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Tilth Conference: Speakers


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Chris Newman

"Indigenizing 'Big Agriculture'"

Chris Newman,

Sylvanaqua Farms (VA)


Farming has largely been regarded as an individual or family enterprise since the invasion of America, from the sugarcane and tobacco plantations of centuries ago, to the modern multi-thousand acre family farm in the corn belt, to the smallholdings and homesteads that comprise most of the farm-to-table and regenerative agriculture movements today. This reverence of the individual — the organizing of farms around nuclear families, romantic partners, or a single person - is the central legacy of settler-colonialism that lies at the heart of most of the core problems farmers face in this industry: farm succession, farmworker exploitation, farm-owner burnout, access to land, training, capital, and the marketplace. All of these can be traced in a straight line to our culture's elevation of private enterprise and laissez faire economics over collective responsibility and kinship economics. In this talk, we discuss a prosperous future for the communities of all living things on Earth by re-indigenizing agriculture: building food systems around large, integrated, collectively-owned, community-focused, team farming.

About Chris Newman

Chris Newman is the co-founder of Sylvanaqua Farms, which is based in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. They raise forest-raised pork, grass-fed beef, and pastured chicken and eggs. A member of the Choptico Band of Piscataway Indians, Chris places a heavy emphasis on the indigenous ethics, values, and knowledge serving as the (often unacknowledged) foundation of the modern permaculture movement, and the decolonized worldview necessary to ensure the sustainable stewardship of natural resources. An engineer and technologist by trade, he also accepts and explores the potential of modern scientific innovation to address the gaps left by ecosystem farming in solving a sustainability problem wherein timeliness is a factor.


Dr. Kathleen Merrigan

"We Elect Change"

Dr. Kathleen Merrigan,

Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University (AZ)


It has been an overwhelming year: lives upended by the pandemic, heartbreaking racial justice reckonings, and shrill political battles. No matter the outcome of the election — as important as it is — real change will only come about by a mass movement, led by people in this virtual room, to re-envision and redesign community. Where to start? This month marks the 30th anniversary of the Organic Foods Production Act. Overall, it has been a success, in large part thanks to the original coalition that brought forth the legislation: a community of farmers, environmentalists, and consumers working together to advocate for change. Kathleen will lay out a plan to recapture that founding spirit, rebuild trust, embrace new innovations, and create a shared vision for organic agriculture that this community, and sister communities across the country, can fight for, and achieve. 

About Dr. Kathleen Merrigan

Kathleen Merrigan is the inaugural Executive Director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University and the Kelly and Brian Swette Professor of Sustainable Food Systems, with appointments in the School of Sustainability, College of Health Solutions, and School of Public Affairs. She came to ASU after four years as Executive Director of Sustainability at George Washington University, where she led the GW Sustainability Collaborative, GW Food Institute, and was Professor of Public Policy, with appointments in the schools of public policy and public health.

From 2009-2013, Dr. Merrigan served as U.S. Deputy Secretary and Chief Operating Officer of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a $150 billion, 110,000 employee institution. As Deputy Secretary, Dr. Merrigan created and led the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative to support local food systems; was a key architect of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, and made history as the first woman to chair the Ministerial Conference of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Before joining the USDA, Dr. Merrigan was a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University where she directed the M.S./PhD Agriculture, Food and Environment Program. Her prior career includes a variety of agriculture policy positions, including Administrator of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service and senior staff on the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, where she wrote the law establishing national standards for organic food.

Currently, Dr. Merrigan serves as Co-Chair for AGree, Board Director for the World Agroforetry Centre, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, FoodCorps, and Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) as well as Steering Committee member for the United Nations Environment Programme-led initiative TEEB AgriFood. Dr. Merrigan is a partner in Astanor Ventures and an advisor to S2G Ventures, two firms investing in ag-tech innovations.

Recognizing the history and scope of her work, Time Magazine named Dr. Merrigan among the “100 most influential people in the world” in 2010.

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