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Members of the Mayan community in the U.S. join Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin (third from left) at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference to celebrate the Changemaker award in recognition of the regenerative farming work they are doing.      Photo by Laurie Schneider.

Regenerative farming leader draws from Indigenous roots to create change

By David Abazs

Editor’s Note: This is one of three stories about the recipients of the 2020 Changemaker awards, presented earlier this month at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference. This new award recognizes people in the organic farming and food movement who are creatively overcoming systemic challenges to nurture a thriving agricultural future for all. Click here to recommend someone for the 2021 award.

When Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin accepted his Changemaker award at the MOSES Conference, he came on stage with three Mayan spiritual leaders to show that the award honors not just Reginaldo as an individual, but also his ancestors and his community that shares in the mission of building a regenerative food system. Regi is a friend, fellow farmer, and an inspiration to me and many others in the regenerative movement.

He comes from a resilient people, from a family of 13 children raised in the northern rainforest of Guatemala. His family carved out areas of the forest, planted beans, corn, and squash. The land gave and then took back, as the cycle of soil nutrients ebbed and flowed.

“Every few years, the land would stop producing, and we would leave some of it fallow,” Reginald shared in his book, In the Shadow of Green Man. “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 Escuela Nacional Central de Agricultura 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.”

From this grounded experience growing up, Regi began working with Indigenous communities in Guatemalan and consulted with the United Nations after moving to the Minneapolis area. He created the Peace Coffee Company, co-founded the Fair-Trade Federation, brought the Transfair labeling scheme to the U.S., and took part in a long list of other initiatives. Along with all his work developing and creating these noteworthy businesses and institutions, what Reginaldo brings to us all is a new way of thinking and solving perennial problems.

In his award address at the MOSES Conference, Reginaldo said, “Regenerative Agriculture is a way of seeing and working with the interconnectedness and interdependence of everything, a way of working with nature’s design to transform energy from non-edible into edible forms to sustain our bodies, mind, and spirit, individually and collectively… All of us sitting here are sophisticated expressions of energy that nature created.”

His regenerative notions, personal passion, and strategic social actions led Reginaldo to work with other Spanish-speaking community members to create pathways out of poverty and food systems access for the growing numbers of rural Latino immigrants relegated to working in low-wage farm and food industry jobs. In this work, Reginaldo developed an innovative regenerative poultry model known for its energy-dense, diversified, multi-strata plant and animal symbiotic union, a truly regenerative system. He tapped into the Indigenous nature of things, using the “jungle”-based chicken to build a system around this magnificent bird with perennial trees, and annual crops, developing a circular stream of energy between the plants, weeds, pests and bug-eating chickens, turning “waste” into a “resource,” realizing the sum of the whole provided the regeneration of the parts.

Chickens graze under a canopy of perennial trees and shrubs in the regenerative poultry model developed by Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin and his colleagues. Photo submitted.

As we hear from his peers, his ideas have spread and the system has been implemented around North, Central, and South America. I have been moved and blessed to have known Regi over the years. I have had the privilege of standing around a fire, joking and digging deeply into these issues with him.

One of Reginaldo’s colleagues and supporters, Ronnie Cummins, Organic Consumers Association, shared, “Reggie’s ‘tree-range’ regenerative poultry systems, combined with organic and regenerative grain production, are the alternatives that we need to move away from disaster and restore the health of our soils, our animals, our food, our eco-systems, and rural America. On the organic research farm of Regeneration International in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, regenerative poultry and livestock management and production of organic and regenerative grains, forage, and fodder—inspired by Regi’s vision—lie at the heart of our system.”

Randel Hanson, Co-Director of the Eco-Entrepreneurship Program at Lake Superior College, said, “Regi is the rarest of strategists when it comes to building a more just and sustainable food system. He’s both practical and visionary, and he thinks both big and small. He insists on building systems that are economically viable for small-scale farmers, but which also compete with industrial-scale realities. I see him as a key 21st-century innovator that sees outside of the box to rebuild it.”

I echo the praise of Reginaldo with my gratitude for his work. I am also certain that he is not dwelling in the past, but planning and moving towards a future—a future of small regenerative family farms and the hope for a
(r)evolution that puts justice as an equal partner of our food system. As Regi says, “At the end of the day, regenerative agriculture is about people, it’s about nature, it is about the economy, it is about a grassroots revolution, and I hope you are with us!”

David Abazs is the Executive Director of the University of Minnesota-Extension’s Northeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships. He serves on the
MOSES Board of Directors. He also farms at Round River Farm in Finland, Minnesota.


From the March| April 2020 Issue


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