VShris Newman, 38, and his wife, Annie, 35, have always planned to retire with a farm. But after a health crisis in 2013, the couple quit their jobs as software engineers and art gallery managers to found Sylvanaqua Farms, a 120-acre operation in northern Virginia that produces chicken, eggs, and eggs. , grass-fed pork and beef.
Newman has gained a large following online for his writing and advocacy, which focuses on producing food in a way that does not exploit people or the environment.
Developing Sylvanaqua’s operations is more important than achieving perfection, Newman said. “Our goal on our farm is to responsibly produce as much food as possible and get it into as many mouths as possible, ensuring that what we produce isn’t just accessible at the top crust. “
To achieve this goal, Sylvanaqua has pledged to donate half of her harvest to food aid organizations across the Chesapeake region, as part of a self-help program focused on those who cannot. generally not afford high-quality meat and products.
Newman, who is black and a registered member of the Choptico Band of Piscataway Indians, spoke with the Guardian about racism in the farm-to-table movement, how indigenous practices influence the way he cultivates and why, in ultimately, feeding people must be at the heart of sustainable agriculture.
How did the transition go when you and your wife left your job to start the farm?
It was horrible. Basically the transition to farming was about moving to Charlottesville, buying a bunch of chickens, buying a few pigs, and then having this really rude awakening. There is a lot of literature on how ordinary people can cultivate. It’s this thing that if you work hard enough and go straight to the consumer and get creative then you can make it happen – but they also forget to tell you that they inherited a 5 million domain. of dollars. Everything in popular culture about these things is essentially marketing.
What kind of farming practices has Sylvanaqua adopted?
If you came here you would find a ranch made up largely of forest – part of grass. You will find us grazing in rotation with our cattle. You would see our pigs in the forest. You will find that we do not have chemical fertilizers because we place our poultry in the grass so that we do not have to import fertilizer.
Our laying hens follow our cows to reduce fly populations. Our hens will see a dried cow dung and they will scratch it and eat the larvae before it can hatch. This reduces our conjunctivitis problems with our cattle. It cuts our costs and makes our animals happier without having to resort to chemicals, drugs, vets, and things that traumatize animals.
And it’s not just about ecology. When we talk about sustainability, people almost always talk about things like no plowing, no sprays, no GMOs. It’s technical stuff about what you do down to earth, but somehow there’s no sustainability criteria in terms of people.
How is your farm truly sustainable if only 1% of people can afford your food? We’re actively trying to figure out how to connect the dots between what we’re doing here and the people who have been left behind by the farm-to-fork movement. Without this mass participation, all we really do is build castles in the sky.
How your black and factor of indigenous heritage in the way you cultivate?
I am not focused on land ownership. I think that’s actually one of the big ways that my Indigenous heritage is expressed in the way we do business – I’m not looking to own or accumulate. I just want to access this land to feed the people, because for us that is the purpose of the landscape – to support the people.
The rest is probably a bunch of weird neuroses around farming and farming, because people of color, especially blacks, have run away from farms for a reason. We were chased away at gunpoint, basically. My maternal grandfather, who was the last farmer in my family, was determined that none of his children would become a farmer, even though he was doing very well. He had swastikas painted on his tractors.
With all the issues that permeate the sustainable food movement, how did you go about doing things differently so as not to duplicate these issues?
Going after the ladder made me sort of a black sheep for the movement because sustainable farming is meant to be small. It’s about not fitting in because there’s this idea that whatever JBS, Smithfield, or Cargill does, we don’t have to.
We’ve been part of this farm-to-fork movement, “revolutionizing the way we farm” for almost 50 years now and where are we at?
If we are to feed everyone in this country and ultimately in this world – in a way that stops climate change and fundamentally changes our economic, spiritual and physical relationship to food – we have to be a little tougher. We cannot congratulate ourselves so much.
How should farmers think about climate resilience?
The deeply unsatisfying answer I give people on this is that I don’t think an individual farm can really do to affect climate change. The problem with agriculture, when it comes to the climate, is that we produce a lot more food than we need.
Farmers are funded by public money to grow things that no one wants, especially corn. We grow a lot of food, but end up throwing away most of it or funneling it to cattle that don’t even really need it to grow. We are shockingly ineffective with this.
The ultimate thing we do to create a climate friendly model is why we produce food, who we produce it for, and make sure it gets to them. That’s what matters fundamentally – it’s not about technology, it’s not about techniques, it’s about people.