The Chicken and the Egg of Economic Opportunity for Immigrants in the Midwest

A group working to support the rights of immigrants in the Midwest asks some tough questions: What does it take to unlock the entrepreneurial spirit of a people living in a new culture? What are the strategies that provide opportunity to those with few economic resources? Can you raise chickens in a profitable manner in Southeast Minnesota? Maybe, says the Main Street Project.

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Finding workers willing to spend long hours at a repetitive task in exchange for relatively low wages is a common need identified by many farmers and food processing companies throughout the U. S. agriculture sector. Often, food processors have looked to immigrants, primarily from Mexico, to fill this labor void.

With President Trump’s election, the proposed calls for a border wall and increase in deportation of “illegals,” immigrant laborers, and the communities where they have located, are worried about an uncertain future.

But to many rural communities, the current debate is familiar territory. “You go back to 2006, to 2007, those were terrible times,” said Niel Ritchie of  the Main Street Project. “We were seeing the same thing as we are now. Immigrants were scared, worried about raids and deportations. People all over the country were in a scramble.”

By that time, Main Street Project was providing entrepreneurship development support in a variety of places, hoping to link services and training with immigrants’ economic and human potential. “But entrepreneurship is a difficult thing when you’re a target,” Richie said.

At the time, Main Street Project was working in four rural communities with meat processing plants: Willmar, Minnesota; Marshalltown, Iowa; Hood River, Oregon; and Jerome, Idaho. These were the same places targeted by ICE, the U. S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement division. ICE agents coordinated a series of detentions and deportations, creating chaos for immigrant laborers and their workplaces.

What Ritchie called “terrible times” eased a bit during the Obama administration. Ritchie’s organization dug in to figure out what strategies might help Latino and Hispanic entrepreneurs become a fixture on Main Streets across the region.

One possible solution revolves around the humble chicken. Main Street Project’s “Poultry-Centered Regenerative Agriculture” Model is an exploration of small business creation through agriculture. It’s also one of the best fits for limited resource farmers, as small-flock poultry production is possible even for those with limited capital to invest in their operation.

“It all got started with a conversation about a community garden,” Ritchie said. “Some of the gardeners asked about finding a spot to raise some chickens. So we figured it out. They scrapped together a chicken house and off we went. They produced a small flock of Cornish-cross broilers at the garden, and we had a community day where we processed the birds and then distributed them around to other community gardeners.”

Niel Ritchie.
Niel Ritchie.

That small first step has grown and changed over the past six years. The model centers around a home base or barn for the birds. This structure provides protection from weather and predators for the birds. Doors are opened during the day, allowing the poultry to roam and scratch for food in the surrounding landscape. A variety of crops, from annual plantings to perennial fruit and nut crops, are being explored as possible food sources for poultry forage.

Main Street Project’s work on the poultry model is led by Chief Strategy Officer Regi Haslett-Marroquin, a native of Guatemala. From Southeast Minnesota, Main Street Project staff coordinate with research and development partners in South Dakota, Mexico, and Guatemala.

Currently, the Minnesota-grown meat and eggs are being sold to Bon Appetit, a catering service that provides meals on college campuses in the region.

But Ritchie says that the excitement created by the poultry production efforts, while warranted, has generated more questions than answers. “We’re still in the exploration phase, we’re trying it out.”

While the group sees a large demand for locally raised poultry and eggs, there is a lack of local infrastructure for processing and delivery. Ritchie said this effort is going to have fill those needs. “The biggest issue is how to put the farmer at the center of it all. Can people really make a living, have a decent income, by raising food in this manner? The farmer has to make money.”

Main Street Project is looking at a variety of structures for building out their model. “There is a real opportunity for ownership here, for cooperatives, that can develop around the farmer-driven system,” Ritchie said.

Working within the culture of immigrants, who are primarily from Mexico, is an important part of the enterprise. “Raising poultry, small flocks of birds, that’s something done by the women,” Ritchie said. “So that’s also an important element of our work. It’s not just about supporting a thriving community of immigrants. It’s about making sure that women are in the driver’s seat.”

Even though Ritchie emphasizes the slow and deliberate growth of their poultry efforts, Main Street Project has launched an ambitious campaign to develop a 100-acre demonstration and training farm. The fundraising effort is rolling out and the planning process is moving ahead with staff support.

“The human potential, the capacity of the people, the knowledge and expertise are all here. The labor is here, the need is here,” Ritchie said. “What we’re asking now is the possibility for imagination. Is there a way to imagine ownership and control for farmers in a rebuilt agricultural system? Can this happen in the same place, in the same system, that has stranded people in the first place?”

 

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