Book Club Review February 2017: Gaining Ground

February 2017 Gaining Ground: A Story Of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food, And Saving The Family Farm by Forrest Pritchard

blog by Cindy Bushey

Zion’s Book Club selection for February, Gaining Ground:  A Story of Farmer’s Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm, has probably set the record for inspiring the most discussion of any selection since the founding of the club.  Not only was there loud and vigorous reaction expressed at the regular meeting, but commentary continued the next day via email!  It may also have set the bar for the most spin-off discussions, as well.  You may ask how a simple memoir of a young man’s effort to make his family farm a profitable concern had that power.  Well, it’s an introspective, funny, powerful book and, boy, did it resonate with our members.

Living in rural Adams County means exposure to all kinds of farming.  The area is known for its fruit orchards and local markets.  However, there are also plenty of other agricultural concerns operating here with dairy, crop, and standard-bred horse farms dotting the landscape.  If our members are not personally involved in an agricultural business (and some are), they have family members or friends who experience the highs and lows of making a living off the land.  For that reason, Forrest Pritchard’s tale of restoring his family farm to a sustainable agricultural model grabbed our attention.  His farm is physically close to us since it is in northern Virginia, and he deals with farmer’s markets in upscale Washington, D.C. areas.  One of our members has shopped at one of the markets and talked to vendors mentioned by the author.  Another member had a part-time job in a former life driving a fruit truck from an orchard here in Adams County every Saturday morning to the same Arlington market where Mr. Pritchard is a vendor.

As we laughed about the characters the author met along the way, including the four-legged ones, our members countered with their own tales from early days on their farms including the difficulty of finding good hired hands, recalcitrant animals, and dealing with the weather.  Above all, they agreed with Pritchard about the back-breaking work and long hours.  We appreciated his ability as a writer (Mr. Pritchard has a degree in English from William and Mary College and is a natural story-teller), his honesty in dealing with topics such as his father’s health decline and the difficulty of finding a good butcher, and felt his writing style enhanced the book.  And then the discussion erupted.

The author deeply believes in sustainable farming and rotates his animals and crops to take advantage of the natural fertilizer provided by the animals.  As one member said, that presupposes you have the amount of land necessary for this style of farming.  Mr. Pritchard inherited 400 acres of land through his mother’s family and also the debt that came with it. His parents both worked jobs in D.C. just to barely keep above water.  We agreed that inheriting is the only way young people today can acquire the amount of land necessary to provide an adequate living even if they are willing to invest all their time to make it a viable proposition.  Farming can claim body and soul with no vacations, no time off.  Having a relationship with the land and the field-to-table movement takes a major time commitment from the farmer and his family, not to mention a financial one.  You must go all in on this one, and be willing to assume risk.  Not all of us are ready to see a stack of unpaid bills for months on end and live with that mental burden.

We further agreed that while ceasing to produce his own hay for his cattle and buying it from a neighbor was an economic turning point, the true reason for Pritchard’s success was his access to urban farmer’s markets.  The prices the author charges for his products could only be paid by people earning a much higher wage than the average Adams County number.  The markets he frequents are in counties that rank in the top five in the country for income levels.  After seeing the prices he charges at his farm store, none of us would be willing to pay that amount.  Luckily, we have access to local markets and butchers with high quality products and competitive prices.  Still, there are some people in the lowest income brackets here for whom discount prices such as Wal-Mart make more economic sense.

Here lies another problem – local food markets like Weis and Giant do not carry “local” produce and products.  They, Wal-Mart and other big stores have perfected the nation-wide delivery system so that buyers pay less for products shipped across the country than they would to buy locally.  Some of our readers are very thankful for that delivery system as it assures access to a greater variety of food and other items.  Others take it as the death knell for sustainable farming.  Do we need to have one or the other, or can both systems coexist?  Trying to take the long view that our earth cannot sustain all the fertilizers we are pouring into the ground runs up against the obvious success of the big box stores and feeding the multitudes.  How do we get local produce into the hands of people who need it?  Why does it cost so much to have a social conscience?  There are gleaning groups who scour fields for left-over fruits and vegetables so they can be donated to soup kitchens and food banks.  Some food businesses donate their prepared food that remains at the end of the day so there is no waste.  However, these are few and far between, sort of a shotgun approach to the problem.  It is nice to be able to belong to a CSA farm (Community Supported Agriculture) and receive a box of seasonal vegetables and fruit, but that is beyond the economic reach of a large percentage of the population.

Our U.S. agricultural system with huge farms shipping to central point as opposed to smaller family farms works because the government subsidizes the production of certain crops.  It was pointed out that the corn subsidies started about the time high fructose corn syrup became a familiar additive to processed food.  Cause and effect?  Was that additive the beginning of the obesity crisis in this nation?  As one reader pointed out, looking at a picture of people attending a ball game in the 1960’s and a picture of people attending a game today shows conclusive proof that we are larger.  Diet changes, the introduction of corn syrup to seemingly everything, larger portion sizes, and sedentary jobs surely all play a part.  The introduction of technology in the workplace has meant more people tied to a computer for longer periods of time.  As one reader mentioned, you do not have to get up to cross the room to a filing cabinet and bend down to get something from the bottom drawer – everything is stored in the cloud.  Extremely convenient but detrimental to physical health.  Bodies in motion in the workplace are a thing of the past.

Since some of Zion’s readers had lived or traveled in Europe at various times, we compared food lifestyles.  Generally, Europeans shop at markets every day for the food needed for that day only.  Therefore, their refrigerators are the size of our dishwashers.  They prepare what they purchase and repeat the next day, walking or taking public transportation to markets for their meat, cheeses, fruits and vegetables.  Is that a lifestyle to which we aspire?  Not particularly.  We’ve grown accustomed to having large quantities of food on hand.  That attitude may have been influenced by parents who went through the Great Depression and always kept everything, including food.  They often grew their own food, harvested, canned or froze it, and thus needed larger cabinets, refrigerators, and freezers.  This tied neatly into the consumer economy model where all appliances are bigger and better.  Gathering round the tables for big family meals is another part of rural heritage we share and would not want to lose.  Smaller, intimate get-togethers still focus on food.  We agreed smaller refrigerators and other appliances are not likely in our future.

Now, was Forrest Pritchard trying to tackle all these social questions in his book?  Of course not.   Gaining Ground                is a memoir of his particular journey back to the land and how he has successfully made a living from it.  Parts of the book are laugh-out-loud funny, some are sad, there are poignant moments and memories, and it is all written with great warmth.  However, as our wide-ranging discussions showed, it is above all a thought-provoking book.  Whether you are looking for a simple read, an inspiring story of a local guy who took risks and made it, or a story that will ignite memories and discussions around your table, Gaining Ground can be that book.  We had two readers give it two thumbs up, ten give it one thumb up, and two who felt neutral.  Zion’s readers also enjoyed exploring Mr. Pritchard’s website (a Google search will get you there), including the short videos.  His enterprise has now extended to a farm shop featuring his meats, his wife’s homemade pasta, and other items, as well as a bed and breakfast at the homestead run by his mother and sister.   He regularly does speaking engagements and will be appearing in Hershey, Pennsylvania in March.