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Creating Communities through Meaningful Conversations: A Dundas Farmer and Family Seek to Break Barriers

Editor’s Note: Ian Rhoades and Elizabeth O’Sullivan have been our partners for a few years. They have a farm in Dundas, MN and are raising their first flock with Main Street Project this Summer.  

1. Tell me a little about yourself and the history of your farm.

I’m a teacher. We have three kids. Elizabeth (my wife) and I talked for a long time about moving out of the cities. About 5 or 6 years ago we were working with Land Stewardship Project. While we were involved with them, we bought this place, our farm.

We started raising chickens, partly because it seemed like a reasonable thing to do with the land we had. It wasn’t a ton of investment and it looked like we can have some profit in it. We decided to give it a try, but neither of us had worked much with animals before. All of the farm internships we had, had been with small-scale vegetables, herbs, and salad greens.

Both Elizabeth and I did farm internships in Minnesota and we got most of our experience from there. Doing meat was something new for us. We raised 60 chickens the first summer and now we’re up to 1000. We’re still really small. We’ll also do about 20 hogs this year and one steer. That’s kind of where we are.

We go up to a couple farmers’ markets in the cities, and we do some whole sales and some on-farm marketing. That’s the history of our business.

 2. What are the highlights of farming for you?

We’ve been learning a lot in terms of figuring out how to run a business. The fun things are when things go well, when the birds eat the green stuff, when they get to run around outside.

We’re also getting better at developing our systems, and our business. It’s all been fun. I have a friend who grew up farming in the 1940s. He and I have become really good friends and he’s taught us a lot.

A lot of the equipment we use are things they used in the 1940s. It’s been fun learning what people did in this country a long time ago, when farms were smaller scale and were diversified. That’s a really cool connection to make.

Also, seeing the kids around the animals is also really fun. Being able to teach them about raising food. It’s very real. Very down-to-earth and humbling, because you make a lot of mistakes and nature just kind of takes its course sometimes whether you want it to or not. It gives you a different perspective on a lot of things.

Part of what’s also been the highlight of farming has been working with people and learning from them.  Talking with Main Street Project staff, Bob, Joe and Regi, you feel like instead of being on your own island trying to figure things out, you are part of a network, a community.

You’re all going through the same things. Having some of the same successes, and some of the same problems. It just feels like you’re part of a community and you’re learning from them.

We also have a good time with the Latino families who raised birds in the coops. We enjoyed talking with them and seeing how things were going. My wife and I both speak Spanish and they spoke English pretty well. So between both languages we were able to engage in great conversations.

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3. How did you begin the partnership with Main Street Project?

We initially started working with Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin (Regi), who is the Chief Operating Officer for Main Street Project. He presented at some of the farming classes we attended. I ended up having some conversations with him when we were buying the land, about setting up our business.

When Main Street Project was the Rural Enterprise Center we were trying to start the Hillside Farmers Cooperative. Things didn’t work out as we expected though but it was interesting to be involved in that.  We then talked with Regi about the possibility of renting a couple acres for having the chicken coops out at our place.

This is what got us interested in the first place.

I spent a lot of time learning about his system, which was very interesting to me. I learned about the structures he was using, such as working to do things at scale in a more efficient manner. It was all really fascinating. So I learned a lot from him and spend a lot of time just watching the system.

I worked with him in different parts of the process such as learning about the use of sprouted grains. The whole system just really intrigued me, so when we talked about having it at our place, I was really interested in doing that. When Regi asked, “Would you like to have some of these chicken coops at your place and have families come out and raise the chickens?” I agreed. This was the original goal with the Hillside Farmers Cooperative and I wanted to be a part of that. We signed a ten-year lease and that’s how we got involved with Main Street project: renting a couple of acres to the Agripreneur Training Project.

This year we are using the chicken coops and raising chickens for Main Street Project, aside from the ones we raise for our business. So far things have been going really well. For us it’s another learning experience where we get to work with the birds in the coop in generally good weather.

4. What does a sustainable food system look like to you?

It’s taking good care of the land. A lot of our experience so far have been so humbling. You go into this thinking you know what that means. You know, ‘everyone should do this, everyone should go organic, you shouldn’t spray, etc.’ It’s not that we don’t think about those things, but we’ve also learned a lot from conventional farmers and have gotten a lot of support from them.

I think that it’s taking good care of the land, and I also like animals being able to run around. One of the biggest things is the economic part: people being able to support themselves and their families.

A lot of my internships had the idea that organic and sustainable farming was people working for next to nothing selling things that only rich people could afford to eat, which kinda stunk. That’s not a very sustainable way of doing farming.

There’s sort of a disconnect there. We gotta figure out how to do it where people can make good money out of it and take care of the land, and also provide a product that regular people can afford to use.

I know part of that are bigger picture things like subsidies. It’s going to take a lot of cooperative work. When you’re trying to do everything yourself it can be so inefficient. The systems we set up need to become more efficient at working cooperatively.

Chickens

5. What concerns you the most about conventional meat production?

Our countryside used to support a lot of local, diversified family farms, and local economies had autonomy. We aren’t that far removed from diversified farms that weren’t using chemicals, like back in the 1930s and 1940s. Our ideas of what a ‘sustainable’ farm is not that different in some ways. There are some things that did change like plowing and erosion.

I think instead of having large corporations, mega farms, and these huge confinement operations, we need to move back to more diversified smaller farms.

 6. How can rural and urban communities be more connected?

I really like that question because I’ve asked myself that many times. I feel like I work in two different worlds when I go work in St. Paul as a teacher and when I farm back home. You’ve hit on one of the real issues of sustainability.

I think that’s where people get excited about urban farming because it involves breaking some of those barriers. How do we make those connections between the food and the ecology and the sustainability of that with the realities and the economic realities in this country?

That’s part of what drew us to work with Main Street Project. We thought it was a way to engage with some of those issues. Beyond just trying to grow food well, it was a way of understanding that this isn’t just an ecological and agricultural thing, but there’s also a social aspect to this.

I’m trying to make some social transformation with agriculture. This was a big part of the reason why we wanted to have the chicken coops out at our place. But I have a lot more questions about that than answers.

7. What are the next steps for you and your family, working with Main Street Project?

We plan to continue being involved with the participants and graduates of the Agripreneur Training Program. We might be more involved in doing some production ourselves and become part of the network as well.

I’d really like to see more Latino families coming out and using the chicken coops on a more constant basis. We’d love to work with the families. It would be exciting to see people coming out of the incubator program feeling able to start up their own production and their own businesses, which is the goal of the program.

Getting past those next steps of infrastructure and equipment, and finding that it’s profitable enough raising the birds. I’d like to see how the economic model fits into the whole system, from the labor, to the production. Is that enough to help people take that next step going from an incubator to being out on their own, which was the goal all along with the Hillside Farmers Cooperative?

I’d like to see the vision of the whole project come to fruition, where we start having more producers and start building a network of producers. Being able to produce chickens in an ecologically sound way, that would give us an opportunity to connect more with the producers and be involved more in the marketing. That would be exciting.

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