"NAF is one of the strongest partners and most important assets the nonprofit community has here. They are a partner for us now, and will continue to be the agency that helps us navigate the complexities of growing and sustaining our work."

Niel Ritchie, CEO, Main Street Project

Main Street Project is a Northfield, Minnesota-based nonprofit, working to change the conventional food system by deploying an alternative, small-scale system that is accessible and economically viable. Main Street has three primary areas of focus: to build a new model for regenerative agriculture, to train the next generation of farmers, and to develop a regional food system that delivers on the triple bottom line of social, economic and ecological benefits.

The organization was founded in 2005 by Niel Ritchie, a veteran nonprofit leader with over 25 years of rural policy and organizing experience. Main Street Project’s current work on agriculture systems grew out of a Northwest Area Foundation funded collaboration on an ambitious four-state, multi-year community-building initiative called Raíces (roots)—organizing primarily with Latino youth and adults in diverse rural communities.

In 2007, Niel was joined by Reginaldo (Regi) Haslett-Marroquin, a colleague at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy who helped found the US Fair Trade Federation, and launched Peace Coffee as a social enterprise and model of fair trade with coffee growers. You can read more about their history and accomplishments here.

Using insights they gleaned during the Raíces Project—among other professional and personal experiences—Main Street Project launched a pilot program to begin to address questions around food security and agricultural opportunities that might better serve the Latino population. Their focus was on poultry farming (for a number of reasons), and in 2013, Main Street Project’s Board and leadership decided to focus entirely on developing the poultry-centered regenerative agriculture model.

The complexity of the model and need for infrastructure investment required more sophisticated management and capacity than the team had in-house. They had cash flow challenges, and needed help to stay afloat. "I had to be convinced that talking to a lender was not an admission of failure—but rather, it was an opportunity," Niel admitted. "I got up the courage—and sure enough, I found out that was true."

Niel reached out to NAF, and began working with Portfolio Manager Allison Wagstrom. "Allison was able to understand our situation, demonstrate that the challenges were solvable, and take a chance on us so that we could get our feet under us and move to the next level," he said. The line of credit NAF provided helped Main Street even out their operations while they continued to expand.  As Niel said, NAF "took the stress out of the equation."

"They're social entrepreneurs who are trying to make farming a livable employment in a way that's respectful to the environment and to the workers," Allison said. "The work they do is amazing."

In addition to the line of credit, Allison and the Main Street team began meeting regularly to flesh out the organization's 10-year balance sheet projection and business plan. "Allison and the NAF team continue to be enormously helpful," Niel said, "giving us feedback and advice about planning. They've become partners, coaching and mentoring us so that we can navigate the complexities of lending, program-related investments, and other strategies we're going to need to employ to get our work done."

As Main Street's leadership considers what the future holds, a resounding theme is the need for—quite simply—more space. They've simply run out of operating room, and the model demands testing the system at a farm-scale level. "When we bring it all together," Niel explained, "we'll get more efficiencies and be able to better demonstrate the impact of our system. We're tying economic and ecological success to this model—and we need to do it at scale." Main Street is in the midst of a plan to acquire new land, which will allow them to significantly scale up their training program to reach the aforementioned goals.

NAF is honored to partner with Main Street in this important work, and Allison and the team look forward to continued synergies as they grow. "NAF is one of the strongest partners and most important assets the nonprofit community has here," Niel reflects. "They are a partner for us now, and will continue to be the agency that helps us navigate the complexities of growing and sustaining our work."

To learn more about the Main Street Project, visit them online.