There’s been a lot of talk recently about growing the regional economy by attracting more young entrepreneurs to Charlottesville’s urban experience.
But one couple’s $30,000 startup seeks to enable them to live off the land outside of town while reconnecting with traditional and native agricultural practices.
“From the 1940s on, as more technology entered agriculture, we got further and further away from pasture-based systems,” said Chris Newman, a 31-year-old former software engineer.
Newman quit his job in June to join his wife, Annie, on a journey to raise chickens and pigs on the land that surrounds her parents’ house in Earlysville.
They aim for SylvanAqua Farms to be a “holistically managed” farm that provides food for themselves and a small group of customers.
The pair said they had an epiphany on Annie’s birthday nine months ago after viewing a documentary about industrially raised livestock that are confined to small pens.
“It was after my birthday dinner in January and I had a great piece of steak and then we watched ‘Frankensteer’ and I wanted to barf,” said Annie Newman, 27. “For a week after that we ate nothing but salads.”
Chris is of the Piscataway Conoy tribe of Maryland, the original inhabitants of the Washington area.
“For me, coming here and making a living from the land and being so intimately connected to it, that’s a very Indian thing,” he said. “It used to be an everyone thing.”
Products this fall include pumpkin pies and broiler chickens. The couple expects to expand the menu next year when they begin selling eggs, forest pork, wildflower honey and heirloom vegetables.
Earlier this month, Chris finished processing the first batch of several dozen broilers, which will fetch $3.49 a pound. Next year the goal is to scale up to about 1,500 chickens. Elsewhere on the land, several dozen laying hens are being raised in an A-frame-shaped “brooder” on a newly cleared section of the property.
Chris’s first idea was to find a place to raise bison, but he said that would take too much land and capital in the short-term. They opted to do something smaller that would fit on the sloping land of his wife’s family home.
The idea to farm on a smaller scale germinated after they both read Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which explores the benefits of smaller-scale agriculture. They also came across the ideas of Joel Salatin, of Polyface Farm in Augusta County, who advocates for pasture-based livestock.
“His book, ‘You Can Farm,’ basically took us from the direction of a 300-acre bison ranch, with $15,000 squeeze shoots and $30,000 corrals, to a much smaller enterprise with low startup costs and more sustainable agriculture,” Chris said.
Creating SylvanAqua also will allow the Newmans to help Annie’s parents age in place. They had put their home on the market after their youngest child moved out.
“It was too much for just the two of them but with us here, it takes a lot of strain off of them, so we’re able to keep the family house,” Annie said.
But will they succeed in making their venture profitable? One member of the area’s agricultural community said farming can be brutal on novices.
“I think that food sourcing has finally become more important to a larger segment of the population, and these types of operations are a natural outgrowth of that demand,” said Kathy Kildea, director of Market Central, a nonprofit that supports vendors of Charlottesville’s City Market.
“Now … whether they survive is another question,” Kildea added.
The Newmans will eschew the farmers market, opting instead to sell their products through buyers’ clubs.
“We think production is going to be harder than marketing,” Chris said. “We’ve had people contacting us out of the blue. We’re more afraid we’re not going to be able to produce enough.”
So far, the couple have raised more than $8,000 in a crowd-funded Kickstarter campaign for equipment, exceeding their original goal of $5,000.
Meanwhile, they’re at the end of their first season and have just slaughtered the first batch of chickens, which they raised for two months from chicks.
Chris learned how to process their bodies for sale by attending a seminar at Polyface Farm.
“It went shockingly well,” he said. “I was honestly expecting to lose three-quarters of them.”
Their processing facility is on one end of a half-built shed. Chickens are slaughtered while hanging upside down, dipped in a scalder to loosen up their feathers, run through a device that removes the feathers, have their intestines removed, dipped in chilled water to harden up their skin, and then dried.
Chris said anyone is welcome to witness the process to better understand where the meat comes from.
“It’s a very clean process and we do it very quickly,” he said.
The pair describe their philosophy as “beyond organic.”
“I believe the organic label is kind of a substitute for knowing exactly where your food comes from,” Chris said. “When I have customers come here, they’ll see me processing chickens, they’ll see me doing things with compost or in the gardens. They don’t need to see a label.”
The Newmans see their decision to become farmers as part of a trend away from corporate agriculture.
“I think a lot of people our age are really kind of disenfranchised with everything that’s been going on,” Annie said.
“There’s a lot of pent-up demand for people who would like to do something like this,” Chris said. “It’s scary as hell.”
They are hoping they can set an example.
“You can do it,” Annie said, as she served a piece of pumpkin pie. “You can quit your job in the city. You don’t need all that money. You can actually do something that’s healthier for you and healthier for the planet.”