The Chicken And The Egg: Stop Linear Farming And Embrace Circular Agriculture
Agronomist Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin wants to transform the food system from the ground up by introducing poultry-powered, planet-cooling, regenerative agriculture. Ashoka’s Simon Stumpf caught up with Haslett-Marroquin to hear more about his approach, what his Tree-Range™ system is all about, and what’s on the horizon for the smallholder farmers in his network.
Simon Stumpf: You’re championing what you call a "non-linear" approach to farming. What do you mean by that?
Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin: As farmers we don’t produce anything. Nature does. We simply manage the process, a non-linear process, by which inedible energy is transformed into edible energy -- from soil to carrots, from grain to eggs and chickens. When we understand this, a whole world of possibility opens up because we are no longer constrained by linear, input-and-output based methods that waste energy and pollute our soil, waterways and air. So with this as a starting point, we're structuring farm operations to efficiently capture energy and turn it into highly nutritious foods that we badly need all over the world.
Stumpf: And the farmers in your network, who are they?
Haslett-Marroquin: In the U.S., we work with low-wage farmworkers, established farmers and food industry workers -- about half of these are Hispanic -- and globally with smallholder farmers. They participate in our system as "agri-preneurs" because they are part farmer, part entrepreneur. Even though we are in an era of big agriculture, let’s not forget that there are some 500 million smallholder farmers worldwide and they are producing 70 percent of the world’s food on plots of land of 25 acres of land or less.
Stumpf: What is your model, how does it work?
Haslett-Marroquin: We're building industry-level alliances to support regenerative poultry-centered agriculture. It’s poultry-centered because for agriculture to be regenerative it needs to incorporate animals -- and chickens are a clear option for a global movement because they fit into most cultures and almost all small farms. Our 1.5 to 3-acre production units incorporate a canopy of vertical native perennial species like hazelnuts as well as a lower layer of understory crops. This protects and shades the chickens, who move freely throughout this "Tree-Range™" system, continually eating bugs, working the soil, and fertilizing.
Stumpf: What’s the first step for aspiring agri-preneurs?
Haslett-Marroquin: They may want to spend some time at Main Street Farm, our demonstration farm in Northfield, Minnesota. This 100-acre farm is a training center -- a site developed for farmers so they can experience the whole system in order to return home and deploy it capably and inspire other farmers to try it. In Northfield, our team hosts visitors from all over the world, and working through partnerships, we have clusters of farmers now in Guatemala, Mexico, South Dakota, and Nebraska.
Stumpf: What does the commercial side look like?
Haslett-Marroquin: Locally, our Tree-Range™ brand contracts with farmers around the Northfield area who have been trained and are supported by Main Street Project, the non-profit that serves as the system’s oversight, training and R&D backbone. Once trained, farmers can then move into contracting their production while being supervised and verified by Main Street Project that they're actually following the system the way it was designed and that the Tree-Range™ market claims are held to the highest levels of integrity.
Stumpf: Looking ahead, how do you envision your regenerative approach spreading?
Haslett-Marroquin: We’ve translated our approach into an easy and straightforward model with two production units. The model for meat birds starts at 1.5 acres and the one for egg layers is 3 acres. In order to move agri-preneurs through this system, we take those two units as the foundation of a business development plan, and support farmers and eventual farmer clusters to build from this basic foundation. As they grow and cooperate, the farmers can introduce, say, processing facilities and value-added processing. This system allows farmers to move from where they are now into a whole new way of engaging their land.
Stumpf: You are taking on so much. What are you not spending time on?
Haslett-Marroquin: I don’t spend time defining what the market wants. I am in the business of delivering what the market wants at the scale it wants and in a way that restores and cools the planet, restores the ecology, and brings back the dignity of farming. We’re here to say, "We can do this. We can feed the world, and we can do this better when we restore the soil, ecosystems, cultures, long held traditions and ancient knowledge.”
Originally published by Forbes on Oct 23, 2018