This Northfield-based nonprofit thinks chickens can solve our food crisis

“We feel like our chickens are a superior product because they’re not running around terrified on pastures."

“We feel like our chickens are a superior product because they’re not running around terrified on pastures." Main Street Project

What came first, the chicken or the egg?

Answer: It doesn’t really matter. They’re equally crucial to the future of farming.

So says Main Street Project, a Northfield-based organization that trains farmers to raise chickens and grow perennial crops. The organization launched a decade ago to connect with and uplift underserved farming communities, especially Latino ones. Now, the organization teaches young, established, and immigrant farmers—“agripreneurs” of all backgrounds—about farming practices that benefit both people and the planet.

Why chickens? Because farmers of all experience levels can raise them, and the entry point is more affordable than, say, a cow, or just about any other livestock.

“Chickens are sort of a universal animal in many respects,” says Main Street Project’s chief operations officer Julie Ristau. “They’re widely received, accepted, eaten, taken care of, tended to, and husbandried around the world. Chickens are kind of an instant cash flow.”

But it isn’t just poultry, either. The nonprofit practices regenerative farming: a circular, energy-efficient, organic model that maximizes returns on small plots of land by capitalizing on nature’s innate synergistic relationships. Main Street Project does this by raising chickens and growing perennial plants, like hazelnuts.

Hazelnut trees provide shade and shield the chickens from aerial predators while giving farmers another revenue source. The chickens eat non-GMO feed and sprouts, then produce manure that fertilizes the soil, which helps the trees grow. The shade cools the soil, reducing evaporation, and the trees’ deep roots system prevents erosion. It’s a win-win agricultural situation.

“We feel like our chickens are a superior product because they’re not running around terrified on pastures,” Ristau says. “There’s a mythology that chickens like to be outside by themselves under the blue sky, and they really don’t.” Main Street Project’s free-range chickens are nutrient-rich sources of food—be it poultry or eggs—and she says the fact that they can roam their paddocks under tree protection makes their meat taste better.

The organization sells whole chickens at select co-ops, drop sites, and through CSAs. “Consumers love these birds,” Ristau says. “They’re happy and stress-free chickens.” One of its first marketing partners was Bon Appetit, a company that prepares and serves food in places like colleges and corporations around the country, and Ristau anticipates more Main Street Project products coming to market in the future. There are the aforementioned hazelnuts, but also elderberries and even garlic.

And Main Street Project doesn’t measure success by sales alone. Instead, there’s a belief in the “triple bottom line,” which takes into account the ecological, economic, and social impact of its programs. It wants to ensure fair and equitable farming practices that keep wealth in the community rather than siphoning it out.

The Main Street Project farming model is not only scalable, but replicable, and has already spread beyond southeast Minnesota farming communities and implemented in areas as far-flung as Guatemala. In South Dakota, the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation brought the model to Pine Ridge Reservation, where up to 99 percent of food is shipped in. Now, having established a poultry and perennial farm, locals can enjoy fresh produce and re-establish their relationship with the land.

Main Street Project has undergone growth, too. It started with half-acre production units on a few farms around the Northfield area, but has since shifted many operations to a 100-acre farm in Dakota County. Ideally, their methods will help change the way people farm, support the re-emergence of family farms, and train the next generation of farmers to solve the growing food crisis.

“We want to see more people on the land,” Ristau says. “We want to see people that are connected to the land and their sources of food.”