23 May 2013

Gaining Ground, by Forrest Pritchard

Posted by Callan Bentley

Last week, I got a great new book from Amazon. I had pre-ordered it months ago, so when it finally arrived, I was delighted, and dove right in. Within 24 hours, I had finished it. It’s the story of how my friend Forrest Pritchard re-made his family’s farm into a sustainable enterprise by going organic. The book is called Gaining Ground, and it’s less academic than something like The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It’s basically a personal story, told in Forrest’s distinct, smart, homespun, and often HILARIOUS voice. It’s about the journey from college student to successful organic farmer, a chain of anecdotes, feelings, lessons, and ruminations about why he chose to do certain things, and how he did them.

It should be noted that I count Forrest as a close friend — in fact, we both majored in geology at the College of William & Mary. So (1) I’m potentially biased and personally interested in his success as an author, and (2) I’ve been aware of the inside story of his farming over the past 17 years. I buy his food, too. Most of the meat that I personally eat comes from his farm. So I want to make sure that continues. In fact, Baxter and I are headed up there this afternoon to stock up a couple of coolers with grass-fed beef, sweet Italian sausages, lean bacon, fresh eggs, and some of Nancy’s terrific pasta sauces.

With those caveats aside, I want to tell you that this is a terrific book. It is honest, rich, and funny. The characters Forrest meets, the economic pitfalls he stumbles into time and again, the stunning realizations that certain farm chores are a total waste of time, and his interactions with animals, farmers’ market customers, and his own family; it’s all a panoply of wonderous reflection. What Forrest did is follow a tortuous path to discovering how to survive as an environmentally conscious farmer in the modern world. His efforts improved his land, brought his family’s 8-generation farm out of debt, and provided an avenue for customers like me a place to get sustainably-farmed meat and eggs. It’s an inspirational story, and I was giddy reading it because it’s so well written. My friend’s voice jumps off the page with distinctive quirks and digressions and occasionally, prose so beautiful it could pass as poetry. I’d quote some here, but I think it’s better in context – it would be like taking the rosemary out of a fine recipe. You’ll enjoy it more within the pages of the book. I’ll tell you this – I couldn’t stop reading it, and I laughed out loud, sometimes for several minutes, many times.

As Forrest’s friend, I know there are a bunch of things left out of this book, but upon reflection, I think that’s a wise editorial call. Eschewing tangential tales that don’t support the larger narrative, he focuses on the story of transforming Smithfield Farm, a cog in the industrial farming machine, into Smith Meadows, an exemplar of creative, sustainable farming for the modern age. It’s a story about his personal thoughts, his relationship with his father, and the values of our society. And also a goat that rides in the passenger seat of the truck, wearing its seatbelt.

I recommend this book highly. And if you read it, I’d love to hear what you think.