"You sit in traffic, and you sit in a cubicle, and you struggle to make ends meet." That was the future Forrest Pritchard saw staring him down as he approached his college graduation in the mid-'90s.
But Forrest chose a different path.
Armed with optimism and limited agricultural experience, Forrest dismissed the advice of his family, friends, and local farmers by taking over his grandparents’ farm in Berryville, Va. “We have been sold this solution of, you get a degree, you get a job, you go to work for some place for 40 years. Then you retire. It’s kind of a hollow contract in a lot of ways.”
Forrest was determined to make his grandparents’ farm profitable after decades of loss growing genetically modified corn and soybeans. The first growing season was plagued with drought, so Forrest and his family knew the profits wouldn’t be huge. But they never expected to hear the farm manager say that the bottom line was a mere $1,816. Actually, they misheard. The real number was $18.16. The struggle was real.
Forrest changed course, transitioning to an organic and sustainable method, raising free-range cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and chickens, and selling exclusively to farmers’ markets. As a student returning home from Episcopal and the College of William and Mary over the years, he saw with increasing frequency neighboring farms being sold off and turned into subdivisions and strip malls. Forrest was shocked to see these once fertile pieces of land paved over. He knew if he continued on with the same industrial farming practices, his grandparents’ farm would be next.
Twenty years later Forrest’s farm, Smith Meadows, is thriving. It is one of the oldest grass-finished farms in the country and sells at six different farmers’ markets in the D.C. area every weekend. His first book, “Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food and Saving the Family Farm” (2013) chronicles his experience of rebuilding the farm into a successful business. It made the New York Times bestseller list and was named a top read by Publishers Weekly and The Washington Post.
This past fall, Forrest published a new book, “Growing Tomorrow: A Farm-to-Table Journey in Photos and Recipes.” To write the book, Forrest traveled across the country with photographer Molly Peterson hoping to provide a snapshot of America’s farmers. He got the idea working at the farmers’ markets, meeting customers, and hearing other farmers’ stories.
“Only 2 percent of people grow food for a living, but 100 percent of us eat it,” says Forrest. “How could I best connect more customers to these farmers? Especially farmers who aren’t going to be writing their own books, who aren’t going to be doing TED Talks. I thought it would be best to show who organic farmers are by finding people that looked very different, who were a mixture of men and women, a mixture of different ages who all grew different things, under the idea that the American farmer isn’t this 58-year-old guy in big overalls. A white guy with a beard, which is kind of our iconic Old MacDonald farmer. I want people to be able to pick up the book and see themselves in it, see their communities in it, and then see that sustainable farming is a nationwide phenomenon that has been around as long as America has been here.”
Forrest knows that being a farmer is not a glamourous profession, and there is no such thing as a typical day on the farm. All farms are susceptible to weather and predators; the challenges and setbacks being an all too common thread connecting the stories of the farmers Forrest interviewed. “Growing Tomorrow” gives the reader a peek into these farmers’ lives, from a father-and-daughter team at Hayton Farms Berries in Mount Vernon, Wash., to a family at Ozark Forest Mushrooms in Salem, Mo. Their stories are complemented by beautiful photography and more than 50 recipes straight from the farmers’ own kitchens. Forrest wanted to show people how easy, simple, and delicious it is to cook with these ingredients.
He says, “In a world of celebrity chefs and food bloggers, it occurred to me that maybe people who actually grow the food might know a little bit about how to cook it as well.”
FORREST’S TRANSITION FROM FARMER TO AUTHOR IS LARGELY CONNECTED TO EHS.
In the acknowledgements of “Gaining Ground,” Forrest thanks former EHS faculty members Perry Epes ’65, Fraser Hubbard ’68, and Bill Hannum for cultivating his love of literature and storytelling, as well as a belief in the process.
“‘Gaining Ground’ is dedicated to my teachers,” Forrest told us, “especially the ones who taught poetry. I think farming frankly has a lot of overlap with the poetic process. A belief in something that’s beautiful, that’s bigger than what you are, that you can share with other people. But you don’t wear a suit and tie and drive a BMW to your farm. You don’t drive a Lexus to your poetry readings. It’s the same reason teachers do what they do – they want to do something meaningful with their lives.”
Just as Forrest’s teachers inspired him, he is inspiring today’s Episcopal students. His books are being used as a resource for the History and Politics of Food course taught by social studies teacher Heidi Huntley. Forrest hopes students learn how deeply collaborative and necessary the job of farming really is. Everyone needs to eat, so growing food is one of the most significant things a person can do. “What an incredible way to interact with our communities, with our neighbors.”
Forrest believes that organic farming, and food production in particular, gives young people a viable pathway for opting out of the rat race. A pathway of self-reliance, of independence, of participating in their communities and the environment.
His advice to would-be farmers? Do what you love. Whether that’s growing blueberries or corn or raising animals, it’s important to throw yourself into it fully. “Farming is incredibly hard work. It’s physical, hard work. There’s no getting around that.”
But farming isn’t feasible or practical for everyone, so what can the urban consumer do? Forrest stresses supporting local farms through farmers’ markets, of course, but beyond that, consumers should think about where their food comes from. “We think food just happens. If you go to a restaurant, the food’s there. You go to a supermarket, the food’s there. If you want to be a better consumer, grow some of your own food. Grow some basil on your windowsill. Grow some tomatoes on your eighth of an acre, your townhouse lawn. Guaranteed, if you do that, you will never go to a grocery store or a restaurant and think anything is expensive ever again. We’re a nation of food experts who have never grown anything. It will give you appreciation for the work that goes into it, but the satisfaction – it’s incredible.”