Talking with Chris Newman about the farm he runs with his wife, Annie, you get the feeling you’re glimpsing the future.
Newman likes to think ahead; he was still in his 20s when he and Annie began planning to become farmers after retirement, which was decades away. They lived in Washington, D.C., then; he worked as a software engineer and she managed an art gallery. But the stress of his job soon threatened his health, and in 2013 the Newmans decided to walk away from their city life. They returned to Annie’s hometown, Earlysville, and founded Sylvanaqua Farms.
Plenty of young couples have made a similar move, but not every upstart farmer has the makings to take over Joel Salatin’s role as spokesperson for a new agricultural paradigm. Newman, in fact, counts Salatin’s writings as an original inspiration, and attended training at Salatin’s famous Augusta County farm, Polyface. But his philosophy and practice of farming have since diverged from Salatin’s in a few important ways. And because Newman seems to possess his onetime mentor’s knack for PR—he’s an ace writer and an outspoken visionary—the next generation of farmers may well be looking to Newman as a guiding light.
But first, back to the farm. What Sylvanaqua has produced so far is high-quality meat—chicken, heritage-breed pork, duck—plus eggs, and buyers have included restaurants, farmers market customers and “members” who pay up-front to get discounted prices. That’s all fairly standard, and the Newmans are certainly working hard to make their business float (and raise two daughters at the same time).
But they’re also animated by a longer-term vision based on permaculture. “We want to prove you can do tree-based agriculture,” says Newman, “and move to where we’re not a ‘livestock farm’ but we have livestock supporting the production of plant crops.” What that might mean in central Virginia’s ecosystem is a herd of pigs that will eventually be harvested for meat—and in the meantime, they’re rooting around among chestnut and hazelnut trees, tilling the soil and eating windfall apples that would otherwise be wasted. Animals and plants become symbiotic in a way that mimics natural systems.
Organic, in this model, is a given, but isn’t really the point. “We are for making sure that food is in sync with the ecology where it’s grown,” says Newman. “Permaculture is what indigenous people were doing in precolonial times all over the world.” It’s a personal connection for him, stemming from his Piscataway-Conoy and African-American heritage.
The “food forest” represents Sylvanaqua’s next big expansion. While they’ll still serve Charlottesville-area customers, this year they’ll move their base of operations to Stratford Hall, a 1,900-acre historic estate on the Northern Neck, so as to be closer to several major cities. They’ll be scaling up in a major way—increasing turkey production, to name one example, by 1,000 percent. The estate’s large swaths of woodland and pasture will provide enough room for Sylvanaqua to build the food forest and grow their business for, they figure, many years to come.
The notion of a place like Stratford Hall—the birthplace of Robert E. Lee—doubling as a working farm is one of the things that makes Sylvanaqua a bit radical. Instead of owning land, the Newmans have opted to lease acreage and/or partner with institutional or public landowners. This is more financially feasible for them but also, Newman says, will help Sylvanaqua serve as an example for other would-be farmers, including those who don’t have much—or any—wealth to start with. Eventually, he hopes, “Younger farmer entrepreneurs can take an internship with us, then enter a partnership with a landowner and start their own operation without having to take so much of the terrifying risk.” With permaculture farming, he adds, a state park or historic estate could still serve recreation or conservation uses while producing food.
While Sylvanaqua is still enough of a start-up that Newman hangs onto a freelance software gig, he’s got no shortage of ambition, seeing his farm as part of a broad-based solution to a raft of problems, from urban food deserts to a lack of people of color entering the farming profession. “How do we change the food system into what is ecologically responsible and socially responsible?” he asks.