From: By Ken Meter, Grist , Organic Consumers Association, More from this Affiliate
Published December 9, 2009 03:01 PM

Free-Range Chickens Spell Broad-Based Economic Development in Minnesota Project

Hillside Farmers Co-op. in Northfield, Minnesota, initiated by Latino immigrants, raises free-range chickens on scattered small, one-quarter acre sites. This makes it a great model for urban farmers as well as rural.

By staying small, co-op leader, Regi Haslett-Marroquin told me, Latino farmers will be able to start a farm even though they have very little capital to work with. In just a few weeks, each farm can sell about a thousand chickens. That quick turnaround will be key to building savings. Over time, it will allow farmers to make more expansive choices in the future, he says - perhaps to buy their own land, or to start supportive businesses in the region. By keeping each production unit small and family-sized, Marroquin believes, farmers can have a great deal of independence, and the network of small producers can more easily respond to changing market conditions.

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Start-up costs are relatively small. The Co-op has designed simple chicken barns, framed from wood and covered with plastic sheets, that provide shelter for the birds from spring through fall. Each barn has large doors through which young chicks can stroll at will - and do so, because their feed is outside.

Hillside Co-op's chickens "work out" every day (they are not raised in winter). Running through fields, pulling sprouted barley grass out of the ground, and searching out organic grains to eat from scattered feeding stations, the chicks build muscle tone. This is a marked contrast to industrial farms in which so-called "free-range" chickens are raised. In those confined operations, there may be a small door for chickens to use to walk outside, but few of the birds even realize they have that choice.

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