NORTHFIELD, MINN. -- Pity the chicken in winter. Squeezed into dark, dusty, rank-smelling quarters with barely enough room to move, it is truly a "cooped up" creature.

Unless it happens to live at the five-star poultry palace on Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin's farm. This spacious, solar-heated "hoop house" has a high, translucent-plastic ceiling through which golden light pours. It smells not of ammonia from poop, but sweet, clean hay.

The sleek fowl living here -- about 100 hens and four busy roosters -- strut, crow, take flying leaps off bales of barley and peck flax-rich organic feed. When they feel an egg coming on, they flutter into the more private, insulated roosting annex to take care of business.

"They produce about 70 eggs a day, pretty good for this time of year," said Haslett-Marroquin. "They're just chickens being allowed to act like chickens. When you turn an animal into a machine, it destroys not only the natural cycle but our health."

One day, these heritage Rhode Island Reds, Buckeyes, white Plymouth Rocks and Black Javas will be eaten, and their superior lifestyle will translate into more nutritious drumsticks. A high-flax diet means they're full of the healthy Omega 3 fatty acids missing from factory-farmed broilers.

For now, though, they're just a bunch of lucky little cluckers in hen heaven.

Humane treatment of animals is important to Haslett-Marroquin, but it's hardly his primary goal. It's just one spoke on the wheel of a grand symbiotic experiment that factors in sustainable farming, energy conservation, self-sufficiency for low-income immigrants and healthier food for everyone.

What comes first? The chickens. And their eggs.

Training 'agripreneurs'

As director of the Rural Enterprise Center (REC) in Northfield, Haslett-Marroquin has been training Latino immigrant "agripreneurs" to raise chickens in Northfield and Cannon Falls for the past three years. Many are already involved in community vegetable gardening.

The project has had 600 acres offered for free use by foundations and interested farmers in the area. The relatively minimal investment and the chickens' short growth cycle translate into a quicker turnaround for generating income. The birds are processed at a USDA-certified plant in Utica, Minn., and sold at Hillside Farmers Co-op in Northfield as well as to other clients, including CSAs (a direct farmer-to-consumer delivery method) and a growing number of restaurants committed to the "eat locally" movement.

According to a study by the Organic Trade Association, retail sales of organic poultry have almost quadrupled nationwide since 2003. Estimates of annual growth rates range from 23 to 38 percent, with annual sales expected to reach almost $600 million by the end of 2010. This still represents less than 1 percent of total chicken sales.

Jose Javier Peralta Rosas and his wife, Angelica Garcia, moved to Minnesota from Mexico with the typical immigrant baggage -- not much money but a determination to make a better life. Now he is one of the program's start-up farmers and co-op members. In the past two years, the couple were among five participants who produced 12,200 chickens.

"We would like more clients," Peralta Rosas said by phone, on a break from his other job making plastic hoses. "Little by little, people are finding out about our program, and hopefully, through better marketing and getting our program more recognition, we will be able to compete. We don't have enough space and infrastructure. As we gain these two, we will expand."

Peralta Rosas said that Mexican immigrants are particularly well suited to the project, because "our people like this type of job. Many come from rural areas, and this is what they know how to do. We just need technical support."

Bio-biz network

Trained as an agronomist and small-business developer, Haslett-Marroquin has several other accomplishments under his feed cap. He grew up in Guatemala, where he helped indigenous communities raise their income levels. Since moving to Minnesota in the early 1990s with his American wife, he has been a fair-trade advocate, best known for his Peace Coffee fair-trade coffee company. REC, through which he is launching the "beyond organic" chicken, is a program of Main Street Project, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit dedicated to helping rural communities thrive.

"There's a lot of bio-business happening in southern Minnesota; I'm only one of about 85 people making this thing work," Haslett-Marroquin said. Other partners include the Agricultural Utilization Research Institute, several co-op and small-business development agencies, and the University of Minnesota. Major funders include Northwest Area Foundation and the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.

Minneapolis economist Ken Meter of the nonprofit Crossroads Resource Center has counseled Haslett-Marroquin on economic projections.

"By staging their growth into small production units, none of which requires much capital upfront, and by engaging friendly investments from supportive neighbors, the co-op has leveraged significant investment already," said Meter, who specializes in food-system analysis. "The small-scale model is quite resilient as conditions change. This is one of the few models I have seen nationally that shows promise for building wealth for Latino immigrants."

But Haslett-Marroquin isn't willing to stop at small scale. With the success of the solar hoop house winter experiment, he hopes that the average participating farmer will be able to expand to 4,500 birds a year with year-round production. Sitting at the kitchen table in the A-frame house he shares with his wife and their three children, he brims with enthusiasm.

"This is an idea that both President Obama and someone with a third-grade education can get excited about," he said. The model he hopes to spread throughout southern Minnesota will eventually include turkeys, pastured and forest-ranged pigs, small grains, perennial fruits, vegetables and herbs. Illustrating why the plan will work with a story about the 1,000-year-old symbiotic relationship between hazelnuts and chickens, Haslett-Marroquin insists he's no romantic idealist.

"We're not dreaming here," he said. "This makes long-range economic sense."

Among all the numbers he's been crunching, trying to drum up support for the long-range plan, he's proud to boast one big zero. That's the amount he says he spends to heat the hoop house, even during the recent 20-below-and-plunging cold snap.

Challenges remain

While he has wide support for his entrepreneurial spirit and problem-solving acumen, some experts and even colleagues question the feasibility of a system with so many unresolved challenges, including distribution, marketing and competitive pricing: The cost to the consumer can be up to three times the price of conventionally farmed chicken sold at Cub or Rainbow, and more than Minnesota-based Gold'n Plump's Just Bare brand, also raised antibiotic-free on family farms.

"It's a noble idea," said Bill Roenigk, vice-president of the National Chicken Council. "I wish them luck. But the bigger you get, the more regulations there are. Keeping it small and local might be the best bet."

Kathy Draeger is statewide director for the University of Minnesota's Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships, which has more than 400 projects statewide. A fellow fowl raiser, she and Haslett-Marroquin are on the same chicken-talk listserv.

"He does a lot of good work helping to raise both the quality of local foods and public access to them," she said. "His ideas come from where the best ones do -- on the ground. My concern is that when you get to the level of 4,500 birds a season from one farmer, I know from experience that with that kind of scale you've got a waste-management issue and the humane factor goes down."

Haslett-Marroquin acknowledges the stumbling blocks, and is working on solving such "bottlenecks" as finding a partner to process the chickens closer to home. He knows that trying to compete with industrial farming giants like Minnesota-based Cargill is a David and Goliath story playing out on the prairie.

"That's OK," he said. "We have many slingshots."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046