For Ivan Flores, owning and operating his own business is an alluring prospect. A resident of Northfield, Minn., he was born and raised in Mexico and currently works on a hog farm for $9 an hour. The work is hard and the hours are long, but raising animals and growing food are vocations he’s comfortable with.
“Once I start a business, I would like to reach the point where it would be sustainable—and would sustain me and my family,” says the 30-year-old husband and father of three.
For Flores and scores of other Latino residents of this southern Minnesota town, the path to owning their own businesses—specifically, small chicken farms—is being cleared through the efforts of Main Street Project. This Minneapolis-based organization is ramping up its Sustainable Food and Agriculture Program, in which budding farmers—or “agripreneurs”—will learn to raise and sell poultry and other agricultural products as part of an emerging local food network. When he graduates from the program and starts operating his own farm at full capacity, Flores expects to earn about $32,000 a year, considerably more than what he takes home now.
Says Niel Ritchie, executive director of Main Street Project: “We’re working with a Latino population that is a fundamental component of the current food system. They’re the workers, the laborers. Most of them live below the poverty line, and we’re working to change that—providing business and farm training and support that will make it possible to succeed at small-scale sustainable farming, and begin to move from poverty to prosperity.”
A growing and low-income population
“The face of rural Minnesota is changing rapidly,” says Ritchie, “and it’s becoming more and more diverse.”
Indeed, between 2000 and 2010, the number of people of Latino or Hispanic origin in Minnesota increased by 75 percent, from 143,382 to 250,258. By 2010, Latinos made up nearly 5 percent of the state’s population.1/ While the highest concentration of Latinos is found in the Twin Cities, roughly one-third of the population, or 82,700 people, lives outside of the seven-county Twin Cities metropolitan area. In Rice County, which encompasses most of Northfield, the number of Latino residents increased by 64 percent over the past decade, from 3,117 to 5,112.
Income—or rather the lack thereof—is a problem for many of these new Minnesotans. For example, in 2010, Latinos in Rice County earned a per capita income of $11,257. Adjusting for inflation, that’s down 35 percent from the $17,276 they earned in 1999. By contrast, for white residents of Rice County, who make up approximately 90 percent of the population, per capita income fell by less than 4 percent during the same period, from $26,570 in 1999 to $25,562 in 2010.2/
“Overwhelmingly, Latinos and Hispanics work low-wage jobs,” says Regi Haslett-Marroquin, director of the Sustainable Food and Agriculture Program at Main Street Project. “They’re stuck at a level of poverty that is very difficult to escape, and owning and running their own small farming enterprises will help them break this cycle.”
A local food network supplied by agripreneurs
At the core of Main Street Project’s initiative, planning for which started in 2007, is a vision of a local food system supplied by a cluster of small-scale farms owned and operated by agripreneurs. The farms would produce a variety of agricultural and animal products—poultry, vegetables, grain, compost, fertilizer, etc.—and operate within a processing, distribution, and consumer milieu that is based in the Northfield area. Because poultry production is relatively quick—it takes an average of just eight weeks for a Cornish Cross chick, the predominant “broiler,” or meat chicken, to mature—and requires low initial investment, the agripreneur model starts all interested farmers with free-range chicken farming.
The agripreneur training program is a cycle divided into three phases: a discovery phase, a development phase, and a launch phase. Interested residents, who are identified through Main Street Project’s outreach efforts, can start the training program at no cost.
Discovery phase: Participants gauge their interest in different types of farming by participating in community and market gardening, in which they help to grow produce for sale and personal consumption. During this phase, they also assist with the full life cycle of poultry operations, helping raise and process chickens.
Development phase: Those who have an interest in continuing the training then begin more intensive education that is a mixture of classroom sessions about the business side of owning and operating a farm—creating a business plan, budgeting, marketing, scheduling—and hands-on field training. Participants also familiarize themselves with the area’s agricultural market.
Central to this phase of training are “incubator sites”—20,000-square-foot paddocks that will each contain one 40’ x 44’ coop, or “production unit,” that is weatherized for year-round use. At incubator sites, the participants learn, hands-on, the daily details of operating a small poultry farm. These sites will also feature food-bearing plants—fruit trees and hazel shrubs, for example—around which chickens can forage and from which farmer trainees can learn sustainable farming and harvesting practices. Main Street Project buys or rents the land that the incubator sites sit on and also provides the chicken coops. So far, the organization has built a total of four coops, two each at two separate locations.
Launch phase: Finally, those who wish to advance will be matched up with farmer mentors to support the agripreneurs in their new entrepreneurial pursuits. During this phase, the new farmers also gain access to business planning support and financing options, which are critical for buying the equipment and supplies needed to function profitably.
“We have no desire to operate a program that trains people how to be farmers and then just abandons them after the training is complete,” says Ritchie. “We want the new farmers to be successful, and we make sure of this by providing them with the level of technical and networking support needed to operate and sustain their farms indefinitely.”
Although poultry production is the initial targeted farming type, agripreneurs can expand their operations by returning to the discovery phase and learning about other income-earning aspects of farming that interest them, such as egg production, manure management, vegetable growing, or hazelnut production. Because none of the phases have time limits, participants who have jobs and other time commitments can advance through the system at rates appropriate for their schedules.
While Main Street Project owns the chicken coops, all of the remaining start-up costs—chicks, feed, seed mixes for the paddocks, etc.—are incurred by the farmers themselves. Financing for the operations is available to agripreneurs through the Grow a Farmer Fund, a $40,000 microloan program set up by Main Street Project. Currently, with chicks costing approximately $1.20 each and feed running roughly $3.00 per bird, the average loan amount is $7,000. The farmers then pay back the loans after selling their chickens.
So far, 28 people, including Ivan Flores, have participated in or are currently enrolled in the development phase of the agripreneur training process, which was initiated in September 2011.
According to Haslett-Marroquin, the annual household income of people targeted for this program ranges from $10,000 to $22,000. As participants start to raise chickens at incubator sites they can supplement their wage income and eventually replace it outright. For instance, if an agripreneur operates one production unit, which takes one to two hours a day and can produce 4,500 chickens a year, he or she can earn an additional $4,000 annually. At full capacity, which equates to working full-time and operating eight production units (36,000 birds), an agripreneur can earn up to $32,000 a year. The idea, says Haslett-Marroquin, is to gradually replace wages with self-employment income and thus gain a greater degree of economic autonomy. That, in turn, will position the agripreneurs to graduate from the program and launch their own small-scale farms that are modeled after Main Street Project’s production-unit standards but rely on conventional financing.
“We ask that the agripreneurs commit to managing their finances in accordance with their business plans to ensure access to conventional credit over time,” Haslett-Marroquin says.
Pecking out a portion of the poultry market
Haslett-Marroquin developed the specifications of the agripreneur program—the number of chickens needed to make a profit, the size of the coops and paddocks needed to raise the chickens, etc.—by examining statewide and local poultry markets and determining what it would take to capture 5 percent of the market in Northfield, an initial goal of the program. In 2007, the year of the most recent agricultural census, poultry sales topped $1 billion statewide.3/ According to Haslett-Marroquin, Northfield’s share of the market is approximately $5 million. To tap 5 percent of it, or $250,000, the agripreneur network will need to produce roughly 280,000 birds a year.
“When all of the pieces of this system are up and running, we’ll be able to meet that number,” he says.
Budding relationships with local grocery retailer Just Food Co-op and Bon Appétit, the food service provider for Northfield’s Carleton College and St. Olaf College, signal a ready market for the agripreneur system’s free-range chickens.
“There is high demand for food raised locally and sustainably,” Haslett-Marroquin says. “Food purchased from these farms will meet the quality demands of these customers while supporting small farms and the people who operate them.”
Creating a pathway to success
Full implementation of the agripreneur program has its challenges. One challenge is the need to align all of the components necessary to create a viable local food system: land for the farms needs to be rented or purchased, coops need to be constructed, facilities for processing poultry need to be acquired or accessed, and markets need to be established, among other things. But all of these components, according to Ritchie, are starting to fall into place. Multiple land owners have agreed to rent land to the program, four coops have been built, a system for USDA-inspected poultry processing has been established, and supplier relationships with retailers and local institutions are developing.
Covering the upfront costs of the program is another challenge. Each incubator site costs approximately $50,000 to construct, and Haslett-Marroquin has determined that eight incubator sites are an optimal amount for the program, at a total cost of $400,000. And beyond the costs associated with production infrastructure, staff time and overhead are another $300,000 per year.
Financial support for the program is emerging, however. The Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation recently made a $90,000 grant to help fund the agripreneur initiative, and it made another $10,000 grant to seed the microloan program that agripreneurs can access to finance their farms.
“Our foundation is investing in entrepreneurs as the engine for future economic growth in our southern Minnesota region,” says Tim Penny, president of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. “We see a strong entrepreneurial spirit among new Minnesotans—including our region’s Latino population—and we are excited about the potential of the agripreneur project to create a pathway toward economic security and success.”