A Compelling Journey Through Farmers’ Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm

August 21, 2013
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Smith Meadows and its pasture-raised meats have been a fixture at Washington, D.C.-area farmers’ markets for nearly 20 years.

Shoppers have come to know the proprietor, a tall, blond, droll young farmer named Forrest Pritchard.

In addition to meats, Smith Meadows produces fresh pasta and sauces, all made with the farm’s eggs and meat in its commercial kitchen.

Smith Meadows hosts weary travelers at the bed-and-breakfast Pritchard established in the original 19th-century farmhouse.

Pritchard’s family has farmed the land at its current site in Berryville, Virginia, since 1812. Luckily for the Pritchards, the farm was enough off the beaten track for British soldiers to ignore it during the War of 1812.

The farm’s fortunes rose and fell over the years as family businesses do. By the mid-1990s, when Pritchard graduated from college with degrees in English and geology, his parents both held city jobs in order to pay the farm’s bills.

The enterprise was drowning in debt and struggling to survive the worst drought in decades. After a risky strategy of partnering with a neighboring farmer on a corn and soybean crop resulted in disaster — $18.16 in total profits — the younger Pritchard boldly announced to his stunned parents that he would carry on the family farming tradition.

Gaining Ground tells what happened next. It’s a heartwarming story that details the myriad intricacies of changing a farm’s fundamental model from industrial crop production to the sustainable grass farming of livestock.

The book was named a “Best Summer Read” by NPR’s Splendid Table.

The book is full of laugh-out-loud, sometimes Keystone Cops-style moments along with paeans to family farming and insights about how to transform a modern industrial farm into a grass farm.

(Hint: Put your money into pasture, not into the equipment and operations needed to grow and process hay.)

There are plenty of charming anecdotes along the way, like the time Pritchard’s father, desperate to keep an important appointment with a butcher, swerved his car into the path of a highway patrolman to keep him from discovering that the truck carrying the steer had no brakes.

Or the time Pritchard excitedly opened the local newspaper to the first review of his pasture-raised, organic beef from a reporter who said Smith Meadows’ cows “eat a lot of weeds…(and) taste like dirt.” It is fitting that Pritchard dedicated his book to a teacher who read her students poetry.

There’s more than a little poetry in the book, including passages describing the changing of the seasons:

Or midsummer, the sacred calm before the storm; sycamore trees effervescent with fireflies and the air thick with kinetic energy, not so much as a leaf stirring; the sky an indigo bruise before suddenly stitched with jagged white lightning.”

In an age when meat is being grown in petri dishes, the heroism and romance of Forrest Pritchard’s stubborn insistence on making a living from the land will make hearts soar for anyone with a love of food and nature.

Pritchard’s dry wit, poetic sensibilities, and passion for farming combine to make Gaining Ground an immensely entertaining ride.

Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm
By Forrest Pritchard
Paperback, 336 pages


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