Walking the Ogallala Commons Road

Guest post by Darryl Birkenfeld, OC Executive Director

I suppose my journey to OC began with growing up on a family farm where we relied on the Ogallala Aquifer to grow crops and raise livestock.  Later on, it was my college and graduate studies during seminary, and my 14 years as a Roman Catholic priest that most formed me in the ways of the commons—even before I had ever heard the term.  As a priest, I was passionate about rural ministry and ecological sustainability.  

But I noticed that diocesan priests were restrained from this type of outreach and advocacy.  It caused me to wonder, “How can the Church work to preserve communities for the long-term?”  I began to see clearly that a 20 to 40-year approach to community development was truly my vocational call.  So in July 2002, I left priestly ministry.


Though I wasn’t quite sure what to do next, I knew that I wanted to return to my hometown (Nazareth, Texas), where I had roots and a strong tie to the land.  One month after I had started a new life, I received a call from the co-founders of Ogallala Commons: Vince Shively (a community organizer from Idalia, Colorado) and Bob Mailander (Director of Rocky Mountain Farmers Union-Cooperative Development Center).  I had met these two men some years before, when they had included me in two meetings that explored their possibility of an Ogallala Commons.  “Darryl” they said, “we want you to organize the third meeting of Ogallala Commons.”  That meeting took place four months later in Burlington, Colorado—the biggest and best-attended gathering about OC thus far.  There were fine speakers present, and great energy–one key outcome was the formation of an Ogallala Commons Steering Committee.

As the meeting was concluding, I sought out Bob Mailander and asked, “What will happen with this process? Is there someone who will steward the Steering Committee and execute a plan?”  “Well,” Bob replied, “that is an interesting question…here’s the situation.”  He briefly described how things could potentially move forward, and that he had $24,000 of funding to pay a coordinator for 12 months of contract work. I immediately told him that this was the kind of work I wanted to do.

In a way I did not foresee, I found the next leg of my vocational sojourn.  That same year, I married Joann Starr, and over time, our shared life has contributed greatly to the mission of OC.  As things progressed, I moved from being OC Coordinator to being Executive Director.  Twelve years after those new beginnings, I can say that walking the Ogallala Commons road has empowered me to become more fully who I am.

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