Meet the Modern Farmer: Chris Newman
Sylvanaqua Farms Earlysville and Montross, Virginia
For Chris Newman, becoming a farmer had been a distant dream, the kind he might pursue in his golden years. Then, in 2013, a cancer scare changed everything. Once doctors linked his gut pain to work-related stress, Newman’s wife, Annie, insisted he abandon his career as a software engineer in Washington, D.C. “She moved our retirement plan up by about 40 years,” quips Newman, now 35.
“We’ll be processing chickens, and each of us has a baby on our back.”
The two decamped to 20 rented acres in Earlysville, Virginia, and started building a livestock business inspired by the writings of sustainable agriculture guru Joel Salatin. What began as 80 broiler chickens and six hogs has since grown to include 5,000 broilers, several hundred hens and turkeys, 100 pigs, a dozen sheep, and 25 additional acres in the town of Montross. The couple also welcomed two daughters, now 3 and 1. “Annie and I will be processing chickens, and each of us has a baby on our back,” Newman says.
The couple is currently contemplating shifting toward a food-forest system. “The animals will work as fertilizer, tillage, and pest control, so they’re supporting the ecology rather than imposing themselves on it,” explains Newman, who somehow still finds time to blog on Medium, often about being a mixed-race farmer below the Mason Dixon line. Last spring, a post he wrote about the Charlottesville tragedy went viral. And while the exposure won Newman new customers, it cost him a few, too. “I could always go back to D.C. and write code,” he insists, though that scenario seems unlikely. “You’re in the cycle of growing things,” Newman says of his current profession. “The seasons matter. The weather matters. There’s a completeness about it that was missing with my 9-to-5 job, where I was making a living, but not necessarily a life.”