Chris Newman on busting the single family farm myth and why indigenous collectives are the way to go

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Why does regenerative agriculture not scale beyond the often single family farm? What if we unleash the power of economies of scale specialization and actually build wealth within regenerative agriculture? What does inclusion mean within farming? Why does seed keepers and livestock breeders act as the key to our survival?

Today, we go deep into the issues of single family farms and the potential of collectives to manage whole landscapes way more effectively to produce more food and wealth. Chris Newman, founder of Sylvanaqua Farms, joins us for another riveting conversation about regenerative agriculture. 

LISTEN TO THE CONVERSATION ON:

Key points:

  • why collectives make more sense than single family farms
  • why regen ag doesn’t scale
  • economies of scale in regenerative agriculture
  • specialisition is key
  • what regenerative agriculture needs to do to reach it’s potential
  • why indigenous peoples should receive most of the investments in regen ag

From Coding To Livestock Farming

What got Chris started with farming and livestock was a health scare that he potentially got due to stress. He used to work in IT at Washington DC without finding fulfillment with his 9 to 5 job. Together with his wife, they decided to purchase land and started poultry and pork farming.

“I went to a bison farm in Central Virginia and I watched the bison cow jump over a five or six foot fence from a standstill and say, ‘Okay, I don’t have the money to build 10-foot-high Jurassic Park fences all over the place.’ So we decided to go with something a little smaller, a little more reasonable, less dangerous, less wild, and just got on poultry and pork to start with.” – Chris Newman

Unspoken Truth About Single Family Farms

Chris digs into the “unspoken strategy” around the idea of Yeoman family farms who compete with traditional Agribusiness in the aggregate. Frankly, a significant number of regenerative movements are in love with the idea of a number of little farms spinning up and together. They’re supposed to be able to challenge the power of income in agribusiness. 

“The problem is that if these farms are going to replicate like that it would have happened already. But it’s not because it’s too difficult to make a living as a farmer doing that just for any number of reasons. There’s very little historical precedent for that kind of farming to actually work without creating some kind of exploitative relationship with the people who are doing it.” – Chris Newman

If Farms Operate On A Larger Scale

Chris says that if more people are drawn into a collective, rather than working from that top down command and control model — where you’ve got an owner who owns all the assets — scaling will be easier. 

“You start to expand and actually offer the pie to people. As you scale up, you’re able to engage in farming in a way that’s less exploitive on people and on the landscape.” – Chris Newman

The other part of scale is the fact that farmers need to get big to compete with big players.  

“You’re just not going to do that with a million independent farms all doing their own thing, uncoordinated, not leveraging economies of scale, repeating all kinds of work. I mean, the engineer in me, just thinks about like decentralized processing and things like that. It’s like ‘No, they really don’t do that.’”  – Chris Newman

Inefficiencies of “Smallness”

Chris continues to give out scenarios based on the reality of inefficiencies of small farmers. He shares his frustrations on how farmers purchase, spend and identify price points based on this failure to come as a collective. 

“You’ve got 100,000 people driving their cars to 100,000 different markets, and you’ve got 10,000 poultry farmers all buying the same equipment. It’s like, why? The amount of inefficiency that comes from our failure to scale. I did an audit of my own business and just try to attribute how much of our price point is owed to inefficiencies, just because we don’t do things at scale. We can’t buy feed in bulk. We don’t share markets.” – Chris Newman

Economies of Scale in RegenAg

Their plans for regen ag is purchasing hectares of land in Chesapeake Bay and entering agreements and contracts. He further shares about the idea of the collective, which is based on equity and farming. He poses the question: “how do you get people to farm in the first place and be able to make a career out of it?”

“There’s lots of people who want to farm and who would make good farmers, but who aren’t good entrepreneurs, who aren’t people that want to deal with the non farming parts of things, but should still be able to get access to the landscape to do what they do. This is what regenerative agriculture is supposed to do. Build topsoil and improve biodiversity and sequester carbon, do all the things that it’s supposed to do.” – Chris Newman

To know more about Chris Newman and how he busts the single family farm myth and why collectives are the way to go, download and listen to this episode.

Bio: 

Chris Newman is an ehakihet (farmer/land protector) and an outspoken evangelist of ecological, economic, and social sustainability in food. He’s garnered both criticism and praise for:

  • Advocating a moderate, pragmatic approach to sustainable food systems that recognizes the complementary roles of both ecological farming and technological innovationFrank discussions of the intersection of race and agriculture
  • Blunt, unsparing criticism of the “clean food” movement’s often-elitist values and aversion to self-reflection.

Links:

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Feedback, comments, suggestions? Reach me via Twitter @KoenvanSeijen, in the comments below or through Get in Touch on this website.

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The above references an opinion and is for information and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be investment advice. Seek a duly licensed professional for investment advice.

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18 comments on “Chris Newman on busting the single family farm myth and why indigenous collectives are the way to go

  1. An says:

    We were part of a 4-H co-op at a central location for several decades. It was great for the children (whose families did not own farms). However, it was incredibly frustrating for anyone who had an idea the “co-op” didn’t want to run with. A new breed of farm animal? Sorry. You want to pasture raise lamb? Sorry. Go with the flow. Do what the group wants. No freedom to try new things, new techniques. Your animals or vegetable plot might be yours, but you did not have the FREEDOM that comes with full OWNERSHIP. That’s one reason our founding fathers made property ownership such an essential part of our nation. Better to farm a 1/4-acre plot the way YOU decide, than be a groupie forced to do what you are told, and share in the profits. Now, if several family farms decide to join together and each produce products to sell as a CSA co-op or something such method, great. But own your own little plot, farm, animals. Then your successes will be yours, and you can’t blame anyone else for your failures.
    By the way, blacklisting someone because you don’t like their freedom of speech or don’t understand what they are saying is in-American and wrong.

    1. Koen says:

      Dear An, thank you for sharing, hope you enjoyed the interview and learned what Chris had to say about their collective (not a co-op) and how they are organising themselves for scale and give many more people, who historically don’t have access to land, access to farm land and a chance to build up wealth.

  2. Mike says:

    I think he has a LOT of interesting ideas. Can he alter his delivery and message to not be so off-putting? He comes off kind of arrogant (is that the engineer part?) I don’t completely agree with his idea that it’s all about cattle in the Regen Ag busienss. Maybe the people he’s looking at/competing with? Herding has also been a tradition in European culture for milennia and those traditions came to North America (for example with my great grandfather and his Highland cattle…granted, he did that on land purchased from the Queen of Enlgand which was originally Sauteaux Indian land. Layers of history. Layers of opportunity. Many would see his story as one of privilege (private schools, university degrees, high-paying job to fund his transition to farming) so maybe he should go a bit more gently with his colleagues. There is a lot of effort being put into ruminant grazing in Regen Ag, for sure, but I see that as striving to balance out the damage being done by feedlots and vegans! There are many companies getting involved now, not the least of which is General Mills (hardly a cattle operation…) in Regen Ag, and that is both exciting and concerning. Will it get diluted? Is that necessary? Thanks for this podcast!

    1. Koenvanseijen says:

      Thanks for the comment mike, indeed lots to unpack:) I would not call his story a story privilege;) to dive deeper follow them here: https://www.instagram.com/sylvanaquafarms/ and read the background and investment docs here: https://www.sylvanaqua.com/invest

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