Melanie Reid, general manager at Just Food Co-op in Northfield, and Reginaldo (Regi) Haslett-Marroquin, program director at the Rural Enterprise Center, are pictured next to the store's Grow a Farmer seed display. (Submitted photo)
A new campaign has been launched in southeast Minnesota to help aspiring Latino farmers start their own chicken farms. The campaign, Grow a Farmer, is a collaborative effort of Main Street Project, Renewing the Countryside and the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.
Together, these three organizations have created a low-interest, micro-lending fund for new farmers. The loan amount for Latinos to begin chicken production can range from $5,000 to $8,000. Since the money is only a loan, it will be paid back as the farmer succeeds. The money circulates back into the program to help more first-time farmers. The loan money is eligible for Latinos who make $20,000 or less per year and helps pay for feed and for the 500 to 1,500 baby chicks it takes to start a flock.
“Conventional loans with collateral requirements aren’t an option,” says Reginaldo (Regi) Haslett-Marroquin, Main Street Project’s program director. “This loan fund will help new farmers take a big step forward in achieving their farming goals.”
These first-time farmers aren’t raising chickens without any knowledge, space or shelter, though. These new farmers learn how to start farming and gain experience with the help of the Rural Enterprise Center in Northfield, which runs an Agripreneur Training Program with facilities and trainers.
“Experts teach the students basic business skills, as well as accounting and how to manage their inputs, whether it’s feed or chickens or whatever. It’s beyond just raising chickens,” says Brett Olson, creative director at Renewing the Countryside.
Olson also explains that many farmers start at the incubator site in the barn Main Street Project has set up in Northfield. Beginning farmers generally do their first few cycles of chickens there until they have enough experience and equity to buy or rent their own farm.
“They have that support system,” says Olson about the beginning stages.
Olson has been helping design Grow a Farmer for about five years now at Renewing the Countryside. Renewing the Countryside, a non-profit organization, is known for focusing on rural economic development.
Olson says the unique partnership with Main Street Project presented itself and the idea took off. Main Street Project is a non-profit organization that works to transform systems to better increase access to resources and knowledge. The Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, an organization that focuses on economic growth in 20 counties, gave the final push to get Grow a Farmer off the ground as well as contributing a major part of the funding: $10,000.
For now, the project only funds Latinos who buy baby chicks. According to Olson, the system is so compact and well defined that it makes a lot of sense for this first $20,000 — Grow a Farmer’s fundraising goal for 2012 — to go towards that purpose.
“It could be that next year we do another campaign with Main Street. We’re really, right now, in the business concept phase, committed to seeing this through for multiple years,” says Olson, who wants to ensure some success by starting small.
Chickens were chosen for this loan program because they are a fast way for first-time farmers to build equity and pay back the loan. Chicks take only eight weeks to grow and are considered a sustainable animal with low energy inputs and valuable fertilizer.
Grow a Farmer has raised approximately $16,000 to date for micro-loans, $4,000 from their goal. Contributions can be made online through the ‘Donate Now’ link at MainStreetProject.org through July. Shoppers at Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis, Egg Plant Urban Farm Supply in St. Paul, Seward Co-op in Minneapolis and Mississippi Market in St. Paul can purchase $5, $10 or $25 corn, bean, or squash seed packets. This entire amount will be deposited to the Grow a Farmer fund.
“The seed packets are an interesting way to tell the story rather than just having a website. The seed packet explains how it works. It feels like you’re more involved,” says Olson.
The seed packets seem to be the most popular way to donate. Tracy Singleton, Birchwood Cafe’s owner, temporarily ran out of the $25 donation seed packets.
“Our collaboration in the Grow a Farmer campaign provides our customers with a direct avenue for changing the way our food system functions,” says Singleton, “Let’s grow some farmers!”
Learn more about Main Street Project and Renewing the Countryside at www.mainstreetproject.org and www.renewingthecountryside.org.
Amanda Schultz is Radish’s summer intern.