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This week's Book of the Week feature is In the Shadow of Green Man, by Reginaldo (Regi) Haslett-Marroquin.
Chapter 1: The Main Street Project
Sure enough, I found Regi with his head down compacting the trench with a length of pipe attached to a heavy steel square. In the trench Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin looked like a part of the earth, a brown wide-brimmed hat was pulled low on his head, the sleeves of his work shirt were pushed up betraying the sort of quiet strength that isn’t built in gyms. I was reluctant to intrude, but as soon as he sensed me, Regi hopped out of the trench to wrap me in a hug. He was a little more grey than I remembered, his laugh lines a little bit deeper, but he was as vital and quick to smile as ever. “You found us!”
“Eventually,” I said, “what is this?” I gestured at the trench.
“It will be the foundation of a new chicken coop. Look at this soil,” he knelt and pointed to the dark earth. “See how black that is? Full of nutrients, and it’s still decaying so you can’t build right on it. We’ll fill this with sand and pour concrete footings. The building will rest on that mostly.” His accent is light, and he has a way of talking that conjures up images in the minds of his audience. I could see the coop taking shape in the wave of his hand. “The chickens are the key to the whole thing. We can talk about that later, why chickens. Let me show you around first.”
And we were off. There was barely time for me to grab my notebook.
The Main Street test fields are divided by experiment. The popcorn crop occupies the largest area, but we started in the greenhouse. Rows of water beds filled most of the building, which was set up as an aquaponics system. Vegetables sprouted happily in homemade racks and we had to pick our way carefully over snaking PVC and rubber tubes. Regi spared hardly a glance for the growing plants, stopping only long enough to check that I was clear on the concept of aquaponics, a system in which fish and plants are grown simultaneously. Instead he led me to the back room.
“These are the fish tanks.”
The tanks themselves are nothing to write home about, yellowing plastic hooked into the rest of the hydroponics system with PVC pipes and isolated by a water drop so that the fish can’t directly circulate and eat the plant roots.
“Hydroponics requires the farmer to inject nutrient broth into the system. That’s two inputs—chemicals and work. We plan like we’re allergic to work, so we use fish. Aquaponics is actually an ancient farming system. We’re just adapting it to modern times.” As I peered into the tanks the fish roiled to the surface, one even jumped at me. Regi laughed, “They think you’re going to feed them.”
He scooped feed pellets from a bucket next to the tanks. “That’s it,” he said, “a few minutes a day to feed the fish, clean the tanks, and harvesting. There’s no weeding, no treatments. The whole system is run off of two pumps. It costs more to heat a room in the winter than to run those pumps.”
I had to interject, “I don’t know, it certainly doesn’t look like you’re avoiding work. You could have been using a backhoe to dig out that foundation couldn’t you?”
“Don’t get me wrong,” Regi said, “we work hard. But we set up the system so that the work we’re doing is in line with our mission and the concepts of regeneration. This way our work comes back to us as energy and we continue the cycle. This way there’s less waste; the feed is the only input other than our labor and that gets processed twice; by the fish and then the vegetables. These are just the experiment fish, tilapia are mostly vegetarian; now that we have a working design we’ll change to meat-eating fish, that way they’ll eat waste from the chickens. Egg waste, guts from processing, all those nutrients will get reintegrated into the system through the breakdown of fish waste. Follow me.”
He led me back out into the field, I had to duck a spiderweb spanning the top quarter of the door, Regi didn’t seem to notice it but I’m sure he did. Minnesota just doesn’t have the kind of spiders that can worry him.
“Look at this,” he pointed to the lane next to the corn field, “one hundred and fifty feet. Right now it’s just space I have to maintain, I have to mow it and remember, we’re allergic to work.”
As he spoke I could see the landscape changing before me, intention and execution blurred together as he sketched new structures in the air, “So we dig a trench say three feet wide, four feet deep, we turn the corner and dig on that side too. That’s…” he paused to do the math in his head, “twenty-seven hundred cubic feet. You can raise over four thousand perch in that, but let’s give them some room to swim. Say two thousand perch with over two cubic feet of space and over fifteen gallons of water each. We dig trenches on the other two sides at a higher elevation, we build in water drops to isolate the fish. We would need one pump. Then we cover the whole thing with mesh to keep birds and cats off; we can cover it with shade cloth in the summer, plastic in fall and spring, we can get nine productive months a year, in Minnesota of all places. Plus the structure keeps the chickens in, so we can just release them into the fields everyday and leave them alone, because…”
“We’re allergic to work,” I said.
He grinned, “Exactly. Now if we do the math, a whole farming process emerges where the actual currency is energy. Put simply, the chickens fertilize the hazelnuts and the intercropped corn or sunflowers, the byproducts feed the fish, the fish fertilize the hydroponic plants, and the chickens will peck at the plant waste. In all of this, all plants and breeds of chickens we choose we watch over their genetic integrity, so no GMOs (Genetically Modified—or engineered—Organisms) plants or industrial breeds of chickens. Our main input is the chicken feed. That initial energy input is reused over and over again as it cycles through the system. That’s the formula, annual crops intercropped with perennials for soil health, animals for fertilizer and to kill weeds, limit disease exposure and to produce a maximum amount of food for minimum effort, minimum inputs.”
About the Author
Reginaldo "Regi" Haslett-Marroquin has pioneered innovations in a Regenerative Poultry System that is at the center of a multitude of national and international initiatives. The system is uniquely aligned with the conditions of small farms and marginalized communities and is designed for large-scale and global impact.
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. He is a frequent speaker at the annual Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show.
Regi lives in Minnesota with his wife, Amy, and their children.
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