Robin DiAngelo’s best-seller, White Fragility, which explores the difficulties White people have in discussing race relations, has been flying off the shelves of bookstores for weeks, with demand for hard copies leading to waitlists at local libraries. However, a farmer in Virginia, Chris Newman, has been lifting the veil of racism in agriculture for some time — and more people are starting to take notice.
Across the social media accounts and website of Sylvanaqua Farms, Chris, a young Black Indigenous farmer, types truth to power, in an honest, unapologetic tone. He shares the weight of frustration like Fannie Lou Hamer — “sick and tired of being sick and tired” — but delivered with the intentional precision of rapper Eminem. Regardless of the delivery, Chris is making waves that are being felt — perhaps more now than ever. His roughly 40,000 followers across Sylvanaqua’s social media platforms has brought inquiry, angst, and allies to the discussion of racism in agriculture.
Three years ago, Chris shared his thoughts as local Black farmer with a Facebook post about the racial profiling he’d experienced in Charlottesville, Virginia. At the time, the Alt-Right’s Unite The Right Rally was taking place in Lee Park, and Newman typed his Farming While Black truth with raw emotion and pressed the send button.
An excerpt from that essay says:
“I’m one of the lucky ones; the so-called exceptional negro. People of all political stripes wield my story like a cudgel — conservatives use it to argue that people of color can make it if they’re not preoccupied with blaming White people for their lot in life; liberals use it to assert progress on their social goals in spite of the right’s intransigent (and presumedly exclusive) refusal to address racism.
“The truth, however, makes no one happy: 1.) Conservatives refuse to acknowledge racism, 2.) Liberals refuse to confront racism unless it carries a flag, 3.) As a result, what success I’ve had in life is owed mostly to an ability to make White people very, very comfortable.”
His post was shared more than 12,000 times, and he hasn’t stopped talking since — gaining more customers and followers than those who’ve parted ways.
Chris’ origins in this industry are, perhaps, a bit unexpected. He left a tech career in Washington, D.C., in 2013 and moved to Earlysville, Virginia to practice sustainable agriculture, and later located to Montross, Virginia. Sylvanaqua Farms describes itself as a mosaic of public and private lands serving as a base to produce wholesome food with regenerative agricultural methods … a vertically-integrated, employee-owned cooperative … making food available at greatly reduced prices without sacrificing ecological values, and making agricultural opportunities open to more than just the most privileged members of society.
Chris wants to reimagine food sovereignty through the collective, sustainable farming that leverages strengths, supports vulnerabilities, and yields livable incomes. Sylvanaqua Farms focuses on providing opportunities of ownership for people traditionally denied such roles in agriculture: people of color, LGBTQ, and women.
Although describing himself as an introvert, Chris’ posts and essays are a powerful voice — with a thousand echoes. His essay, Small Family Farms Are Not the Answer, made it to the desk and struck a nerve with fellow Virginian Joel Salatin, the self-proclaimed Lunatic Farmer and a divisive figure in the agricultural sector.
Salatin dedicated a blog in response to the article, and just like most testaments prefaced with, “I’m not a racist…” racial inappropriateness ensued. Salatin’s attempt to discredit Chris as whiny lacked self-reflection and situational awareness. Salatin suggested Chris pull himself up by his bootstraps to launch his collective farming vision, and continued with a reference to William Cody mounting a U.S. Postal Service Pony Express at the age of 13 and riding through paths lined with hostile Native Americans. Remember, this was Salatin’s response to Chris Newman, a Black Indigenous farmer.
Salatin’s blog post was met with disgust in the comment pod, as readers called out Salatin’s tone-deaf, privileged approach to Chris’ personal, lived-experience perspective and the racial reference to Native Americans as hostile. Was Salatin oblivious to the leading challenge young farmers face — astounding price of farmland — when starting and expanding farm operations? Sylvanaqua Farms operates on leased farmland; Salatin’s farm, on the other hand, was inherited. Landownership in the U.S. is predominantly white — to be exact 98 percent. And less than 4 percent of America’s farm operators are under the age of 35.
In case you’re wondering, yes, Chris responded. Opening with, “The facts don’t care about your feelings, Joel …”
Understanding the realities of racism in America’s agricultural history, Chris makes business decisions and manages relationships with trust but verifies things — analyzing markets and charting data like those shared in his writings. A history of racism has decimated minority farmer representation in this country, and Chris has been intentional in making opportunities available on his farm for as many young black and brown aspiring farmers as he can accommodate. Diverse representation in the farming industry will increase as the next generation “returns to the land,” and he wants to pass on the lessons he has learned.
Starting out farming alone was mentally, physically, and financially draining, so he encourages new farmers to partner and not go alone. And for farming while Black — he regularly engages with employees on racial justice discussions and talks about the realities of perception with young Brown and Black staff assigned to field work in rural communities. Recently, when asked how to get more young Black and Brown farmers into the industry, Chris responded, “People of color representation in farming will increase with our share of ownership. The idea that our representation can (or should) increase WITHOUT a corresponding increase in ownership is rooted in a passive acceptance of structural racism that assumes White people occupying all the seats of power is both acceptable and normal.”
Inquiry and awakening are represented in the comments to Chris’ social media posts. His delivery might (and will probably) catch you off guard, but the data, facts, and family history he stands on has attracted tens of thousands social media followers — not to mention he has the ability to pen words that make the most comfortable uncomfortable. For Chris Newman, farming is hopeful and terrifying — he sees hope in today’s more progressive, equality-driven society. Until then, he will play the long game and continue to type truth to power and pursue collective farming as the future of sustainable agriculture. It’s like the African Proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Bea Wilson is a diversity strategist and agricultural professional passionate about the next generation of agricultural leaders. She owns IDEATION308, a diversity consulting firm in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Twitter: @IDEATION308