Nestled in Greenvale Township in Dakota County (southern metro) poultry, people and perennials are working together in hopes of fostering change in agricultural practices – and keeping it profitable, too.
For the past decade, Northfield’s Main Street Project has been researching innovative ways to sustain farmers, the land and the products they grow through regenerative agriculture.
The project purchased about 100 acres of land in Greenvale just over a year ago, and has begun working with farming partners to put their research into action and educate other professionals. Partnerships with farming experts and ecology researchers have worked to create a program that benefits those tilling the land and the land that gets tilled.
The concept, regenerative agriculture, is one that connects humans, the earth they tend to and the community they feed, explained Julie Ristau, Main Street Project’s chief operating officer.
“We’re not extracting those resources form our field,” Ristau said. “We’re trying to rebuild them so they’re there for future generations.”
“Regenerative agriculture is a way to work with the land in a way that provides nourishment for people that produces food without damaging the soil and the land in the process and helping it to heal to give you more in the long-term,” Rocky Casillas, community outreach coordinator at Main Street Project, further explained.
The project is also part of a widespread Midwestern movement called Regeneration Midwest, Ristau said, partnering other like-minded agricultural activists and innovators.
Chickens and perennial crops, such as hazelnuts and elderberries, work together to grow on the Greenvale farm.
The poultry traipses along with free range crops, adding a natural benefit to the plants as they grow. The chickens’ egg productions help keep the farm sustainable with a year-round product, while also eventually serving as food sources themselves.
As for the people, they work together, sustaining and tending to an expansive farm that is just taking off while offering education to other like-minded farmers.
Wil Crombie, director of communications for the project, was so inspired by the research, practices and techniques the regenerative agriculture farm was taking part in that he went onto create his own farm business, Regeneration Farms.
The business is a food company that works to echo the sustainable qualities of the regenerative farm into a free market world, creating what Crombie said is a for-profit system to take the research and qualities of regenerative agriculture and apply it to the most traditional reason to farm: a livelihood.
“Well, I think we definitely need more regenerative agriculture approaches,” Crombie said. “Animal agriculture as it stands today in the conventional realm is sometimes toxic or not the best welfare for the animals, so I think we need to move forward with a better model.”
Crombie has also been running Organic Compound, a homestead dedicated to educating and using organic practices with community members, friends and family, for the past seven years.
Industrial agriculture’s turn toward Centralized Animal Feeding Operations (or CAFOs) and the use of synthetic nutrients designed to “beef” up animals at a faster rate, Crombie said, have saturated the market with a concept that is unsustainable for the future of animals, crops and farmers.
Last year, Rocky Casillas, the project’s community outreach coordinator, helped Main Street launch the Sharing our Roots project, designed at providing fresh produce and food to immigrants and low-income families. The Latino communities in Faribault and Northfield are a large part of this program, Casillas added.
The program invited the families to participate in the harvest on a two-to-three-acre parcel adjacent to the regenerative demonstration farm, Casillas said. Together, the groups harvested 4,400 pounds of food in 2017.
“We thought it’d be more meaningful to invite them to the farm to harvest their own food,” Casillas said. “That way, they could spend time outdoors, and their kids can learn where food comes from.”
Though separate from Main Street’s regenerative program, the ideals of creating a self-sustaining system of agriculture and production, Casillas said, remain the same – and it continues to foster connections to agricultural education in the community.
Participants in the Sharing our Roots programs can continue to learn more about regenerative, organic and conventional farming practices through the initial program, and they are also invited to continue to become more involved, Casillas said, through various workshops and classes offered from Main Street.
“The people that we work with the most, one of the barriers is that they are undocumented or they have a language barrier, and the Latino population is one of the most exploited in conventional agriculture,” Casillas said. “Our thinking is that if we can help those that are most exploited in conventional agriculture become entrepreneurs and have their own businesses, then they are in a better standing.”
Casillas added that the education some families are learning builds off of practices they did growing up in their home country.
“Many of the people that I work with they grew up on small family farms in their home countries, so coming to the farm sort of reminds them of their childhood,” Casillas said. “Sharing our Roots is sort of a play on words, because we donate food, but we also talk about where we come from and where do we want to go together.”
The path moving forward, though, has become less clear for farmers that are now battling shaky trade grounds between the U.S. and various countries, such as China, Mexico and Canada. Farmers that were already working with low commodity prices on common farm products like milk, corn and soybeans are now faced with declining, narrowed markets and an oversupply.
The USDA recently announced a three-pronged solution, offering $12 billion in aid to farmers, to purchase over-supplied goods to donate to food banks and fostering stronger partnerships with farming programs.
Farmers have retaliated against the free aid, calling for a fair market to boost their farms, rather than the Band-Aid-like approach that’s been offered to cover the widening gap of trouble they are facing.
While Main Street Project’s regenerative agriculture farm is just one small piece of a sustaining method in its early phases, Ristau said supporting and encouraging farmers – even those whose homesteads have been the same for generations – to take on new practices is significant to shifting the industry.
“If we’re going to do a paradigm shift in our society, and if we’re going to support farmers in taking a few steps… we have to do that. We have to incentivize,” Ristau said. “Our government and our markets aren’t doing that.”
The shift in agriculture has to start local, Ristau said.
The chickens rely on feeding on local grains. Markets are impacted with local products. And now local farmers are relying on the regenerative model, too, according to Ristau.
“We have requests every week for people who want to try to build a production unit on their farm,” Ristau said, adding that they often hear questions from farmers about restoring natural hydrology and ways their crops can help sustain the chickens.
As for its own future, the Greenvale farm is looking to finish adding its coops and continue creating what Ristau called a “legacy farm,” geared toward education while serving as a living model for what could be.
Regardless of what it could be, what is right now is building off the community that the poultry, perennials and its people have built – or, rather, grown.
By Samantha Stetzer