October 2, 2014

Book Review: Gaining Ground

Relentless pursuit of a goal.
Ironclad physical and psychological fortitude.
The strength of an ox and an iron will.

If you think I’m listing qualities you’d want in an Armed Forces Special Ops team, hang onto your hat, because who I’m actually describing is a farmer. Add to this list a deep and abiding sense of humor—or a willingness to let the world force one upon you—and I am describing one particular farmer—one I have the honor of knowing personally, and even had the privilege of working for a while back. (More on that in a bit.) His name is Forrest Pritchard, he is owner and Farmer-in-Chief at Smith Meadows, in Berryville, VA, and he wrote a book called Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm.

Forrest was an English major who graduated from college with the same dream many of my fellow English majors have when we’re twenty-two and still un-jaded: that Simon and Schuster, Random House, or Penguin Books will come calling with a 5-figure advance for our first novel, because even though we are completely unknown—total no-name beginners—they have that much faith in us, and they just know the rest of the world will hang on our every word. 

Well, things didn’t quite work out for me that way (yet), and they didn’t work out that way for Forrest. But considering Forrest already has one successful book on his hands, and is working on a second, he is proof that dreams can come true; sometimes they just take a little longer than we’d like.

Tl;dr: Read this book! It’s an inspiring, informative, and beautiful account of how a man took a dying farm and transformed it into a successful and beloved source of real food. It’s also funny, moving, poignant, and extremely well-written. If you live in the greater DC area, check out Smith Meadows at a market near you, or play hooky from work sometime and take a drive out to visit the farm in person. You’ll be glad you did.

Besides the English degree, what Forrest also had upon graduation was a family farm that was teetering on the edge of foreclosure. Sure, the farm was producing a couple of things for sale—a few eggs here and there, some chickens, and bales of hay—but it wasn’t bringing in much revenue. Almost none, in fact—and certainly not enough to justify the amount of time that went into it, nor the sleepless nights of tossing and turning with worry that the land that had been in the family for generations was on the verge of being lost.

The farm had fallen into disrepair for a few reasons. Forrest’s father wasn’t a full-time farmer. Like so many farm owners within a reasonable distance of a big city, he was a Monday-to-Friday office guy with a long commute. Add to that his declining health over the years, and over time, the farm stopped being what it once was. Farming is difficult enough when your every waking (and sleeping!) moment is dedicated to it, but when you’ve already got another job and you’re not as young as you used to be, keeping things up is a mostly losing proposition.

Other members of the family who might have stepped in were occupied with their own families, obligations, and off-the-farm professions. Caretaking fell to one or two trustworthy and dedicated long-term helpers, but a series of disloyal ne’er do wells who didn’t have the farm’s best interests at heart didn’t help much.

Forrest certainly didn’t set out to be a farmer. Like any bright-eyed and optimistic writer fresh out of college, he sent out resumes and poems, hoping for interviews and/or acceptance letters from publications large and small. When the big publishing houses did not, in fact, come calling with that five-figure advance and corporate expense account, Forrest reconsidered his prospects. And, like any bright-eyed and optimistic writer still white-knuckling the dream, he knew he wasn’t cut out for life in a cubicle. A suit and tie? Starched khaki pants and dress shirts? Staring at spreadsheets and analyzing data all day? No. (And being that I’ve met Forrest, I have to admit, I find it almost impossible to imagine him in a suit and tie—and I mean that as a compliment! And he probably does spend a little time now and then in front of a spreadsheet these days, but instead of some huge company’s weekly production numbers, I have a funny feeling the column titles have more to do with sausage, eggs, hay, pasture rotations, and manure.)

Faced with the unpleasant notion of joining the urban rat race and becoming another anonymous guy loosening his tie and fantasizing about a martini on the train ride home, Forrest continued holding fast to the goal of being a writer, but shifted his focus to the more pressing goal of saving his family’s farm. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t simple, and it certainly wasn’t easy. There were lots of lost sleep, lots of lost money, and even a few close calls with lost fingertips. (Farm equipment ain’t for sissies!) But the one thing he never lost was courage. Okay, maybe there were two things he never lost: courage and faith. Courage to persist in the face of condescending laughter from owners of surrounding farms who told him he was nuts to even consider the wild and crazy notion of raising steers on grass and maybe even selling free-range chickens and eggs. Madness, they said. Watch me, he said right back, even if, on the inside, he was plenty worried that they might be right. Because he had that second thing: faith that it would work. Faith in himself to actually do it, faith in the land to give the animals what they needed, and faith that the people of Virginia would want to buy these foods. (More on that in a bit.)

At first, Forrest set out only to rehabilitate the land in order to raise grass-fed steers and sell hay:

Even if I had wanted to do something other than grow grass and cattle, I had no money to do so; if I was to pull our family farm out of debt, then photosynthesis, rain, and luck would have to be my primary assets.

I told you he’s a good writer!

Long story short, after a couple of years of not-so-successfully marketing his farm’s wares at local farmers’ markets in small rural towns in West Virginia and northwestern Virginia, he made some contacts with people involved in markets in DC and northeastern Virginia. For those of you who are unfamiliar with these places, let’s just say the economic environments are…a stark contrast. The presence of so many federal government agencies and big-name defense industry corporations means that even when much of the rest of the country falls on hard times, the greater DC area still has a population that is quite well off—and it just so happens that some of these very well-off people (and plenty of the not-so-well-off, too) were becoming concerned with the quality and sources of their food right around the time Forrest was looking for a larger and more steady customer base.

Something was different—better—from his very first appearance at the farmers’ market in Arlington, VA (Saturday mornings near the courthouse, year-round), back in 2000:

Even though the opening bell hadn’t yet rung, shoppers were lining up in advance, proverbial early birds intent on getting the tastiest produce. A man ducked into our tent.
“Your sign says you sell eggs?”
“Yes, sir. Free-range eggs, from our farm.”
“Sounds good. How much?”
“Three dollars a dozen,” I said, wincing internally, self-conscious that it was the highest price for eggs to ever come out of my mouth.”
“Sounds good,” the man said, reaching for his wallet without hesitation. “I’ll take two dozen.”
Two dozen? I said to myself. Why in the world would someone need two dozen eggs? No one had ever bought more than a single dozen before. I repeated this request, just to make sure.
“Yes, two dozen. And your beef is totally free-range? Raised on pasture?”
“Absolutely. All grass. No grain at all. And we don’t use any chemical fertilizers, or antibiotics, or…”
“Great, I’ll take two pounds of ground as well.”
This was uncharted territory. Why, of course, I reasoned, anyone who needs two dozen eggs clearly needs two pounds of ground beef. Maybe he just went around buying two of everything.
“And…” he added, tapping his chin, studying our list, “a chicken. Say, four pounds?”
I nearly fainted right on the spot. In less than thirty seconds, it was the biggest single order I had ever gotten at a market.
As novel as this experience was, I didn’t have time to enjoy it. Two more customers entered the stand, then a third. For the first time in my career, I had a line.

And from what I can tell, the line hasn’t stopped since. Forrest’s tent is usually hopping at the Arlington market these days, 14 years after his first “biggest sale.” Smith Meadows now produces a wide array of meats, including some extremely delicious sausage varieties, plus all the stuff we know is good for us, like lard from his pastured hogs, organ meats, and bones. In fact, the very first beef stock I ever made was made using bones from Smith Meadows, and it was amazing. (I was a “stock newbie,” having taken a class from Monica Corrado, a WAPF board member and former DC resident who now gives cooking classes & nutrition consultations near Boulder, CO. If you live there, check her out!) I knew I needed “boney bones” and “meaty bones,” but I didn’t really know what that meant. Good thing Forrest did. He sent me home with just the right stuff, and my maiden stock voyage was everything it was supposed to be: rich, gelatinous, and it was even the first time I ate bone marrow!

Smith Meadows is now pretty diversified. Just in the livestock alone, they’re doing beef, pork, chicken, eggs, lamb, and I think they do turkeys for Thanksgiving. As the farm started becoming more successful, other family members started playing a bigger role as they realized they wanted to reconnect with the family’s land. Forrest’s sister now runs a gorgeous bed & breakfast on the property (seriously…you have to see this place!), and then, then there is Nancy. 

Nancy, Forrest’s wife, has also played a pretty big role in getting Smith Meadows to where it is today. She’s Italian, and like many Italians, good cooking is in her DNA. There’s a commercial kitchen on the farm, where she and her staff make—completely from scratch and with local ingredients to the fullest extent possible—pies, pasta, empanadas, chili, soups, sauces, and the best, BEST basil garlic pesto you will ever have in your life. She and Forrest must have “labor of love” in common, because I have to guess running the kitchen isn’t what Nancy imagined she’d be doing full-time after graduating with a teaching certificate, but the few times I’ve seen her, she was always smiling.

I have no idea what Smith Meadows’s P&L statements look like. Even successful farms carry burdens of debt I can hardly fathom. (And even if the debts ever do get paid off, guess what? Time for a new tractor! Something always needs repairing or refurbishing, or more gas, or more oil. There is never blood, sweat, tears, and money not being shed in farming. To quote Forrest himself, "How do you make a million dollars in farming? ... Start with two million.") This being said, when I think of riches, this is a wealthy, wealthy man. Don’t believe me? Check out this picture of a farm sunset he posted on his Twitter feed:

Figure out how much this view would be worth to you, and then tell me he needs a big, fat 401(k). Also: in case you've been fooled by marketing and label wizardry at your supermarket, this is what truly "free range" and "cage free" hens look like.  

Sure, he doesn’t drive a Mercedes or walk around in hand-sewn Italian loafers, but you know what? If the stuff should ever hit the fan, you can’t eat dollar bills. When the zombie apocalypse happens lights go out at Stop & Shop, farmers can still feed themselves. Fertile, verdant pastures, and animals to put on it, is wealth. If you can raise and grow most of what you need, you’re way ahead of the game. (Besides, no point in wearing $400 shoes when you’re almost certain to step in pig sh*t, right?!)

And forget the view. Talk about reaching—and exceeding—a goal. Forrest is my living proof that it can be done: you can escape (or altogether avoid) corporate cubicle hell and build the life you want. A life of fresh air, good food, and insanely hard work, but it’s just slightly less insane when you truly love it. (Not to mention living by your principles instead of paying lip service to this concept, like I do…for now. It takes a huge dose of courage to swim upstream and chuck other people’s expectations out the window—possibly even your own.)

After all, people with college degrees aren’t supposed to repair tractors. Nor repair fences, nor have hands calloused from manual labor and a perpetual layer of motor oil and other bits of unidentified black grease under their fingernails. They’re supposed to board trains bound for “the office” in the big city, wearing “nice shirts” and nooses ties, and tricking themselves into thinking they’re not wearing a uniform, when every other guy in the office is wearing the same thing, just in a different color. Black, gray, brown, blue. (Who died, anyway?) They’re supposed to sit in cubicles, in front of computers, and attend meetings about meetings, and throw around fancy-sounding but meaningless corporate bullshit gobbledygook words like “leverage” and “synergy.” Whatever actual job they perform, they are supposed to be thinking about deadlines and emails, and not thinking about chickens and eggs, and pigs, and slaughterhouses, and such lowbrow things as soil fertility and, oh, I dunno...growing and raising high-quality foods to feed human beings. (/End rant & sarcasm.)

Thank goodness for the people who do have the courage, huh?

So the book details the early struggles to get things off the ground, but Forrest also goes into some of the larger issues surrounding sustainable and local foods, and raising animals naturally. Readers of this blog who are concerned about food quality and animal welfare will appreciate his insights:

“Modern grass-farming borrowed heavily from anthropological traditions, reaching into antiquity when migratory peoples followed herds of roaming animals and hunted them for sustenance. For millennia, prairies had been grazed, trampled, and fertilized by bison, buffalo, elk, and antelope. These were creatures that lived and died on the grassy plains, enriching the soil in a never-ending circle of life. Grass-farming intentionally mimicked these natural cycles, allowing our farm to reconnect with an ancient biorhythm.

Just as important to me was the knowledge that our meat would be purchased by people who genuinely cared about how our animals were raised and treated. By opting out of the conventional system—one of feedlots, antibiotics, and growth hormones—our farm provided customers with a genuine alternative to industrially raised meat. Farmers’ markets seemed to be the best way to establish a loyal following. These markets provided a deeper connection to the philosophies behind the food, something that the local supermarkets, stocked with anonymity, could never replicate.”

Okay, really, Gaining Ground is a story of what can happen when you work your ass fanny off, don’t give up, and truly, truly love and believe in what you’re doing. It’s a well-written, funny, and inspiring book—whether you want to go into farming or anything else—anything that requires summoning guts and grit you didn’t even know you had. If you believe in yourself and your work, and you’ve got one or two close confidants who are right there with you, you can keep going when most of the rest of the world laughs at you. And you can laugh right back, maybe from the porch of your farmhouse, overlooking a stunning Shenandoah sunset, with the ripe, fresh, fecund smell of grass and manure and fertility and life all around you.

“Sunshine and rain, carbon and nitrogen. These things were available for free as long as the land was properly managed. I dreamed of a farm that was self-fertilizing, drought-resistant, sustainable both economically and environmentally. As I looked out over the fertile valley, I knew there was nothing stopping us from making our farm one gigantic, living, solar panel.”

I’ve been to Smith Meadows, and I’d say this has come to pass. Forrest’s vision for his family’s farm is a reality.

And, oh, by the way, his other vision has come to pass, too: he’s a successful writer and is already working on his second book. Buy this book. Read it. Love it.

And while you’re at it, check out his other writing, all of it very good. First, there’s his blog, on his farm’s site. All of his writing is moving and educational. I could recommend one post just as much as the next, but there’s one that’s especially good to read if you shop at farmers’ markets and would like a little insight into why things are the way they are: 4 Questions You Should Never Ask at a Farmers Market.

And for more of his work, check out these pieces he did for The Huffington Post and Michael Ruhlman’s blog, plus a Q&A with Ruhlman:


Huff Po:

P.S. Way back at the beginning of this post, I said I had the privilege of working for Forrest a few years ago. Smith Meadows has a food truck at the Arlington farmers’ market. (It used to be at Takoma Park on Sundays, too, but I’m not sure if that’s still the case.) Well, believe it or not, yours truly worked in the truck, assembling breakfast and lunch items made with Smith Meadows meats and eggs, plus local cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, etc. In Gaining Ground, Forrest mentioned an incident of poor customer service, and I have a sneaking suspicion he was talking about something I did.

How it came to be that I was working in the food truck is a long story that I won’t bore you with. Let’s just say that I am introverted to the nth degree, and customer service is not my strong suit. I was better off in the back, putting sausages and eggs on croissants and biscuits, and that’s where I preferred to be anyway. One day, I was supposed to set aside a sandwich for a woman who had paid in advance and was going to come back for it after she finished shopping. Well, I guess it was just a bad day for me or something, because I forgot. I forgot about this nice lady who was going to come back, and I sold the sandwich to someone else just before market closing, when we didn’t have much left. And, of course, when she came back, she was very disappointed, and rightly so.

And I was disappointed, too. In myself. I still am. To this day, I remember that. Because maybe, in that moment, I was just slapping a sandwich together. But Forrest’s reputation was on the line. And when your reputation is on the line, you don’t forget. You can’t forget. Because the customer will not forget. And there is a chance they’ll never come back.

For that, Forrest, I’m sorry. You are a bigger example than you know. Not just as a businessman, but as a person. You’ve established a rock-solid reputation for honesty, decency, and hard work, and I’ve seen you work tirelessly to maintain it. I’ve seen you barter with the other vendors for various goods or services, and they trust you because they know they can trust you. If it’s true that a man (or woman) is only as good as his word, then you are damn good, and I’m…well, I’m a work in progress.   :-/

For the rest of you, read this book. Seriously. Read it. 

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., 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.

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