Economics/Class Relations

The Growing Revolution: Can Farm Collectives Challenge Big Ag?

By Dean Kuipers, The Nation

What will it take for an emerging patchwork of co-ops, food hubs, and farming collectives to 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.”

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