Forrest Pritchard has been farming his entire life, but it wasn’t until he almost lost his family farm that he decided to take a stand for farmers everywhere. Forrest not only saved Smith Meadows farm but also became a leader in sustainability, becoming one of the first “grass finished” farms in the nation. Through tales of suffering, humor and, of course, food, Forrest details this account in his new book, Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm. We’re giving away five copies of the book — read below for information on getting one.
I recently got a chance to chat with Forrest and ask him a few questions about food, farming and the upcoming book.
Toni Tiemann: Can you tell me about your background in farming, particularly with Smith Meadows?
Forrest Pritchard: So I’m the seventh generation farmer. The farm has been passed down on my mom’s side since the early 1800s, so when I was growing up my grandfather was a professional farmer. He started farming actually about 1920, in the late 1910s. I grew up on his farm and have just been around farming all my life. He was a cattle farmer, a livestock guy and an orchardist. This region, Shenandoah Valley, back in the ‘50s and ‘60s was hugely involved in apple production. He was very much in the forefront of all that, so I grew up around cattle and apples as a kid and took it for granted. That was my whole world. The rest of the world might have been that way and I wouldn’t have known the difference. That’s kind of my background.
TT: Outside of the story itself, as a farmer what inspired you to write Gaining Ground?
FP: Aside from the passion, and all farmers are passionate about farming in their own way or they couldn’t do it. It’s too hard of work. Every farmer has that passion, but it takes a different kind of personality to not only grow food, but also be willing to load up your truck every weekend to go to a farmers market. Not all farmers are willing to do that. That’s understandable. They don’t have time for it, or they’re shy, or they just want to grow food and that’s the end of it. That’s what a lot of folks do. In order to make ends meet, the commodity end of things, putting stuff on a truck and rolling it out of the driveway was not working for us. So far as, we put everything on a truck and waited for a check to appear in the mail. Then we’d sell stuff at the stock sale or we’d sell a truckload of grain, we’d get that check back and it was not a sustainable financial future for us. So going to farmers markets, that allowed me to interact with customers.
In a roundabout way of getting back to your question, when you meet with the actual people that eat your food, you create relationships with those folks. You are their food provider and you’re watching their kids grow up, and you’re basically nourishing these families. So when I saw how valuable that was to people, to have that communication and to have that opportunity to ask farmers where their food comes from. ‘Are your chickens raised outdoors? Do you give antibiotics to your chickens?’ I’m able to look them right in the eye and answer these questions for them. I thought to myself how valuable it would be for the customers to have the full story. That’s where Gaining Ground originated, because from one side you’ve got farmers, who are frankly too busy to be writing the story and on the other side, the journalistic, Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Inc. aspect of things. There was a story that was missing in the middle, the backstory of how all of these farmers markets came to be.
TT: What is one thing you would like readers to take from the book?
FP: The biggest thing I would love for readers to take from the book is that their food choices genuinely matter. It’s really easy to talk about it and be philosophical, but this story should convey to readers how deeply important it is that they make conscientious food choices. By shopping at farmers markets, by subscribing to a CSA, by joining a buying club that supports a farm or a co-op of farmers. By shopping at a co-op, your dollar is going either directly or almost directly to a local farm. It’s not going to be filtered through a grocery store or distribution or Wal-Mart. The dollars that you spend are handed right over to that farmer and that is so powerful.
Hopefully when people read this book they understand when you break that dollar up into pennies and nickels and dimes, it’s easy to lose track of all those nickels and dimes. What was happening for us in the commodity system is by the time customers spent a dollar and it all trickled down to the farmer, we were literally getting 3, 4 or 5 cents of that. It’s really hard to create a dollar’s worth of product and only get 5 cents of that. When the customer spends with a farmer, the farmer gets 25 percent of that or 30 percent, enough to generate revenue so they can maintain their farm not just for today but for the future.
TT: Here at Farm Aid, we’re all about food and music. What is your favorite food and who is your favorite band?
FP: Well, what is my favorite food? That’s a great question. Jimmy Buffett, to combine references, a cheeseburger and paradise. There ain’t nothing wrong with anything that he said in that song. In the introduction of Gaining Ground, there’s no coincidence that I mention Farm Aid and I mention Willie Nelson and I mention Neil Young and I mention John Mellencamp. I didn’t mention Dave Matthews, because he wasn’t chronologically applicable at that point.
In the introduction, Farm Aid was very much on my consciousness in 1985. Here I am 10, 11 years old in 1984 and 1985 and there were these big superstars, Willie Nelson was playing with Julio Iglesias at that point and John Mellencamp was singing "Little Pink Houses" and "Rain on the Scarecrow." They were like pop icons to me and then they’re turning around and supporting farms? I got that as an 11-year old.
I don’t think I needed to be growing up on a farm to get that these pop superstars or cultural superstars found importance in the value of what was happening to American farmers in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They’re like ‘we’re not going to take this lying down. We’re going to stand up for this.’ It’s one of those things that makes your hair stand up on the back of your neck with pride. Who am I listening to? I still listen to all of those guys. I still think they’re as relevant as ever and there’s more voices that are definitely participating and contributing to that mission.
Gaining Ground hits shelves on May 21, but we’ve got five copies to give away! Just leave a comment below with your favorite food and favorite music artist and we’ll pick five random winners. Make sure your comment profile has a way to contact you in case you’re a winner.