One farm tried to make sustainable food affordable. Here’s what happened
At Sylvanaqua Farms, Chris Newman tried to address two big problems with U.S. agriculture. But as some workers saw it, he was a problem too.Listen 17:57
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In 2013, Chris Newman started Sylvanaqua Farms to raise chickens and pigs sustainably, and to become an example of a Black and Indigenous farmer who could make it work among the overwhelmingly white crowd of U.S. farm owners.
This year, he got into a dispute with his employees that escalated to the point of his firing four people, others resigning, and Newman and his wife calling the police on them.
How did a farm with a social mission come to this?
Newman tried to address two big problems with U.S. agriculture, as he explains them.
First, meat in the United States is relatively affordable because of a large, centralized industry that processes livestock at scale. Livestock producers who go outside of the industry model have to charge more for their products. Newman has criticized the sustainable agriculture movement for producing food that is not accessible or affordable.
“It’s not just about our happy damn chickens; this is about: how do we fix this system,” he told me in a 2017 interview.
“A lot of my family, a lot of the people I grew up with, my neighborhood in southeast DC … can’t afford this stuff,” he said. “I could sit here and say it’s cheaper than Whole Foods …and it’s like rich people arguing about the price of a Bugatti and a Maserati.”
Newman’s goal was to raise chickens and pigs in a way that they wouldn’t have to live in feedlots that were so crowded the animals needed antibiotics to prevent the spread of disease. His animals would live on grassy fields and in forests, have plenty of space, and he would raise them at a large scale to bring down the cost.
The second problem is that almost 97% of the people who run farms in the U.S. are white. Black and Indigenous people are far less likely to have inherited land or family wealth, so it is harder to get started as farmers.
“They need a place they can come to and learn how to operate a farm on a farm that’s profitable, that’s not being run with a trust fund or otherwise being injected with money. They need to see a place that’s farming … ecologically and farming for money and not with money,” Newman said.
Sylvanaqua Farms would be that place. He needed to produce food sustainably at a larger scale, and hire people to do it.
The first part seemed to be going well. When I went back this year, Newman had moved to a different part of Virginia. He had much more land and chickens and pigs compared to four years ago. His prices are about the same. His customer base buys almost all the food he produces; quite a lot of things are sold out. He also started a mutual aid program, in which customers can help donate his harvest to organizations in the region that give food to people in need.
As for hiring people, the farm’s environmental and social goals attracted employees such as Valarie Proctor, a member of the Piscataway, the same tribal nation as Newman.
“For the first time, there was a farmer that actually cared about giving food to people who were underserved, and really critiqued the system that we live in,” Proctor said. “I hadn’t seen any farmer do that before, and it seemed like a breath of fresh air.”
Proctor joined the farm in spring 2020. They had seen and admired the operation from its social media presence, but were surprised to see that the chickens did not seem to have as much space, and perhaps were still crowded.
“They were certainly stocked, like overstocked … they didn’t seem like they were the absolute happiest, but I know that they were happy to be on grass at least and not in a factory.”
Proctor found Newman to be “a very charismatic leader” with a sense of humor.
“He has a lot of energy, he’s very high-functioning, but sometimes he would expect that same high-functioning behavior out of everybody else.”
Xander Beary, another new farm employee, also noticed this in her first training shift, when she was carrying 30 to 40 buckets of animal feed with Newman while jogging across the pasture. She said she could do it, but it was difficult for her because the combined weight was more than half her body weight. Nevertheless, the work and the mission of the farm was important to her, and she “really wanted to earn my spot.”
Later, she said, the work atmosphere led to employees feeling competitive with one another. The workdays were long and physically exhausting. She said she became aggressive to her colleagues, from the stress and the workload. She would resent her colleagues for things like not filling the feed buckets enough overnight, so they would be out of feed the next morning.
“I would treat people like shit if they didn’t hold themselves to the same standards that I held myself to,” Beary said.
In fall 2020, Jaime Escobedo, who had more farming and business experience than the other new employees, joined the farm. He said he quickly noticed the livestock did not live the idyllic lives one might expect.
“Just because they were outside does not make it better than factory farming. I have seen factory farming practices that were much cleaner and much more humane,” Escobedo said.
For example, he said Newman built coops for the egg-laying chickens to roost and lay their eggs in, but there were too many chickens in too little space. He cited a common standard — each chicken should have around two square feet of indoor space to itself, “mostly so that at night they all can find a spot to sleep and not poop on each other. The way Chris had it, that was impossible.”
Escobedo also said that Newman’s male pigs were not properly separated from the female pigs or castrated as soon as they should have been, leading to uncontrolled breeding and inbreeding that created a “horde of pigs.”
“I saw mother pigs start eating baby pigs because of the confinement and the overbreeding and the incest.”
In January 2021, Chris Newman got more animals to scale up the farm. He separated the operation into business, produce, and livestock. He put one of the new employees in charge of livestock, and gave that team a loan and a model for how to run the operation.
Beary said there were two problems: There was not enough money, so sometimes the animals ran out of food, and there was far too much work.
“I knew the farm had fallen apart in January, but by the time April came around, it was just like kicking a dead horse.”
She remembered an incident in which the team slaughtered 400 chickens, put them in a cooler, but did not check on them for four days because team members simply didn’t have the time. When the team got back to handle the chickens, they had gone bad and had to be thrown out.
“I saw all of my work, all of those hours of processing, all of those hours of heartache … I saw just all of it all in a pile,” Beary said.
The employees who had been competing against one another got together and proposed a leadership model in which they would have more power to make decisions. During this time, they vented out of frustration, and mentioned setting the animals in their operation free.
Newman heard about the remark and fired four people, including Beary. The others, including Escobedo and Proctor, resigned. He forgave the loan he gave them and gave the fired employees severance packages.
Some of the former employees who had lived at a house belonging to Newman’s cousin went back after they were fired, and that led to a public confrontation in which Newman and his wife called the police on the former employees. The former employees were not doing anything wrong, so the police left.
The former employees crowdfunded some money, and never saw one another again.
“What Chris had done to these kids and to other people, I found atrocious,” Jaime Escobedo said. “I really wanted to make sure that first no other BIPOC had to go through what we all went through with that man. He sold a big story and took advantage of some kids.”
Escobedo said part of what led to the drama is that farming is really hard. He said despite Newman’s being one of the hardest-working people he had ever met, Newman “made every mistake new small businesses and new small farms make — buying infrastructure that wasn’t right, buying equipment that wasn’t right, throwing money at the wrong problems.”
A lot of farms fail, because it’s hard to make it work without a lot of inherited land and/or money. The number of farm bankruptcies in the U.S. reached an eight-year high in 2019. The number of farms in this country has continually gone down over time since the 1920s. Most small farmers rely on income outside of the farm to stay in business.
Escobedo said Newman did not listen to the people he hired because of his ego. Newman told me he agreed with the ego part: “You’ve got people who’ve been systematically denied opportunities, or so they say. So … I was going to be the guy that gave [them] that chance. And I think there’s some ego in that that I kind of had to get over … I was going to be the hero.”
Newman said that all the problems with livestock did, indeed, happen, and that it came down to his putting people in the wrong positions, which was his fault.
To that point, Escobedo said Newman was always the boss, the person whose vision and direction formed the base of the entire operation, even if he put someone else in charge.
Yet despite everything that happened, Newman still believes his farm can achieve the larger goals he set out to accomplish all those years ago.
“The idea was to create this network of BIPOC-led businesses that were pursuing food sovereignty in the Chesapeake region with this model. And the model, I still believe in.”
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