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Can Farm Collectives Challenge Big Ag?

Can Farm Collectives Challenge Big Ag?


Starting any farm is a crapshoot, but Reginaldo and Amy Haslett-Marroquin went the hard way right from the start. In the fall of 2020, they bought 75 acres south of Minneapolis to expand their chicken-farming operation. Rather than take a guaranteed contract with one of the corporate brands, like Tyson or Pilgrim’s Pride, they’re raising organic broilers in an agroforestry system and marketing them under their own label, Tree-Range.

It seemed a foolhardy move. In the tightly concentrated US chicken industry, where just four companies account for about 55 percent of all the meat sold in the country, it’s tough for a solo farm to get its products into grocery stores. Most commercial chicken farmers raise birds under a contract with one of the big brands, which supply the chicks, feed, pharmaceuticals, and other necessities and then pay a set price to the producer. Farmers assume all the risk of raising the birds, but if things go well, they get a guaranteed paycheck.

But Reginaldo (known as Regi), a trained agronomist who emigrated from Guatemala when he was 25, wasn’t going solo. Before he and Amy decided to expand, he’d spent 13 years working a smaller chicken farm and building a regional network of farmers who were drawn to his agroforestry approach. That group now comprises seven committed chicken and grain producers representing more than 950 acres in southeastern Minnesota, plus a processing plant, a grain elevator, and support staff, and more farmers are lining up to join. The chicken business runs as a cooperative, and the larger group includes a nonprofit that owns infrastructure and leads legislative, advocacy, and training initiatives, as well as several other affiliated businesses not part of the co-op. Regi calls this extensive system a “collective.”

Together, they might make it. Covid-19 was tough on Regi’s group, as it was on everyone else, but it also helped prove that the collective’s business structure works: While big meat-packers struggled to keep their vertically integrated supply chains running in 2020, Tree-Range was able to rely on its own processing, transport, and marketing to sell to stores in Minneapolis and online meat-delivery services.

This short-chain approach proved resilient. Despite selling birds at premium prices—drumsticks commonly retail for $1 a pound, whereas Tree-Range drumsticks cost $3.99 a pound at Seward Community Co-op, which has three stores in Minneapolis—the collective did OK. Regi reports that by August of this year the brand had netted $250,000, a small number in the poultry world but a great start for a collective that is not yet in full production. And frankly, it’s a rousing success in an American system where over half of all farms report making no income at all.

“You have small farmers who somehow get into this illusion that, individually, they are somebody in the larger system, but they’re making a mistake,” Regi said in a video interview from his home in Northfield, Minn. “Individually, we’re not viable. We can be critical to the future of agriculture in the world, but only if we organize into large-scale systems of small farms.”

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