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Growing Tomorrow

By Kelley Freund January 25, 2016
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Forrest Pritchard ’96 is a seventh-generation farmer and best-selling author. He runs Smith Meadows in Berryville, Va. Photo courtesy of Forrest Pritchard ’96.

After Forrest Pritchard ’96 graduated from William & Mary, he took over his grandparents’ farm, hoping to make the land profitable for the first time in decades. That first year when five tractor-trailer loads of grain reaped a paycheck of $18.16, he realized his farm must change course. The following season, Pritchard devoted himself to farming organically and sustainably, raising free-range cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and chickens.

Twenty years later, his farm Smith Meadows is one of the oldest grass-finished farms in the country, and sells at leading farmers’ markets in Washington, D.C. Pritchard’s book Gaining Ground, A Story of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food and Saving the Family Farm was named a top read by Publishers Weekly and The Washington Post, and made the New York Times best-seller list. Pritchard’s new book, Growing Tomorrow, goes behind the scenes with 18 extraordinary sustainable farmers from across the country.

Here Pritchard talks about life on the farm.

 

What made you want to become a farmer?

“Respect for the land and a sense of stewardship. I’m a seventh generation farmer, so there’s a heritage there. Beyond that, raising nutritious food for your fellow man is one of the finest jobs available, one of the few jobs one could argue is truly necessary for society to succeed.”

How did you feel when you turned your first profit of $18.16? How did that change the way you ran your farm?

“Absolutely horrible. Humiliated. It was one of the most devastating moments of my life. It forced a radical, mandatory change in how I viewed agriculture, our food system at large, and how I must market my goods to survive. If we hadn’t changed course, the farm almost certainly wouldn’t exist. This is the same story of tens of thousands of American farmers, families who endured these same agricultural heartbreaks, but couldn’t adapt. This is how Gaining Ground starts. It gets much funnier after that.”

Why do you like working on a farm?

“How much space am I allowed? Creative expression. Daily problem solving. Tangible results: imagine a barn filled with hay or 10 buckets of eggs. Restorative soil building. Carbon sequestration. All the fresh air I can breathe. Wild mushrooms. Foraging. No commute. Sustainable wages. Happy customers. Gratitude. Sunshine. The joy of open spaces. Being my own boss. Satisfaction of a job done well, one that will endure; for example, hanging a gate plumb level so it swings at the slightest touch. Eating food that I’ve cultivated. Raising my son in a healthy environment. Rejuvenating an ecosystem that had been abused. Seeing wildlife return. Earthworms. Exercise. Sunsets. Walking down the lane, telling stories. Lightning bugs. Shooting stars. Teamwork. Playing guitar on my front porch. Chopping wood.”

What is the hardest thing about your job?

“Educating the public about the value of wholesome food, food produced with integrity, an identity. Most consumers are deeply detached from where their meals originate — culturally, we’re many generations removed from hands on farming and the true costs associated with production.

“Over my 20-year-career, I find that many people are very willing to be offended, even argumentative, asking, ‘Why is organic food so expensive?’ Isn’t it more useful to answer the question right in front of us: ‘Why is the vast majority of our food so cheap?’ One statement has no relevance without the other, yet it’s intellectually lazy to only ask one side, and that’s what many people do. So, the hardest part of my job? Having what should be an empirical conversation consistently be an emotional, borderline nonsensical conversation. I would never tell someone I’m offended by how much they get paid for the hard work they do. But that’s what we do with our food — and by definition, to our farmers — all the time. It’s a self-fulfilling attitude, and one of the primary reasons we’ve got so much crappy, diabetes and heart-disease-causing food on the market. (Farmer drops mic, proceeds to eat kale salad).”

What is your day-to-day like?

“No two days are the same, ever. Loading hogs, digging fence post holes, making salami processing appointments, rotating the chicken paddocks, picking up beef from the butcher, assessing pastures, heading to farmers market, installing watering systems, calling the feed mill, trimming sheep hooves, replacing a gutter on the barn, meeting with staff to discuss drought preparations, chain-sawing old apple trees, shaking down chefs for overdue invoices, changing the oil in the tractor, running to town to get a new tire, fixing the evaporator drain on the walk-in freezer, graveling the driveway, restocking the customer fridge, washing 900 eggs. It’s an honest living and I wouldn’t change a thing. Except the oil and the tire and my pants.”

Why is your type of farming important in today’s world?

“In a society where fewer than 2 percent of people grow food professionally, but 100 percent of the population must eat, I’d say that ALL types of farming are of critical importance. The type of farming I do is no less or more important to anyone but myself; it allows me to be sustainable —economically, environmentally and energetically. Bottom line, being sustainable means I get to keep doing what I love, and holistic, love-based farming is the type of agriculture my customers appreciate. Happy farmers equals happy farming!"

Why are farmers’ markets important?

“That’s a question for the customer to answer. Ninety-nine percent of all farmers sell wholesale, into a commodity food system. Unless you are growing your own food, or shopping at a farmer’s market (or a CSA, etc.), this is how Americans feed themselves. Supermarkets and restaurants are all based on anonymous commodity calories. For example, corn is turned into chicken. Soy is turned into bacon. It’s food alchemy. A professor at the University of California-Berkeley determined that for the average American, 68 percent of our body carbon is derived from corn. For customers who value something different — food that’s diverse and nutrient dense — then farmers’ markets provide that opportunity. They also allow us to connect, to be educated, to opt out of mediocrity. But if the customers don’t support it, then farmers’ markets are irrelevant. So it’s their choice, ultimately."

You have written two books. Why did you decide to take on writing? Was it something you always wanted to do?

I’ve written practically every day since I was 13 or 14. For example, in college I was editor in chief of The William & Mary Review, and won the Academy of American Poets prize. Watching Gaining Ground become a New York Times bestseller was one of my lifetime dreams. These days, I write on subjects that I think will entertain and educate simultaneously. Mostly, I like writing about food, shelter and love, the things that really matter in life.”

For your second book, you traveled around the country, interviewing farmers. What was that experience like? Was there a particularly memorable moment or something you learned?

“It was the trip of a lifetime. I’ve hardly ever traveled, what with being a farmer and all, so flying all over the place, I must have looked like one of the Beverly Hillbillies. What did I learn? That every farm has the exact same problems. Drought. Pests. Unexpected setbacks. Financial hardships. Blizzards. Burnout. It’s just life being lived, you know? But it’s reassuring that everyone has the same challenges. Faith will take you a long way, but that’s a lonely road.”

For your second book, you traveled around the country, interviewing farmers. What was that experience like? Was there a particularly memorable moment or something you learned?

“It was the trip of a lifetime. I’ve hardly ever traveled, what with being a farmer and all, so flying all over the place, I must have looked like one of the Beverly Hillbillies. What did I learn? That every farm has the exact same problems. Drought. Pests. Unexpected setbacks. Financial hardships. Blizzards. Burnout. It’s just life being lived, you know? But it’s reassuring that everyone has the same challenges. Faith will take you a long way, but that’s a lonely road.”

Visit here for more information on Pritchard’s new book.