April 27, 2016

Book Review: Growing Tomorrow






Tl; dr – read, read, read, love, love, love.


Growing Tomorrow is the second book by author and farmer Forrest Pritchard.  As I said in my gushing praise for his first book, the NYT bestseller Gaining Ground, the dude knows how to write. (He also knows a little something about farming. If you live in the DC area, check out Smith Meadows farm in person if you are so inclined, or if Berryville, Virginia is a little far for you to wander out to, you can find them at many markets all over greater DC.)

Growing Tomorrow is part travelogue, part cookbook, and above all, an homage to small, family farms, sustainable and humane production of plant and animal foods, and the people who dedicate their lives to making sure those of us who can’t or won’t farm for ourselves have access to food we trust, raised in ways we value. The book is an account of the author’s visits to eighteen farms across the U.S., to share the stories of how they are growing and raising plants and animals sustainably, humanely, and, believe it or not, profitably. It’s proof that one can make ends meet without cutting corners, exploiting workers, poisoning the land, abusing livestock, or cheating consumers. Working in tandem with mother nature and reliable, regular customers, small farms can do things “the right way” and stay in the black. (Granted, it often takes several years to get there after pants-wetting years spent in the red, but farming is generally not a quarter-by-quarter profit seeking enterprise. If you are unable to take a long—very long—view of things, farming is probably not for you.)       

As the author discussed in an interview he did on the Real World Paleo podcast, one of his goals was to highlight the diversity of today’s American farms and farmers. Forrest visited farms on the west coast, east coast, north, south, and everywhere in between. In 2016, we’re about as far as it gets from the dour couple in the famous painting, American Gothic. From fruit orchards in southern California to an organic grain farm in Iowa, to a sustainable fishery in Massachusetts, there’s no region ignored, and certainly no lack of ethnic diversity, either. The farms featured in Growing Tomorrow show that farming has nothing to do with the color of your skin or the language you grew up speaking, and everything to do with courage, grit, determination, and most importantly, a sense of humor and a pathological love of hard work in difficult conditions.     

From what I know of Forrest, he pours himself into everything he does. Nothing is done halfway and nothing is done without an unwavering dedication to quality and authenticity. Not on his farm, and not in his writing. This was evident to me before I even got to page one of the book. From the dedication alone, I knew this book would deliver:

“To my fellow farmers—people of faith, creativity, and deep good humor. It’s long overdue, but on behalf of our country, thanks for lunch.”

Are you kidding me? I told you he could write!


If you’re reading my blog because you enjoy my writing, you might be interested to know whose writing I enjoy. (Hint: Forrest’s - "Lumbersexuals," HA! [Also: Jodi Picoult’s. And Amy Tan’s. And Dave Barry’s, for good measure.])

There is a handful of writers who are so skilled, so talented, and who have a way of crafting sentences so divinely that their work often makes me say to myself, “Damn. I wish I had written that.” Writers whose weaving of words is so elegant and stirring that I actually have to put the book down, pause, and catch my breath. Forrest is one of those writers. Having followed his farm blog for several years, and now reading his bestselling books, I can say he is among the select few writers whose work is so good that they could write about something I have less than zero interest in—fly fishing, for example, or archery—and I would still lap up every word. And I’m not saying that because I know Mr. Pritchard “in real life,” and there’s a chance he might see this. I’m saying it because it’s true.

His writing is so delicate and poetic, yet so eminently accessible and readable. The imagery he uses is so powerful, the sensory portrait he paints so strong, that you are right there with him, transported to beehives in Dallas, a fishing vessel off the coast of Cape Cod, a fruit orchard in Washington State, a goat dairy in Colorado, a thick patch of woods lousy with mushrooms in the Missouri Ozarks, and a vegetable garden bringing both nutrition and beauty to the most unlikely of places—a run-down patch of land in a park in downtown Detroit.

An artifact of the evocative writing is that you can hear the pigs snorting to each other, feel the juice of a high summer peach running down your chin. You can taste the thick amber honey, feel its stickiness lingering on your finger. And my favorite: you can feel the rich, black, loamy soil cupped in your hand as you raise it to your nose, and you can smell the fertility, the minerals, the richness of the earth, itself, as you take a slow, deep breath and a healing—a restoration—seeps into and nourishes all the parched, cracked parts of you.

If, like me, you are enamored with the farming life but skittish about jumping into it, yourself, a book like this is the next best thing. In fact, reading the accounts of these farms’ histories and the trials and tribulations the farm families have been through might even make you feel a little better about not farming. It takes a certain temperament to be okay with the risks inherent to such an undertaking, and not everyone is cut out for it And that’s okay. I used to feel guilty for not getting into farming full-time, but the truth is, we do need doctors, and mechanics, and waiters, actors, and teachers. (In all honesty, I’m pretty sure we’d be just fine without nutritionists, but alas.) Not everyone needs to farm in order to feed our communities, but those of us who don’t farm, but who value locally produced food, should have at least some interest in and appreciation for what it takes to create the bounty of flora and fauna on offer at the farmers’ markets, co-ops, or wherever we happen to shop for these things. There’s a reason meat and vegetables from small, sustainable farms cost more than stuff from the “big boys,” but when you see what’s involved in producing those foods and bringing them to market, the price tag will seem much more reasonable.

Each of the farms profiled—rural, urban, fruit, vegetable, dairy, livestock—has a story. From convicts milking goats and gaining job skills, to a farm whose Japanese owner was put into an internment camp during WWII, the stories are as much about the land and the goods produced as they are about the people who make it happen. Farming—particularly on a generations-old family farm—is not a job, but a calling. There’s a lot of joy, but no shortage of hardships to keep one humble. If you do not have a well-tuned sense of humor, farming will either thrust one upon you or it will kill you in short order. There are challenges to face and risks to take, none of which come with a guaranteed paycheck or retirement nest egg, but in reading Growing Tomorrow, I got the sense that none of the people Forrest met along the way would have it any other way. If the choice was between morning meetings or morning milking, PowerPoint or pasture, I’m pretty sure I know which these folks would choose.

Growing Tomorrow is a work of art as much as a book. Thanks to beautiful photography courtesy of farmer and photographer Molly Peterson, of Virginia's Heritage Hollow Farms, it would not be out of place left on your coffee table for guests to flip through while you’re in another room pouring them a drink (or frying them up some bacon from a pastured hog, hehheh). The combination of Forrest’s dynamite writing and Molly’s captivating photos makes Growing Tomorrow a feast for both the mind and the eyes. You’ll find yourself going back to it just to admire the pictures of happy animals and the bursting colors of heirloom tomatoes and Pacific Northwest raspberries.

And then…

Then there’s the food.

I mean, what would a book about farming be without recipes for the bounty of wholesome foods these farms produce? (Frankly, it would still be a great book, but whoever came up with the idea to include recipes gets a gold star!) From mustard-braised pork shoulder to mushroom and chèvre frittata, roasted beet and arugula salad, and oat bran chocolate chip cookies, there’s something here to please everyone: low-carbers, vegans, Paleos, conscientious omnivores, people with a raging sweet tooth, and people who just plain like good food.

What I like best about the book is the profiles of the farmers and their families. Many of the farmers are older, but in many cases, their children and even grandchildren are taking over the family businesses, usually to great success. All of them are living by their values, and it’s not just lip service. There are so many buzzwords about farming and sustainable food these days, but unless you have visited a farm to see how things are really done—or read a book by someone who has—then you can’t always trust the latest marketing glitz & glamor. Barring times set aside for the family’s privacy, and keeping off-limits any areas that need to be sterilized (like on a dairy farm) or would be dangerous for people to wander into, farms should be amenable to visits from the public—from their customers and potential customers, in particular. I have heard Forrest speak about this many times—transparency.

You shouldn’t show up at a farm unannounced any hour of day that pleases you. Do have some respect for these folks, please. But at the same time, farmers shouldn’t need days—or hours, even—to make their operations presentable to curious consumers. This is one of the approximately eight hundred bazillion differences between small farms and the CAFO model. You might step in a cowpie here and there, and maybe (more like definitely) there’ll be a broken-down tractor or some other half-taken-apart piece of machinery in plain sight, but certainly nothing stomach wrenching, nothing nightmare inducing, and, in general, nothing a farmer would need advance warning to “cover up” or hide so you don’t see it.  

That plants and animals are grown and raised in ways that create value throughout the entire system probably matters even more to the families who produce these foods on small farms than it does to us, the consumers. After all, they live there. These people did not go into farming to make fortunes. They went into it because it means something. Maybe it's preserving the family legacy; maybe it’s enriching rather than stripping the land. Maybe it's growing food with integrity for their families and other people in the community. Maybe it’s not having to wear a suit & tie to work. Whatever drives these passionate stewards of the land, it sure isn’t a bank account bursting at the seams and four weeks of paid vacation. Farming is a scary, risky enterprise to undertake. One that most people don’t have the intestinal fortitude (or work ethic) to go into. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who do.

Some of the farmers in Growing Tomorrow have had opportunities to expand production but chose to keep things smaller. The type of farming profiled in the book is the opposite of the here-and-now, immediate return, bigger-faster-cheaper, instant gratification philosophy that seems to guide most of corporate America. Many of the farmers profiled in the book are deliberately not scaling things as largely as they could, because doing so would, almost by definition, reduce the quality and integrity of their products. The good stuff doesn’t come cheap, and the cheap stuff probably isn’t good.


If you value organic produce, meat, dairy, and eggs from grass-fed and pastured animals, and keeping your food dollars local, Growing Tomorrow will reinforce the importance of supporting the people who produce those foods in your area. And if you value damn good writing, it will reinforce that there is still good in the world.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


P.S. If anyone is so inclined, here’s a bit of personal stuff that will help you understand why books like this really speak to me. (Even more than the good ones I’ve read about olive oil, soul food, saturated fat, and the metabolic theory of cancer.)

As a writer, a foodie, and a nutritionist with a pathological reading habit, well-written books about cooking, food culture, and nutrient-dense, sustainably grown & raised foods hit all the buttons. There’s something comforting about good writing, and good food writing, in particular, makes me feel like someone has wrapped me in a cozy blanket. Like I’m surrounded by a soft but safe force field against the scary things in life. When I’m feeling scared, worried, or overwhelmed by life in general, good food writing reminds me all is well.

People who know me “in real life” (some of them, anyway) know my secret dream is to be a farmer. Or, if not to farm full-time, then at least have a small patch of land where I can have a few hens for eggs, maybe a couple chickens, and grow some vegetables. I’ve realized that I lack the courage to farm full-time, but I do try to participate in the farming world in whatever ways I can make this happen. Pretty interesting for someone born & raised in a New York City suburb where food—meat, in particular—was sold at supermarkets magically cleaned, shrink-wrapped, and with no indication whatsoever that it once belonged to an animal with eyes, ears, hooves, skin, bones, organs and entrails.

My connection to the farming world has taken various shapes over the years. My introduction to small, sustainable farming came through a brief residence at Over the Moon Farm in Rebersburg, PA. (If you’re in Centre County [State College area], do check them out. Their Turkish sausage and currywurst are divine. If you can’t get out to the farm, see here for markets they sell at.) After that, through a weird confluence of events, I ended up working in a food truck at the Arlington, VA Farmers’ Market, where we made breakfast and lunch sandwiches with locally produced meat, eggs, vegetables, and biscuits. (With food from Smith Meadows!) These days, I spend Fridays at P.A. Bowen Farm, owned by Sally Fallon, of the Weston A. Price Foundation. I’ve worked with the animals in the past (milking cows, feeding pigs and chickens), but now I’m just your friendly cashier at the farm store, willing to ring up your purchases, chat about farm food, and throw in some professional nutrition advice, free of charge!

I consider myself fortunate to live in a place where great farms are less than an hour away. I am also fortunate to know people who let me come “play farmer” now and then, so that I can have a connection to farming life—a connection for which my life, and my relationship with food, finances, the environment, other people, and myself—is richer.   

There’s just something about being on a farm. The fresh air, the soil, and yes, even the manure. As I wrote about in my review of the book Gaining Ground, farms smell like fertility. Like life. It’s a rich aroma that’s hard to describe with any other word except fecundity, even though I hate that word. (I was just about to ask why a word that describes something so beautiful has to so closely resemble “feces” and “fecal,” but it has just now occurred to me that maybe it actually has the same etymology – since manure is the source of that fertility.) Maybe it’s the greenery. Maybe it’s the endless expanse of sky. Maybe it’s something to do with the negative ions of Earth’s energy field or some such woo-woo jazz. Whatever it is, being on farms just makes me feel good. (Something I need a lot more of in my life!)


Here are two more books I have enjoyed about farming and local food (with a ton more to get to on my reading list):


And here are some pictures I took last Friday at the farm. It's hard not to have your spirits lifted in a place like this:


So yeah, this is what “cage free” 
and “free range” really mean.
Adorable little piggies!
They will make excellent pork chops someday…




























Every single egg hand washed by yours truly!
Seriously. I dare you not to be happy here.







Disclaimer: Amy Berger, MS, CNS, NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition and is not to be used as a substitute for the care and guidance of a physician. Links in this post and all others may direct you to amazon.com, where I will receive a small amount of the purchase price of any items you buy through my affiliate links.

3 comments:

  1. Like you, Amy, I have long fantasized about living and working on a farm of this kind. I'm made for it. I love the outdoors, the animals, the plants, the whole cycle of life that is manifested in such a place. And I always loved doing good hard work too. Alas I never found my way there and have had a chronic back pain condition that put an end to any notion of it since about 45 years of age. I do have a small bit of garden where I grow some veggies; mostly greens. And I'm considering getting some chickens, though I've yet to make that leap. I'm cautious against getting into more than I can physically handle.

    It's often romanticized a bit too much, as it really is a lot of work. Though modern technology has lightened the load a lot compared to 100 years ago. And I really admire those who do it, and do it well, such as written about in this book.

    And any discussion of this topic is incomplete without at least a mention of Joel Salatin, the master himself. I am lucky enough to buy my beef from a local farmer here in Missouri who has worked with Joel in developing his farming methods.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "Granted, it often takes several years to get there after pants-wetting years spent in the red, but farming is generally not a quarter-by-quarter profit seeking enterprise. If you are unable to take a long—very long—view of things, farming is probably not for you."

    Well, at least I know I'm doing it right! Thanks for making farming sound so damn awesome--I needed that! I figure I've got another 3 yrs or so of scraping by before this farming thing is finally making money so the occasionally article like this really helps keep the spirits up!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You'll get there, Johnny! I give you a ton of credit for even trying! It takes a ton of heart, courage, and determination. If you haven't read Forrest's book Gaining Ground, I think it will give you a ton of inspiration and comfort. I would probably consider farming as more regular/long-term part of my life if it wasn't just me. If I had a husband or significant other to make the leap *with me.* It's harder to muster up that courage alone. But like I said, I'm lucky that there are people nearby who let me come to their farms and at least have some connection to that life. I do think my life is richer for it.

      Delete