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RSDP Happenings - Focus: Creating "Agripreneurs"

May 2014

RSDP connects Main Street Project to U of M Resources

By Ronnie Schwenn

Belle Rouge variety chickens forage in their paddock
as part of the Main Street Project in Northfield.
(photo: Main Street Project)

Is it possible to create a small-scale sustainable agricultural system in today's food market, which is dominated by large producers and processors? In partnership with the Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) and many others, the Main Street Project, based in Northfield, is experimenting with a scalable, integrated poultry and crop production system that could utilize plots as small as a quarter of an acre.

The Main Street Project aims to create "agripreneurs" who can make a decent living, with special emphasis on helping immigrant Latino families, who have traditionally been agricultural laborers, become more financially independent. The project seeks to integrate free range poultry, perennial crops such as hazelnuts and elder berries, and annual crops such as corn, sunflowers, and flax in the paddock. The system is designed to require limited inputs, to be diversified, so if one part fails there are other layers that can generate income and to be environmentally sustainable, with only limited soil tilling required and minimal pollution.

As Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, COO of the Main Street Project, has written, "All of this means no dangerous pesticides and unnecessary pollutants getting into our landscape from field to fork. And when rain falls, it is not only landing in a non-polluted environment, but enters into a system that slows it down and allows it to replenish our aquifers and wells instead of going down the drain tiles into ditches and rivers"

Under a grant from the University of Minnesota Healthy Foods, Healthy Lives Institute, RSDP is connecting the Main Street Project to the University to assess the model across several dimensions.

"We have researcher Michele Schermann from Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering looking at food safety, and we are using the University Food Lab to look at chicken quality," said Greg Schweser, a co-Principal Investigator on the grant and Associate Director of Sustainable and Local Foods for RSDP. "Wayne Martin, a colleague of ours in Extension, is raising a control group of chickens for comparison, Prof. Francisco Diez-Gonzalez in Food Science and Nutrition will be looking at soil and pathogen issues, and Mario Carrillo, with the support of Prof. Rob King in Applied Economics, is studying the model's cost of production and return on investment."

RSDP's Schweser has also assisted the Project in applying for a North Central USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant that would yield further study of social, economic, and environmental sustainability by U researchers and contribute to the publication of an updated production manual, providing a road map for farmers on their way to creating their own agribusiness.

The Southeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (SERSDP) has had a long-term relationship with the Main Street Project. Erin Meier, executive director of SERSDP, said, "It's a good case study in how developing partnership relationships and finding the right resource for them takes time." An earlier project with SERSDP helped revamp the Main Street Project's production manual, providing a road map for farmers on their way to creating their own agribusiness, and SERSDP supports graduate student Carrillo's current market analysis work.

The Main Street Project plans to expand its agricultural model in Southeast Minnesota in the future. They plan to offer more trainings to new Latino immigrants and expand the production system itself to include new agricultural systems, such as aquaponics. Their systems-oriented approach, anchored in raising free-range poultry, will contribute to a more resilient and sustainable food system, as well as to the well-being of farmers looking to start their own family businesses.

Ultimately, the model has to work financially for potential "agripreneurs." "It has to function in a market economy," said Niel Ritchie, founder and CEO of the Main Street Project. "The research is where the Partnerships and the University have been extraordinarily helpful."

RSDP's Schweser said the partnerships are eager to continue to collaborate with the Main Street Project. "We have a need for viable small-scale food production models that can support families in rural areas and small towns," he said. "At the same time, we have a burgeoning 'foodie' culture in Minnesota that is increasingly interested in quality of food and the sustainability of its source. In the Main Street Project we have a great opportunity to meet both needs."

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