Christina Couch | November 13, 2022
You've likely heard Chris Newman, Owner and Operator of Sylvanaqua Farms and Founder of Skywoman, speak intently about the need for more cooperative farming, greater collectivism, and stronger relationships in regional food systems. You maybe even agree but find yourself wondering, "how in the world do we get there?" How do we all play nice, forage relationships, and build trust across the diverse, and sometimes opposing, set of needs and expectations we often find in agriculture? This piece is hopefully the first of many publications as we follow along and learn from the launch of Chris's latest project, Blackbird.
Blackbird is a Chesapeake Bay grass poultry cooperative focused on making regenerative poultry more affordable and accessible. This model of community-based farming and provisioning is one of radical transparency, creating a system that openly meets the needs and standards of all members connected to the poultry supply chain.
Fueling the fire of this cooperative model is the need to take care of one another, to provide a level of mutual support that lends itself far beyond the daily operational tasks of farming and focuses equally, if not more so, on the members’ quality of life. How can we support our neighbors and encourage the continuation of farming in a way that feels secure? Can we build a system that allows the next generation to feel comfortable following an ag career path with a greater level of security and transparency than what exists today...?
Brief history of Sylvanaqua Farms
When Chris and his wife were exploring the opportunity to farm, the only advice to follow at the time was advocating for folks to “vote with their food dollar”, believe “big ag is bad” and strive for “individual smallholding" all while screaming about the corrupted role of science and institutions in agriculture. On top of this disorienting guidance, when Sylvanaqua Farms was launched in 2013, the support for beginner farmers with a focus on equity and genuine acknowledgement of indigenous foodways was nonexistent. The upside? Folks looking to launch food sovereignty projects in their own communities today can tap into a myriad of resources, many federally and state funded, to create better food supply chains. We've got a long ways to go but at the very least, we can lean into the recent traction around food systems work to continue improving and increasing the spaces in which food sovereignty work can exist, succeed, and be supported - especially in the political realm.
In 2018-2019 Chris began organizing food sovereignty initiatives by blending some regenerative ag concepts with conventional ag supply chain models, cooperative economics, and indigenous cultural ethic. Thus the establishment of Skywoman, “A community of people from all walks of life pursuing sustainably produced, culturally appropriate, accessible, and community-controlled food made available to all people as a human right.”
His biggest takeaways from launching a farm business:
Pay employees what they are worth and pay them well
Sell your product for what it is truly worth, not what you think people will want to pay
The overarching theme in Chris’s journey to launching Sylvanaqua Farms and now Blackbird is in the power of storytelling. His ability to communicate well creates space for transparent and meaningful relationships. The practice of storytelling has emerged in various Skywoman discussions, with the emphasis on first listening, to truly understand the needs of community members, and to then create an inclusive and collective voice for gaining long-lasting support to meet these needs.
When we think about the current landscape of cooperative ag models and their attention to farmer well being, we see our existing food aggregators are curating products from various farmers and making everything available in one location as a one-stop-shop, but the operation is highly product focused. Support for the farmers that supply these products, their quality of life, on future career paths in agriculture, and the communities that surround these food systems are nonexistent.
This is where Chris is shaking things up. Blackbird is designed to create viable career paths for people who want to get into cooperative agriculture while actually having a secure path to ownership whether in producing, processing, marketing, distribution, etc. This model will provide support from all angles to rule out the “do it all yourself” mentality.
What will this look like? A clear roadmap for how to enter into farming, become a producer, transition from production to ownership and most importantly, understand what your life will look like, on a deeply personal level, at each step of the way as you progress through your ag career. It's about providing context on what your life as an ag professional will be like when you are young and just starting out vs. at the height of your productivity, then later as you begin to slow down, starting to think about passing the puck, and eventually retiring. How can you lean on the co-op to provide support through each transition?
First Attempt at Launching a Cooperative
Chris’s first try at building a new food supply chain followed an indigenous model in which folks can section off and organize however best meets their needs. The system he envisioned would be bound by really transparent buyer/seller contracts, different from present challenges of producers being forced into massive coops where gatekeeping and influence become really problematic.
This first launch failed and in his experience, it came down to the people involved. Lesson learned? Don’t bend over too far and contort yourself to find a place where every person can fit into your business model. If they’re not a good fit from the jump or you don’t have the disposable resources required to meet their needs you should not work together, and that is completely okay. Recognizing the lack of synergy early on is key.
Lessons Learned After First Attempt
Successful coops tend to evolve out of existing businesses where the culture is already established and the team is functioning as a well-oiled machine. Failure to establish culture & standards ahead of time is detrimental. To do it better, grow very slowly and intentionally.
Build a team that is made up of people whose skills, personalities, and habits can be verified and sufficiently vetted – don’t ignore red flags! If their qualities don’t align with your or your operation’s goals or mission, find folks who do.
Establish standards around communication, accountability, conflict, resolution, and goals AHEAD OF TIME. The day to day operations should be on autopilot at the time of converting the existing businesses into a coop. A ton of time needs to be put into establishing these standards without distractions and stress from operational and financial pressures.
In the early stages, cut the cord with people who are not a really really really good fit – you’re already strapped for cash, don’t have disposable income to burn, and there is zero time for remediation and burn out amidst trying to “save” 1-2 people. Focus on the bigger picture. The future of the ag organization, if built by an elite team, will have rippling impacts on the quality of life for many - keep your mind focused on who and what the organization will be able to take care of in the future, and build a team to get you there.
Second Run at the Co-op
The second time around, Chris is leveraging existing relationships with proven operators as the founding group. Getting folks on board is about building trust and Blackbird is offering incentives to take some pressure off of co-op members by providing operating capital, buyers, processing facilities, and transparent supply chain support.
Chris is basically supercharging what is already doing well in his existing business of Sylvanaqua Farms by centering Blackbird on pastured poultry. Being focused at the start is important, especially as Blackbird turns down more-diversified opportunities from customers who are interested in a similar co-op model for beef, eggs, and pork. There is clearly money to be made in these areas but right now Chris Newman is just trying to keep his eye on the ball. He recommends getting really good at defining your business' strong point and cutting ties on the not-so successful parts before even thinking about expansion.
Learning from the initial failure, Chris is devoting a ton of time to vetting prospective partners and building a strong communication culture. This looks like sharing financial models at each level of production and shopping his ideas around to prospective farmers. He is trying to understanding if this model works, will it get producers paid the way they need to be, is it viable for them and their lifestyle? Blackbird is setting prices together with operators who are really experienced and if not, is working through how best to collectively meet their needs for profitable scalability.
Defining Blackbird Model
Following his own advice, Chris is launching Blackbird in a way that blends small scale regenerative production, large-scale processing/packing and a wholesale/retail/mutual aid to create:
Accessible, high quality protein – processing at scale with greater coordination of inputs (reducing costs) combined with a built-in mutual aid pool (greater affordability). The big goal? greater accessibility and consistent supply of quality proteins in community fridges without a huge amount of turmoil to get the product there.
Accessible, durable agriculture – a pluggable model will allow for scalability at any size; low financial and technical barrier to entry, living minimum wage and a path to ownership for all participants.
Community-held food supply chains – all stakeholders can attain ownership through buy-in, produce-in and work-in roles; producers will receive access to tech consulting, admin support, and shared pools for startup/scale-up capital & labor.
Co-op ownership is considerable after 3 successful, vetted years of production.
As an “owner” of this cooperative food system, folks need to be fully aware of why every single piece of the puzzle costs what it does, there should be zero secrets and full transparency.
The cost of insurance will also be built into the co-op pricing model, making sure every producer has a certain level of financial security to hedge against disasters and avoid the common circumstance of farmers paying out of pocket.
Ownership in Decision Making
Borrowing from the Zingerman decision style, Chris is somewhat leaning into the election of a support committee (different from a steering committee) that develops a production/pricing plan and then pitches it to a larger group, but naturally, with an inclusive and deeply interpersonal twist.
The difference for Blackbird? The plans will not be pitched to a larger collective from the minds of a small few. The strategies will be slowly and intentionally developed through intimate communication in one on one or small group sessions to ensure every member’s voice is heard and reflected. These smaller sessions will then build over time towards a larger collective voice and decisions that meet and manage all members’ needs and expectations.
In Jan 2022, Chris began the small launch of 3-year operation trial amongst a small set of poultry producers, providing space for processing and packaging at Sylvanaqua Farms. The goal is to establish a small FSIS-inspected poultry processing facility serving institutional, wholesale, retail & mutual aid endpoints. Ideally the planning, fundraising, design & development will occur in parallel with the trial. Picture a living test-bed of birds, half of which are paid for by mutual aid and the other half sold through Sylvanaqua’s existing supply chain.
Here is what he has in store for Blackbird over the next 3+ years:
Alpha trial, contracting a third of Sylvanaqua's existing production to another farmer
Set up operating standards for processing and train a dedicated packing crew
Begin reviewing financial and operating models with potential partners
Operational trial with a small group of producers, intended to work out logistical and operational kinks, establish a brand, production standards, and a founding group of operators
<= 10 producers contributing 250-3,000 birds each
Grant seeking for development of FSIS inspected poultry facility
Year two of operational trial to codify cooperative agreements, including onboarding of new members
Up to 13 producers growing 250 - 3,000 birds each
Design, build, and certification of FSIS facility
FSIS facility active, with production levels to be determined by the membership
Ownership in common of processing facility, markets, distribution, brand, and other post-farm gate assets
Funding for the roadmap above will be drawn largely from federal & state sources:
At the federal level, USDA's Small and Mid-Sized Farmer Resources, more specifically the Local Agriculture Market Program which "supports the development, coordination, and expansion of direct product-to-consumer marketing; local and regional food markets and enterprises; and value-added agricultural products."
At the Virginia state level, the Agriculture & Forestry Industries Development Fund is a "performance-based economic incentive specifically for ag & forestry value-added or processing projects."
More locally, Chris is also looking to access small loans with really low interest rates through foodshed capital. Ideally, he can plug in a location, operation size, expected costs etc. and easily receive necessary funding from this local foodshed organization.
A team of financial and technical supporters will be funded through overhead costs, of which will be split amongst all parts of the co-op (farming, processing, marketing, distribution... etc.) because no one group of stakeholders should be responsible for the expenses of these services.
Blackbird's Immediate Challenges
Coordination of single-sourcing on feed, chicks and infrastructure
Agreement on costs and pricing – explaining why each input costs what it does, negotiating, discussing timing and efficiency in day-to-day operations
Logistics of transporting live birds (especially at slaughter weight or in the summer heat); who buys, owns, pays for trucks, how are they maintained, who pays for it
Dealing w/ schedule disruptions – being understanding and developing solutions that are still a win-win for both parties even if the results deviate from the original plan
Reliability/availability of local processing labor – focus first on a really strong working environment over high productivity
Establishing good product traceability beyond just demanding “trust” from the consumer
Establishing technical consults and evals such as: farm auditing; calling out facets that are bleeding both money and time; creating a space for employees to share their own pain points and develop solutions to improve processes as well as overall quality of life
Develop a culture of communication especially around disagreements – create a space where people feel comfortable asking candid questions and be able to discuss these topics without hesitation or fear of damaging integrity.The economics of a business will flow more naturally when the employees are well taken care of.
In future discussions around cooperative farming, Chris hopes to think through and define the mechanisms of a "care economy" in a multi-stakeholder system...
As the Blackbird cooperative continues to unfold, the Skywoman team will be documenting and sharing publications along the way. Ideally, folks will be able to learn from Chris's experiences and be met with well-structured designs and patterns to follow for success in their own cooperative food sovereignty projects.
To show your support of this work and to access more detailed and behind the scenes information subscribe to the Skywoman Patreon. The plus? Exclusive access to Chris Newman's refreshing podcast episodes and excerpts from his upcoming book in draft form. This budget is the sole funding source for all things Skywoman and makes pieces like this possible.
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