Book by: Forrest Pritchard
Review by: Hal Fulmer
Associate Provost and Dean of Undergraduate and First Year Studies
Director of the John W. Schmidt Center for Student Success
Eighteen dollars and sixteen cents.
That’s the total annual profit generated by Forrest Pritchard’s family farm as he opens his account of becoming a full-time farmer on his ancestral land in Virginia. As Pritchard notes, he quickly learned that he had “no idea” what he was doing (p.14). The farm, a source of family conflict, especially between Pritchard and his father, had steadily drained the family finances. Despite this knowledge, Pritchard concluded that he didn’t want to be a teacher (with his degrees in English and geography) and he wasn’t particularly excited about the typical underemployment opportunities of the newly-graduated in the 1990s. Pritchard’s decision was to make his family’s farm sustaining and sustainable, starting with what the land provided. That meant that Pritchard cut and sold dead trees as firewood and then sold straw bales, left over from hay-baling. From such a start, he moved on—to chickens, cattle and pigs. Along the way, he discovered farmers markets and, with the birth of the Internet, he found customers for his farm’s organic products at distances far beyond the Shenandoah Valley. The bounty of the farm found its way into a line of prepared food products developed by his wife Nancy. Each measure of knowledge, each success and each step away from financial Armageddon are tales unto themselves (Pritchard’s Toyota truck deserves to be in a Farm Vehicle Hall of Fame!). As he reminds readers at the book’s conclusion, on the farm (named Smith Meadows), they don’t raise cattle or chickens or sell meat. Instead, they “fix things” (p.312). Indeed, the farm “fixed” what Pritchard felt was his calling, to join his forebears in working on, and with, the land.
Pritchard’s narrative moves easily across the time periods of his life, from his early adventures on the family farm when his mother’s father was in charge to his ongoing struggles to create an organic and sustainable farm at a time when neither word was much in anyone’s lexicon and family farms were being sold off in rapid fashion to developers of shopping malls and suburban neighborhoods.
The narrative is incomplete, ending with Pritchard’s awareness that his own small son wants to be a farmer as well. In such a way, the story of a farmer’s struggles, with its successes and failures, continues.
Pritchard’s book is well-written, befitting his background as an English major, but more importantly, it is infused with a kind of narrative fidelity and integrity that sets aside the romantic notions of small family farms, offering an often intense look at the hard lives of these farmers. Gaining Ground is a book worth reading and would be ideal to consider as a first-year reader for incoming students. It joins other works such as Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Barbara Kingsolver, HarperCollins, 2007) with its focus on the importance of taking what the land provides and surviving on those provisions. Its memoir form makes it useful for classes in creative writing. Any course in “food and culture” would benefit by reading the work and classes which are focused on issues of sustainability would find its ideas worth considering. The book is a reminder that the person behind the table at the local farmer’s market is part of a long history of how many Americans have earned their livelihood.
In short, Gaining Ground is an optimistic book, despite the difficulties endured by Pritchard and his family, well-written and worth recommending to students.
Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food and the Family Farm. (2013). Book by Forrest Pritchard. Review by Hal Fulmer. Bend, OR: Books in Common, 320 pp., $18.95 (Paperback), ISBN 978-0-7627-8727-8725-8