I'm reading
Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin | Regenerative Farmer
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin | Regenerative Farmer
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin | Regenerative Farmer
Pass it on
Pass it on
12 June 2022

Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin | Regenerative Farmer

Interview by Pip Wheaton

Every so often, you find yourself in a conversation where someone says something you know is going to stay with you for life. My first conversation with Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin was like that. He said, just as an aside to some bigger point he was making, “Well, we’re all indigenous to the earth”. Like it was so obvious to him, but it was a complete revelation to me.

While the majority of the world might have lost sight of our indigenous nature, Reginaldo is using regenerative poultry farming as a way to bring it back into focus. He is the founder and CEO of the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance and works with people around the world to centre indigenous knowledge in food production.

Currently, the food system contributes roughly a third of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and is the biggest cause of biodiversity loss. The increasing industrialisation of farming is consolidating land into the hands of ever fewer big farmers, making it harder for small farmers to compete, and causing a vicious cycle of inequality. Reginaldo’s work is a case study in how indigenous ways of thinking can dismantle the profit-driven, extractive food system.

His regenerative poultry model increases the amount of food produced as well as its nutritional quality. It improves the soil and water quality of the farm. It also improves the social and economic outcomes of the small farmers who work the land and keeps the benefits in the local community, rather than extracting them for the benefit of a small number of far-off agricultural companies. Importantly, it is easy to adopt, and scales even at small farm sizes, disrupting the system of industrial agriculture that is depleting the wealth of our farming land the world over.

Reginaldo’s work is a marriage of scientific knowledge and indigenous wisdom. He has been working with chickens since he was a child in the highlands of Western Guatemala; he discovered young that letting chickens roam improved soil quality faster than any other approaches. I was surprised to learn that chickens’ natural habitat is the jungle, which probably shows just how effectively I’ve internalised our farming norms – to think of livestock as anything other than the domesticated requires imagination to think of what came before us.

At its roots, regenerative agriculture is about more than just the processes, inputs and outputs – it’s about taking care of the land with passion and dedication. Because, as Regi said to me when I first met him, we belong to the earth, the earth doesn’t belong to us.

This story originally ran in issue #69 of Dumbo Feather

PIP WHEATON: You’ve been working in regenerative agriculture, specifically poultry, for over a decade now. Arguably your whole life, right? The question I have to start with is, what’s so special about chickens?

REGINALDO HASLETT-MARROQUIN: Laughs]. Yes, exactly! What is so special about chickens? And I’m telling you it’s probably the most amazing livestock the world has ever seen. It’s no coincidence everybody wants chickens. Everywhere I go, the first thing people show me is their chickens.

I want chickens.

Exactly. Even in the urban centres. It has become a global phenomenon in the last 10 years. But what is special about chickens? Well, you’ve got to understand there is something special about all livestock, all organisms that have chewing mechanisms, swallowing mechanisms and digestive systems. And the reason is because collectively, the digestive systems of every organism on earth, all the way from the microbes to the worms, the invertebrates to the vertebrates, all the way to the mammals and the larger mammals. We all represent – and this includes humans, because we are part of nature – the digestive system of the earth itself. There are three places where energy is transformed at a mass scale globally. First is the photosynthetic process of Earth, which requires of course plants, so that they can capture as much of that energy from the sun as possible and as much of the gasses floating in the atmosphere, which they turn into a different expression of energy such as leaves and vegetables. Next to that is the animal kingdom, where organisms are now taking in a lot of those very complex structures, like cellulose, and these longer carbon-based chains – which is why the carbon was balanced in the past, because it was in living systems instead of out in the atmosphere. So animals take those complex molecular systems of energy expressions in the form of vegetables and grasses and trees and bark and everything that photosynthetic systems transform into something. Last, the energy gets passed into the soil in multiple forms – especially manure – where it then feeds another level of microbiological systems that turns all that energy into the nutrients that plants use again to optimise photosynthetic processes. So those three levels of mass scale energy transformation on the earth systems, that’s what made the planet livable. And that’s what made the planet what it was before us humans started to disrupt all those processes by which energy is transformed.

Without those three areas of energy transformations, regeneration simply doesn’t happen, period. Regenerative agriculture is about the optimisation of the flows of the energy systems of the earth, and those are the three places. So we figured if we’re going to get into this field, which livestock will we work with? Because it has to be livestock. All the other systems really are too clumsy. Take vegetable material or cover crops and put it into the soil and yeah, maybe nine months later that energy has been broken down by microbes and turned into something available to plants. Well, animals can do that in 48 hours. So animals are central to the regeneration of the planet. And the chicken – well, it just simply doesn’t get better than the chicken. It’s a short life span. Pretty much everybody eats chicken or eggs, except those who have decided not to. But ultimately, nothing beats chicken because of this massive social, economic and ecological alignment that it has with the biophysics and chemistry of the earth’s energy transformation processes. I guess the convenient answer will be, “Oh because lots of people eat chicken and it can sell at a good price and it’s a global product.” But that’s a linear, market-driven, colonising way of thinking. We came at this completely from an indigenous perspective. “Indigenous” meaning, we understand how the earth operates, we live by that code, we want to be part of that process. To do that you’ve got to reconcile your intellectual understanding of things with the ancestral ways that people have done for tens of thousands of years. It’s only in the last 200 years that humans have become this massive destructive global force. And that’s because we forgot about these logical frameworks. So that’s why the chicken.

Such a wonderful answer. My neighbour has chickens and my two-year-old son is obsessed with them. And that was more of a driving force for asking why chickens, because they do capture the imagination in a way that I think other animals don’t. And it’s part of the reason why your work is so brilliant. I’m interested by something else that you said, “We’re part of nature, we’re not outside of it.” Can you tell me more about what you mean by that?

Oh, I am so tired of hearing scientists, professionals, corporations and all kinds of people talking about our relationship with nature, how we manage nature, how we treat nature. That represents such an egocentric and homocentric idea that somehow nature is out there, and yet everything is nature. There is no such a thing as “outside of nature.” Even the pavement came from the natural systems of the earth. This intellectual myopia is being used especially by folks who somehow believe that they are better off or superior, and bring their particular degrees, their “knowledge” to manipulate the other living systems for the betterment of our living systems as humans. Probably the biggest mistake we made was to think that just knowledge was sufficient. It’s that very knowledge which has led us to separate ourselves from ourselves. That is, as living organisms. We’re highly organised forms of energy. We, individually, are ecosystems. If you look at how many trillions of bacteria are in your gut alone. Plus the trillions of fungi and bacteria and so on that are part of the skin-protected systems of our body. We are not individuals, we are ecosystems. And we are the reflection of the rest of the ecosystems of the earth as much as the ecosystems of the earth are a reflection of us. Somehow we lost this with our idea that we know better than the evolutionary processes of the earth that gave origin to us as a living system. Somehow we took that and let it go to our heads, so to speak.

How do you think we lost it?

We are born both colonisers and indigenous to the earth. All of us are born indigenous to the earth. And by that I mean we’re, what, 17 percent carbon? We’re 70 percent water. We are the elements of the earth. We are born that way. We are also organisms designed to be born, grow, reproduce and die. Every species wants to preserve and perpetrate itself. So in order to do that you’ve got to take over the resources that are around you and hoard them. And repress anybody and fight anybody who may also need those resources. Now that’s okay for what we call “irrational species,” right? But we call ourselves rational species. And rational species should not be fighting for resources like that, should not be hoarding. That’s what we call the “colonising” mentality. So we are born both indigenous and coloniser. The way we lost our indigenous mentality and our ability to actually be rational is because we have fed and domesticated every human being on earth at this point, except for those indigenous communities that still live isolated and have protected themselves from the colonising viruses that have turned this world upside down. This mentality has taken over the systems, armies, weapons, governments, corporations and so on, all the systems we live in, to protect the right to extract, exploit and destroy. That is how we lost.

You speak about everybody indigenising themselves. Can you tell me about what that looks like?

It’s not much different to radicalising yourself, whether as a terrorist or a radical Christian. We are malleable. Our brains are really malleable. It’s what our society, our parents, our communities teach us to be. So it’s truly a matter of us deciding that we just don’t want to be this way anymore, and, believe me, there are plenty of communities around the world who are doing exactly that. They’re bringing their newborn to the water systems of the earth, the community values to take things slow, to not take more than what they need. All those are basic indigenous principles. Those communities hold the blueprint for how we can return to our true ways as human beings. The problem right now is that we have a colonising system. If you look at Standing Rock, for example, in North Dakota, people who continue to try to live that way and to be more indigenous to the earth and protect these systems that give us life, they get brutalised by the current structures. There is no regard for the value of people in those conditions. You saw what happens in those cases. We need to start validating those systems, encouraging them and dismantling the ones that are actually keeping us from becoming indigenous again. We have been turned into colonisers and extractors through a domestication process, which the systems call “education,” but it’s really domestication where we are trained into certain ways of doing and thinking. It’s not like we can’t in the same way grow up to be more indigenous to this planet and take less, be happier, be more human and be more of a global society that understands we depend on the biological systems of the earth for our own biological wellbeing. The bottom line is that there is enough wealth and resources on the planet for every single one of us. That is not the issue. This way of indigenising is such a threat to the extractive system and what we call “progress,” which isn’t really progress. It’s a progression towards more extraction and destruction, yes. And so the indigenous ways of being were always a problem for those who came into the new territories with the purpose of conquering and appropriating and extracting the resources from those places, so that they could accumulate wealth rather than manage the planet’s wealth.

I’m struck by the fact that there’s such huge abundance in the earth and yet we have manufactured this mindset of scarcity, and that then creates fear and motivates this other way of being, this dominant way within the system at the moment. But if we can break free of that, if we can see the abundance and take only what we need, we see how radical that is and how that fundamentally shifts everything. You said that regenerative poultry is a blueprint for how we do this. I’d love to hear more about how the current system of agriculture is set up, and how regenerative agriculture more broadly, but also specifically poultry, can dismantle that.

We think that we are producers in the agricultural system, but there is no such a thing. The energy is there, the CO2, the ammonia, the nitrous sulfide, we’re not producing anything. For as long as the earth has existed, that energy, in the multitude of molecular expressions that it exists, has been transforming itself. From ice melting, whatever it was originally, all the way until life emerged and then that same energy turned into protozoic organisms like algae. On and on it went over billions and billions of years. It kept transforming into more complex organisms, all the way until it delivered us. We were delivered with the most magnificent diversity of life on Earth, which was simply expressions of the original energy in a much more complex myriad of energy expressions. Whether it was a worm or a plant, all of them are simply highly organised forms of the original energy of the planet. So when we think of regenerative agriculture, and I know not all companies are talking about it like this, but in our work, we are talking about simply inserting ourselves in that continuum of energy transformation in a way that allows us to be part of it. And it is a way of being and thinking that we need to change. That is not about, till, no-till, fertiliser, no fertiliser, organic, not organic. Regenerative ways are about ways of thinking, of being, of relating to this massive blueprint that we have in the planet that transforms energy on an ongoing mass scale, so that living systems can exist in the middle of all of that. We simply said, “Okay, well we can’t engage with everything because we’ll get lost. But let’s pick one entry point where we can build the blueprint of a process,” by which we restored that way of being and thinking so that we can hopefully influence everyone on this planet to look at this in their own way. How can they insert themselves into those naturally flowing processes of energy transformation that delivers us the expression of energy that we call food? Eggs, fruit, vegetables and so on. Those are not products. They are simply expressions of energy that the ecosystems of the earth have toiled so that those expressions of energy would be in perfect alignment with our own biological systems. Depending on which ecology we grew up and evolved on. There is no coincidence that those who’ve got indigenous blood and ancestry, we are intolerant to, say, lactose, right? Because we evolved in a different environment and those evolutionary process gave us that unique blueprint in relationship to those flows of energy transformation. That is the process by which we design this current poultry system. It is not about chickens. It’s about a way of thinking and being which can be applied to any process. In Africa, it’s managing their relationship with an elephant, people and the ecology. There is no limit to this thinking.

I grew up on a wheat farm in very rural Australia. In fact, my family have been wheat farmers so far back that it’s why my surname is Wheaton. And one of the things that I was struck by when you were just talking now is, it’s not about till or no-till or fertiliser or no fertiliser. Because I feel like so often “ conventional farmers” are almost demonised in all of this. We’re recognising that it’s absolutely essential that farmers are part of the solution and that we need to change the way that we’re producing food. And yet it’s not like farmers themselves want to destroy the planet. So I love that you said that. And I guess it just makes me curious. Could you tell me about what your experience has been of working with people who are using these so called “conventional” or mainstream farming techniques?

I don’t go into a farm or a farmer’s home relating to them on the basis of their farming practices or their farming dreams. I first go into a space thinking of them as human beings, organisms of the earth same as me. When you go into a space with that kind of energy you can have a conversation about anything you want and still communicate and understand. Not judging someone for what they are doing is critical to even have a conversation about potential differences. Farmers don’t change not because they don’t want to. Farmers don’t destroy the earth because they want to. These are very important things to understand. If the first thing that comes out of my mouth is seen as accusing this farmer of doing something destructive, then automatically I’m going to generate resistance. And resisting something takes all the energy in your mind, your body and your spirit. We automatically block ourselves from having any potential conversation and communication. So in my relationship with farmers, we simply talk about a spectrum. A spectrum where on one end is the farm as they have it and the other end is an ecosystem that nobody ever touched. I don’t say that one is bad and the other is good. We talk about well, how do you feel? How is this working for you? I mean it’s their story. We first have to be able to hear that story, all of us collectively, and for the farmers to hear themselves tell their story.

One of those farmers, the second largest conventional farmer in Minnesota, would walk away from any conversation that was not about conventional agriculture. And yet we’re good friends now because of this very process. This year we even were able to invite him into a conversation where he’s actually studying other options for the large-scale farming that he does. He hasn’t changed yet. He’s just thinking about it. But the fact that we are not in a confrontational situation, the fact that he’s looking at alternatives is proof that almost every single farmer out there wants to do better. And just wants to be validated and understood on the facts of why they do what they do. They are not doing what they do to destroy the planet. That is not in their vocabulary. They are simply brought up in a system where they didn’t understand that there were different options and where they were taught this is how you make a living. Policy makers and corporations are the ones who created that environment. The farmer for the most part is just out there trying to make ends meet and ensure their kids have food on the table, and even that has been a challenge.

Of course. You mentioned this farmer is in Minnesota. You do work all over the place, with thousands of farmers. Where are you now?

I am in one of the deepest ravines in the middle of Guatemala City and I feel like I’m in the rainforest. There is a friend who restored all the ecological systems in these ravines, all the native species, and even created a waterfall so that the birds and other species would find their way here again. I just came back from the northern rainforest where we have multiple partners we’re working with, and where the indigenous communities adopted this poultry system. They connected to it instantly. There was no disagreement when we laid out the framework and the logic and all of that. They were like, “Yeah, that’s what we know how to do. So just help us organise this way of thinking into something that can deliver eggs to the communities we live around.” Now they have production of eggs, if you want to call it production, delivering it to their local markets. They are literally shifting the story of Guatemala from one that started the same as the United States and all the countries where a few families took over their poultry sector and turned it into a mass scale extractive and violent system. This community is returning that to its origins. The chicken is a forest animal, so for Guatemala, which is a primary forestry country, there’s no real agricultural land. I mean, agriculture is an oxymoron for Guatemala’s ecosystem. So poultry is one of the most important tools to restore these ecologies and at the same time optimise the ability of the ecosystem to deliver incredible amounts of wealth. As we restore the forest, we can bring back the wild turkeys that are native to this ecology. And pigs. It’s just mind-blowing the capacity that these ecosystems have to deliver us incredible wealth, when they have been reduced to probably one or two crops by doing what we did with clear cutting and putting corn or soybeans or palm oil or other monocultures in. We are probably managing about five percent of the actual potential wealth capacity of a landscape. No wonder there is so much poverty. We’re wrecking it. We’re wrecking the very resource which we could develop.

I’d love to hear about some of your earlier experiences of food growing up.

So we started in the dry lands of Guatemala, in the eastern region. Very difficult, no water. So we moved to the northern rainforest in 1972, to make sure that we had a place where there was more water. The rainforest people used to say that it rained 13 months in a year, it would rain so much. In that space we started from zero again, and we started by clearcutting the forest like everybody else. That’s what everybody believed we had to do. So from year five to probably year 14, it was really, really bad. It was close to starvation. Very, very difficult. We couldn’t get anything out of the forest once we clear-cut it. By the time I was eight or nine, I was already exploring the forest and literally trying to figure out what else was out there. The communities native to that area were showing us fruits that we could harvest at different times of the year. There were these palm trees at the bottom of the forest that produced this very long flower which was encapsulated in this hard casing, and if you harvested halfway through its development, they were this incredible nutritious vegetable. So we started harvesting those. A couple of years later, my dad and a few other elders started to realise that wait a minute, there is a lot more food out there if we don’t cut the forest. So we started replanting the forest that we had cut down! Well, it takes a long time. We started replanting it with fruits and vegetables that we could eat. We had pineapples, avocados, nine kinds of bananas, seven or more kinds of citrus, sugar cane. You name it. It became an edible forest instead of a clear-cut corn and black bean patch. I learned very quickly that the chickens did extremely well on the bottom of that ecosystem because they are jungle animals. So they allowed us to almost eliminate outside fertilisers. The chickens did all of it. Then we noticed that the organic matter at the bottom of the forest was being turned around way faster than the rest of the forest where we didn’t have the density of chickens, so we started putting more and more chickens in. Soon after, I had my own flocks, and in middle school, I won a prize for the best chicken. Everybody was given a handful of chickens to grow, and mine grew so large and beautiful that they wanted to know what feed I gave them. That chicken had never seen feed. He had only seen the byproducts of the farm. So anyway, I put that in the back pocket, that whole experience. By then we were no longer hungry. We still didn’t have money. I was still going barefoot to school. But not hungry anymore. And not malnourished. We completely solved our food insecurity issues right there with that little patch of land.

I love that you’ve been winning prizes for chickens ever since you were a child. It’s brilliant!

[Laughs]. It’s hard to get away from what works. If something works, why would I want to fix it?

Exactly. You used the word “violent” to describe the food system, and it really struck me because when I think about all of the ways that that system is broken, the word violent feels true. Food should be nourishing, should be life-giving, and yet the way that the system is set up now, it’s not that. I’d love to hear your reflections on how you see the status quo of the food system at the moment.

Yeah. It didn’t start with food, this colonising virus that has been plaguing our planet since, well, according to some indigenous scholars like Sherri Mitchell, as long as three thousand years ago when man started to commoditise women to expand their power. So you would marry your daughter to someone you wanted to join to conquer more land, things like that is the way she puts it. I’m not sure it’s that clear cut, but it signifies a legacy of violence. Colonising was always about violence. And war. War is a mental construct that we came up with to build the narrative for how you decide everything else. So the young have got to be trained as warriors, for example, and every community has had their warriors forever. Some indigenous communities made the warrior culture part of their ecosystem of living. So, we look at a herd of buffalo. The buffalo, as it originally existed, built circles. Big strong ones on the outer circle would protect against the predators. And in the middle were the children and the elder and so on that couldn’t defend themselves. Some communities in America adopted similar structures to the buffalo, but they did that to live as a system, not to go take over the rest of the world. That was the difference between the indigenous cultures who, despite having violence, never made it the centre of their culture, compared to the colonising culture which was taking over the world at that point, and coming into this continent for the first time after having already savaged Europe by using violence as the foundation. It infused the way of being and thinking and structuring, developing policy, so called education and so on. So fast forward to today. We come into a situation where drugs become an issue for the society, instantly we call it the “war on drugs.” Then you can justify any violence you want, because it’s a war now. Next there comes the war on bugs, because they eat the plants we want to harvest and they destroy the agriculture economy. We can justify all means of violent thinking and behaving, and not question it. So it really goes back to this deep culture that we refuse to give up, because it advantages a very tiny percentage of the people today who control most of the wealth. We just accept that this is the way you get ahead.

You also talk about how the low nutritional value that you see in a lot of the foods today disproportionately impacts certain parts of society more than others. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Right. So keep in mind that the so-called “food system,” which, when you look at the fact that Tyson controls over 80 percent of the total poultry system in the United States, what we call the food system is really a corporate structure of extraction and exploitation that uses the fact that we need to eat every day as a foundation of its business model. It was never its intention to feed people and nourish people. An extracted system seeks to deliver the minimally acceptable thing that somebody would be compelled to purchase, and to spend their resources at the lowest potential cost that they can ever deliver it. When the cost is more, but they also have control of the government systems that collect taxpayers’ money, then they will take that too in order to optimise their extractive infrastructure. As a result, there is no incentive whatsoever for a company to focus on nutrition. It’s not in its DNA. So this is how we end up with mass scale production of so-called “food,” but really what we are producing is fill. It’s stuff that can fill us. There is no nourishment in there because what’s the point? Nutrition is expensive. You can’t produce it cheap. But you can produce fill cheaply. We call it food, we make it available. One of the things that have been done effectively is to use sugars, fats and salt as a foundation of making something more attractive, confusing the brain so that we want more of this stuff. Because again, it was always about extracting wealth. So you minimise the cost by minimising the value of the nutrition, and you optimise the craving for that very thing you have in plenty, and you’ve got a perfect extractive system. A system that is delivered to the masses of the world who go hungry and malnourished every day. As we disrupt their systems that have been feeding them for thousands of years. We disrupt those systems by bringing this really attractive fill. Then their original systems get disrupted and nutritionally valuable food doesn’t taste good if your culinary skills haven’t evolved. And that is also used in the process of pushing out the more highly nutritious, healthier foods. When the balance of trade and manipulation reaches this scale, the system is able to just plaster the landscape with stuff that is bad for our bodies, is degenerating to our biology, is degenerating to our spiritual capacity to recover our indigenousness, and also generates the mass scale health-related diseases and problems – which, by the way, if you look closer, some of the companies probably knew this was going to happen ’cause they invested in pharmaceutical companies producing the medicines for the very cancers and diseases that the system is generating. So yes, that is what it is out there. If somebody reading thinks it’s my imagination, go and do your own testing. It won’t take you more than a couple of samples to come to the same conclusion, if you awaken your senses, if you awaken your indigenous intellect and see the world for what it truly is. Until we do that, nothing changes.

What do you think needs to happen next in terms of the food system and where it goes? Maybe even bigger than that. How do we seize this moment of opportunity for change that feels like is bubbling up?

Yeah. Well, number one I think we need to change. The conventional food system has become our worst enemy. Not only an enemy to our health, to our ability to just be. Think about the interference of polluted foods – food that is grown with chemicals. It interferes in our ability to think and perform as human beings. Whether that food itself is bringing the chemical to us or whether we are breathing it because it was gasified in the fields. That needs to change, because the way it’s affecting our ability to just be humans has reached a crisis point. That is waking people up at a larger scale. Now, just because we become aware of it doesn’t mean the system changes. We’ve got to reengineer how we do it. As that awareness happens, we have also observed that those who are better off have been switching their food sources. So we’ve got to remove the privilege aspect of accessing good food and one way to do that is to build these community-based systems, where the primary goal is to secure the food and nutrition for the people producing the food, and then delivering it to the privilege folks. The first step is to ensure food access to those who have resources. And then with their resources bring the wealth to the community, so that we can then finance the process of regeneration. That is what needs to happen next. We call it a redoing and reengineering. Communities have always known how to do that. The larger systems-change challenge, which is what we need to focus on going forward, is around ownership, control, governance of land and wealth distribution. Right now, regenerative agriculture ways are being appropriated, turned into labels, product claims, reduced to a couple of things here and there so that the conventional system can continue to bring its products the way they always have, only with minor changes. That needs to be stopped, and the only way we can stop that is by building the systems that we want to replace the current one. That’s what we are focused on. We are focused on the whole systems change that makes the system regenerative rather than just what happens on the land.



This story originally ran in issue #69 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #69 of Dumbo Feather

Dumbo Feather has evolved, follow the journey by signing up for the Small Giants Academy newsletter