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'Agripreneur' training helps rural Minn. Latino start-ups

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Victor Torres
Victor Torres is a recent graduate of an agrarian business planning course for Latinos. The Northfield-based Rural Enterprise Center is helping to train Latinos in running a self-sustained agricultural business. Torres will raise about 700 free-range chickens to sell this spring.
Photo by Alex Kolyer for MPR

More than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States, Latinos are entrepreneurs, and that tendency has been increasing. Nearly a quarter of all new entrepreneurs in 2010 were Latino, according to the Kauffman Foundation, which has been studying the topic for many years.

At the same time, however, Latino firms tend to make less money and to grow more slowly than those of other groups because of various barriers, including language and an inability to draw start-up capital.

So on a recent morning at a sprawling farm outside Northfield, 34-year-old Victor Torres was learning things that might help him buck that trend.

"I've always wanted to have my own business and be more independent."

He peeled back a plastic tarp and stepped into a shed where a dozen chickens scrambled around.

"I had never had chickens before," he said. "Growing up, we had lots of pigs, but we never had chickens."

Torres grew up in Mexico, where he helped his parents grow tomatoes, beans and livestock on their family farm. He didn't really like farming as a child. But he's now drawing on that heritage and learning entrepreneurial skills to try to make a living off the land.

"I've always wanted to have my own business and be more independent. There were a lot of things I didn't know. I thought raising chickens was easy but it's pretty complicated."

Torres is one of two dozen immigrants who learned how to raise free-range chickens last fall as part of "agripreneur" training at the Rural Enterprise Center in Northfield. He also learned how to write a business plan, market his chickens to local buyers and budget for enough feed and water for his flock. 

On this day, 12 chickens are left from the 1,500 he raised last year. In a few weeks, Torres will receive twice as many, hoping they will be the key to his small business success.

The number of Latino-owned businesses in Minnesota grew by 25 percent to roughly 5,000 between 2002 and 2007, according to the U.S. Census. That's about double the rate of overall business growth in the state. 

The training program that is helping Torres gets financial support from the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, and area landowners let the Rural Enterprise Center use their land as training ground for free.

The foundation provided a $100,000 grant specifically to harness the entrepreneurial culture many Latinos share, particularly because many already work in the food and agriculture section, said Tim Penny, the foundation's executive director.

"I see this as an opportunity to build your own success."

"I see this as an opportunity to build your own success," Penny said. "There's a lot of inherent skill among the Hispanic population in the agriculture area and this is a business in that arena that builds on those innate skills and gives you an opportunity to go way beyond a wage and build the assets and build income on a level that you couldn't secure simply working for someone else."

The Rural Enterprise Center is building four coops around the region to serve as training sites for graduates of its program. Farmers will be allowed free use of a coop for six months to a year. The center helps them sell the chickens at a cooperative in Northfield, as well as at restaurants and farmers' markets in the area.

Bob Kell
Bob Kell, left, agripreneur training director of the Rural Enterprise Center, talks about the process of building a chicken coop for Victor Torres, a recent graduate of a agrarian business planning course for Latinos. The Northfield-based Rural Enterprise Center is helping to train Latinos in running a self-sustained agricultural business. Torres will raise about 700 free-range chickens to sell this spring.
Photo by Alex Kolyer for MPR

"Most of them are working in low-salary, low-wage jobs," said Bob Kell, the center's farm training and incubator program manager. "I know that many of them are not earning more than $10,000 a year."

The aim of the program is to give Latinos economic independence while making money, he said.  By going into production and eventually a larger scale, they can leave behind low-paying part-time jobs and be more in control of their own lives and be able to support their families better. 

"A lot of people in Northfield, even my brothers, would tell me I'm crazy, that I should get a steady job at a factory," Torres said. "But now that they see that I'm working, that I'm doing well and I'm thrilled." 

Last year, some of Torres' birds died and he just about broke even. But he learned important lessons and is looking forward to another 3,000 chickens soon, which he hopes will improve his profit margins and let him expand further.