a great example of how our employees are living the cooperative difference,” says Shurts. “Her interest and passion are literally changing the landscape of ECE—and hopefully the fate of our pollinators.”

Steve Shurts and Alicia Kroll
Steve Shurts and Alicia Kroll at ECE Braham Headquarters site

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