Recipes for Food Security | The new 'big ag': What regenerative agriculture can learn from conventional farming

A herd of tawny brown cattle graze in silvopasture amongst trees spaced several feet apart.

Cattle graze in silvopasture (Photo courtesy of The National Agroforestry Center/ https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/?ref=ccsearch&atype=rich).

In the words of his Twitter profile, Chris Newman of Sylvanaqua Farms in Montross, Virginia, is “Something Else." He is one of an increasing number of farmers attempting to challenge industrial agriculture with a sustainable alternative. He is also Black and Indigenous in a predominantly white field—and a fierce critic of how the sustainable farming movement operates and the assumptions at its root. 

Newman developed his farm with a vision to provide equitable access to fresh, nutritious food to residents of the Washington metro area and other cities in Maryland and Virginia. It’s a tall order. While Newman has access to nearly 2,000 acres, the farm currently operates on 120 acres with a team of 7 and is focused on the production of beef, pork, chicken, and eggs.

Newman’s goal of accessible, sustainable food places him at odds with the dominant practices and intellectual framework of both industrial agriculture and small, sustainable farming. In contrast to the factory farms typical of industrial agriculture, his cattle are entirely grass-fed and his pigs forage in managed woodland—creating a double benefit that both minimizes the use of external grain feed and contributes to his development of a food forest. Yet, unlike some organic suppliers, he prioritizes accessibility of his food; this year, he launched a food donation program to provide for the hungry in addition to his wealthier customer base. True to his Twitter bio, Newman’s approach to the business of sustainable farming is “something else”—something outside of existing models. 

Broadly speaking, there have been two streams of alternative agriculture: one which seeks to reform the agribusiness industry from within, and one which seeks to challenge it from outside. Gunsmoke Farms is an example of the former. Owned by General Mills, Gunsmoke’s 34,000 acres in Fort Pierre, South Dakota, supply the needs of the company’s organic products, such as Annie’s Organic Mac & Cheese. Besides avoiding the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, the initial plan for the farm included the use of cover cropping, no-till planting, and other practices aimed at building soil health and bolstering the surrounding ecosystem. Three years later, however, these plans have failed to materialize, leading to the degradation and erosion of soil on the farm, and drawing public criticism.

The second stream of agricultural reform centers on a rejection of big business, and sees the solution as a myriad of small, individual farms serving the needs of their local communities. Polyface Farms, owned by Virginia farmer Joel Salatin, is a quintessential example. Salatin is something of a heavyweight in sustainable farming spheres: he has been hailed as America’s most famous farmer, his 550-acre livestock farm was named the Mecca of Sustainable Agriculture, and he has published 11 books which teach his methods and philosophy.

The Global Context

While farms and their business models are a major part of reforming food systems, government policy provides the structure under which this plays out. One country that experiences significant success on this front is Denmark, where organic products comprise 12% to 13% of the total food market—and 30% to 50% of sales of basic goods such as produce, eggs, and milk, according to Paul Holmbeck, director of the nonprofit Organic Denmark. For comparison, the organic market share for produce, eggs, and milk in the U.S. are 12%, 8%, and 1%, respectively. This difference becomes more stark when considering the Danish organic standard that is stricter and encompasses more sustainable practices than its U.S. counterpart.

Holmbeck attributes this to work by his organization, as well as significant measures by the Danish government. Organic food has not only found its way into supermarkets, but discount stores, due to Organic Denmark demonstrating to grocery outlets through market data the profits they stand to gain from stocking organic. This has helped to create broad and affordable access to organic food. Additionally, the benefits of organic food, both in terms of human and environmental health, are advertised by the Danish government, creating demand for the higher standard of organic food. Finally, Organic Denmark has not shied away from working with agribusiness—which sees the profits to be earned in organic foods—since reforming farming from the inside means easy access to capital and no waste of effort breaking into the market. While Danish agriculture is small compared to the giant that is American farming, its example proves that smart policy can encourage movement in the right direction.

Salatin claims that a farm’s philosophy is just as important as its practices; If anything, it is more important since philosophy forms the root from which practice springs. At Polyface, the cows are grass-fed, the pigs forage in the woods, and grain feed for the free-range chickens is locally sourced and non-GMO. According to Salatin, “[Polyface’s] goals are not about sales; they are about quality.” He writes that the organic label is not comprehensive enough and “does not incentivize anyone to do better than the minimum standards,” leading to what he calls “industrial junk organics.” 

Salatin said his vision is “to see a million Polyfaces displace all the Monsanto and USDA demons.” At the same time, he proudly claimed that “Polyface has never had a sales target, marketing plan, or business plan,” which reek far too much of profit-oriented farming to him. Instead, expansion of his model depends on a two-tiered value shift. First, farmers must make quality their priority. If they do, “customers will come and sales will increase automatically,” he said. At the same time, consumers must consciously choose ethical and environmentally responsible farms. In his words, “get your nose out of People Magazine and research and then patronize food and farm organizations that treat their folks with the values you value.”

As a single entity, it is impossible to deny the success of Polyface. The farm pulls hundreds of thousands of dollars per year in revenue and is proof that regenerative farming can be financially viable. Yet, Polyface faces a number of problems when it comes to Salatin’s goal of mass replication, problems which are representative of small-farm sustainability as a movement––problems like affordability.

Food from Polyface is prohibitively expensive. A dozen eggs sell for $6.75; milk at $11.30 to a gallon. For a purely profit-oriented farm, these prices are not a problem. There are a sufficient number of customers willing and wealthy enough to pay a premium for Salatin’s “beyond organic” food that his farm can not only survive, but thrive.

Yet, Newman of Sylvanaqua said that the success of sustainable farming in business does not necessarily translate to its success as a movement. If the goal of sustainable farming is to reform the food system entirely, sustainably sourced food must be accessible to everybody, not just a wealthy portion of the market. 

Salatin is not alone in naming consumer values as the battlefield of sustainable agriculture. He is joined by figures such as Alice Waters, champion of slow food, who censured the nation’s “fast food values,” and Wendell Berry, author and farmer, whose essay The Pleasures of Eating argued that “[eating] is inescapably an agricultural act, and how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.” In other words, it is consumers who are responsible for the growth of sustainable farming while producers are free from scrutiny.

Newman is skeptical of this shame-and-blame tactic. He said that a critique of behavior may change the habits of an audience which can afford to listen, but $11 milk is simply beyond the reach of a minimum or low-wage worker, no matter how strong the “value shift.” Newman believes any solution that is centered on altering consumer behavior is doomed to fail—and is either unaware of the realities of poverty and lower-middle income or chooses not to engage with them.

At Sylvanaqua, Newman is trying to take the best of both small sustainable farms and industrial agribusiness by pairing commitment to ethical and environmental responsibility with efficiency and productivity. He said that only through this balance can sustainable agriculture be successful, and suggested that many of sustainable agriculture’s shortcomings stem from a reactionary mindset.

“Part of (the problem) I think is a certain degree of intellectual laziness…Big ag is big, so (people think) the solution must be small,” he said. “Big ag is integrated, so (people think) the solution must be to not integrate, to disperse, to only focus on the farming. Big ag is all about business, so (people think) sustainable ag must be decidedly non-business.”

The issue with this response, Newman explained, is that it’s simplistic. In rejecting large agribusiness across-the-board, small farmers may reject not only the flaws, but the traits that made industrial agriculture successful—traits like scale. 

According to the USDA, the class of farms making $100,000-$250,000 per year and the class making $500,000 to $1 million each work about 15% of U.S. farmland. The only difference between the two groups is that the average farm in the former category is about 1,000 acres large, while the average in the latter is just short of 2,000. In other words, fewer, larger farms are able to produce more on the same amount of land than smaller, more numerous ones, thus enabling them to sell at cheaper prices. Newman believes that in order to compete, sustainable agriculture must embrace the efficiencies of scale rather than Salatin’s million-Polyface dream.

While Newman said that farmers need to adopt business models that boost affordability, he said that price is only one part of a larger problem of accessibility. In his estimation, the strategies that small farmers use for selling and distributing their food are fantastically impractical.

“People use farmers markets which only operate one or two days a week, and usually during the day, when people are working…and God help you if it rains,” he said. Pickup programs for community supported agriculture shares often fall victim to the same critique, with the added hurdle that the farmer, not the customer, picks the produce, meaning people may not get either what they need or know how to use. Even if farm food is affordable, it may not be available. A local, all-hours supermarket is an easier, more accessible way to get food than the intermittent, and sometimes distant options that farmers have on offer.

Acting alone, farmers don’t have the time to sell their food every day of the week, much less for extended hours. And until they do, farmers are limited in the customers they can reach. This problem calls to another tactic from industrial food: vertical integration. Not only does this lower the cost of the end product by eliminating middlemen, Newman said, it also allows farmers to focus on what they do best, rather than stretching themselves thin and doing everything inadequately. The farm is only one part of the food system, and any successful attempt at reform will have to work on broader scales, he said.

Sylvanaqua does not yet embody all of Newman’s ideals. Yes, the chickens are free-range, the cattle grass-fed, and the pigs forage in silvopasture-managed woodland with trees whose fruit and nuts supplement the pigs’ diets. Yet, in terms of scale, Sylvanaqua is a far cry from Gunsmoke Farms, operating at just 120 acres, which is all that current demand warrants. The prices for his products are high—$5.50 for a dozen eggs, $15 for a pound of bacon. Not content to remain this way, Newman is aggressively pursuing expansion, most recently through Sylvanaqua’s mutual aid program.

Newman created the program this summer in response to the farm’s shortcomings in affordability and accessibility. The process is this: Sylvanaqua’s customers are encouraged to buy mutual aid shares along with their other purchases. The shares are also advertised to the tens of thousands of followers of Newman’s social media accounts. This money is used to pay for meat and eggs that go to food aid organizations who provide meals in Washington, D.C. and other cities in the region.

“Not everybody has a stove, or cookware, or the expertise, or time to cook the food we have,” Newman said. “[These] organizations know how to turn our food into something accessible for people.” 

While these organizations are not owned by Sylvanaqua, these collaborations demonstrate the benefits of vertical integration. The program is also helping Newman to expand his business. 

“It’s really hard and really expensive to break into new geographic markets,” he said, “because it usually starts with three or four people, or it starts with doing a farmer’s market, which are both ways to lose lots of money really quickly. What mutual aid allows us to do is show up to Annapolis with $1,000 worth of paid food donations, and… deliver to three or four regular customers in Annapolis without losing money [on transportation and time].” The program has provided over $35,000 in food donations since its inception in late June.

Yet, Newman is by no means blind to the shortcomings of agribusiness. Like Salatin, he sees the problem as one of philosophy and worldview, something evident in his writing.

“Xàskwim (corn) monocultures are not a white invention,” Newman wrote. “In fact, my own ancestors planted them. First-contact colonizer accounts describe in detail cornfields that stretched for miles and miles…but these fields weren’t planted every year…(but) with a careful ethic of not taking too much even when a vast monoculture was involved.” 

As Newman sees it, big agriculture is not inherently antithetical to sustainability. While the environmental and social problems surrounding the current agricultural system are numerous, it is also necessary to recognize the ways in which it has been successful in bringing food to people. Improving food systems requires coupling the best that agribusiness has to offer with people, organizations, and businesses that center people and environment over profit. To reform food, sustainable farming needs to be the new “big ag.”

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