NORTHFIELD, Minn. – Immigrants who have flocked to rural communities following the dream of putting their agricultural backgrounds and expertise to good work have run into a road block. According to advocates for people with limited income and resources, large scale, conventional farming has left most of them in poverty, and taken its toll on the land as well.
Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, director of the Rural Enterprise Center, says his organization is aiming to turn the tide of rural poverty in southern Minnesota by training low-income families to be agricultural entrepreneurs, or "agripreneurs." The keys to success, he says, are a focus on sustainable farming, and capitalizing on resources already available.
"The idea is – all of these people work together to reproduce their local resources in a way that is more efficient and generates more wealth for their community."
Haslett-Marroquin gives the example a local poultry producer who markets manure to a vegetable grower, who works with another person in the group to make salsa from the vegetables, who in turn works with area restaurants to purchase and distribute the product, and so on. The idea is rapidly catching on. The Rural Enterprise Center received a donation of 50 acres of land near Northfield from an area businessman, and the organization plans to turn five acres into a community farm and training facility for its agripreneurs.
Jim Blaha, director of the Community Action Center of Northfield, says the agripreneur program has given hope to many low-income families, who in turn have given back to the community.
"It’s an opportunity for people to produce themselves; to share with the market, and to give away something that the people themselves produced. They couldn’t make a $500 check available to us, but they could make chickens available to us for sharing through the food shelf. That, to me, is kind of a full package."
The Rural Enterprise Center focused first on poultry production because it requires minimal investments and allows maximum returns. Some critics have called the Center’s work radical, but Blaha sees it as innovative.
"As they expand on a regional basis, it seems like that model of farming offers not only poultry operators some hope, but the model of energy conservation and ecological farming with a cadre of cooperative members offers a lot more possibilities for imagination of new models of agriculture."
The Center’s managers say that is precisely what they have in mind. The organization’s programs are not limited to immigrant families; anyone living in poverty is eligible to participate.