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Innovation

Software Engineer Turned Farmer Calculates the Future of Local Farms

Chris Newman spends a lot of time thinking about farming. As owner and operator of Sylvanaqua Farms, and a former software engineer, he makes mind-maps, spreadsheets, graphs and tables exploring ways to innovate and effect change in the increasingly unpredictable world of independent farming. In one of his many published articles, he writes of pulling over on the Beltway into Maryland to calculate the caloric needs of passing cars, factoring just how far a permaculture plan would have to scale. This was before COVID-19. When the pandemic hit, Newman was ready. By virtue of their set up, Sylvanaqua Farms was uniquely positioned to meet the rising need for food in the surrounding areas of northern Virginia, Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C. as they were already delivering direct to consumer the meat they slaughter and process on the farm. 

Not beholden to a processing plant, Sylvanaqua didn’t have to face dire decisions many other farmers have been grappling with since the pandemic hit. “We feel pretty lucky,” Chris Newman admits. Newman and his wife started the small permaculture operation that is Sylvanaqua Farms six years ago, on three acres of family land, raising broiler chickens, hogs, cattle, egg laying hens, ducks and turkeys. Growing up with food insecurity, Newman wanted to make sure their food was easy to access, so he built an online platform for direct orders of meat and eggs from the get go. When the nation shut down in mid-March, Sylvanaqua lost some serious business from wholesale and restaurant accounts, but the website made it easy for individuals to order poultry, pork, beef and eggs. And order they did. Newman says “Business is really good.” 

Sylvanaqua Farms is in many ways its own ecosystem, built for weathering storms of the natural ilk and less predictable disasters like a global pandemic. Everyone who works on the farm lives on the farm. Newman says it’s “kind of like a big family.” That big family has big dreams for the future. In a 2019 Kickstarter campaign, they raised $42,648 from 485 backers to “to jump-start our evolution from a small family farm operating on about 40 acres to an agricultural co-op restoring and producing food from thousands of acres.” They continue to seek investors with a goal of partnering with other farms to leverage resources and expertise that would ultimately create a co-op producing enough food – in both quantity and variety – to supply several farmer-owned full-time markets in the Washington, D.C. area.

Right now, Chris Newman is calculating their immediate moves. “How do we hang on to all of these new customers that have come in?” His hope is that people are getting used to the process of ordering online and receiving meat delivered to their door just a few days later. “We’re kind of hoping to keep that up…but without the plague,” he says. It seems a reasonable way to operate for all parties involved.

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