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.
If you liked this post, take a look at these links:
- My recent post on Farm Transparency v. Farm Secrecy.
- Family Farm Defenders is a nonprofit organization supporting our family famers.
- Looking for the closest farmers and farmers' markets to you? Visit Local Harvest.
- Civil Eats keeps up to date with all the politics in the American food system.
© 2013 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2013 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.