Adapt and Grow: A Hearty Welcome to 2018

Sharkstooth Beach on the Potomac River, just up the road from the new farm.

Greetings, Happy Holidays, and a Happy New Year to all of you from us here on the farm!

The past year was full of new beginnings and lots of changes. We welcomed Betty Jane Newman on April 17. We sold our condo, Chris’ home of ten years and the last vestige of our former lives in the city. And the farm found itself featured in all kinds of media outlets, from NPR to Quartz to even the front page of Yahoo! News via the Huffington Post for an array of our writings on the ecology of vegetarianism, the intersection of race, class, and food, and a number of others.

But we’re sure the change everyone’s most interested in is our move to the Northern Neck and how it’ll affect your ability to get your hands on our bacon. Here are the four ways things will change next year:

  • Simplified Ordering
  • Expanded Service Area
  • Farm Memberships
  • Product Collections

Simplified Ordering

Our top priority for 2018 is to make ordering very easy. You’ll be able to:

  • Order directly from our website
  • Know exactly how much your order costs and pay for it right away, on the website.
  • Have your order shipped right to your front door, pick it up during one of our in-town pickup windows, or come directly to the farm. Whichever you like.

No more filling out a clunky Google Form, waiting for emailed invoices, and hoping we don’t run out of things in between. We’re spending the entire winter tuning our inventory and fulfillment operation to make ordering a joyful experience.

Expanded Service Area

We’ve always had a commitment to local. Our definition of local means serving places that are a.) within a 2.5 hour drive of the farm, and b.) we have a personal connection to. With the farm moving to the Neck, that means we’ll be servicing the following areas:

  • Northern Neck Peninsula — the farm’s home base
  • Washington, D.C. Metro Area — Chris’ hometown
  • Charlottesville, VA Area — Annie’s hometown and the birthplace of our farm
  • Richmond, VA — Annie’s college town and home to most of her best friends
  • Southern Maryland — Chris’ ancestral homelands
  • Baltimore, MD — home of the largest indigenous populations in Maryland
  • Norfolk/Hampton Roads — most of Chris’ mom’s family is here; home to Coston Beamon’s farm

We’ll continue to rotate in-person to one of these areas just about every week, but you won’t have to wait for us to do so to get an order in. USPS shipping will be offered to each location every single week! Place your order by noon Wednesday and receive your order in a chilled insulated container by Friday.

Farm Memberships

A farm membership will be of interest to anyone that spends more than a couple hundred dollars a year with us. To become a farm member, you deposit money with the farm up front and, in return, get a 3–10% bonus with each purchase. Your membership also doubles as a herd share, which means you get access to specialized products (like charcuterie) that aren’t available to the general public. This is similar to a CSA, except you get to choose exactly what you want to buy, you can sign up at any time, and it provides a fixed discount on every purchase.

Product Collections

We’re doing two things to make it easier to get our food onto your plate. Over the years we’ve listened to scores of customers tell us what they’re looking for based on function (e.g. I need something for the slow cooker; I need stuff for breakfast; I need something my freaking kid will eat; I need something that’s hard to mess up). To that end we’re offering Collections — groups of products centered around a specific function: boxes for smoking, braising, broth, essentials, breakfast, quick dinners, fancy dinners, kids, and more). Our hope is that this will make it easier to find what you want and shave a few precious minutes off the ordering process.

Furthermore, every item in our catalog will include recipes. You’ll find everything from how to roast a small chicken without drying out the breast, to how to break down a whole pig shoulder to feed your family for a couple months. It’ll all be right on the website.

All of the above — the new ordering experience, expanded service areas, memberships, and product collections will debut in Spring and be announced in our next newsletter. Keep close tabs on your email!

Moving the farm to the Northern Neck is an incredible opportunity. Stratford Hall, the historic estate we’ll be farming, totals some 1,900 acres, most of which is passively managed as forest with a few hundred acres in pasture. A land base this large accommodates decades of growth and will permit us to concentrate on product quality, training new farmers, and establishing footholds in new markets in the region.

The cliffs at Stratford Hall (photo from the NY Times)

The move, however, isn’t without its short-term risks. Our business plan calls for a significant expansion of production: 4,000–5,000 broiler chickens, 5,000 dozen eggs, 60–90 pigs, 200–300 turkeys, and the introduction of a produce operation. These numbers represent an increase of 50% on the low end (pigs) to 1,000% on the high end (turkeys), with a doubling of production being more in the middle (broilers and eggs).

The expansion also calls for a corresponding increase in our retail sales, which have traditionally been driven by farmers markets. We assumed going into this that, if we were going to continue using farmers markets, we’d have to secure a spot in a high-volume urban market that could generate $1,200–2,500 per weekend in sales. We also assumed that getting into one of these markets would be a long shot. Entry into these markets is extremely competitive and their slots are dominated by incumbents. We’ve applied to a number of markets for the sake of completeness (we assumed Stratford Hall wouldn’t give us the time of day either, but look how that turned out), but the general consensus is that the best we can hope for is to be plugged in as an alternate for a market when a space unexpectedly opens up.

In 2052

That presents a problem. Being an alternate once or twice at the Old Town Farmers Market isn’t enough to sell 20,000 pounds of chicken and 12,000 pounds of pork. But we also don’t want to become one of those farms that sells exclusively to restaurants and retailers. So while we apply to these farmers markets and hope to piece together a dozen appearances as alternates throughout the year, we decided to give serious consideration to shipping for the first time.

We were firmly against shipping when we started the farm in 2013. As newly-minted wannabe farmers we took everything Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms said as gospel, and the man railed against the idea of putting product on FedEx trucks and sending it to customers sight unseen. Over time, however, we’ve developed our own theses on sustainability and diverged from Polyface on a number of issues, including this one.

The main argument against shipping is that it removes the direct connection between farmer and customer, and the steady erosion of that connection over the past few decades is a root cause of a knot of problems linking agriculture, human health, and environmental stewardship. This is a valid thing to be concerned about, and keeping a steady eye on addressing that problem is a responsibility of every farm that calls itself sustainable. However, my two-day visit to Polyface in 2013 revealed some important things. First, Joel owns inherited land that he can effectively do whatever he wants with — including operating a retail farm store and caching an enormous amount of product directly on-site. Visit the farm and you’ll notice several shipping containers with air conditioners attached to them; these are Polyface’s overflow freezers. Second, Joel has a small army of employees, including a few whose sole function revolves around managing direct-to-buyers clubs as far away as Annapolis.

Most farm entrepreneurs don’t have this flexibility; especially the young upstarts whose numbers must swell to form the foundation of a revolution in food. We lease our land and don’t have the right (much less the capital) to sell retail right from the farm. And with many of us living off-farm in residentially-zoned areas, doing point-of-sale from our homes is outright illegal; doing this at the volume we’d need to make a living would definitely get us caught. Making our own deliveries to buyers clubs and CSAs takes us off the farm and makes production suffer. And finally, as we’ve stated already (more than once), high-volume farmers markets and hubs are brutally competitive and not designed to scale. This leaves farms like ours, which are too big for small farmers markets to be economically viable but too small to offer custom fulfillment at scale, in a difficult position.

Between realizing that we’re in the awkward adolescent phase of our business, and staring into the chasm that has to be bridged for sustainable food to gain a real foothold in the market, we lowered our weapons on the shipping issue and decided to take a closer look. Retail shipping offers a number of benefits:

  • Business is opened to people who don’t have the time or the inclination to make the more cumbersome process of buyers clubs and CSAs work. This fits directly into our values that good food should be accessible to as much of the local population as we can manage.
  • Our customers who are more far afield can order from us more regularly; we can capture business that our own clients want to give to us but previously went to the Whole Foods’ of the world because they could only buy from us every 4–8 weeks. Repeat customers are, of course, the lifeblood of any business.
  • Our products consume less fuel to deliver, and the “last mile” problem of getting products from our farm to your table is greatly reduced.

The key risk, of course, is that over time we become a farm that’s only accessible through its website and marketing. To avoid this, we’re still going to cycle between our delivery locations once a week, attend farmers markets where and when we’re allowed, and only offer shipping to the locations we actually visit and have a connection to; you’re not going to find our products on airplanes headed to New York, Texas, or California. We’re confident we can avoid this temptation because we avoided a similar temptation to become a restaurant-only outfit. We’re also looking forward to solving this problem for other farmers who will come in behind us, when farmers markets and restaurants are increasingly saturated, and budding farms find themselves unable to succeed the way farms have in the past. Our goal is not only to grow our own farm, but to create an environment and solutions for farms like ours to prosper as well.

These future farmers will inherit a sales environment vastly different than the one that exists today (image via Accokeek Foundation)

So that’s the big explanation about why we’ve changed our minds and decided to offer shipping. We’re counting on your continued support to help us succeed through this next evolution of our business. This year is going to be incredibly busy — beyond the new delivery/shipping model and increasing the farm’s production, we’re renovating the house we’re moving into, setting up operational infrastructure on the new farm, kindling a new relationship with Montpelier that we’re hoping will result in a sustainable agriculture partnership involving over a thousand acres, and continuing our work with the Accokeek Foundation’s National Food Forest project. All that in addition to finding time to write, draw, bring up two little girls, and fit in a date night here and there.

It’s been an incredible journey thus far; a challenging life more than worth living. We can’t wait to see what the future has in store. And we’re looking forward to going there with you.

Sincerely yours,

Chris Newman
Work Monkey in Chief
Sylvanaqua Farms