How Regenerative Agriculture Can Go Large-Scale, with the Help of Chickens

Story at-a-glance

  • Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, an innovator in the field of regenerative agriculture, has developed an ingenious blueprint for a system that has the potential to transform the way food is grown around the world
  • Regenerative agriculture needs to be centered around livestock in order to be optimized, and adding chickens is an easy and economically profitable way to do that
  • Poultry is also very accessible to small-scale farmers, who produce most of the food in the world. About 40 percent of the world’s population are small farmers; a majority of them cultivating less than five acres


This is an older article that may not reflect Dr. Mercola’s current view on this topic. Use our search engine to find Dr. Mercola’s latest position on any health topic.

By Dr. Mercola

Poultry is a staple of most peoples' diet. It's one of the least expensive meats around, and a good source of high quality animal protein (provided it's non-CAFO and raised on pasture with a natural diet).

But while most are aware of the importance chicken plays in the diet, few are likely to be familiar with the ways poultry production can be optimized.

Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, an innovator in the field of regenerative agriculture, has developed an ingenious system that has the potential to transform the way food is grown.

You might be familiar with Joel Salatin and the way he raises pastured chickens. I visited him on his Polyface Farm in Virginia, but Reginaldo has massively improved the method of raising chickens naturally, without the use of any cages.

Reginaldo was born in poverty in Guatemala, just before the beginning of the 36-year long civil war that finally ended in 1996, and overcame tremendous struggles to obtain the finest agriculture education in Guatemala — at the Central National School of Agriculture—where conventional agriculture is the primary focus.

It's a four-year educational system that is as challenging, if not more so, than medical school in the US, with hands-on fieldwork starting at 6:30 in the morning, classes from 1 to 5 every afternoon and mandatory study time until 10 at night.

"My story starts in Sanarate, El Progreso, where our family's biggest concern was food, especially in the dry corridor," Reginaldo says. "Of course, it's a universal concern, but for us, it was a little different because not only was it dry, but the conditions were not exactly stable.

So, we moved to the rainforest in the northern part of the country. I grew up in that environment, surrounded by nature and a lot of natural systems. Lucky for me, [I was] also surrounded by people who deeply cared about the natural cycles.

Even though scientifically we didn't quite understand those things, my curiosity grew out of those observations in that place."

Poultry-Centered Regenerative Agriculture

While the Central National School of Agriculture teaches conventional agriculture, Reginaldo took a different path once he got out, focusing on natural systems rather than following the conventional model.

"It was very clear to me before I went to school that conventional, chemical, intensive monoculture systems were not an option. We had already learned to get out of poverty through the power of regenerative ecological management systems,' he says."

The system he came up with is a blueprint for regenerative farming that can be applied on a larger scale, and with it, he hopes to structure a real, commercially viable, food revolution from the ground up that can be replicated and customized anywhere in the world.

According to Reginaldo, regenerative agriculture needs to be centered around livestock in order to be optimized, and adding chickens is an easy way to do that.

Reginaldo's work is based out of the Main Street Project in Northfield, Minnesota, grounded on an ecological, social and economically integrated management system and centered on poultry.

Not only is poultry something that connects every community in the world, the meat and eggs are also a valuable source of animal protein (critical when dealing with hunger in a permanent way), and can be a solid economic platform to deal with poverty.

Poultry is also very accessible to small-scale farmers, who produce most of the food in the world — an important fact that many are unaware of. About 40 percent of the world's population — an estimated 2.6 billion people — are small farmers; a majority of them cultivating less than five acres.1

In some areas that percentage is even higher. In Africa, for example, small farmers grow 90 percent of the available food

"The factory-farming, conventional system claims they feed the world. The actual facts are totally the opposite, but they have the power, and own and control that story," Reginaldo says.

That is actually one of the biggest travesties because it defines how we think and invest in a different system, not knowing that we're actually shooting ourselves in the foot big time [by not supporting and investing in small farmers]."

Regenerating Ecology, Economy, and Social Conditions

Reginaldo's program has generated a system that has regenerative impact both on the ecology and the economy, meaning it restores the ecology that produces food, and the economic flows necessary for that food to be economically sustainable and resilient.

It also addresses the social conditions of food production in the US (and elsewhere), which is important considering the fact that farm workers are typically poorly paid immigrants.

Without sacrificing the financial, and sometimes physical, welfare of these workers, our food couldn't be as cheap as it is, so social injustice is really built into the conventional system.

"So far, we have developed three prototype proof-of-concept units. One is a research and development (R&D) farm, one is a training farm, and the third one is more of a production farm. It's poultry centered, but it's integrated with over 14 enterprise sectors.

Once you take the poultry and you start producing either eggs or meat, you immediately integrate the production of feeds. That's another enterprise sector. Once you start producing feed, you realize you need grains, so there's that other enterprise sector — farmers producing grains, money turning over and over, creating resilient (shock resistant) wealth.

If you are going to produce grains, that can also be done under a regenerative framework. The whole blueprint is regenerative. Under our blueprint, a grain farmer is not going to produce only corn and soybeans. In fact, we may not even produce soybeans because they are not good for chickens.

But more than that, under our poultry centered system framework, you start looking into perennial grain and small grain. Following that, you're not going to produce those grains as monocultures either; as a healthy egg layer or meat bird needs a diversity of small (whole) grains to deliver the foods that actually nurture us and make us healthier when we consume the eggs or meat.

That means we start restoring some of the perennial crops of a given ecology as we adapt our blueprint to a specific area. For Minnesota we are incorporating elderberries in the fields where we grow vegetables and grains, and hazelnuts inside the paddocks where we range the poultry; hazelnuts being ecologically symbiotic with chickens.

Once you start incorporating all of the different enterprise sectors, including the processing and distribution, you have a system that regenerates itself. It's still poultry-centered and focused; yet it's not about chickens at all. It's about a whole set of ecological, economic, and social factors that when combined, regenerate our ability to achieve a system level structure, one that can hopefully expose in real terms the futility of our currently dominant extractive, unhealthy system."

A Novel System for Raising Chickens

While chickens do eat grass and grubs, they're primarily carnivores. They're not strictly vegetarians. Egg-laying hens in particular need a high-protein diet (about 17 percent protein food sources). That doesn't mean chickens need animal protein, however.

By setting up a system where you use sprouted grains and give your chickens access to whole small grains such as camelina, flax, oats, barley, wheat, and amaranth (not soybeans or corn), you provide them with plenty of healthy protein. By sprouting the grains, you increase not only the available protein, but also the minerals, amino acids, and digestive enzymes, which are critical for the health of the chickens' gut flora.

"That is how we grow chickens," Reginaldo says. "They still have ground feed, but we can select non-genetically modified feeds. In our case, focusing the diet on whole small grains, we can more easily convert our system to meet organic standards, as long as the consumers are willing to pay for that extra cost that organic feeds demand.

But overall, we have been able to bring out a whole new way of feeding the poultry and still not locking into a micro-scale. We can raise an average of 1,500 meat birds per flock, per production unit, all within half an acre of ranging paddocks that birds rotate into as they regenerate.

We divide the ranging area into two paddocks. For egg-layers, we can raise an excess of 3,000 egg-layers in one production unit. That is about an acre divided into two paddocks. Those paddocks are then populated with perennial crops and in this case, hazelnuts, and then inter-planted with annual grains.

We rotate between open-pollinated corn and sunflowers as a way to also produce grains right within the products, but also create an environment where the temperature of the soil does not rise as much because it's constantly shaded.

Also, we do not have to artificially protect the chickens from predators from the air, because the hazelnuts and the annual crops provide that protection. They also hold the moisture in the organic matter so the sprouting system can be more robust and the regeneration of the underground faster, providing the chickens with a more complete diet."

The chickens are completely free-range, with access to the grasses and sprouts as they are rotated between paddocks. This system significantly reduces the amount of labor involved as compared with other ideas out there. For example, the minute you start moving a shelter for an animal, it becomes a labor-intensive process, and automating water and feeding becomes impossible. An important fact that we observed in most other free-range systems that we studied as we engineered ours, still use cages to protect the chickens from predators; even if those cages are moved across a field, they do not provide freedom for the birds to jump around, run, escape a bully pecking at them, etc.

That kind of environment is just not natural to the animal. In a poultry-centered regenerative system, tall grasses and trees perform the protection function instead — in addition to optimizing soil temperature and moisture content, extracting excess nutrients that the chickens deposit, bringing up valuable minerals from below the soil surface, and being a high-value perennial crop.

"For us, the agronomical engineering process wasn't really just about protecting the chickens while we fatten them or reared them to lay eggs, it was about building a system that regenerates itself," Reginaldo says. "It is about the productivity of the space occupied by the chickens, the diminishing of labor and the optimization of the capacity of this space to produce multiple outputs naturally. Right now, we are growing top quality hazelnut, corn and sunflowers from the poultry paddocks.

We have yet to pull weeds and fertilize and more recently, droughts have not affected the growth of our birds or the productivity of the hens as it happened during the first years. Recently, when rain poured at 7 inches in a single night, the absorption capacity of our paddocks took all of this water in. That is fundamentally the path to resilience it is not just about one thing, it is the whole system that is or is not resilient.

Now, think about the efficiency of those systems. When we started looking at doing something different than what were learning from multiple examples we studied, it was not about agreeing or disagreeing with what other people do. It was about building a system that is easy to replicate for a person working alone or with a family, whether you are young or old. The system is so low-demand, you can do it for a much longer time..."

Reginaldo refers to "production units" as a way to build the system specifications rather than "farms," as one farm is the aggregation of production units to meet a family's financial needs. In the case of eggs, they have calculated that four production units are sufficient to sustain a family, but this only fits one standard profile. Another family with different goals would have to do their own calculations based on operating margins and their own interests.

What is critical is the ability to do these calculations and be able to plan a family farm operation. Economic clusters of family farms organized within a defined landscape, generate the diversity of activities and scale needed to build the support infrastructure around them. This involves technical assistance, financing, marketing, aggregation for processing, and training to create the necessary scale without compromising the ownership, control, and the regenerative nature of all of the pieces.

Regenerative Farming for the Masses

The systems Reginaldo's program is developing appears to be head and shoulders above conventional ones for integrating poultry into a viable model for providing food for the masses. As mentioned, this system is geared not for those growing food in their backyard, but for creating a larger-scale food system based on small-scale farms that are both sustainable and high-yield. As explained by Reginaldo:

"Not only is it the small farmer who is going to feed us in the future, but they are the only ones who grow food for the purpose of feeding people. The conventional system does it for money; its purpose is not to deliver healthy foods for people at all. It wasn't designed for that, but rather for a whole different purpose. How do we remove some of this negativity to [regenerative farming]? We need to make sure that whatever blueprint we come up with is applicable to a large scale, if that's what you want to do.

But it's also compatible with the small farmer who today is feeding the world. There is rarely a situation where you have a top-down design that incorporates the needs of the small farmers and the needs for consumers for healthy foods. If we design something for the small farmer, that system can be scaled up to fill big needs — to a larger scale system, if that's what society wants to do.

Our system design seeks this bottom-up approach, not as a matter of ideology, but as a matter of common sense and logic. Our work is grounded on the fact that our food right now comes from the bottom up, and it is that very blueprint that needs new thinking. We have done the best we can to reflect this truth in our design.

That is really where we have been putting a lot of attention; ensuring that our process, our blueprint meets both of those ends, yet our priority is the social regeneration component. The economic and the ecological, they will happen because that is the foundation of efficiency. Efficiency understood as the transformation of energy, not outputs measured in bushels per acre.

That to me is where everything has gone the wrong way from the start. Food that is worth eating has to be the result of energy flows as designed by nature; our genetic blueprint demands that. When we deny our bodies what they need, our mental and physical health suffers and with it, our collective health as a society."

Immediate and Future Goals

In the Midwest, starting with the southeast region of Minnesota, the goal is to make this system available to any farmer who wants to learn it and any university who wants to teach it. At the system deployment level, Main Street Project has partnerships with:

  • Thunder Valley, CDC in South Dakota
  • The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) in Minnesota to launch a system in in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
  • A large consortium of organizations and leaders in Guatemala

They also have support from the Norwegian Embassy in Guatemala to deploy this system in a way that it can serve rural communities and regional and national markets as fast as both can adopt it. In terms of long-range goals, Reginaldo would like to see a total transformation of the food system not only in Guatemala and the US, but in every other country as well. We can no longer lean on the excuse that we don't know how to fix the system. Reginaldo's program is proving there are solutions that work, even on a larger scale.

"I believe that at the end of the day, the consumers created the system and sustain what we have today. Without consumers, the corporation doing the wrong thing is nothing. It starts there, and that's how we're going to eventually change the system. In other words, waking up and realizing for example that our food is probably even more important than even our individual liberties. This is the kind of framework that we have to keep putting in front of us as a way to wake up to the power and the responsibility we have as consumers.

You can have all the freedom in the world but if you don't have food, you're nobody. That's why I believe it was a huge mistake to let our food system to become corporatized. We should have never allowed that to happen. Now that we did, it is also our responsibility to bring back the ownership and control to a new level and set of ethical standards from where we can produce and have access to the foods that we actually need."

How Poultry Could Revolutionize Coffee Production

To give you an example of how this regenerative system works, let's consider coffee. Coffee is one of the largest small farmer systems in the world, and the second largest commodity globally. At the same time, coffee growers live in poverty 11 months out of the year, and most in extreme poverty. Here, there's tremendous potential for change, as chickens are the only livestock compatible with coffee plants in a larger scale.

While Starbucks recently announced it will invest another $30 million on top of the $20+ million it already invested to finance farmers, financing is not the solution for small coffee farmers. They need to restructure their system into one that is regenerative, which means they need to incorporate the growing of coffee into more holistic land management, which necessitates the inclusion of livestock.

"Not only that, it's about providing a livelihood to the families, who are growing the coffee, for the rest of the year," Reginaldo says. "As we think of regenerating — that idea of how you build north, south, rich country, and poor country; small coffee-farmer and coffee-consumer relationships, the poultry becomes the centerpiece.

This is not only for the health of the coffee plantations but also for the diversity of the livelihood and the sources of income of those families, especially the food that a lot of those coffee growers can't afford the rest of the year. In this case, we're not only producing [that food], but as we produce it, we are using the same space they already have with the coffee.

As a consequence of that, we also get to disturb some of the cycles of the diseases and pests that attack coffee because without the livestock, those diseases just got a stagnant environment where they can reproduce more. The bottom line is: We know what we are doing here. Claiming that we don't know how to change the world of food, it's no longer an excuse. We're doing it."


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