Chris Newman Wants to Help You Start Farming—Without Ruining Your Life - Modern Farmer

Chris Newman Wants to Help You Start Farming—Without Ruining Your Life

The first-generation farmer wants new farmers to stop thinking about individual small farms and start thinking about cooperatives.

Chris Newman is building a cooperative structure to support his and other farms.
Photography courtesy of Sylvanaqua Farms.

Through his outspoken social media presence, farmer Chris Newman has killed a lot of sacred broiler chickens. His video about racism in agriculture, “I’m a Black Farmer,” went viral in January. When he and his wife started Sylvanaqua Farms, a multi-enterprise permaculture farm in the Virginia Piedmont in 2013, he had no idea that he was in for a harrowing ride that would teach him painful lessons about food and farming—and show him a better way for alternative agriculture to thrive. Food sovereignty, says Newman, just isn’t possible under the small farm model—but that doesn’t mean that the principles that motivate people to get into it in the first place aren’t valuable as guides. 

His new ebook, First Generation Farming, lays out his vision: building co-ops for first-generation farmers that hold resources in common and control a shared supply chain. His first such effort collapsed under the weight of interpersonal conflict four months after its formation in 2021, but he’s now building a cooperative structure in which his and two other farms supply livestock and eggs to a new entity, Blackbird Farms, a commonly held processor and sales distributor. Eventually, he says, Blackbird will buy the individual farm assets and fold those into a holding company. – Jacqui Shine

This interview was edited and condensed. 

JS: I wanted to hear about your book. You say the message is “how to start farming without ruining your life.”

CN: More or less, yes. 

JS: You’ve been writing about this for a long time. Is your sense of “how to do it without ruining your life” different than it was five years ago?

CN: Five years ago, I would have been able to give some general advice about, like, what products to take, what breeds to raise, more technical stuff like that. But what’s happened over time, as I’ve been able to get a better understanding of how food systems work, especially at scale—how the big boys operate—it became clear to me that if people are going to start farming and stay farming, there needs to be a fundamentally different platform for getting people onto the land. It’s way too risky. This [system] where people are going after grants or trying to do these policy things that make it easier for [first-generation farmers] to get themselves onto a plot of land, get themselves trained, start growing stuff and then trying somehow to market it—it’s just way too risky. And there’s too much attrition for it to ever create enough success to challenge conventional agriculture. 

We need to look to more of what conventional agriculture and conventional farmers have done to challenge some of the abuses that they’ve dealt with, which basically comes down to cooperatives, but a cooperative [model] more geared towards first-generation farmers that takes away a lot of the risk, that [is] really well resourced, that [has] land available for people to use and markets for people to sell into. So, you just take out all of this individual risk that goes into it. My book is about how to build those cooperatives and trying to deconstruct and dismantle a lot of the myth-making that’s led us down this path of thinking that small farms are the answer, which they just aren’t.

JS: There’s an existing set of practices for agricultural cooperatives. Is what you’re describing different?

CN: The only difference between what they’re doing and what we’re doing is that we’re trying to build a co-op that can build new farmers. We’re not trying to create a coordinated network of existing farms. We’re trying to bring in people who don’t have land and who aren’t farming right now, and we’re trying to bring them on to a commons. 

JS: It’s using the co-op model as a way to help first-generation startup farmers get into it, because it’s saner and more economically resilient. 

CN: The engineer in me doesn’t like to build things new if there’s something that exists that works, and co-ops work. Whenever you have an issue where there’s an abusive relationship between agribusiness and agriculture, co-ops tend to do—not a perfect job but a fairly good job of making sure the farmers are taken care of while also producing at the scale where the stuff they do is affordable. So, the only twist we’re trying is saying, “OK, how can we leverage the co-op model so that we can get new people into this and do it under regenerative ethics?”

Photo courtesy of Sylvanaqua Farms.

JS: Originally, you referred to yourself as a permaculture farmer. Have you abandoned that term? 

CN: I think a lot of my attraction to “permaculture” was just because of a void of information about how conventional systems work. They’re not as bad as people say they are. And the ones that are bad are bad for utterly fixable reasons and in utterly fixable ways. When it came to permaculture, small farming, it wasn’t like I had this religious devotion to any of these things. But if I see something that makes more sense and if I’m going to learn things about how conventional farming works, how agribusiness works and I’m going, “this just makes an awful lot of sense,” I want to change my mind.

JS: You don’t use small farming world terms such as “permaculture,” but you do still like “food sovereignty.”

CN: The “why” of me getting into agriculture has never changed. This has always been about making sure that people can determine how they are fed and that the systems that feed them are sustainable and durable and workable. “Food sovereignty” is one of those things that’s loosely defined enough to be able to choose your own adventure in terms of how you get there.

JS: What people want is for there to be room in the small farming system for Black and Indigenous farmers. And you say that system doesn’t work.

CN: Yeah, it’s like don’t run off the cliff. You see white [startup farmers] run off a cliff, you see three or four of them pull hang gliders out there and somehow float to safety, but most of them crash, and you never hear the stories of the crashes. The worst thing in the world for me would be for marginalized people who have something special to bring to the table [to run off the cliff]. Black folks, Indigenous folks, they have something we all need. And if we don’t get it, we’re screwed. I don’t want to see our people just follow these other folks off this cliff, because the consequences for us, number one, are worse. I know plenty of white folks got into farming, fucked up, kind of hit bottom, but they’re able to get up. Black folks, Native folks have a much harder time getting up when we crash. The consequences are harder, we fall on sharper rocks.

JS: What is that thing we need?

CN: It’s that outsider perspective. These are people who are not privileged, who are going to come to farming with the idea of, “I need to feed my people back where I came from where nobody has shit.” It’s a completely different perspective and brings a completely different sense of urgency to it. When that post went viral? My DMs were impossible, just full of colored folks: “I want to start my farm,” “help me start my farm, what do I do?” and it’s like, I see [where] you’re getting this idea from, and we may have to stop it right now before we lose a whole friggin’ generation of people who could do a hell of a lot of good if their energy was just directed 10 degrees to the left.


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