Gaining Ground

Forrest Pritchard is a seventh-generation family farmer (skip this intro and read his guest post below if you’re pressed for time). His farm, Smith Meadows, is in Berryville, Virginia. The guy is clearly a lunatic, as his new book, Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm, shows (here’s the Publishers Weekly review of the book). He’s also started a blog (because he has so much time on his hands)—read this excellent post on What NOT to Ask the Grower at Your Local Market, it’s hilarious. Thanks to our mutual friend, Carol Blymire, Forrest offered to write a guest post I’m proud to put up here. I love to write about my region’s farmers, such as livestock farmer Aaron Miller and a record store clerk who got it in his head to raise chickens and taught me how to do process them—video here.

Forrest titled his own post, but if it were me, I’d have called it “The Importance of Lunatics” because the work is just too damn hard to rationalize. Or “Crazy People Are the Angels on Earth” because we need more people like Forrest. Or as he rightly notes: “Small Farmers Are the Real Heroes.”

Please read his guest post and his excellent memoir.

Do Family Farms Still Matter?

by Forrest Pritchard

In 1996, fresh out of college, I dreamed of returning to my family’s farm and becoming a farmer. After decades of eroding cattle prices, our Shenandoah Valley farm was barely hanging on. My parents had almost given up, taking jobs in the city just to keep the bills paid. I would be the seventh generation to work the land, dating back to the American Revolution, and took it upon myself to keep the farm alive.

As my friends headed off to graduate school, I pointed my dusty pickup toward the farm. My college advisors shook their heads with well-meaning disapproval. “Go ahead,” they admonished. “Get your hands dirty for a few months. But when you’re ready to decide on a career, the real world will be waiting for you.”

But this is the real world, I insisted. It’s a world of sunshine and rain. It’s a world of physical work and sweat, and the sweet satisfaction of nurturing life from the earth. A few weeks back on the farm, I was sunburned and filthy and utterly blissful. Most importantly, I was completely certain that I had made the right decision.

I projected our bills for the coming winter, and knew that we needed ten thousand dollars to carry us into spring. That summer, we planted the farm with corn and soybeans, abandoning our traditional cow pastures for the quicker financial return of grain. The meadows were killed off with herbicide, and the rolling hills cultivated.

In October, trucks whisked away our glittering corn and soy. I was so proud of what we had accomplished: We had saved our family farm. Later that week, I received our paycheck and tore open the envelope.

Staring at the check, I felt my knees buckle. The harvest hadn’t brought in ten thousand dollars. It hadn’t even cleared one thousand. After expenses, five truckloads of grain had made us a profit of eighteen dollars and sixteen cents.

How could this be? How could so much corn bring in such a pittance? Humiliated, furious, I nearly tore the paycheck into bits. At that instant, I realized how utterly broken our family farm was. I made up my mind that, somehow, we were going to fix it.

Seventeen years later, after triumphs and heartbreaks, our farm is stronger than ever. We now raise organic, grass-fed meats, and sell our free-range eggs at nearly a dozen bustling Washington, DC, farmers’ markets. Each weekend, I personally interact with hundreds of customers, answering questions and educating them about how we farm. Decades of debts are finally paid off. From where I stand, the future of farming has never looked so bright.

But our farm’s story is still the exception more than the rule. Late last year, when Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack challenged rural America to reinvent itself, I couldn’t help but take notice. He called for a new attitude among farmers, a positive message to inspire young people to pursue careers in agriculture. He went so far as to say that rural America is now politically irrelevant, and that we need a new identity for agriculture in the twenty-first century.

You know what? He’s exactly right. This is how our own farm survived, by reinventing our mission. When we reversed course, changing from commodity-based crops to direct-marketed organic food, we turned a profit for the first time in a decade.

Americans will always need farms, and our health and wellbeing will depend on the quality of food these farms produce. But today, high-yield industrial agriculture rules the field. Only 1% of the country still lives on a farm, down from 50% just two generations before. If we’re going to save more family farms, we must rewrite the old story, and do it quickly.

It’s time to ask ourselves: What do we value? Do we believe in transparent farming practices, humane treatment of animals, and providing our producers with a living wage? It’s easy to sit in our ivory towers, dismissing these issues as glorified talking points. But when you’ve stood on your family’s farmhouse porch, and are handed eighteen dollars for an entire year’s worth of work, you begin to understand how truly desperate the situation can be.

People are ready for their farmers to become heroes. Who can blame them? The world needs heroes, those who believe in something greater than themselves. A new wave of farmers can live up to these ideals, and sustainable agriculture can be the story of our time. With more local, sustainable food options than ever before, the opportunity is now right in front of us. The shopping choices we make today will alter the landscape for generations to follow.


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© 2013 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2013 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.




18 Wonderful responses to “Family Farms”

  • Elmer

    Michael, thank you for giving Forrest an outlet. His story is just about identical to the story of the Swancy family here in Georgia, and I am sure to the stories of a lot of other family farms finding a way to survive and flourish.

    It shouldn’t be all that complicated – farmers should be raising our food and they should be making a living doing it. We should be happy to give them our money and, in return, receive something which can be directly linked back to where it grew. It shouldn’t be an industrial complex which takes input source material which it then processes and modifies to look like food.

    Interestingly, it is because of you that I now call the Swancy family my friends. If I hadn’t gone looking for real, fresh pork bellies after attending one of your demos, there is a very good chance I never would have met them, and a very distinct possibility I wouldn’t have the relationships I have with the people who raise the meat and produce I prepare for my family.

  • ruhlman

    thanks all for sharing the word. every bit helps our food supply. I’ll be a lot of small young farmers share Forrest’s story, which is why it’s important to get it out there. Also it’s a really good read.

  • Elma

    Certified American hero and nut. I’m charmed that the rear end of a cow is featured on the left side of the book cover. Perfect. I hope he becomes a congressperson or senator someday.

  • Kasha the FarmGirl

    Reinventing is definitely key, but with fewer and fewer consumers actually cooking, it’s tough for those of us with produce, meats and dairy. Prepared foods are the most common genre represented at farmers markets today. Look around and see just how many vendors are selling ‘straight from the fields’ (or cow or goat or sea) goods.

    Thankfully we have people like you, Michael, to show us that cooking is interesting and worthwhile.

  • marylynn

    FYI I loved the post and wanted to read Forrest’s book. It comes out tomorrow in the ebook version. I ordered mine from Apple, but comes out tomorrow from Amazon also.

  • Mel Webster

    Some farmers such as the Amish never bought into the mechanized, chemical style of farming.

  • Forrest Pritchard

    Thanks to everyone for the positive responses, and especially to Michael for giving this unknown writer (me!) a world-class introduction. As Elmer alluded to in the first comment, I hope that Gaining Ground help bridge the divide between farmers and consumers, explaining the deeply human stories behind the food we eat.

    Even though we don’t wear our emotions on our sleeves, farmers everywhere are passionate about what they do for a living. Now more than ever, we can connect to our customers, and vice versa. In that spirit, please stay in touch… I’ll check back in to see if anyone has any farming or writing questions :^)

    • Carri

      So glad to hear your story, Forest! It is not only great to hear about your wacky road to success, but for people to realize that passion, hard work and, yes, a little crazy is the only way to truly succeed at whatever you do. Looking forward to reading your book…Thanks to Michael for sharing!

  • Elmer

    Kasha hits on a bit point, and it is one that can become contentious within markets. Some farmers, in order to increase their profits, have gotten into “value added goods.” This then leads to sellers at the markets who just make stuff and aren’t really farmers. Can become a sticky spot.

    And Mel, not all Amish avoid technology. Most of the groups allow all kinds of tech in the name of commerce, including automated milking barns, spraying systems, etc.

  • David Tucker

    Smith Meadows is awesome, and they sell at my nearest farmer’s market (Del Ray, in Alexandria, VA) – had some of their short ribs just the other day. They really do it the right way.

  • Dean

    I see Smith Meadows regularly at the Falls Church, VA market and am looking forward to getting some of their meats this weekend. We’re very lucky to have Forrest in our area.

    Forrest – Thanks for telling us your story and views. I hope more and more people understand and appreciate your message.

  • Forrest Pritchard

    Thanks for the kind words Dean and David! Hoping you can make it out to our Farm Day on June 1st to see for yourselves how we grow this grass fed food… We love it when our customers get to see our herds and flocks out on pasture!

  • Kevin Golden

    I’ve been buying from Forrest at the Arlington Farmers Market for a few years now. (Had a great piece of pork loin for dinner tonight, in fact). I started going to the farmers market when I realized that the profits from what I spent at my “local” grocery stores were going to their corporate owners in places like California, North Carolina, and even Holland; I didn’t care about organics or sustainability, I wanted my $ to stay nearby.

    However, there’s a price to pay. Not only is the food at the farmer’s market more expensive, the farmer’s market itself is inconvenient. After I leave the farmer’s market, I STILL have to go to the grocery store to get the other stuff we need to get through the week. I could save valuable weekend time and some money by just buying everything at the grocery store.

    The reason I don’t, the thing that keeps me coming back, is that the food I buy from Forrest and his colleagues on Saturday morning simply TASTES BETTER than what I can get any time at the grocery store. Forrest’s eggs and sausages are fantastic, and the strawberries and asparagus I’m buying this time of year from the folks around the corner from him are wonderful, and that $5/lb chicken I get at the farmer’s market tastes a hell of a lot better than the $1.99/lb bird at the grocery store.

    Organic and sustainable are nice concepts, the health benefits of not eating all those chemicals are nice perks, I like knowing who grows my food and am glad that Forrest gets my money rather than some greedhead suit. But truth be told, if it didn’t taste better I might have lost interest and gone back to the old ways.


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