One of the big literary surprises of the past summer is the success of a memoir on small, organic farming. Forrest Pritchard’s Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm, released to fantastic reviews, has been featured on American Public Media’s Splendid Table and named a top ten book by Publishers’ Weekly. It’s basically the story of a farm boy who leaves the country to find a bigger life but returns to the farm to save it. Both personal and (somewhat political) Gaining Ground give insight into the problems faced by small farmers and all the hard work and planning that it takes to overcome these problems.
It helps that Pritchard earned a degree in English. His writing is both entertaining and well-constructed. His father becomes a central figure, and dad’s declining health is used as a vehicle to explore unhealthy life styles and the medical problems that come from a lifetime of eating junk and processed food. Pritchard also writes with a sense of humor, much of it self-deprecating. The phrase so often applied to movies — “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry” — aptly describes the reading of this book.
The story starts when Pritchard discovers that his family’s tireless work to fill five freight cars full of corn earns them a grand total of $18.16. For some reason, they believed they would gross a badly needed $10,000. Fresh out of college, he resolves to turn the situation around for his Shenandoah Valley farm. He starts out cutting firewood, another losing proposition. But, after a visit to sustainable farming guru Joel Salatin (who writes a forward to the book), he pursues the craft and hard work of raising organic, grass-finished beef and hogs and free-range chickens. Each step along the way provides a story. And each story gives readers insight into just what it means to be a family farmer in these days of corporate agriculture.
Some of the problems Pritchard faces include finding reliable and sanitary butchers — a common dilemma for small livestock producers — and the nearly impossible act of keeping his free-range critters inside his fenced pastures. He starts off selling his meats from the back of his pickup truck. When that doesn’t do the trick it’s farmers’ markets to the rescue.
The book shows the non-farmers among us just how difficult it is to make a living raising crops and livestock on a small, family-sized scale. The deck is stacked against the family farmer with all the subsidies going to the big growers and producers, and to some who aren’t even farmers (scroll down to end of the article). Also, reading Pritchard’s book, you realize just what’s at stake here. Family farmers are the traditional stewards of our land. How important are they? Salatin, in his forward, writes, “farming determines the landscape our grandchildren will inherit. Farming determines the quality of our food, the humane handling of our animals. Every time we eat, we participate in farming.”
In this age where fewer and fewer people know the source of their food and what it takes to grow it, it’s important to make every connection we can with farmers. Be it at the farmers’ market, actual visits to farms, or reading about the risk and hard work farmers take, we should all learn about what’s going on across the countryside, and support those who are striving to make things better. Gaining Ground goes a long way towards understanding what it takes. But Pritchard not only gives us an idea of the toil and frustration that small farming demands, he also gives us a picture of its joys. Here’s a guarantee you can’t take to the bank: If you don’t enjoy this book, I’ll eat my dusty hat.