This project focused on developing and delivering Spanish-language training to low-income Latino immigrants in the Northfield, Minnesota area. The objective was to provide the knowledge, skills, hands-on farming practices and support needed for aspiring farmers to successfully launch production of natural, free-range poultry as part of an integrated, sustainable farming system. Thirty-five trainees graduated from three training classes offered through the agripreneur training program.
Following the first training class, a new business incubator hands-on training component was launched for interested graduates. Three specially designed year-round poultry buildings and surrounding free-range paddocks were constructed with trainee and community support. Combined with a seasonal building/paddock, four poultry production units were made available to training graduates. The incubator phase includes land/facility access, access to no-collateral/no-interest Grow a Farmer micro-loans to cover the costs of chicks and feed, and production and marketing support. Three new farmers have completed six to twelve-month incubator rotations, with four additional participants scheduled for upcoming months.
The lack of cost-effective, regional poultry processing is among the biggest challenges for new farmers in the incubator phase and beyond, impacting their ability to profit without a training program subsidy. As training and regional system development continues, addressing these barriers is a high priority for the program and all community partners.
Latinos are the fastest growing minority population in the Midwest – up 75 percent since the last decade in rural and urban Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma alone (U.S. Census, 2010). Nationally, Latinos are 30 percent more likely to become entrepreneurs than established populations of previous immigrants (U.S. Small Business Administration, 2008).
But in Minnesota, more than 24 percent of Latinos live in poverty, compared to less than 12 percent of all Minnesotans (American Community Survey, 2011). From our own experience, we know that many Latino families in rural southeastern Minnesota earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. So despite the potential, aspiring Latino farmers in Southeast Minnesota are faced with multiple structural barriers to participating in such an agricultural system – other than as low-wage laborers. Those barriers include lack of access to land, financing, markets and support infrastructure, and to training and technical assistance.
The agripreneur training program was designed to break down those barriers, building on participants’ assets and experience, and providing a continuum of culturally compatible support and resources for aspiring Latino farmers working to improve their economic situation. Importantly, the training connects to a larger, scalable sustainable agricultural system of symbiotically connected products with free-range, natural poultry at the center.
As this project was being designed, the Partnership for Southern Minnesota Regional Competitiveness Project published research findings that recognized immigrant-led small-scale sustainable food production as an opportunity for future regional economic growth, especially because of it’s proximity to the Twin Cities market of local, sustainable food purchasers/eaters.
The overall objective of the Agripreneur Training Center project was to develop and implement an experiential learning process for aspiring low-income Latino farmers in the Northfield, Minnesota area. Training would allow participants to increase knowledge, skills, experience, and access to the support needed to launch their own free-range poultry production unit – as part of a larger sustainable agriculture system – as well as increase their family’s access to healthier, affordable food.
• Develop classroom and field training curriculum
• Develop production standards and protocols
• Secure physical resources and supplies for training center
• Conduct outreach and Spanish-language training for 14 – 18 participants
• Increase awareness of training program and value within the community
Longer-term goals are focused on supporting training graduates as they launch their own or partnership poultry operations, continuing to improve their economic situation and self-worth, and increasing their participation in family/community life. In addition, community awareness, support and participation in the program, and of program participants, will increase.
TRAINING OUTREACH: Participant outreach activities have included individual meetings and calls, informational flyer distribution, and public information sessions. For the last two training classes offered, outreach staff also visited local churches, soccer practices and other nearby venues with high concentrations of Latino families. Past training participants are also active recruiters within their community. We estimate that it’s necessary to reach out to at least 50 people in order to recruit a class of eight.
CURRICULUM: Spanish-language training curriculum was co-developed with experienced curriculum design consultants and staff, and included an introductory field-training component. Classroom training focused on elements of launching a successful farm business: operations management, human resources management, financial management, marketing and communications management, and support infrastructure.
The curriculum was revised after each of three training classes. Based on participant feedback, more emphasis was placed on farm business planning at an introductory level. Additional changes are being incorporated to reflect experiences with low-literacy participants.
Classes were held on Saturdays over an eight-week period to accommodate the majority of participants who worked during the week. Field training was conducted at the training/incubator farm sites.
A basic Spanish-language production field guide was developed for trainees. A more detailed Spanish/English production guide for future trainers and established farmers/mentors is currently undergoing final editing by a retired extension educator.
BUSINESS INCUBATOR: A significant activity following completion of the first training class was the development and implementation of a second phase of training: the business incubator. The goal of this step was to give classroom training graduates hands-on, staff-supported experience in implementing a full cycle of poultry business management – and begin to grow their family’s income level.
While part of the incubator program, participants have access to farm land and year-round poultry-production facilities; ongoing technical, production and marketing support from staff, and access to no-interest loans to finance the up-front costs of chicks and feed through the newly created Grow a Farmer micro-loan fund.
Participants sign an incubator agreement that describes responsibilities and arrangements. Incubator participants have the option to sell their processed poultry directly to the program; the program has made local marketing arrangements with businesses and direct drop sites for products branded as “Main Street Farmers.”
STIPENDS: Stipends were offered to encourage continued participation and were given to training participants upon graduation. Once the business incubator program was launched, stipends for the classroom training were reduced, and additional stipends were created for incubator participants as they participated in various milestones in the production cycle (such as processing and transportation), and to help offset the personal expense of travel to and from incubator sites.
In 2011, 21 participants graduated from the first training class. Seven graduated from the second class in 2012, and seven additional trainees graduated in the first half of 2013. Among participants, only 15 percent had family incomes of more than $20,000 a year. Nearly all worked one or more jobs to provide for their families.
Our experience has been that a smaller class size allows more interaction and one-on-one support during training – which has been important, because many participants have low literacy levels. Participants have been generous in sharing their feedback to help improve curriculum for future groups; we’re in the process of making additional important changes to incorporate the latest round of comments and our own training observations.
Concerns about travel expenses and work/family conflicts made it difficult for participants to commit to a classroom/field training program of longer than eight weeks. We discovered that this amount of time was not sufficient to cover the business training material in depth, and have come to view this training as more of a solid introduction to a poultry farming business. As a recent graduate explained, “Yes, I think the training classes went well, even though it was a little short . . . but we were able to learn a lot in what relates to raising chickens, and how to manage a business.”
For the new business incubator portion of the training, three individuals have participated so far; four more are ready to begin this summer. The experience has allowed the producers to raise several flocks and to learn how to address different challenges that poultry production can present, such as illness, weather conditions, and adjustments to care. Participants have had varying degrees of success in meeting flock growth goals, and have needed support in managing coop conditions.
Participant experiences have provided us with helpful information to share with new trainees, highlighting those aspects of flock care that need more attention. It has also given us a chance to provide new trainees with hands-on involvement in loading and paddock care that will serve them well as they begin farming on their own. Trainees have mentioned that without the opportunity of the incubator program, it would have been very difficult for them to begin production at this time. Financing for a coop and the operation costs are the most significant obstacles. The incubator program allows them to experience production with very limited risk.
As part of developing the business incubator, we also launched the Grow a Farmer micro-loan fund. In 2012, we were able to raise more than $22,000 in small donations for the fund by leveraging an initial gift from the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. This fundraising effort engaged many additional members of the community in support of the project, including the board of Just Food Co-op in Northfield and Bon Appetite, the food service for the local colleges.
Another important step in the development of this program was our decision to support marketing arrangements for incubator participants. Staff was able to secure markets with Bon Appetite, and set up several direct-to-consumer drop sites. This allowed participants to initially concentrate on production skills – and allowed us to begin building market demand for their products. Participants continue to be encouraged to be involved in their marketing and to use the incubation period for their business development as well as production experience. Main Street Project’s plan is to continue organizing graduates so that in the not so distant future, a cooperative or other arrangement will replace the program’s role in marketing.
During this project, three year-round poultry buildings with surrounding free-range paddocks were constructed. Along with a seasonal building/paddock, those four production units are available to incubator participants – and also serve as training sites. The units were constructed with help of college students, community members, training participants, and staff, offering another opportunity for community connections and involvement.
The agripreneur training program for Latino immigrants was revamped to include a business incubator phase for interested graduates. This was identified as a critical step in preparing new farmers for success as producers moving forward on their own or in partnership with established farmers in the area. This phase of training requires intensive, ongoing support and accompaniment from program staff.
Selling natural, free-range chicken raised by program participants established the beginnings of a larger market opportunity for farmers’ products produced through this integrated sustainable system. Community members are receptive to supporting new farmers through micro-loans and by direct purchase of products.
The natural, free-range poultry production process, including a year-round building design, was tested and determined to be economically viable – provided that barriers such as cost-effective, inspected poultry processing can be addressed and overall production rises to a volume that makes smaller-scale processing profitable. As the program moves forward, this is among the highest priorities if we are to engage more immigrant – and established farmers in this system and improve profit margins.
Even as we continue to explore solutions to the processing challenge, more established farmers in the region are indicating an interest in participating in the system in a variety of ways: making land available, launching production units on their farmland, working with training graduates in a potential new farmer apprenticeship arrangement. An outreach partnership with the Cannon River Watershed Partnership is in discussion, to engage those farmers/landowners in providing new farmer apprenticeship opportunities and at the same time improve the local ecology.
With current conditions, training graduates participating in the business incubator phase are able to realize a small profit. However, with limited production volumes and current processing costs, and the learning curve of new producers, the training program is subsidizing a portion of their costs – up to 10 percent per flock. These facts further highlight the processing barrier as a critical challenge to resolve.
Because natural free-range poultry production is one component of an integrated system, incorporating by-products (manure) into production of other products will improve incomes for new farmers. The last training class offered included an introduction to production of three specific crops that thrive in cold climate conditions and are part of the ethnic food traditions of the Latino community: garlic and onions, dry edible beans (pinto and black), and small short-season grains. Timing of these crops aligns with manure availability, the need for crop rotation, and farmer labor demands.
The key to expanding the production system model are 1) widespread adoption of the system protocols, developed as part of this effort, and 2) access to cost-effective processing infrastructure. For current and future trainees, this is the system they have learned and practiced in the business incubator phase. For established farmers, we have made some inroads by partnering to establish incubator sites that allow for first-hand observation and experience. Additional outreach is being conducted through formal networks like the Cannon River Watershed Partnership and informal farmer-networks.
Educational & Outreach Activities
We regularly shared information about the training program and progress/challenges with a variety of people in the field and beyond, through social media, newsletters and presentations. A few highlights:
— A staff member plus a past training participant conducted a sustainable free-range poultry workshop in Spanish, simultaneously translated into Somali, Hmong and other languages at the well-attended Immigrant and Minority Farmers Conference in St. Paul, MN in 2012.
— The program director presented the program to students and faculty at both Carleton and St. Olaf Colleges multiple times during the past year. As a result of those connections, students at Carleton completed a research study on the use and benefits of probiotics and medicinal herbs on free-range poultry.
— The program director presented the sustainable system and training approach at the Healthy Farms, Healthy People state meeting in Marshalltown, Iowa in 2012.
— Testimony to the Minnesota Senate Agriculture and Economics Committee in 2012 reinforced the need for microloan access for immigrant and minority farmers – and important first step in removing structural barriers to diverse participation in Minnesota’s food and agriculture system.
–A detailed poultry production guide, for use with trainers and established farmers interested in system, is currently being edited by a retired extension educator in partnership with the Southeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership. To receive a copy of the completed guide, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Areas needing additional study
Current processing arrangements enable Main Street Project to facilitate the delivery of well-packaged, USDA inspected products to market, and at a discount from normal rates. However, transport distances and other costs must be brought down for markets to expand. Much work has been done with two alternative processing facilities. In both cases, proposed volumes would guarantee processors the flow needed to warrant expansion, and a price consideration from them would enable new producers to increase those volumes. This is being researched collaboratively as part of regional food and agriculture systems approach.
USDA inspected mobile processing continues to be explored as an alternative for new individual producers, but so far this option appears to deliver limited results, primarily for direct sales and personal use.