Sylvanaqua Farms: Democracy in Food & Agriculture
A regenerative breadbasket for nine major U.S. cities surrounding the nation's capital
A cousin of the farm's owner taking photos of a flock of free range hens, which provide chemical-free fertility, soil aeration, and non-mechanical harrowing.
Cattle ranging in a rotational grazing system on a leased Sylvanaqua Farms property. Cattle allow us to produce food on a landscape of non-human-edible perennial cover while improving soil organic content, biodiversity, and water retention.
A map of our foodshed vision, with envisioned agricultural production areas in green and the urban markets they serve in blue
Lead Applicant Organization Name
Sylvanaqua Farms, LLC
Lead Applicant Organization Type
Farmer Co-op or Farmer Business Organization
Website of Legally Registered Entity
How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?
Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?
Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?
United States of America
Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?
Western shore of the Chesapeake Bay
What country is your selected Place located in?
United States of America
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
Sylvanaqua Farms' cofounder, Chris Newman, is an enrolled member of the Choptico Band of Piscataway Indians, the indigenous people of southern Maryland and part of a historic tribal alliance that stretched along the western shore of the Chesapeake; south into Virginia's Northern Neck and north to present-day Washington, D.C. Chris' ancestors have been stewards of land in this area for 12,000 years, with intensive agriculture introduced as a complement to extensive indigenous landscape management between the 13th and 14th centuries.
Chris and his wife Annie have operated a diversified livestock operation since 2013, starting in Annie's hometown of Earlysville, VA and moving to Montross, VA in 2018. The move to this tiny town just 90 minutes south of the nation's capital not only brought the couple home to Chris' ancestral homelands, but also served as a strategic reorientation, placing the farm to serve several major metropolitan markets (Washington, D.C.; Richmond, VA; Baltimore, MD; Norfolk, VA) as the operation continued to grow. The Chesapeake Bay is unique in having large urbanized populations in close proximity to extensive farmland.
Our place is selected in line with a vision to return an indigenous ethic to the management of hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural lands, nestled between the Cheseapeake Bay and Potomac River, that are the legacy of thousands of generations of Chris' immediate ancestors.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
Our intended area of service. Farms will be scattered in the broad spaces between suburban sprawl, while markets are concentrated in the abundant cities in the region.
The Chesapeake Bay sits dead-center on the U.S. eastern seaboard, with the region hosting several major cities within a four-hour drive of one another, from Baltimore, MD in the north to a cluster of adjacent cities in the south known collectively as the Virginia Tidewater, comprised of Norfolk, Hampton Roads, Virginia Beach, and Portsmouth. Between them are Richmond (the capital of Virginia) and Washington, D.C. (a city of some note, and the hometown of our founder).
The entire region is monstrously hot and humid in the summer; prone to zero-degree weather in winter; has Springs that are pleasant but typically too wet (as far as farmers are concerned); and enjoys a latitude that provides one of the longest displays of Autumn foliage in the country.
As with the weather, the region is characterized by its contrasts - cultural north and cultural south; urban and rural; wealthy and working class; native-born and immigrant; public and private sector.
The economic and ethnic diversity (and numerical parity) of indigenous, native-born, and immigrant people here render a cultural landscape that challenges definition. The dominant food, music, language, ethnic makeup, and worldviews change both within and between cities. Despite this, and the multiple states and cities that make up this region, the residents of this area largely consider themselves a part of the same community - the borders between D.C., Virginia, and Maryland in this area are so porous as to be functionally non-existent - the area is effectively a state unto itself.
One thing is common between all the cities, however: they're booming, and the boom is driving wealth inequality that is cleaving the cultural souls of each, creating a gulf between rich and poor exceeded only by that between the urban and the rural.
Between these cities and their rapidly-advancing urban sprawl lie vast tracts of farmland owned, as is the case throughout the United States, by aging cash crop farmers. Many of them grew tobacco until the buyout in 2005, at which point they switched largely to corn and soy complemented by regional specialties - cotton and peanuts in the Tidewater, wheat and canola further north, and pasture (largely for beef cattle and hay) dominating the clay soils to the west.
In stark contrast to the booming urban Chesapeake, the rural Chesapeake is dying as the heirs of aging farmers leap at the opportunity to sell farmland which - being in such close proximity to cities - is bought immediately and above asking price. Aggressive agricultural zoning and conservation easements are effectively the only thing keeping all the farmland within a three hour drive of the nation's capital from being paved over.
What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
In a sentence: American agriculture has devolved into a wealth protection racket.
Federal subsidies of a handful of staple crops flow to high-net-worth farmers (avg. farm household net worth, $1.56 million). They supplement the low or negative margins of commodity production with off-farm jobs or unemployment insurance instead of relatively risky investments in smarter agriculture or integrated supply chains. This results in massive annual oversupplies that provide agribusiness with a bonanza of low-cost raw materials to process into the "Western Diet."
Consumers (accustomed to food being abundant and cheap) and agribusiness (flush with profits from processing cheap commodities) create political pressure to maintain the status quo - perpetuating the nationalized, Cold War era farm welfare programs that underwrite agriculture's exploitative relationship with everything from workers, to the environment, to human health.
Our vision is of a regenerative food system - operating in parallel to the legacy food system and emerging high-tech alternatives - that lays the groundwork for this cycle to be broken, politically. It faces a few key challenges in accessing:
Land: Agriculture does not produce the returns necessary to pay for land purchases. Farmers owning land in the U.S. largely inherit it, and are disincentivized from adopting regenerative practices.
Capital: There is profit to be made in the food supply chain, but the lowest returns and the greatest risk lie in the actual growing of the food. Regenerative farms have great difficulty getting properly capitalized (with anything other than debt, which creates outbound cash flows and a sea anchor on balance sheets), consequently throttling their ability to grow with an eye toward the long term.
Labor: Owing to low margins, low revenue, and relatively high operating expenses, regenerative agriculture is overwhelmingly dependent on uncompensated labor from owners, volunteers, and even employees. This is a situation that cannot scale.
Competition: Conventional food products currently outsell those of regenerative agriculture $400:1. High prices and low availability put the offerings of the latter out of the reach of nearly the entire market, and saddle them with an air of elitism.
The area we focus on also happens to cross a multitude of state, county, and municipal borders, creating a patchwork of regulatory hurdles that need to be overcome.
Climate change, urbanization, and ongoing threats to democratic norms will exert pressure on our system in 2050. Climate change will make the day-to-day of running land-based farms ever more difficult with stronger storms and more pronounced droughts; urbanization will increase development pressure on the farmland and greenspaces between the cities in our region, and erosion of democratic norms will allow the goals of incumbent wealth - so often at cross purposes to ecological stewardship - to receive ever more priority in policymaking.
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
1.) Institutional Land Procurement (addressing land access and development pressure)
While vast tracts of farmland are owned by farmers devoted to cash crops and effectively closed off to regenerative agriculture, there are equally vast tracts of land owned by three key stakeholders sympathetic to our cause: private institutions, public institutions, and wealthy individuals. Our farm has access to over 6,000 acres split between historic estates, public parks, and private landholdings under conservation easements; but because of constraints on capital and human resources, we're actively farming only 100. As the operation grows and demonstrates profitability, it will concentrate on complementing leased land with land owned outright.
2.) Vertical Integration (addressing capital, competition)
In the food system, margins are lowest at the farm. The profit in food is found in the development, production, marketing, and distribution of finished products; and in the ownership of those channels. Two problems stem from farms relegating themselves to the bottom of the supply chain: First, it's hard to attract even ethical investment to properly capitalize agricultural operations. Second, it results in needless inefficiencies that spike the price of our products, throttling our share of the market. Our vision is of a vertically-integrated operation that owns everything from the seed to the market, allowing the higher returns up the supply chain to flow back down to reinvestment in the land, and 2.) USDA compliant, automatically putting our operations in line with the various state, local, and municipal regulations in our area, since they all defer to federal compliance mechanisms.
3.) Employee Ownership (addressing labor availability and development pressure)
Borrowing from patterns in both the tech industry and successful indigenous agricultural co-ops, our operation will attract talent with a combination of wages and ownership, and use distributed ownership to resist encroachment by development interests on owned land.
4.) Regenerative Practices (addressing climate change)
An agricultural system focused on perennial plants, improved biodiversity, multistory harvests, and extracting a yield from existing woodland biomes will serve as a hedge against increasing extremes in weather and the risks inherent in relying on a handful of crops.
5.) Location (addressing political representation)
Our location in the backyard of Washington, D.C. is not without benefit. The model we'll create has the ability to reach decisionmakers at the federal, state, and local levels; and will become large enough to hold real influence in setting local policy with respect to land access and food regulations, which are more important in our situation than influencing federal policy. Addressing patchwork regulatory environments whose borders interrupt ecological/cultural borders is one of the hardest problems in sustainable development.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
Democracy of Production:
Agriculture becomes a mainstream career option, opening itself up to more than just people who inherit farms or come from privileged backgrounds. Our movement has been dominated for decades by a monolith of wealthy individuals who, as is so often now required, can afford to work for free and have the personal connections to get themselves onto land. The homogeneous character of the industry has resulted in a calcification of thought leadership that’s left the movement inspirationally, intellectually, and physically anemic for nearly 50 years.
With our vision in place, agriculture in the region avails itself of the benefits of racial, gender, and economic diversity, eliminating a raft of blind spots and opening opportunities to people who would otherwise dedicate themselves to other industries.
Democracy of Consumption:
The products of regenerative agriculture are de-gentrified. Currently those products are largely available in venues that are difficult to access (e.g. farmers markets) and associated with the upscale market (natural food stores), limiting their purchase to people with high levels of disposable time and income.
Our vision removes price-increasing inefficiencies largely found in input purchasing and sales, and develops more convenient provisioning vehicles, to open our products to a much wider segment of the market.
Our focus on ecological, forest-based agriculture means the farmland in the agricultural regions we occupy are restored to managed forests and perennials. Those landscapes no longer exist exclusively as agricultural production zones, but are also functional for plant/wildlife restoration and greenspace. Biodiversity and soil health markedly improve, and our landscapes become a net carbon sink - required by sustainable development goals - even as they continue to produce food.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
A map of our foodshed vision, with envisioned agricultural production areas in green and the urban markets they serve in blue
Our vision imagines a 2050 western Chesapeake where:
1.) The products of sustainable agriculture are a widely available, significant part of the food market. Not just available in farmers markets, natural food stores, and high-end restaurants; but in bulk goods outlets, convenience restaurants, and other traditional outlets that serve the bulk of the public. Prices do not match what's found in a grocery store or distributor sourced from conventional commodities, but prices on the whole are lowered by 20 - 30%, greatly expanding the share of the market to which these products are accessible and making them a part of the mainstream foodscape in the Chesapeake. Our vision has 200,000 acres of landscape devoted to regenerative agricultural production, yielding an annual value between $800 million - $1 billion, representing 23% of the current value of agricultural output in all of Virginia, or 40% of the output value in all of Maryland. In 2050, sustainable agriculture in the Chesapeake is both an economic and political force to be reckoned with.
2.) Regenerative agriculture is a viable, normalized career path. It's no longer a bifurcated industry with sharp divisions between farm owners (who either inherit their farms or come into the trade with outsized wealth from elsewhere) and farmworkers (who are overwhelmingly vulnerable and subject to exploitation). Successful regenerative farming is no longer predicated on a near-impossible combination of good fortune, inspired marketing, physical endurance, and technical genius on the ground. Instead, budding farmers are availed of a vertically-integrated, worker-owned collective that offers both rewarding work and a sustainable compensation package to anyone with the aptitude to steward land and produce food responsibly. In our vision, agriculture is availed of the best minds in the region, not just the most privileged and fortunate.
3.) Public lands and large private landholdings, representing hundreds of thousands of acres, are re-indigenized as regenerative, food producing, intact, forest-based ecosystems. Farmland is no longer strictly segregated from land devoted to conservation or recreation. Using forest based agriculture, silvopasture, broadscale polycultures, and intensive gardening, agricultural foodscapes are largely indistinguishable from - and integrated into - naturally expressed landscapes. Land requirements for exclusive-use agriculture are sharply reduced as staple production for human consumption and animal feeds a.) are largely limited to what's actually needed in the regional foodshed, and b.) feed far fewer animals with far lower feed input requirements, as all livestock are ranged on healthy perennial forages. This system is non-reliant on the vast and expanding tracts of grain/bean monocultures necessary for constant, toxic oversupplies functioning as the economic keystone of the current food system. The land use changes, worker exploitation, and proliferation of the western diet in the region are thus arrested, and then reversed, as farmland is reforested and restored to perennial cover, workers are fairly compensated, and a nutritious diet moves beyond the farmers markets and into food deserts.
This vision comes about by combining an indigenous, collective-oriented worldview around the management of food-producing landscapes with the modern economic reality that profitability in food systems is found elsewhere in supply chain. It's manifested in a system of worker-owned regenerative food collectives operating at regional scale, owning the entire supply chain - from nursery and hatchery, to farms and processors, to distribution and the market endpoints themselves (stores, restaurants, etc.).
It's very important to note that our vision operates at the scale of the entire western Chesapeake coast, because this is a contiguous ecological and cultural environment that cannot be addressed piecemeal. Our vision is indigenous in its design, which requires the careful stewardship of the entire mutually-connected system of land and rivers that form the resource base of this fairly large foodshed. It is our firm belief that the non-indigenous imperative to organize food systems along hand-drawn political boundaries rather than ecological and cultural boundaries is THE key fault in the current, broken relationship between food, ecology, and social justice.
Three Key Elements:
1.) Land Base: composed of approximately 200,000 acres - primarily leased public and private landscapes, and a few critical areas of land owned by the collectives. These are concentrated on land in southern Maryland and the three peninsulas in Virginia bordered by the Potomac, Rappahannock, York, and James Rivers. This represents just under 1/4 of all current farmland in the 15 counties that make up this region.
2.) Vertical Integration: this provides the twin benefits of agricultural landscapes being connected directly to the market (which prevents supply problems that otherwise cause the ecology, farmers, or taxpayers to suffer), and reductions in supply chain inefficiencies that, today, drive the prices and physical availability of our products beyond the reach of the majority of the market.
3.) Employee Ownership: Vertical integration creates a level of profitability and an asset base that makes stock in a privately-held collective quite valuable, and worker-ownership makes a career in this model of agriculture attractive to a large and diverse array of individuals. In our model, agriculture - like other industries - offers a clear career arc from education/apprenticeship to retirement, and solves the problem of food production being constantly starved for labor. A large pool of worker/owners not only spreads the workload and provides a well of talent, but also hedges against impulsive decisionmaking that could threaten the collective's land base and ecological ethics.
It is important to notice that our framework for regenerative agriculture exists in a very pragmatic framework; making broad allowances for the continued existence of conventional agriculture in 2050, as well as the ultimate coming of age for high-tech disruptive innovations in food production ranging from cultured meat to advanced hydroponics.
While conventional, regenerative, and hi-tech agriculture may compete on short horizons, on the long horizon all three are necessary to ensure 1.) a stable food supply in the event of environmental or political catastrophe, 2.) an environment that can continue to produce food and sustain a growing population, 3.) a diverse array of food products that appeals across class, culture, and a dizzying array of personal dietary preferences, and 4.) food products that are sufficiently nutritious for human health.
Our vision is a recognition that conventional and hi-tech agriculture have occupied most of the oxygen in the room when it comes to creating a vision for regional, national, and global food systems - and are occupying nearly all the investment in agriculture, be it public or private. Regenerative agriculture is the critical linchpin that promotes the vital role food production will play in the restoration of ecosystems, but the industry has traditionally been insular and inward looking, failing to articulate its own global relevance under the rubric of "local."
This submission addresses that shortcoming, directly, offering a vision in which democracy, indigenous worldviews, and the importance of landscapes to physical nourishment are place front and center for the continued viability of our region's foodshed.
How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?