As a child growing up in Guatemala in a family of thirteen kids, one of my daily chores was collecting eggs from the chickens my mother kept. We had moved when I was four as part of an internal migration that was “settling” the northern rainforest region. The first thing every migrant household did after arrival was clear the old-growth forest, burn it and plant mainly beans, corn and squash. We were no exception. Every few years, the land would stop producing, and we would leave some of it fallow. In a couple of years, we would clear it again, burn the debris and plant our crops again. This way of treating nature left us permanently hungry as well as overworked, barefoot, dirt-poor and frustrated.
Chickens and eggs, however, were like gold. They were our only regular source of protein and were a critical way women participated in food production. I’ve yet to encounter anyone who understands chicken behavior the way my mother and other women in our village did. As a child, I was eager to learn everything my mother knew. Over time, I learned that the thick canopy provided by orange and banana trees was critical to ensuring that we did not lose the birds to aerial predators, and it also protected the chickens from the intense, direct sun. I learned how to find the nests in the thick grass and bushes, and how to manage the thick layers of leaves dropped on the ground where the chickens roamed. Chickens are good teachers—we observed that they thrived in our jungle-like food-producing canopy, a habitat more in line with their geoevolutionary genetic blueprint.
After I finished elementary and middle school, I received a scholarship to Guatemala’s National Central School of Agriculture, followed by years of university-level scientific and business management training in Guatemala and Minnesota. Little did I know that all of this higher education would pale in comparison to the mind-blowing knowledge, ancient wisdom and practical experience I gained during my early years in the Guatemalan rainforest.
POULTRY AS AN ENTRY POINT TO SYSTEM CHANGE
The diminished nutritional value of the foods that dominate today’s markets represents a major challenge. It is the result of a system engineered not for the purpose of delivering nourishment but for the purpose of making money. To change this, we need to transition to a system that can give life, regenerate the landscape and make our minds, bodies and spirits whole again.
A decade ago, I helped found Main Street Project, a Minnesota-based organization that is working to develop an alternative food system to reverse the destructive trends of industrial agriculture, with poultry-centered regenerative farming at the core of our model.1 In 2017, I described some of the journey from hunger to food security in my book, In the Shadow of Green Man.2 As we explain on the Main Street Project website, chickens are at the center of the system because they can provide “a positive revenue stream at a low cost of entry,” offering “a one-stop weed-eating, bug-killing, soil-enhancing replacement for the counterproductive synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers destroying conventional farms and their communities.”1
To frame this innovative yet ancient way of thinking about agriculture, it is important to understand two basic points. First, farmers, factory farms and the food industry don’t produce food. Only nature can transform inedible energy present in the air, the soil and the sun—and turn that energy into eggs, chickens, nuts, vegetables and so on. Farmers are stewards and “energy managers.” We can’t create energy or destroy it, but we can facilitate the process by which it is transformed. When we choose to do this responsibly, we allow nature to produce plenty of food while regenerating the landscape, thereby ensuring that the process can go on indefinitely. If we instead manage energy irresponsibly, we throw energy cycles out of balance and end up with polluted air, soil, rivers and oceans and, equally important, damaged health.
Second, for a farming system to be regenerative, it has to include animals. No sound ecology exists without the activity and the amazing physical, chemical and biological functions of animals. My team has found that chickens are the livestock of choice and can be the foundation of wider systems change. Chickens are universal and culturally familiar to millions of small-scale farmers and immigrants around the world. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations calculated in 2000 that family farmers produced about 80 percent of the world’s food, and more recent research has characterized 98 percent of all farms as family farms.3 Of these, the World Bank estimates that over four hundred million small farms consist of less than two hectares (just under five acres) of land.4 Many of these smaller-scale farmers could transition to our system rapidly and launch a global “chicken revolution.”
The starting point of Main Street Project’s transformational system—and the point of engagement for a farmer—is the production unit (PU). Perennial crops that form a multistory and multipurpose canopy are the cornerstone of the PU. The canopy is built by planting valuable (both economically and in terms of food security) species of trees, shrubs, fruits and nuts, native to the region where the system is being deployed. Once a farmer establishes one or more production units, the PU creates an energy-pumping system that can produce eggs, meat, nuts, fruit, timber, soil, carbon, perennial protection for the soil, higher biological activity, increased income for the farmer, ecosystem restoration services and a blueprint for regional resilience.
Among its many benefits, the perennial crop canopy offers paddocks for free-range chickens, sprouted grains to feed them, nighttime shelter and a variety of products that support the farmer. The canopy cools the ground and increases relative humidity, which allows for sprouting small grain mixes directly in the soil. Sprouts exponentially increase the nutritional value as well as the biomass available for the chickens from the grain. As explained in a Main Street Project blog, the addition of solar-power-heated coops and petroleum-free weeding and fertilizing allows the system to operate as a “closed cycle that perpetually sustains itself…feed is taken in by the chicken, and energy and nutrients excreted by the chicken are taken up by the plants grown in that fertilized soil, producing crops which again feed the chicken.”5
Although the requirements for ranging paddocks and species in the perennial canopy may vary based on local conditions, other requirements remain consistent across settings. Considerations include the square footage of shelter space per chicken, perch space, paddock access and the number of chickens per PU, which should not exceed fifteen hundred broilers and four thousand laying hens per flock. (Note that our livestock standard prohibits the use of industrial Cornish broilers, as they have lost their ability to display natural chicken behaviors.)
Our system’s aim is a fully regenerative supply chain. To this end, we are developing a grain standard that will require a transition to alley-cropped agroforestry systems, rotations, cover cropping and other practices that support ecological regeneration. These practices represent the foundation of profitable regenerative farms.
With the details per PU established, the next step involves estimating the number of PUs needed to build a family farm. Every farmer will have a different number of PUs, based on the farm’s projections. Our approach is to treat farmers as unique economic units and develop business plans that meet their individual needs without compromising the ability to replicate the model consistently across larger landscapes. As a stand-alone operation, a farmer is highly vulnerable to many risks. Aggregating producers throughout regions is therefore central to our risk management strategy.
Our preliminary data show that a family can save upwards of seven thousand dollars a year on food purchases by deploying our regenerative system on their farm. Even farmers who deploy the system in conjunction with other production methods can save on fertilizer inputs and increase their income by selling chickens. In a regenerative agriculture design, the benefits come from stacking enterprises on individual farms and throughout a region.
SCALING UP REGIONALLY
Main Street Project has experienced many successes in building a workable, replicable model for designing poultry-centered regenerative agriculture. The system can deliver a range of foods whose production can be stacked on individual farms and throughout large regions.
It is not possible, however, for one local organization to engage with all the farmers, aggregators, marketers, distributors, processors and the value chain represented at the regional level. Thus, Regeneration Midwest (an evolving coalition of twelve Midwestern states) was formed at the end of 2017. Regeneration Midwest is a regional-scale effort to build farm support systems and infrastructure—such as veterinary services, agronomics, training, financing, branding, processing, creating value-added products, marketing and distribution—intended to support delivery of the regenerative agriculture model throughout the Midwest. Main Street Project’s focus on engineering for replicability was critical in allowing a new system to emerge, but Regeneration Midwest’s work—ensuring that these efforts can be unleashed everywhere—is the next logical system-level priority.
Regeneration Midwest is focusing on strategic agricultural sectors such as poultry, grains, beef and pork, and vegetables and fruit. For example, in partnership with the Midwest Grains Initiative6 and similar efforts, Regeneration Midwest will bring together existing standards that support agroforestry systems as a foundational blueprint for transitioning small grain production—both for human food and regenerative poultry feed. As another example, the coalition will bring together producers of pastured pork and grass-fed beef to explore how to build differentiated markets and create competitive economies of scale.
Vegetables represent a challenging sector for regenerative standards development and application. Vegetable production tends to require an intense supply of inputs and frequently involves the destruction of native habitats to establish production, both of which run counter to regenerative ecosystems. However, practices such as cover cropping, crop rotation, incorporation of perennial crops and alley-cropping can build a basis for revitalization of this sector.
In all sectors, Regeneration Midwest will focus first on cataloging promising agriculture production models, markets and investment sources and building collective infrastructure components to facilitate larger-scale regional trading, including infrastructure to facilitate communications and transactions at scale. Second, Regeneration Midwest is working to support investment platforms (such as the Illinois-based Iroquois Valley Farmland REIT and Minnesota-based Shared Capital Cooperative) so that larger numbers of investors from around the country can engage their capital in regenerative agriculture. Third, in partnership with existing organizations, Regeneration Midwest will support marketing campaigns to differentiate regenerative products in the marketplace and increase demand at a regional level. This could also include educational campaigns aimed at industry leaders, investors and government officials. To evaluate the progress and impact of Regeneration Midwest, we will track basic indicators such as farms engaged, acreage impacted, range of products available and farmers’ overall financial performance, as well as tracking the extent to which farms meet our regenerative standards.
The first step toward tackling Regeneration Midwest’s ambitious goals was a planning meeting in June 2018, when representatives from the participating Midwestern states came to Minnesota for a tour of Main Street Project’s demonstration and production farms. Thanks to strong support from partners such as the Organic Consumers Association, Regeneration Midwest now has three core executives who are working daily to plan and execute the coalition’s start-up phase. Members from each state can join if they are ready, willing and at least partially resourced to carry on the process of building and staffing state-level coalitions that fall into alignment with the larger regional vision.
The Main Street Project model is straightforward. Farmers raise free-range meat and eggs in a well-managed paddock planted with a combination of perennials, cover crops and small grains that provide additional cash value to the farmers and nutrition and shelter for the chickens. The chickens, in exchange, provide manure to fertilize not only the paddock and the plants within, but also other vegetables and perennials.
Whether for meat or eggs, the chickens provide a positive revenue stream at a low cost of entry. Ultimately, both farmers and communities benefit from the increased access to local, healthy food and the economic boost of thriving local markets.
2. Haslett-Marroquin R, with Andreasson P. In the Shadow of Green Man: My Journey from Poverty and Hunger to Food Security and Hope. Greeley, CO: Acres USA; 2016.
3. Graeub BE, Chappell MJ, Wittman H, Ledermann S, Kerr RB, Gemmill-Herren B. The state of family farms in the world. World Development 2016;87:1-15.
4. Maass Wolfenson KD. Coping with the food and agriculture challenge: smallholders’ agenda. Preparations and outcomes of the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization; 2013. http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/nr/sustainability_pathways/docs/Coping_with_food_and_agriculture_challenge__Smallholder_s_agenda_Final.pdf.
5. “Our triple bottom line: regeneration at MSP.” https://mainstreetproject.org/our-triple-bottom-line-regeneration-at-msp/.
6. “Midwest Grains Initiative: Promoting small grains production on Midwest farms.” http://www.centerforsustainabilitysolutions.org/mwg/.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2018