Latino 'agripreneurs' move from workers to owners

Maria Sosa
Maria Sosa in her black bean crop in Northfield. This was the Mexican native's first year working with her own crop. She anticipates making about $4,000 from the sale of the black beans this year.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

Early in the day at a small farm just outside town, Maria Sosa approaches several dozen rows of black bean plants that cover about two acres.

On her first visit in two weeks, Sosa, of Owatonna, shuffles through the knee-high, leafy plants to check on the beans hanging below. The beans need to be fully dried before she harvests them, so she's trying to figure out when to come back.

"These aren't ready yet," she said. "They're still tender. They need more sun."

Sosa admits that a couple years ago she didn't know much about growing beans - or other crops. But her dad had been a farmer in Mexico and when she moved to the United States in 1995, she yearned to follow in that tradition.

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"Nobody wanted to do anything," she said. "I'd tell people 'Let's do something in agriculture, a co-op for Latinos.' But nobody wanted it."

Fortunately for Sosa, she found an organization that helps immigrant farmers start up small farming operations in the region.

Three years ago she met Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin. As the director of the budding Rural Enterprise Center, he was just starting to train Latinos to grow organic vegetables and raise free-range chickens in Northfield.

Black bean plants
Maria Sosa's holds some of her black bean plants. Sosa, who's working with the Northfield-based Rural Enterprise Center, planted about 2 acres of black beans in 2010.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

Sosa was one of his first so-called "agripreneurs." She learned the ropes quickly and now runs a $30,000 black bean operation here and on another farm in Cannon Falls. That's a lot of money for someone who for 15 years lived on an annual income of just about half that amount.

"It's been a huge leap," she said. "I never thought I'd be able to do it."

Vegetable gardening is just one aspect of this ambitious project. Haslett-Marroquin wants to tackle sustainable farming, healthy eating and rural poverty issues -- all at once.

The way he sees it, if hundreds of thousands of Latinos already work in the nation's food and agricultural sectors, many of them could also branch out and be their own bosses. They just need a system they can trust and a little entrepreneurial push, he says.

"Rather than letting someone in a factory define what you're worth, why don't we try to create a path so you can decide what you're worth?" Haslett-Marroquin asks. "So, as an independent farmer, there is no limit."

The project is simple. It matches interested immigrant families with established area farmers, who are willing to rent out part of their land. So far, several hundred acres are available for cultivation and there are about 40 immigrants participating.

The farmers have created a thriving community garden, and some, like Maria Sosa, have started to sell their crops, too. But the real money in this project comes from poultry operations. In three years, the immigrant farmers have raised and sold about 35,000 chickens.

Once the flocks are sold, the landowners and the farmers split the profits.

Bean plants
Maria Sosa planted her first crop of black beans this year as part of the Rural Enterprise Center's efforts to get Latinos in southeastern Minnesota into the fields growing their own food.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

They're raised on a handful of area farms and processed at a plant in Utica, Minn. They're then sold at the Hillside Farmers co-op in Northfield, and other restaurants and farmers' markets in the area.

One of those landowners is Todd Prink, an investment advisor and farmer near Cannon Falls. Prink is letting the Rural Enterprise Center use 80 acres to grow beans and raise chickens. So far, that site has produced three flocks of birds, generating about $40,000.

"I have land. They have labor," he said. "But we're not just trying to hire people. We're trying to actually teach people how to run a business.'

Haslett-Marroquin is not new to these kind of projects. After moving to Minnesota from his native Guatemala in the mid-90s, he established the Peace Coffee fair-trade coffee company.

His latest endeavor, the Rural Enterprise Center, is a program of the Minneapolis-based Main Street Project, which helps immigrant communities.

Haslett-Marroquin has big hopes for his Rural Enterprise Center. He's developing similar partnerships in a few other area communities, including Dodge Center and Red Wing. Eventually, he hopes to establish one in Rochester.

He envisions a day when his project involves about a dozen other different sectors, poultry being just one of them.

There are hurdles, most notably overcoming a lack of processing plants closer to home, marketing and distribution. But Haslett-Marroquin is not about to stop at just one site.

"In three to five years, we will have one economic cluster fully developed," he said. "That will be roughly between 500,000 and 750,000 chickens. But that's just the beginning, 'cause a cluster is made of around 14 different businesses. Poultry is just one of them."

Aside from the growth projections, he insists his mission remains to improve the economic condition of rural immigrants.

"The first thing we have to restore in that sense [is] that there is hope in this process," he said. "And we do that by delivering short-term results without compromising the long-term large scale changes that we want to see."

Those changes could one day include raising and selling turkeys, pigs and other vegetables. But for now, Haslett-Marroquin focuses on chickens. This week, he's expecting another flock.