Rural Enterprise Center

10 10 2008

by Michelle Manslee with edits from Megan Hines

Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin - by Michele MansleeAfter indulging in the much appreciated Albo chicken dish prepared by Luigi Sison, a plate-to-source quest brought us to a gravel road where hundreds of chickens pecked at the open ground and sounds of cooing and clucking filled the air. Next to it all, working with an intense concentration and devotion was the creator, Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin. Originally from Guatemala, Reginaldo followed his girlfriend, now his wife, to the United States in 1993 when she was accepted into the University of Minnesota.

A successful entrepreneur in Guatemala, Reginaldo learned to use his skills within the systems of the United States. Initially, they had planned to return home but after a rough three years of acclimating, he saw opportunities here that were not in Guatemala. His first project was the development of Peace Coffee, a fair trade coffee company sponsored by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) in Minneapolis, which is beneficial to both bean growers and the environment. In 1996, Reginaldo was named one of the Twin Cities’ International Citizens of the Year. His most recent project, The Rural Enterprise Center (REC), is a tool for Latino immigrants to help build relations with their new communities.

The program focuses on business building and planning for existing or new entrepreneurs by utilizing skills that Reginaldo recognizes as specific and unique to many Latino families. From his personal experience, Reginaldo knew that many Latino immigrants grew up farming and know how to work and care for the land. Conceived in the fall of 2007, REC is a poultry production and marketing operation. “It is a simple idea,” Reginaldo notes. When immigrating into a new country like America, it is very rare that a Latino will receive a position for which they are qualified elsewhere. When talking to Reginaldo about the current state of our nation, he did not seem worried. “The poultry operation is not complicated, but it is hard work. This is the real money right here,” he said as he pointed to his chickens. “People can stop doing many other things but they can’t stop eating.”

Rural Enterprise Center - by Michele MansleeReginaldo views the REC as an experimental project designed to act as a training center, working to create the initiative to support local families. To begin, a family locates a section of land on which to farm. The soil is then rented outright or a partnership is created between the two parties. If neither alternative is an option, the REC aids them in finding local financiers. REC founded its own cooperative, Hillside Farmer’s Co-op, to assist the families in paying for the start up production costs, namely birds and feed. Hillside Farmer’s Co-op also acts as a financial and supportive resource for developing farms. Additionally, the Hillside Farmer’s Co-op helps with larger investments and provides newcomers with examples on how to properly begin and maintain their farm while making their own business decisions. After the property is fenced and the chickens are fed, the family works the land until harvest.  When the meat is sold, the families keep 100 percent of the earnings because they are their own proprietors, which separates them from other bird operations.

This makes REC a non-profit organization, because their sole concern is that of the family, not profit like most other related businesses. For example, a human resource representative at Gold’n Plump said in an interview that “We own the birds, [they] own the building.” A fair deal at first, Gold’n Plump pays for all of the upkeep required to raise chicken, such as electricity, bedding and feed costs, while the farmer is solely responsible for the labor. The human resources representative quoted start up at $450,000.00 because the farmers must use their contractors to build the facilities, so in order to make a profit, the farmer must stay in business with them for at least 20 years to pay off the mortgage.

The structure of REC recycles money back into feeding the family, paying off investment loans and purchasing means to continue their own business. Ethically and financially, the partners involved receive what is best for them and are ensured a quality of care that is given to all aspects. “We learn from our mistakes so we don’t make the same one twice,” said Reginaldo. “If it isn’t good for the land, it isn’t good for the food.”

The Inquisitive Foul - by Michele MansleeUsing this approach benefits the environment and all other parties involved. As free-range and naturally grown meat, the chickens have generous room to roam and peck on locally grown feed as nature intended. In the process, the resident farmer is put to work, which circulates money throughout a community. Transportation costs are cut and consumers are liberated from all the harmful pesticides that are integral to commercially raised meats. Last season Reginaldo planted 450 hazelnut bushes to diversify the land. Not only do these plants have the potential to provide a supplementary income, but they also provide environmental benefits. The bushes provide shade for the chickens, which in turn fertilize the plants while roots work nutrients into the soil to prevent erosion. This way everyone involved is healthier, happier and doing their part to help, globally and locally.

REC mirrors only such morals, making them a strong benefactor in the rising appreciation and need for sustainable living. To make their product more available to consumers, the poultry farm received the Department of Agriculture food handler’s certificate, which opens the marketing channel to restaurants and other retailers. This is a considerable step for the farmers, hopefully telling of a significant increase in demand. Six families are currently involved with means to support themselves without having to worry if they are going to get laid off, or if their place of employment is going to go bankrupt.

It is uncomplicated projects like these that are going to solve the economic and environmental crisis. Breaking down the larger issues into smaller, more manageable ones can change the world. For their efforts, the Rural Enterprise Center has been given much deserved praise. They were recently published in The Compost, a Northfield publication, and Reginaldo was invited to eat lunch with the judges from America in Bloom, an organization that gives out awards and information to help improve quality of life in rural communities. Along with that, this past September, the Rural Enterprise Center hosted a business-training program for Latino’s in the southeastern part of Minnesota.

To view more photos, see the Rural Enterprise Center slideshow.

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