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Chickens graze on sprouted grains under a hazelnut canopy at Finca Mirasol in Northfield, Minnesota.  Photo by Wil Crombie

Farmers develop model for producing poultry in regenerative system

By Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, Main Street Project

A story without background is like an uncooked drumstick. You can imagine everything about it, but you can’t taste it. So, let me put some flavor into what I am about to share with you.

As a child growing up in Guatemala in a family of 13 kids, one of my daily chores was collecting eggs from the few chickens my mother kept around. Although I was born in the dry corridor of Eastern Guatemala, we moved to the northern rainforest when I was 4. Our internal migration was part of the settling of the northern rainforest region. My father and one of his brothers had gone exploring and found unoccupied forest areas where we could settle. There was no one there to challenge our land claim—at least not for another 40 years when the land had to be registered and title acquired.

The first thing everyone did when they resettled in this region was clear the old-growth forest, burn it and plant beans, corn, and squash. We were no exception.
A few years later the land would not produce anything, and we would leave some of it fallow. In a couple of years, we would clear it again, burn the debris, and plant. We were not only permanently hungry, but also overworked, barefoot, dirt poor, and frustrated.

Chickens and eggs were gold because they were our only available regular source of protein. 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, from how to find the nests in the thick grass and bushes to how to manage the thick layers of leaves dropped on the ground below where the chickens roamed, protected by the thick canopy provided by orange and banana trees, and other food crops. The canopy was critical to ensuring that we did not lose the birds to aerial predators. It also protected the chickens from the intense, direct sun.

Chickens are good teachers—we learned that they are jungle fowl purely by observing them in this habitat.

I went on to finish elementary and middle school, and then received a scholarship to the National Central School of Agriculture next to Guatemala City. All of my studies in the next 20 years, from Guatemala to Augsburg University in Minneapolis to my scientific and business management training, pales in comparison to the mind-blowing knowledge, wisdom and practical experience I gained during those early years in Guatemala using simple observation and listening skills.
In 2017, I wrote In the Shadow of Green Man, where you can find the real flavor behind the work I currently do with two amazing organizations, Main Street Project and Regeneration International.

Poultry as Entry Point to Systems Change

The challenges we face around the diminished nutritional value of the food that dominates today’s market are the result of a system engineered not for the purpose of delivering nourishment, but for the purpose of making money by taking advantage of the fact that people need to eat every day. To change this, we need to transition from producing food products to delivering nourishment, the kind that gives life, regenerates the landscape and makes our minds, bodies, and spirits whole again.

To frame this way of thinking, let me clarify at least four core things:

1. Farmers don’t produce anything. 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.

2. As farmers, who are simply energy process managers, we can choose to manage responsibly, allowing nature to produce plenty of food while keeping a good percentage of the energy in the ground (mainly carbon), so that the process can go on indefinitely. If we choose to manage this energy irresponsibly, we throw the energy cycles out of balance, and end up polluting our air, rivers, soil and especially the world’s fresh waters and oceans.

3. For a farming system to be regenerative it has to include animals. No ecology exists without the disturbance and the amazing physical, chemical and biological functions of animals.

4. For my team, it was critical to enter the food and agriculture systems work by choosing a universal livestock, the chicken. This strategy is central to engaging people in the foundational tenet of systems change. From this “perch” we can target the over 500 million small farmers with under 10 hectares of land that produce 70 percent of the world’s food, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Production Unit (PU)

The starting point of our system is the production unit (PU). The PU represents the point at which a farmer engages and the foundation of the layers of organizational structuring, poultry-centered regenerative standard, and the scalability strategy. The cornerstones of the PU are the perennial crops which form a canopy, the paddocks for free-ranging, and the night shelter.

The canopy is built by planting species of trees, shrubs, fruits and nuts native to the region where the system is being deployed. The goal is to achieve an 80% canopy cover. For Minnesota, this canopy is being built with hazelnuts and elderberries as the lower strata. Both of these bushes are native to almost two-thirds of the continental U.S. and are also common around the world. The higher strata consists of a highly valuable forest species.

Once a PU is established, it creates an energy-pumping system that takes the feed as the original source of energy and turns it into eggs, meat, nuts, elderberries, sugar maple, timber, soil, carbon, perennial protection for the soil, higher biological activity, increased income for the farmer, ecosystem restoration services and a blueprint for resilience.

The canopy cools the ground and increases relative humidity, which allows for sprouting small grain mixes directly in the soil. Without the canopy, the sprouting process stalls. Sprouts also exponentially increase the nutritional value as well as the biomass available for the chickens. This practice increases the health of the animals, allows them to range longer and farther because their need for drinking water decreases significantly, and delivers a nutrient-dense final product.

Although our standard for ranging paddocks and perennial canopy changes based on the local ecology, some requirements remain consistent. These include the square footage of shelter space per chicken (1.8 s. ft. for egg layers and 2 sq. ft. per broiler); perch space consisting of 7 linear inches; paddock access doors measuring 3.28 linear ft. per 1,000 birds; and 120 hens per communal nest. The number of chickens per production unit, and the square footage of paddock ranging space are defined by the local ecological conditions which are determined by the regeneration capacity (rainfall, temperatures, altitude).

For Minnesota, the PU’s ranging area is no less than 20 square feet for meat birds and 30 square feet for egg layers. The number of birds per flock is 1,500 broilers and no more than 4,000 egg layers. A PU can be smaller in size, but not larger than these limits. The limits were established after extensive observations of everything from behavior of the animals and how that deteriorates after a certain point, to the ranging habits which are completely different for meat birds than for egg layers.

Our standard prohibits the use of industrial Cornish broilers or other breeds that have lost their ability to range and display natural chicken behaviors. The standard also includes the sourcing of grain both for ground-up feed and sprouting. The grain protocol is still under development, but it will require a transition to alley-cropped agroforestry systems, rotations, cover cropping and other practices that restore soil and draw down carbon at scale. This is not a political statement—it is the foundation of profitable regenerative farms. Our aim is a fully regenerative supply chain, starting with what kinds of grains we feed the poultry to how they are grown.

Economic Unit

With the productivity-per-PU established and after further study of the cost and operating margin calculations, we estimate the number of PUs needed to build a family farm. Every farmer will have a different number of PUs based on the farm manager’s projections. However, after raising many hundreds of flocks, we have developed a solid blueprint that farmers can use to plan their farm operations.

Other benefits farmers in our system are seeing are savings on groceries—a family can save upwards of $7,000 a year on food purchases by deploying this system on their farm. Farmers who deploy our poultry system not as the center of their operations, but as a supplement to other production systems, can save on fertilizer inputs and increase their income by selling chickens direct at a higher value to their existing customers.

In a regenerative agriculture design, the benefits come from many different production areas on the farm and throughout a region. Our approach is to treat each farmer as a unique economic unit and develop poultry-centered business plans that meet their needs without compromising the consistency, the integrity of the system, or the standard and the replicability across large landscapes. As a stand-alone operation, a farmer is highly vulnerable to a significant number of risks. That’s why aggregating producers throughout regions is central to the success of the regenerative poultry system strategy.

Economic Cluster

For a regenerative poultry farmer to succeed, the farm must have infrastructure support. This support comes in the form of what we call Economic Clusters. An economic cluster is formed by aggregating many economic units or farm operations in order to support regional system-level infrastructure. This infrastructure includes technical assistance such as veterinary services, agronomics, training, financing, branding, processing, marketing, and distribution.

The Economic Cluster is defined by a geographic set of boundaries, based mostly on economic considerations. Processing and value-added is the foundation of how to estimate the size of a cluster, especially for meat broilers. We estimate that a cluster under 1.25 million meat chickens and 25 million eggs cannot sustain a support infrastructure or compete in the marketplace.

The Economic Clusters form the foundation from which we plan to deploy a Midwest poultry-centered regenerative agriculture transition. To this end, we are in the process of organizing Regeneration Midwest, a coalition of 12 Midwestern states designed to serve as the foundation for this effort.

Farmers who want to join the system, or nonprofits willing to engage in state-level organizing within the Midwest states, may reach the organizers of Regeneration Midwest by emailing regenerationmidwest@gmail.com.

Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin is Chief Strategy Officer at Main Street Project , founding member of Regeneration International, and Director of Regeneration Midwest.

 

 

From the July | August 2018 Issue

 

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