Profiles

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A Little Slice of Heaven

MREA’s Nick Hylla works to make Central Wisconsin an exemplar in sustainable living

Jeanne Nagle | Profiles | June 23, 2021

Talk about your lifechanging moments. At age 19, when he was an undergraduate studying geology at Northern Illinois University, Nick Hylla (M ’03) underwent emergency surgery to fix a hereditary defect in his large intestine. “The surgery left me with a staph infection, liver abscesses, a lengthy hospital stay, lots of morphine and my last rites,” he recalls.

Hylla eventually recovered, yet he emerged from the experience with a new worldview and an altered sense of his place on the planet. “Basically,” he says, “I felt at the time—and still do today—that each of our decisions contributes to more hell or heaven on earth.”

That belief has led Hylla down a career and life path designed to contribute to the paradisial side of the coin, particularly when it comes to the use and proliferation of sustainable energy.

After graduating from Northern Illinois, Hylla started scouting out schools with graduate programs in natural resources. UWSP stood out amid the pack.

“I visited programs in Washington State and Colorado, but UWSP impressed me with the depth and breadth of courses and with how approachable the professors were,” he says.

Another draw was that, at the time, the university was affiliated with the Peace Corps’ former Masters International (MI) program. (Masters International was retired in 2016 after nearly three decades.) Once accepted into a partner school’s graduate program, MI students would spend more than two years in a host country, augmenting what they learned in the classroom with firsthand practical experience related to their field of study. Hylla worked as an education coordinator at the Charles Darwin Research Station on San Cristobal Island in Ecuador. The research station serves as the base of operations for work on the Galapagos Archipelago.

In 2002, when he was back on the UWSP campus to finish his degree, Hylla attended his first Energy Fair, hosted by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) in Custer. A multiday annual event, the fair is a place where like-minded folks gather to learn about sustainability and clean energy in a festive, relaxed atmosphere.

Hylla immediately realized he’d stumbled onto something pretty special. “I felt like I had found my people,” he says, “and I’ve never looked back.”

His affiliation with the MREA began with volunteering to make pizzas and haul trash during the fair. Hylla was working for a statewide forest management nonprofit when the renewable-energy organization invited him to consider running for a board seat. Instead, he elected to take a staff position with the MREA in 2009. “I took a pay cut from my previous job,” he says, “but I knew it was the right move.”

Two years later he took on the mantle of MREA executive director, the position he holds to this day. In this capacity, he solicits the cooperation of legislative and industry leaders regarding how energy is produced and used throughout Wisconsin and beyond the state’s borders. With tongue firmly in cheek, Hylla says his job boils down to “lots of meetings and emails.” In actuality, he oversees strategic planning and manages budgeting and finance for the organization. He finally has that seat on the board that was suggested he pursue years ago—only he comes to it not as an “outsider,” but as a staff representative.

Then, of course, there is also his role at the forefront of organizing the annual Energy Fair. The event—featuring workshops, guest speakers and exhibition booths, as well as musical entertainment and food and drink served by local vendors—takes a full nine months of planning to pull together.

Hylla is also among the founders of Central Rivers Farmshed, a nonprofit whose mission is “to grow a resilient local food economy.” He and a group of volunteers met for breakfast once a week and, perhaps fittingly, discussed how Central Wisconsin might best become a local-food community. Now in its 14th year, the organization partners with family owned and cooperative farms to provide and distribute locally sourced food to individuals and food programs in the region through Community Supported Agriculture groups (CSAs), food bank donations and direct sales. In 2020, the nonprofit distributed 7,000 pounds of locally harvested and raised items to food banks in the region.

Workshops and monthly potlucks also are part of the Farmshed plan, and the organization rents out its commercial kitchen space. Hylla has taken advantage of the kitchen to create stock for Sky View Pasta, a small artisan food business he runs with his family. Products are made using ingredients from Whitefeather Organics, as well as Red Door Family and Meuer farms. Sky View also hosts workshops, which Hylla calls “pasta parties.”

The operation is a true family affair.

“I grew up in a bakery with my parents making their living by selling one cup of coffee and one donut at a time,” he says. “I want my kids to have the same sense of work that I grew up with—lucky them! So I put them to work making tortellini, ravioli, tagliatelle and the like, but they also have to sweep, mop and wash dishes, of course.”

In 2020, the MREA was forced to pull the plug on the 31st edition of its Energy Fair because of the coronavirus pandemic. In an open letter posted on Facebook, Hylla announced that resources normally used to stage the in-person fair had been diverted to starting Rise Up Midwest, a public education campaign that “prioritizes local energy, consumer empowerment, and environmental justice.” The goal of the campaign is to use existing “technology, talent, resources, and opportunity to make the Midwestern U.S. a global leader in the clean energy transition,” says Hylla.

On June 19 of last year, a broadcast on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Route 51” featuring Hylla and Central Rivers Farmshed executive director Jenny Riggenbach was billed as a virtual mini-fair, where the benefits of sustainable living were discussed. This year, due to lingering COVID concerns, another alternative mini-fair has been scheduled, but this time the scaled-back event will be live and in-person. The outdoor, socially distanced celebration in Custer on June 26 will feature many of the same elements that make the bigger annual fair so special.

Organizers hope that the Energy Fair will be back in full force in 2022. Hylla is looking to the future of the organization in other ways as well.

“The MREA has a role to play by being a ‘big tent’ organization that grows public understanding of the benefits of energy conservation and local clean energy development,” he proclaims. “We also have a responsibility to focus our efforts on creating opportunities for communities that need it most. For the MREA to succeed in this, we are approaching the next three years with clear vision, with an informed view of our history, with fairness, with reason, with persistence, with respect, and with tenacity. We are focusing on partnerships, building on our past successes.”

Sounds like heaven, doesn’t it?

 

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