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This week’s Book of the Week feature is In the Shadow of Green Man, by Reginaldo (Regi) Haslett-Marroquin.
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From Chapter One: The Main Street Project
“We’re not against anything,” Regi said, as he walked me down the closely planted rows of corn. “It’s not about being anti-industry, or anti-technology. Look, here’s a row of hazelnuts, and there’s another one—that’s twenty feet. You want to drive a combine harvester through here? You can. It’ll pick up the few weeds as well as the corn and sort it all out; it’s what they’re designed to do. This isn’t about going back to the pre-industrial age—we depend on science and technology to advance after all, and build new systems. Regenerative farming is about looking at the advances we’ve made and creating a holistic system that takes the best parts and gets rid of the worst. Monocultures and synthetic inputs are killing the earth, and small farmers specifically, so we need to engineer a new agriculture system.
“What we stand for is a system that empowers anyone to feed themselves and earn a living, for a system that regenerates the earth rather than robbing it. To build that sort of system we can’t compromise productivity and some of the efficiencies we have achieved over the last four decades, as long as they do not violate the principles of our regenerative design.
“I’ve got as much density of corn plants here as a farmer would put in a conventional field, and I don’t have to till or fertilize—the chicken manure takes care of that. I don’t have to weed as the chickens eat up all of the ground cover and on top of that, they control bugs that might attack my corn, not that I am proposing that this is the way to produce the corn we produce today conventionally. The key is to first remove the demand for corn as animal feed by growing larger animals the way they were designed by nature, mostly on pastures, then grow smaller amounts of corn as originally intended and turn it into actual food.” As we walk and talk he does pull weeds, out of habit and something to do with his hands more than anything else. “If we were to look at this field and think about the corn only, one can say that I lose some ground because of the chicken coops and the hazelnut rows,but even then, I’m still producing seventy-five percent of the corn the neighbor produces conventionally as a monoculture, and that’s compared to a good year. My soil is better, my plants are healthier, but let’s say I add my real output from the same space. On top of the corn I’ve got the hazelnuts, I’ve got the chickens, and we’re experimenting with intercropping elderberries or other productive brush that does not mind the hazelnut shade and have the height to stay off the chickens’ vertical range. And my input costs are lower. We’re competitive with the industry model, but more importantly, we’re growing food efficiently, if measured from the real currency of efficiency, energy in, versus energy out.”
At the end of the field there were a few rows of corn in worse shape than the rest, “This was an experiment, most of the field we weeded once when the corn was just starting. These two rows we didn’t touch.” The stalks were thinner, shorter and yellowed, and flowering weeds sprouted around them. “We did nothing, but feel the cobs—they’re fully productive, the kernels are well developed, the tassels are healthy. That’s because the soil is so good, the chickens have been building it for years. This row,” he pointed to a row of corn as healthy as the rest of the field, “we didn’t weed this one either, but what we did was come in and mow it once the corn was almost a foot tall. We mowed it pretty high, and the corn came right back; it came back much faster than the weeds so all it had to fight were the grasses. Much less work than weeding, and just as effective. In poor soils weeds would grow faster and choke the corn, but if the soil is healthy, the corn—a grass itself which has lost its wild genes after being domesticated—will out compete the wild grass, at least in this place for these rows, that much is true.”
“How come that’s not just the way things are done,” I asked, “if it’s so much faster and as effective…”
“People are taught to think about food in certain ways, about farming in certain ways, and it’s hard to break out of that mindset, besides the industrial system does not care about pollution, and actually spraying a field to kill weeds and insects is much easier and faster and probably more effective than what we do. The consequences of doing that is where the problem is, but because it’s always into the future, the direct consequences of industrial agricultural practices always get turned into a conversation about something else, like feeding the world and cheap food, neither one possible through industrial agriculture in net terms. We try to look at things in a different way. For example, when I was in ag school in Guatemala they taught us that it was bad for corn to grow this tall. The wind would blow it over. But we thought, what if we created a friendly environment for the corn and let it grow, what would it need? Plenty of nutrients for a strong stalk, we don’t till the soil so the roots have a firm grip, and the hazelnuts serve as a windbreak. Plants want to produce; we just have to give them the cues that it’s safe to do it. It’s the same thing with the chickens, we watched them, learned from them, and we’ve adapted to suit their needs instead of forcing them into an environment that we think is somehow better.”
“What did you learn from the chickens?”
“Well they’re jungle animals, but they also venture into tall grasses where they can also find cover under bushes like hazelnuts to keep the sun off of them and to hide from hawks. They eat at ground level and they want bugs, tender shoots and fresh sprouts, and to scratch and run, so we manage the ranging paddocks to give them just that and ensure that those crops also give us nutritionally and economically valuable products.”
“It seems so obvious.”
“It is,” Regi shrugged, “but no one is doing this on any kind of scale.”
Next to the cornfield is a bare patch of ground scattered over with dry husks of plants, “We had to harvest beans in a hurry,” Regi said. “It was raining and if we didn’t get to them they would rot on the vine.”
“How many beans did you get?”
“Out of three hundred square feet? Two hundred pounds dry, enough to feed three families for a year.” Regi bent and pulled up one of the dead plants, the dry pods rattled against each other. “Seeds,” he said, answering a silent question. “If you wanted to feed people then you planted black beans and corn, that’s all we needed as a base meal when I was growing up. The beans are easy; pick them, dry them, sort them. In the first months you don’t even have to pre-soak them, just boil and eat. Corn takes work but you can do so much with it. They both keep forever if you’re careful. And we don’t use GMOs so we save some of the plants to seed next year. These are descendants of plants I was growing in Minneapolis.”
“Those were home grown?” I asked, as memories flooded back to me of hand-tossed corn tortillas wrapped in a towel and served around their yellow-walled dining room, of creamy black beans with a nuance and depth of flavor that spoke to me even as a child. I’ve tried over the years to recreate those meals but no matter how many hours I spend soaking and cooking the beans, it’s just not the same.
“Yes. We all went out and harvested them together, the kids always loved that. The family bringing in the food we’ll eat for the next year, it becomes a sort of spiritual experience. Anyway, this plot isn’t much to look at now, let’s see the garden.”
The garden is packed with all kinds of vegetables. Volunteer garlic sprouts in and around tomato vines, and kale grows in the shade of more elderberry bushes heavy with fruit. We stopped and picked cherry tomatoes while Regi talked and I tried not to be distracted by the little explosions of flavor.
“That’s about it. This garden goes through cycles of fertilization and weeding by chickens. I’m getting new asparagus shoots in August, and the potatoes we planted fought off an infestation of beetles. We didn’t spray, we didn’t kill the beetles, we just planted the potatoes after the first hatch of beetles had gone looking for potatoes somewhere else; then those that came back were a bit late to cause the extreme damage that would have killed the potatoes and they were healthy enough to keep growing and producing.
“Of course no system will work without pollinators,” he waved his hand at wooden boxes with three active beehives set up on stilts just a little ways away. “We let the chickens under there too, they help keep parasites away.”
I popped another tomato in my mouth and thought this was about as close to heaven as I could get.
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About the Author
Reginaldo “Regi” Haslett-Marroquin is the principal architect of the innovative poultry-centered regenerative agriculture model that is at the heart of Main Street Project’s work. He leads Main Street Project’s engineering and design work and currently oversees the implementation of restorative blueprints for communities in the United States, Mexico, and Guatemala.
A native Guatemalan, Regi received his agronomy degree from the Central National School of Agriculture, studied at the Universidad de San Carlos in Guatemala, and graduated from Augsburg College in Minneapolis with a major in international business administration and a minor in communications. After immigrating to the U.S. in 1992, he served as a consultant for the United Nations Development Program’s Bureau for Latin America and as an advisor to the World Council of Indigenous Peoples. He was a founding member of the Fair Trade Federation in 1994 and supported numerous international social enterprising initiatives. He also served as director of the Fair Trade Program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy from 1995 to 1998.
Regi lives in Northfield Minnesota with his wife, Amy, and their children, William, Ana Nicktae, and Lars Decarlo.
More From this Author:
Check out Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin’s extensive audio collection here.
Similar Books of Interest:
Farming in the Presence of Nature, by Athena Tainio
My Search for Traces of God, by Philip S. Callahan
Lessons in Nature, by Malcolm Beck