What is Sylvanaqua Farms?
Sylvanaqua Farms is a holistically-managed, beyond-organic family farm devoted to delicious food that's good for you and good for the planet. We want to grow the world's healthiest food, improve the quality of the land, and encourage communities to take control of their local food supplies. All production centers on sustainable, restorative land management practices drawing from the best of Indigenous, Holistic, and Permaculture methods.
Like most natural farms, we're producing a wide array of food items, as well as products that help everyone from hobby gardeners to professional farmers grow food as sustainably as we do. This is what we produce:
- Pastured Broiler, Roaster, and Fryer Chickens: Pasture raised and fed, free of hormones, vaccines, antibiotics, and GMO feed. Our chickens are moved to fresh pasture twice a day in mobile pens.
- Forest-Finished Pork: Heritage Tamworth pigs are raised on lush pasture for five months, then finished in the acorn glens of oak and poplar forest to produce uniquely flavorful pork.
- Free Range Eggs: Our flock of 150 Rhode Island Reds are rotationally ranged, following three days behind our pigs to produce the world's healthiest, most delicious eggs from the world's happiest hens.
- Heirloom Produce: Veggies and fruits for all seasons produced from heirloom (non-hybrid, non-patented) seed, in ground fertilized with organic compost instead of chemicals, companion planted and rotated with rye and buckwheat cover crops to improve the health of the soil.
- Heritage Turkeys: We raise just couple dozen of these guys for the holidays, with the aim of saving endangered heritage breed turkeys from the ubiquitous Butterball monster. Like our broilers, these birds are raised on pasture and are 100% drug free. This year's breed: the Narragansett.
- Wildflower Honey: Our hives range over 5,000 square feet of gardens and open greenhouses, 5 acres of mixed grass and white clover pastures, a 1 acre test stand of native warm season grasses (to keep our bees close to home in the summer), and 20 acres of woodland to produce all-natural Virginia wildflower honey.
- Lumber and Cordwood: The trees we harvest from the woods are cut into lengths, then either processed with a bandsaw mill for lumber or split by hand. Cordwood is air-seasoned, and lumber is kiln-dried for a wood product that's both superior and sustainable.
- Organic Compost: You never know what's in the bagged stuff you get at the store. Our compost is born from a carefully tended balance of forest biomass, donated manure from neighboring horse farms, animal processing and garden surplus, and castings of the tens of thousands of red hybrid and nightcrawler worms that call our compost piles home.
Beyond providing the items above, Sylvanaqua Farms exists to prove a few very important things:
- You can make a comfortable living on a small family farm, all while...
- Improving the land instead of destroying it, with the added benefits of...
- Making people healthy and strengthening your community
The idea for our farm was born when my husband, Chris, and I read Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and Joel Salatin's "You Can Farm." Learning about the catastrophic effects of industrialized agriculture convinced us to turn what was once a retirement goal into an immediate second career.
The 26 forested acres along the Rivanna River surrounding my parents' home, which Papa built with a handful of relatives in 1993, was offered to us to begin our venture. The property is called Sylvanaqua (meaning "woods and water"), and so Sylvanaqua Farms was born!
The Road to Sylvanaqua
Chris' initial idea, which came to him after our wedding in September 2011, was to open a bison ranch years and years down the road as a retirement project. The goal was to produce and promote a healthy red meat that's indigenous to America. From there, he and I launched into an intense self-directed education in ranching and farming.
In January 2013, our education led us to books by Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin. The result was a dramatic change in vision:
Initial Vision (from September 2011): 150 - 300 acre bison farm; 100% grass fed organic production; Management intensive rotational grazing; Nationwide market; Do it as a retirement project.
Final Vision (from January 2013): 25 - 100 acre multi-enterprise farm; Layered livestock and polyculture; Beyond-organic; Seasonal production; Holistic management; Local markets (within the Charlottesville, D.C., Richmond triangle); Don't save it for retirement.
It was also during this time that we decided it was better to lease or rent land rather than buy it. My parents' home was on the market at the time, and my siblings and I had always thought it a tragedy to sell the place where we grew up. Chris felt the same way, since he and I were married there. We convinced my parents to take the property off the market and rent it to us as farmland.
Before we moved to Sylvanaqua, Chris and I lived in a tiny Washington D.C. condo with a sixty-square-foot balcony. As winter wore on we decided to take Joel Salatin's advice and get all the experience we could with planting. We covered the entire balcony with containers, and on that tiny space raised mixed greens, cilantro, parsley, kale, tomatoes, carrots, okra, eggplants, sunflower, nasturtium, borage, sweet mint, marigolds, peppers, basil, beets, mustard, and rosemary. All were raised from seeds started in spent eggshells.
Chris stepped up the experimentation with crops, planting a large medallion garden at a park in Bryans Road, Maryland. He and his father, with lots of volunteer help, planted an heirloom three sisters garden (corn, beans and squash planted together in mounds) supplemented with plantings of herbs, fruit trees, berry bushes in Hugelkultur beds, and heirloom tobacco.
An aside on the tobacco: Chris' family hails from the Native communities in southern Maryland. His family has grown and cured tobacco for centuries to use in ceremony and prayer.
Around the same time, we began making frequent trips to Charlottesville to prepare the farm. He, Papa, a few friends and I cleared a small section of the property for open pastures, created a prototype pastured chicken tractor, cleared out the basement of the house for us to move in, and developed production schedules and budgets.
At the end of June, Chris left his job as a software engineer and I left mine as an art gallery director, officially putting us into the farming operation with both feet!
Our first livestock arrive on the farm: 83 Cornish Cross broiler chicks. These little guys are completely unadulterated with no vaccines, hormones, or antibiotics. Their health is maintained with deep bedding, lots of sunshine, nutritious non-GMO feed, and constant attention and care. In September they'll be moved to a mobile pasture pen which allows access to fresh pasture while protecting them from predators and weather.
What's the Money For?
The overwhelming majority of land at Sylvanaqua is thick, choked, overgrown forest. To make the land as productive as possible, we need to get in there, remove the undergrowth, and take down unhealthy trees. The trees and brush we harvest from the forest can be turned into biomass for composting and lumber for the great deal of wooden equipment we use for managing livestock and gardens. But in order to do this, we need a brush chipper and a bandsaw mill, which each cost around $5,000. Achieving our Kickstarter goal of $5,000 will help us purchase one of these two critical pieces of equipment.
If we're so lucky as to stretch beyond $5,000, we'll be able to afford both the mill and the chipper. And if we're even luckier than that, your contributions will help with things like:
- Walk-in cooler, $5,000
- Poultry processing equipment, $4,000
- Livestock trailer, $2,400
- Forest fencing (permanent), $1,875
- Broiler pens, $1,125
- Egg tractor, $1,000
- Beehives and apiary equipment, $800
- Broiler stock, $630
- Portable electric fencing, $525
- Brooder lamp and canopy, $300
This is only a partial listing; our full startup budget runs close to $30,000. We're funding everything out of our own savings and the farm will move forward no matter what, but your donations will help us buy better equipment, get us to full production capacity several years faster than otherwise possible, and accelerate our goal of helping other young natural farmers break into the business.
We hope you will become a part of our exciting journey through your contribution, and we look forward to seeing you soon down here on the farm!
Risks and challenges
Farming is a uniquely challenging enterprise owing to its direct relationship with the natural world, which can be unpredictable and unkind. And while Chris and I have lots of experience in home gardens and with raising pets, we have very limited experience raising produce or livestock commercially.
We've prepared for this challenge with a relentless program of self-education that, by the time we start full production next Spring, will have lasted three years. Between the two of us we have volunteered as farmhands, read thousands of pages of books, watched weeks worth of videos, attended on-farm seminars (including one by the famous Joel Salatin), got our feet wet with larger and more complex gardens, and raised a test set of 80 Cornish birds from chick to broiler. In the coming months, we will visit a number of beyond-organic farms, ranches, and bee sanctuaries to learn even more from people who have been in the business for decades.
In the event of a significant setback, we have healthy reserves of cash, a deep well of community support (two of our neighbors raise hens and goats, one raises bees, and another raises cattle, and all have enthusiastically offered their help), the ability to learn quickly from mistakes, and a relentless desire to succeed. We look forward to the challenges and rewards of making a living from the land, and we hope you will be among those who help us along the way.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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