If there is one thing and one thing only that you learn from Gaining Ground, it is that Forrest Pritchard has an unswerving, deep and abiding love for the land. Filled with humorous and often self-deprecating stories about his journey to save the family farm, Gaining Ground offers unique insights into the connectivity between farmers and the consumers who buy and eat their products. As he talks reverently about the land on his own farm and its capacity to heal from years of unintended abuse, you can practically smell the loamy richness of sun-kissed soil.
After meeting Forrest at the Dupont Circle FRESHFARM Farmers’ Market during a book signing and then reading Gaining Ground, I wanted to know more. Forrest graciously accepted my offer to sit down for a conversation one recent Sunday after the Takoma Park, MD Farmers’ Market.
HH: What was the impetus for writing your book?
FP: “It feels like there is a bigger opportunity now for a national conversation about food. I figured if I could make the time to write the book, I could offer a voice to other farmers as well. I was really careful to focus my comments in the book that my farm is a component of the larger picture of the food system. I think the book can be used as a catalyst for dialogue between consumers and farmers.
I think it’s really important for that relationship between consumers and farmers to be built. While organic/local food currently only represent only 3% of the entire food system, wouldn’t it be great if we could achieve greater balance? I’m really focused on balance. When I started, so many farms were broken – broken because of the age of farmers whose kids chose other careers, broken financially, and just out of balance. I think consumers have to decide what they value with respect to where their food comes from. Do they value the ‘value meal’ — an irony if there ever was one — or do they value the fresh air, fertile land and sustainable wages for their local farmers?”
HH: When I read Gaining Ground, it seemed like the title meant several things and was a little bit of a play on words. Was that your intent?
FP: “Yes, it does mean several things. I gained ground as I learned and worked to save our family farm. The land literally gained ground as we used sustainable methods to improve the quality and fertility of the land. And, it means that the sustainable food movement is gaining ground. A good example is that farmers’ markets nationally have grown 18% annually for the last several years. There are about 8,000 farmers’ markets nationwide now.”
HH: You talk about the relationship between consumers and farmers. Do you think farmers’ markets serve a role in building community?
FP: “Definitely. This market in Takoma Park, MD is a great example. When Snowmageddon happened in February 2010, the streets were plowed just enough for us to get our truck here. We were the only vendor that showed up for the market that Sunday and we did the best business we’ve practically ever done. Folks came out from everywhere to see us. Some people who are vegetarians even stopped by to buy meat for their neighbors. It was amazing.”
HH: I heard you speak recently at the kick-off party for Eat Local First D.C. You mentioned that you have two apprentices at Smith Meadows who are learning the business of farming. How does that work?
FP: “We talked about gaining ground and this is part of that. Each year, we take on two apprentices, age 25 or older. They stay a full year on the farm. They are responsible for running one farmers’ market. One day of every week, each apprentice is responsible for managing the farm on his/her own. They spend a good deal of time with me and my farm manager learning the business, economics and practical issues of farming so that when they leave, they will have the necessary skills to run a farm.”
HH: Speaking of the skills necessary to run a farm, among the many great stories you tell in your book, towards the end, you recount a conversation with your 9-year old nephew while teaching him how to change a fan belt on the truck. You ask him, “If anyone ever asks you what we do on this farm, you know what to tell them, right?”
After a few guesses from him, you tell him, “If anyone ever asks what we do on the farm, don’t tell them we raise cattle, or chickens, or sell meat. Just say this: ‘We fix things.’”
I love that quote. Most folks might not associate fixing things with farmers. Care to clarify?
FP: “I count on two things in life: entropy and renewal. Stuff on the farm breaks all the time. Control is an illusion on the farm and probably everywhere else as well. Between life and death, that’s what we do – we fix things because we know we are going to screw up!”
HH: Any closing words?
FP: “Take one hour to go meet your farmer. Have a conversation. The issues of sustainable agriculture and food sourcing do matter to everyone. Typically, when you spend your dollar it goes to a dead end. You bought whatever it was, end of story. When you spend that same dollar at a farmers’ market, it is returned in abundance to all of us. It creates a sphere of production and renewal that supports farmers, their livelihood, their improvement of the land, community and continued capacity to grow and supply local, healthy food.”