Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin is the founder and director the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance. He moved to the US from Guatemala in the 1990s. In our conversation we talk about the power of movements, why small-scale farmers in the United States are rarely successful, and the difference between ‘feeding’ the indigenous mindset versus the colonizer mindset.
For more info and transcript, visit: https://tabledebates.org/podcast/episode34
The one we feed is the one that wins. If you feed the colonizer, extraction, all of it, that's the one that is going to take over. But if you feed both and hopefully you feed the true indigenous understanding more, than that's the one that takes over and we will heal the planet.
Welcome to Feed, a food systems podcast presented by TABLE. I’m Matthew Kessler
And I’m Samara Brock. Today we’re speaking with Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin.
I'm Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, I am originally from Guatemala. I am the founder and director of the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance. And we operate out of Northfield, Minnesota.
Reginaldo began working with indigenous communities in Guatemala in the 1980s. He moved to Minnesota in the 90s where he has been farming and building a ‘regenerative’ movement. You may have heard about regenerative agriculture or regenerative farming - but might not be sure exactly what it is.
You’re not alone. The term is used a lot, especially in the last few years. It tends to mean different things to different people. For Reginaldo, these systems defy definitions.
Regenerative systems have no label, no definition, and nobody owns them either. That's not what this whole concept was about. So I fly under the banner of regenerative ways, indigenous ways of thinking of being, of living, of doing things, of knowing, of relating. That is not a definition.
In this conversation we don’t talk about specific farm management practices that might fall under regenerative agriculture, like building soil organic matter or improving biodiversity. Reginaldo’s vision is beyond the farm boundary. For him it’s about a systems level redesign that builds a reciprocal rather than extractive relationship with the land and works to create a flourishing collective rather than focusing on individual farms.
In this chat we talk about the power of movements, the power that humans have versus the power of other organisms, why small-scale farmers in the US often struggle to be successful, and the difference between ‘feeding’ the indigenous mindset versus the colonizer mindset.
But first, we asked how Reginaldo thinks about and manages his regenerative poultry system.
So how is Reginaldo’s approach to raising chickens different? For starters, he doesn’t begin his design process with what it’s like to be a farmer. Instead,
We brought in the focus onto the chicken. You try to look at the world from the perspective of the organism. Not from our perspective, or from the perspective of a scientist or whatever, but rather completely from the perspective of the organism.
So Reginaldo asks the classic question:
If you ask the chicken, what does it want? It isn't to cross the road. It doesn’t want to cross the road. What it wants is a place where it can roam freely, uninterrupted by predators from the air, where it can take leaps.
And where it can forage and scratch the ground. Ultimately, it can express its chicken-ness.
The key was to put the chicken back in its geo-evolutionary habitat, which is jungles and then within that space, we then get to design highly productive farms, where the chicken roams on the bottom.
Reginaldo envisions chicken farms that have understory and canopy layers of native vegetation to mimic the jungles that the birds evolved in. He sees this design framework as a way to manage land and animals in a regenerative way.
It is fundamentally the result of an ancestral way of thinking and indigenous way of thinking that delivers a framework by which you then define practices and processes that then deliver regenerative results. Regenerative understood as the capacity of an ecosystem to manage to transform energy in perpetuity. That's really what regenerative is.
We're gonna shift a little bit to talking about power in the food system. And we were wondering, how as a farmer do you think about power in the food system? Who do you see holding power currently, and what needs to change?
Let's start from how power got co-opted, corrupted, appropriated, taken away from where it used to be. So indigenous communities before the colonizers from Europe, invaded these regions of the world where I live. They had what we call collective power systems. There was still people in charge and everything don’t get me wrong, but it was a power system where ownership and control and decision making was fully inclusive of multi-layers of very simple but very practical aspects of life. For example, how the Buffalo was managed at a continental scale I mean, when people talked about this and wrote about this, they talked about, you know, Indians running around buying buffaloes. So it was deliberate. Iit was a really well structured massive scale management infrastructure and that power came from the sense and the decision making came from the sense that you had to manage these systems appropriately so that you would perpetrate, you could continuously regenerate their capacity to supply you with food, with shelter, with tools, and everything. So that's how the power used to be.
Quick aside for context in our conversation - Prior to 1492, the Americas hosted many complex cultures and systems of environmental management. Conversations about this time tend to simplify Native American cultures and experience, usually in harmful ways. There were imperial civilizations like the Incas and hierarchies within the communities, at the same time as thriving self-sufficient communities that were sedentary, nomadic or more often, a combination of both.
And, and as we move forward, since colonization, the foundational principle of colonization was to remove the power to make decisions. And that was done by removing ownership and control of the landscape. That is fundamental. When we after we did that, after the invaders did that, then they built a whole government system, which then became the United States with a very specific set of conditions, constitution and laws and infrastructure and police to enforce it and local governments to watch over and all of that to ensure that the ownership control and decision making processes were consistent with the original theory of extraction, and expropriation and invalidation of anything that didn't align with the main framework. That's what we are paying for today is the fact that we don't have that governance, that ability, that power to be able to make decisions that make sense, is because those decisions were captured, and were codified into a system that today dominates the total landscape.
There is an ongoing debate about whether regenerative agriculture can feed a planet of 8 billion people. How much land should we use for agriculture? Should we change how much we consume? Should we farm intensively or extensively? These questions are all wrapped up in those debates. For Reginaldo, what’s key is who has the power to decide who has access to land, and what they are able to farm.
You can imagine if we were trying to change that we would have to literally redesign a lot of the infrastructure that we have today. And that is called systems change. That is the business we're in. We're building collective governance here in the poultry system. Luckily for us, we still have a lot of power in the people. What we do not have is the ability to organize that power into new institutions that can start making decisions for the landscape. Now, we were also being manipulated massively right now the power we need to take back is the power to take ownership and governance. Too often we think that power is about, being an influencer on Twitter, or whatever.
If the land is continuing to be taken away from communities, if communities of immigrants are still being discriminated and destroyed by the current power and structure? Does it matter if we win the Twitter accounts, what we need to win is the movement.
So what is this movement, or this power shift about, according to Reginaldo?
The movement is about the movement of land, from current ownership and control to the people who work it and who know how to work it to regenerate the planet. The movement of decision making from governments in all of the layers of structures to the people who know how to manage the land and to make decisions just like it used to be. The movement of capital from exploitative and extractive capital, to be deployed for the purpose of healing the planet and actually feeding the world - here in a healthy way. The movement of conventional crops and commodities, to actual food production and community economic development, and so on. The movement is about moving infrastructure, capital, land, decision making, ownership and control. If those things are not moving, we got no movement period. And that is where I think we are failing the future generations and our current generations in the context of actually building a movement where power and influence is restructured for the purpose of the actual outcomes we want to see here.
Interesting. Do you have examples of where you've seen movements? Like the ones you're talking about be successful in these kinds of transformations?
Oh, yeah, just look at Guatemala. And we're talking about dozens and dozens of countries where those movements have actually achieved incredible results like the Zapatistas. But if you just look at Guatemala in Mayan communities, the colonizing government is only 40 families. And, despite genocide, 500 years of repression, killing of anything, anyone who disagrees and all of that - today, most of the country is under the control of indigenous councils. Still the central government is unwelcomed in most of the country today. Why? Because the people never gave up their control and ownership of their infrastructure and their decision making processes. And yes, it is still brutal, and it's still difficult. It’s no different than other countries and other places where the conventional system, the capitalistic colonizing system decides that that is going to obliterate anybody who disagrees, no different than that in Guatemala, except that a larger scale is large countries doing that to us smaller countries. But within a small country, like Guatemala is 40 families doing it to over 75-80% of the rest of the country. And even in those conditions, you look around, there's over 1000 communities that actually have their autonomous local governments. And those are not elected to the process of the central government. Those are actually, what we call in Canada, hereditary government. So hereditary chiefs in that case, these are, these are governing structures that were maintained in that survived 500 plus years of colonization and genocide. And are still there. And those are the blueprints that we are now - not copying - but those are the blueprints we're bringing back to life, as we try to reestablish power within this new environment we're in.
We asked Reginaldo about the states’ role in shifting power?
It isn't about being against the central government, it's about holding those elected officials in the government today accountable for what matters to communities. But to do that, communities have to be making decisions. No decision coming out of Washington, DC or even the state government for a local community is ever going to be always in the favor of the community, because there's too many other influences. Now, we want those institutions, we want the stability of the country. We can have both, we can have the stability of the country, through those governments, but we need to remove them from a lot of the decisions that are destroying the planet, destroying our systems, destroying the communities, and keeping the power to make those decisions to regenerate away from us. Especially we should never, never allow for the government to give corporations the power to control the land, and the food supply is too important to all of us, for that to have ever happened. That we should be demanding that to be reversed. And that only, for example, only people who are farming the land should have access to it. If you're not farming the land, you should move away from it and allow someone who actually wants to farm the land, according to certain principles. And then there is always a very small percentage of the community that actually wants to do those things. Like I'm a very tiny percentage of my community. I love being in the land and doing things right. Taking care of all the living systems so that we can live and so on and so forth.
Really interesting, we wanted to ask you also about the power of movements. So you, fly under the banner of regenerative agriculture. And as you know, there can be some tensions between different definitions of sustainable agriculture, be it between regenerative and agroecology or organics? Why have you chosen regenerative and how do you see it fitting in with those other approaches?
I don't fit within those banners out there. I don't identify with any of them. You said definitions of agriculture. Well, we don't define it. We're not under any definition. We are simply working on regenerative systems. Regenerative systems have no label, no definition, and nobody owns them either. So I fly under the banner of regenerative ways, indigenous ways of thinking of being, of living, of doing things, of knowing, of relating. That is not a definition. That is simply an understanding of a concept. Defining a concept, or defining something like this is one of the most purely colonizing things we can do. In fact if you think of it the process by which you colonize anything is you first. You first so called discover it right? But I mean this was already there. Was already discovered by someone. You didn't. So the colonizer comes in and claims it discovered. Next thing you name it, after you name it, then you appropriate it as you own. You define it in order to do that, because now is yours because your definition, after you define it and appropriated it, then you structure systems to protect and then expropriate it and invalidate anybody who claims otherwise.
Reginaldo is describing a history of land use and land rights that many indigenous communities experienced, which makes him skeptical of the role that agribusinesses might play with their claims of shifting towards ‘regenerative practices’.
Okay, I am on that other side, not on the side of the appropriators. Our system doesn't fit within those reduced ideas of agricultural practices as a foundation of regenerative. No. We start by the fact that we as people need to change the way we live. And we are and we do things and the way things are owned and controlled. That's the beginning for us of an actual regenerative system, not what you do on the land. And that sets us completely apart from this whitewashed version you see all over. We are like the vegetables and the bison and the other living creatures of the planet. We can only be allowed to regenerate. And if something is regenerative, it doesn't matter if you call it or not. It either is or it isn't.We didn't come into this to make a buck or two, to prop up failing product in the market that needed a new facelift.
You've had experience as a farmer in Guatemala and in the United States. And besides the obvious differences in the climates that you're farming in, what are some of the other challenges that farmers face in both these contexts?
Right. So for example, when I got my first 67 acres out of Jordan, Minnesota, I thought I was done. And so we took all of our equity up in the house in Minneapolis that we had saved for 15 years. I figured the equity in the house was my ticket to buy land. Now we found land, I also understood that just to find land doesn't mean you're going to make it. Back in Guatemala, if you've got land, for the most part, you can go to the neighbor. Get banana new growth, you harvest seeds from the neighbors spaces, they give it to you, somebody will give you a corn, you can populate your farm. And there is not much need for machinery because we do permaculture systems, for the most part, at least where I grew up. And we got that option. So that means if you got land, you are really good. Well, in this country land is a liability. If you've got land, but you don't have capital to deploy that land, you are actually going to be in bankruptcy instead of suddenly being better off. And so the Jordan story is really interesting, because that's the first time I actually experienced the power of the system. If you don't have the capital, to deploy the land, to deploy the infrastructure on the land, you're still stuck. And so I figured wait a minute, I can join someone who's really got land, and I got, we got equity in the house. So we can bring in the capital. Collectively we can succeed. The collective idea of success is the only one that fits within this context we’re talking about there was no infrastructure to support the farm operation, no matter whether we had land and capital.
Reginaldo contrasts his experience in the US with his experience in Guatemala
Now, in Guatemala, we got the local markets. Really, really large scale local markets, most of the produce isn't coming from corporations. I mean, actually, none is coming from corporations, we still got systems where one farm system in one region and the highlands where vegetables do well, are traveling by local truckers, picking up the product produced from local farmers going into Guatemala City or going into the northern part of the country, but it's still within a very robust system that works similar to the multiple layers of transportation that people use to get around. That's how produce gets around.
In Guatemala there are many small farms that are a quarter of an acre or a tenth of a hectare.All the farms in a region growing mangoes might consolidate their harvest and sell it to a supplier that will then then deliver the produce to markets in the cities. Reginaldo hasn’t experienced that level of support for small farms in the US.
So you can't make it as a small farm in this country unless you built that infrastructure yourself. And so that was the first experience where I realized, wait a minute, we really have to rethink everything that we knew about logistics and management and business planning and infrastructure and all of that right off the track. That's why I never got into vegetables, because it's a dead end.
We asked Reginaldo why it’s so difficult to make it as a small farmer in the US?
The biggest challenge we have now is that everything is so commoditized, that if you want to get into a new space, for example, here in the US. For us immigrants, it's almost impossible, because I don't want to grow corn and soybeans. And if you're not going to do those things, you are relegated to this little niche corner where you can do vegetables. But if you're going to do vegetables, and not sell it to a big company, you’re still relegated to this little corner of the landscape where you can only grow those vegetables, if you have a direct market, if you don't speak the language, don’t understand the system, don't know how to do all of those things, don't have networks, infrastructure support systems and all of that, you're never going to succeed at that. And people try, but I don't see any success stories around here. I only see a lot of struggle, a lot of failures of people trying to do that even folks who are not disadvantaged in the context that they are discriminated against. You know, new college students, white, all of that, educated, coming out, and still not making it in that space. And so those are significant challenges. Because there is only conventional systems, there is no alternative regenerative systems. And by that I mean full supply chain, where you got the whole system integrated into sets of standards and practices that actually open up the opportunities for the creativity and the innovation to flourish. And so the only system we got that dominates the landscape is the conventional commodity based system. and where something is not a commodity like in vegetables, you are still depending on the larger system in order to make it go.
Reginaldo believes more attention for solutions should be on the structural level, rather than focusing on the individual farm.
The small farm as we know. It is simply not sustainable. It's not viable. And you can't build systems out of those farms if there is no infrastructure in place to support systems supply chain management value, our infrastructure, financial systems, and so on. And so those are the challenges we're facing right now. The lack of systemic designs where we can build institutional capacity, institutional memory, continuity planning, all of those things that are critical to changing the system are really absent for the most part wherever you go here. Except in the conventional system, of course, the commercial systems got it all nailed down, all the way from policy to subsidies. It’s got it all covered. So it's really an interesting dichotomy we got going here.
Whose knowledge counts is a question we asked throughout our exploration of power. So we asked Reginaldo how he thinks about the power of knowledge?
If you look at today's knowledge, it’s knowledge that is destroying the planet, knowledge without the wisdom to know how to use it, that is a weapon of mass destruction.
Reginaldo strongly believes that indigenous roots and ancestral wisdom - experience and knowledge of the land passed down from generation to generation - is foundational to feeding the planet in a sustainable way.
Marrying the current knowledge in the agricultural sector, with this ancestral wisdom that actually gives us the capacity to use that knowledge for the right purposes. And that is probably where the biggest discrepancies are, that in this country, we're bending over backwards to invalidate, and to denigrate the ancestral wisdom of these communities, of the communities that were here for many 10s of 1000s of years longer, and knew more about this landscape and how to feed people than anybody coming in. And so not being able to have the wisdom to have taken the knowledg that the newcomers came with, and bind it with the wisdom of this continent, that was the biggest mistake. We are still making that mistake. That is one of the biggest differences because in Guatemala, the invaders could not destroy the existing ancestral wisdom, and have never been able to achieve it. In this country, we almost got to the point of mental colonization, which is the ultimate goal of a colonizing an extractive system. So this is where we are now.
We've been talking about decolonizing and indigenizing agriculture. Can you expand on how these framings guide how you approach your work?
Right, well, it's not about decolonizing, or indigenizing. I mean, that's what we can say publicly, because that makes it easy to understand for people. But hope, really, what we're talking about is truly just starting to behave more like a rational species. Again, because right now, the way we're behaving, is no different than a virus, that sort of bacteria that given a body to feed on, feast and feeds on it extracts all of his nutrients, until he gets to the point that there is no more left and he collapses, population collapses and dwindles down to a minimum until another body comes along. Well there is no plan B, there is no planet B. We are now technically doing the same thing the viruses do to a body, except we're doing it to the earth. But we are not behaving that differently. And so that's really what we've got to get back to. And yes, one way to do that, is to understand that we are simply one of the living systems of the planet. We're not it. Without the other living systems, we don't make it.
And so at the end of the day, yes. When we start thinking about the fact that we are born both organisms that are gonna do everything to survive, to grow, to reproduce, and to perpetrate its species. That's every organism, not just us. But also at the same time, we have the ability to rationalize everything we do. We know how to do that. We are born both indigenous to the earth, to the planet, of the elements of the earth. Most of you know most of us is water and carbon, by the way, so it's not like anybody can say you are not of the earth. We all are, we are indigenous to the earth. Now, but we also were born organisms programmed by the geo-evolutionary processes and genetic process of the earth, to take over to reproduce and to perpetrate, and so on. Now, the key is, are we willing and able to rationally see the difference within these two beings we are and become more of the original indigenous, or are we going to let the other side take over and turn us into viruses, flies, pests of the earth. And so the choice is ours.
This is ultimately a choice about which system we dedicate our resources to?
The one we feed is the one that wins. At the end of the day, if you feed the colonizer, extraction, all of it, that's the one that is going to take over. But if you feed both and hopefully you feed the true indigenous understanding more, than that's the one that takes over and we will heal the planet. So it's not just about this idea of, “Okay, give me the formula for decolonizing and indigenizing.” There's not there's no such thing as a formula. It's simply becoming us again, that's what it comes down to. And when we look at it, we all can read through that. We can all relate to that, doesn't matter whether you're an executive and the top corporation or the President of the United States, or a farmer like being out in the fields. We all have those same battles inside, and it’s the one we feed that's the one that wins.
It's interesting the way you talk about it, because often when you know we're thinking about colonization, there are colonizers. settlers and those who have been colonized. And so like there's a real dichotomy between groups of people. But the way you're talking about it seems that there's sort of a colonizing and an indigenous perspective, that can be, facilitated, expanded within each of us.
Exactly, it been said, by I think it was chief Seattle. He said - he was accredited with so many beautiful sayings. But he was this warrior who had that challenge, because he was a good warrior, and he said, well, the mad dog and the good dog, right. So he said, do I, how do I know? And he said, Well, it's the one you feed is the one that wins. So yes, you are a warrior. But you have to feed your spiritual being. And you have to ensure that you don't just become a mad dog, that you actually do understand that you got a role in this community, to preserve, to protect and all that against the physical threats, but also being for that you are a being, with a spirit with big responsibility on this planet. And you can never allow that to be overcome by, in this case, the colonizer.
And so, it comes down to that, yes, we got both. We got both. You will feel them both, if you just let them express themselves, you feel them both. And you can choose. Every single human being can choose.
We wanted to ask you so at the beginning, you mentioned that regenerative at its core is about understanding from the perspective of an organism and in your example, you were talking about the chicken. The conversations we've been having with people about power, we're often focused on human power. Do you have a sense that other species have power?
Yes, if you look at any pack of dogs, it is only one dog that gets in the front. If you look at flocks of chickens, there's always the one that leads the pack. Cows, and sheep, same thing. And the buffalo had incredibly sophisticated social organizing and power structures where they knew perfectly well the stronger the ones with the most, you know, physical capacity in the case of an attack by other other species, they would make a circle, they will step on the outside to put all the children and the older cows in the middle. I mean, every organism on the planet has a system of organizing their power, so that they can reproduce and perpetuate themselves. They are not as sophisticated as we are. I mean, they didn't invent nuclear weapons to destroy everybody else, but they are just as intelligent. Some of them are actually when you think of the true meaning of intelligence, and intellect that probably, you know, when they're rivaling us in that context, they seem to be more rational, in many ways. Many of these species don't kill their own species, you know, we do. That's a real problem.
Do you see them as having the power to shape the food system?
Well, at this point, we have disrupted the planet, to such a point that pretty much every other species is under our control. The buffalo can no longer come back, they can't shape the food system anymore. They used to, because they were allowed to. But we do have this ability, this brain, this capacity to be so destructive. And so to the extent that we are around, we are the keystone species. Now, we are the ones defining what happens and what doesn't. And so, to the extent that we decide to allow them, to the extent that we are more rational, they can totally, totally. I mean, think about this whole fake meat movement globally going on. I mean, why would you want to do that, when the earth gave us billions of years of evolutionary processes that deliver us most amazing meats. And if you don't want to eat meat, well eat vegetables, the same way they are already there, it was designed by the planet itself. And so, of course, animals and other organisms on the planet totally have the ability to shape the food system, but we have to allow it to happen. Because we are the only species that seems to be effective at blocking, disrupting everything that doesn't fit within our currently dominating extractive mentality.
So the very last question, which is, if you could just lay out what are your future aspirations for the food system?
Well, we hope that in the coming years, one year at a time. As we started in March, we organized the first return to poultry convergence. The purpose was to initiate the process of organizing governance, and control for regenerative poultry in this country. In the coming year, we'll organize the first regenerative poultry council. After that, we will be joining with other regions that are organizing as well. And as they organize their councils as well for the regions. Our aspiration is that we will then organize eventually the Regenerative Poultry Council of America .And that as a result of that, we will consolidate our actual regenerative poultry movement. Based on the definition I gave you: movement. In this country we will move governance move decision making move, the capital, the land, the ownership, the control, and the markets and the supply chain into a more collective system. That's our big aspiration for the poultry. And then as we do that, we hope that other sectors will do the same. And then if other sectors do the same with that level of integrity then we can become collectively with those other sectors, the Regenerative Agriculture Council of America and hopefully then we get to change this country's food system.
Fantastic. And we can have another chat with you when you've created this collectivized movement.
When you have changed the American food system.
Thank you so much for speaking with us Reginaldo.
Thank you. I appreciate having this opportunity to do that, providing it. And remember one thing, everything from the microphones you're using to the computers to the chair you're in. Everything went through a process by which somebody thought about it. Framed it, expressed it. After expressing it, built enough capacity for people who knew how to get things done. And then it was built. Every single thing. We can build this system that is different.
I have one personal story question that I just want to ask you quickly because I've been wondering this whole conversation. What made you come from Guatemala to US - what sort of precipitated that?
Her name is Amy. And -
The power of love, huh?
We didn’t ask you about the power of love.
We asked about the power movements. We've asked you about the power of language and knowledge. We did not ask you about the power of love and then we would have covered all the bases. We should always start there.
That wraps another episode of Feed. Thank you all for listening.
You can find more links in the show notes to the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance and to Reginaldo’s book, In the Shadow of a Green Man, that tells stories about his upbringing in Guatemala.
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TABLE is a collaboration between the University of Oxford, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Wageningen University.
This episode was edited and mixed by Matthew Kessler, with a special shoutout to TABLE staff Jackie Turner for her help with the edit. Music in this episode by Blue dot Sessions.
Stay tuned for a new episode on power in a couple weeks.