Main Street Project has a goal of “deploying an alternative, small-scale sustainable poultry-based system that is accessible and economically viable for aspiring Latino and other immigrant farmers.” What led the organization to this specific focus?
Main Street Project’s work on just, sustainable agriculture started in 2005 with a collaboration on an ambitious four-state, multi-year community building initiative called Raíces (roots)—organizing primarily with Latino youth and adults in diverse rural communities. Problem solving, bridge building, storytelling, empowerment, equity—the powerful goals of the Raíces program became the cornerstone of subsequent Main Street Project program efforts with rural and urban communities.
Since then, we’ve taken that experience and sharpened our strategic focus to work on building a sustainable food and agriculture economy that offers pathways out of poverty for the low-wage, primarily Latino workforce. We’ve done this by developing new models of sustainable production systems that are accessible and affordable and provide opportunities for ownership and control that are key to building rural family and community prosperity.
In 2011, we launched a pilot effort in Northfield, Minnesota to develop and test an approach for establishing small-scale poultry farms operated by Latino residents. We designed and implemented a Spanish-language training program, established local poultry farm incubator sites, and developed and served local markets. Dozens of aspiring Latino free-range poultry farmers have graduated from the program, and we have tested and refined our model to increase its environmental, economic, and health impacts.
In 2013 we restructured our organization, directing all of our energies toward replacing the extreme inequities of the food system. Working with farmers, agricultural and environmental scientists, and the immigrant community, we are building the infrastructure for an alternative food system that thrives on cultivating the potential of its human and ecological communities.
Main Street Project aims to build the next generation of farmers. What challenges do you think this next generation will face in terms of climate change?
We are witnessing the early devastation of a world wracked by climate change. Persistent droughts in California and wildfires throughout the West are daily reminders of the weather extremes that some refer to as the “new normal”. While the worst effects of climate change – for example, rising sea levels engulfing low-lying areas like Florida and Manhattan – will likely not occur until well into the future, the inflection point of this devastation is our food system, and it is happening now.
As currently constructed, the food and agriculture system is failing to produce our basic material needs and leaving us incredibly vulnerable to the large natural and economic shocks we are seeing today. Despite advancing agricultural technology increasing per acre productivity, food prices are still increasing. The per-calorie cost of food is rising, even as the quality of those calories is deteriorating. And the industrial food system, with its emphasis on monoculture cropping systems and large scale confinement livestock, is creating conditions that actually lead to these distorted weather patterns, distorted biological processes, and the destruction of soil. The system isn’t just unsustainable – it is a threat to our survival.
The next generation of farmers faces an industrial system that is collapsing. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that consumers are waking up to the problems and stepping up in the marketplace. They are paying for those qualities of local, fresh and healthy foods and supporting next generation farmers and agripreneurs as they adapt and innovate production and distribution systems to serve to these growing local and regional markets.
Through your regional food system work, what have you learned about the climate benefits of locally controlled food systems?
Producing food, at its core, is a simple process of energy conversion. Industrial scale models are energy (and capital) intensive by definition and highly inefficient when you add up all the costs of production, processing and distribution in a globalized market. Shipping lettuce from drought ravaged California to winter markets in the Midwest and Eastern US is a classic example of what cheap fossil fuels have made possible and the link to our current climate problems are obvious.
By contrast, locally controlled food systems have a much smaller energy footprint on both the production and the distribution sides of the equation. Local food systems are smaller in scale and more geared towards human consumption (think fresh produce, eggs, value-added products). They tend to be more labor intensive with a long-term commitment to building soil health and increasing biodiversity as the basis for efficiency and resilience. Added to that is a growing body of evidence that healthy soils have the potential to be a powerful carbon capture mechanism, and by extension a powerful antidote to climate change.