When I first heard of “Gaining Ground” by Forrest Pritchard, I was intrigued because Smith Meadows is in my area and I had heard good things about it. But I approached the book with some reservation, wondering what a book about farming, of which I have a limited understanding, would be like. While I try to learn and write about how our food is being grown, everyday life on a farm is unfamiliar to me. It is, however, precisely, this kind of reader that would be fascinated by this book. Forrest Pritchard, who came to farming after graduating in English and Geography from William and Mary, takes us on an absorbing journey as he attempts to revive the family farm.
Smith Meadows farm is located in Virginia, in an area known as the Apple Capital of the world, lush with fruits and apple blossoms. Over the course of the book, the suburbs and farmers markets come in closer and city lights are not as distant as before. This change is also reflected in the way the farm works; in the efforts Mr. Pritchard has to make to find a butcher, a trade going extinct with the spread of large scale meat processing; and sometimes in the cluelessness of some city people about the way their food comes to the table. One of the really interesting aspects of the book is the authors’ experience with farmers’ markets: why markets in some shiny new suburbs (carved out from erstwhile farmland!) saw hardly any interest while some more urban spots actively sought out the grass fed beef and free range eggs (among other products) that the author offered, and thus opened the way to making the farm viable. Partly, the answer to that question lies in the value we put on our food, the understanding that cheap food has an invisible price attached that we do not pay at the checkout but in other ways: inadequate nutrition, poor health and environmental outcomes, and rising medical costs.
As we read about the beginner farmer’s learning experiences raising hens, cows, pigs, sheep and cultivating pasture in an organic and sustainable way; we come to appreciate the effort and care that goes into raising our food. There are passages here that you might want to share with your kids: the goat who wandered off, the little pigs who wake up late, stretch lazily, and then go out to the specific area they have designated as their “bathroom”, and of course, the episode involving chicken poop, lots of it!
In the noisy debate over issues in the food system, we seldom hear first hand the voice of the farmer and this book brings us that experience. The choices for a farmer and the constraints faced by family farms become clear as does their tenacity and love for their way of life. While he may not (yet) have written the Great American Novel that he describes himself as planning, he has given us an account of his attempt to grow food in a sustainable , thoughtful way that kept me absorbed throughout.
“Gaining Ground” from Lyons Press comes to bookstores May 21st.