Farmers raise chickens on the Rural Enterprise Center's model farm in southeastern Minnesota. (Courtesy Rural Enterprise Center)
A new project by the Rural Enterprise Center aims to develop a new farming model that will create economically and environmentally sustainable farms.
The think tank says growing economic inequities and a reliance on environmentally unsustainable farming practices are working against the current food production system.
Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, the director of the Rural Enterprise Center, says the way we produce food relies on cheap labor and until farmers can get a fair income, rural America will continue to hollow out.
"We need to rearrange the factors in the food and ag system so that communities thrive as they become food producers rather than being drained out of resources," Haslett-Marroquin said. He also asserts that farms today use more energy than they produce, and the system won't be able to continue indefinitely.
Those are some hefty claims, but Haslett-Marroquin says the project they're developing will back them up.
In brainstorming how to develop a more sustainable farm, he said they wanted a project that would give them the highest return on investment in terms of both energy and income.
"To us it's poultry, not just because it's one of the main sources of protein, but also because livestock is critical in balancing the energy equation in farming," Haslett-Marroquin said.
That's because livestock produce manure, which can be used in the form of fertilizer.
The Rural Enterprise center has a small experimental site in Northfield, Minn., where they're building an incubator farm. They're raising chickens in units of 1,500 birds, processing on site and selling the manure to local vegetable operations. The farm is run by workers trained by the think tank, many of whom are Hispanic and have worked as farm laborers but want more of a leadership role in farming.
The project is funded by grants, including support by the Kellogg Foundation. Haslett-Marroquin said they secured about $1 million for 2010. The new system they develop has to be applicable to any rural region of the country, and can’t just succeed because of infrastructure specific to Minnesota.
The project is exploring partnering with researchers at Iowa State University to test the farm's food productivity and environmental impact. It's important that an evaluation of their proposed system happen on the working farm, Haslett-Marroquin said, not just in a control situation isolated from real marketplace conditions.
In addition to testing economic viability, Haslett-Marroquin said they've identified about 50 indicators they'd want to research including, "pollution, nitrates, run-off, carbon sequestration, soil fertility, micro biology, soil infrastructure and suspended organic compounds on (nearby) waterways."
It has to be scientific, he said, to determine if this system they're proposing is any better than what he calls conventional systems.
They also want to analyze the farm’s output. "What does it deliver at the end of the line? How much food does it deliver? Are we moving forward or are we not doing anything better here?" Haslett-Marroquin said.
Whether or not the proposed system is economically viable will be determined by the marketplace. But I wanted to know more about Haslett-Marroquin's claims that conventional agriculture uses more energy than it produces. (Energy a farm produces often amounts to the energy created in the form of food and fertilizer.)
"In terms of just energy intensity, we do in today's modern farming rely more on purchased energy inputs than we did 60, 70 years ago,” said Mark Hanna, an ag and biosystems engineer at Iowa State University who studies ways to reduce on-farm energy use. “Back in the days of growing feed for horses, using actual horse power instead of tractor, you were growing your own feed.”
The energy balance of a farm depends more on how an individual operator runs the farm rather than the scale of the farm itself, Hanna said. But he agrees that in some cases our current economic system doesn't take into account the whole life cycle cost of food production. For example, he said, there may be some long-term costs to greenhouse gas emissions that we aren't currently taking into account.
That ties into what Haslett-Marroquin and the Rural Enterprise Center are out to discover -- if they can develop a system that's more energy efficient, that's financially sustainable for all the workers involved, and that’s economically viable as a business.