In Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm, Forrest Pritchard starts with an emotional wallop of a premise – fresh out of college and barely aware of the decline of his family’s farm, he watched as a whole season’s worth of corn netted a profit of just US$18.16. What follows is a well-crafted, unfailingly honest account of his efforts to reverse the seemingly inevitable course of the family farm into obscurity. Pritchard underscores his effort to learn about the land on which he’d lived his entire life with stories that convey a growing conviction that the only way to succeed in the system is to change one’s participation in it.
In a pair of smartly crafted early scenes, Pritchard outlines his decision to break the farmer-unfriendly supply chain that was draining his family’s finances. At a conference on food sustainability that he and his parents attended, he meets with a community of local farmers hampered by fear, uncertainty and doubt from taking the step into direct marketing and local selling of the crops they had raised themselves. After he finally raises cattle to slaughter, he runs into a new problem at his local farmer’s market – how to sell free range, grass-fed meat in 1997, a time when such a proposition wasn’t on most people’s radars. Pritchard fleshes out his account of his efforts to make a living through farming with a memorable cast of characters and augments his captivating central narrative with incisive observations about the ironies of grocery store shelf life and the challenge of combating social stigmas about farmers.
Initially described in Pritchard’s narrative as a “money pit” by his father, the land of Smith Meadows, Pritchard’s farm in Berryville, Virginia, becomes the central force of the narrative. From an initial plan to sell the farm’s dead trees as firewood over the winter to vivid descriptions of constant, back-breaking work in the southern sun, Pritchard forms a deeper bond with the land that raised him. Today, Smith Meadows, one of the country’s first “grass finished” farms, is a thriving family farm specializing in grass-fed beef, pork, lamb and laying hens with a farm store and service at several area farmer’s markets.