Kojo explores the creative business strategies fueling America's boom in fast-casual dining - and why food has become one of the engines for innovation in the American economy.
While many of us have lost any connection to the sources of our food, farming and family identity are inseparable for Forrest Pritchard; his family has run a farm in the Shenandoah Valley for generations. Recently, Pritchard himself had to fight to keep his farm in the family. He joins Kojo to explore the challenges of growing food and raising livestock in today’s economy, and what he learned on his personal quest to save his family farm.
- Forrest Pritchard Author, "Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers' Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm" (Lyons Press, 2013); Owner, Smith Meadows Farm (Berryville, Va.)
A Morning At The Takoma Park Farmers Market
Forrest Pritchard, author and owner of Smith Meadows Farm in Berryville, Va., sells his products on Sundays at the Takoma Park Farmers Market in Maryland. The Kojo team ventured to the market before his appearance on the program today.
Read An Excerpt From “Gaining Ground”
Excerpt from “Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm” by Forrest Pritchard. Copyright 2013 by Forrest Pritchard. Reprinted here by permission of Lyons Press. All rights reserved.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIActually farming is in Forrest Pritchard's DNA. The Shenandoah Valley land where he raises livestock has been part of his family for seven generations. But the survival of that farm was anything but predestined. Roughly two decades ago it seemed headed for the same fate suffered by so many other family farms in America, which are struggling to stay afloat in the modern agricultural landscape.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt was around that time when Pritchard, who had just graduated from college, put the farm on the course that led to its resurgence. It scraped and clawed and eventually turned itself into a leader in the sustainable farming movement by becoming one of the first grass-finished farms in the country and committing itself to only raising food organically. But the crash course that Pritchard took in organic farming was a rather accidental one filled with mistakes and misadventures that eventually took him from the rich grass of Berryville, Va. to weekend markets smack dab in the middle of the Washington area.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIForrest Pritchard joins us in studio. He's a professional farmer and the owner of Smith Meadows Farm in Berryville, Va.. He's also the author of the book "Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers Markets, Local Food and Saving the Family Farm." Forrest Pritchard, thank you for joining us.
MR. FORREST PRITCHARDThanks for having me. And we get you loud and clear out in Berryville.
NNAMDIOh, glad for that. Perhaps we should be clear at first to explain that even though farming is a big part of your family's history, it wasn't always set in stone that you were going to be a farmer. You went to college at William and Mary, studied English and geology. And around the time you graduated the farm had been run by a revolving door of managers. And it had been sinking deeper and deeper into debt since the death of your grandfather. What made you want to leave the path that you were on to run this farm? You admit so much yourself in the book that you didn't exactly know what you were doing.
PRITCHARDYeah, like any farmer, farming transcends pure economics. And more often than not it transcends logic. Here I went to a four-year institution where, you know, my college roommate went straight to Manhattan and got, like, a $50,000-a-year job working at a bank. And, you know, there's a part of me that kept waiting for the phone to ring on my end. But from a -- you know, just from an economic standpoint, it just doesn't explain the way farming functions. And we see that nationally with the straits, with the difficulties that farms are constantly in.
PRITCHARDThe desire to be a farmer comes from -- it's equal parts faith. It can be a very secular faith and a passion. And I felt both of those things. Growing up on the farm, it was not difficult for me to translate my faith and passion into a belief that, hey, if my grandfather had done this through World War I and the Great Depression, et cetera, et cetera that why I couldn't I? Why shouldn't I?
NNAMDIBut you weren't sure about it but it would appear that that summer your family grew five truckloads of corn.
PRITCHARDRight. So like any farm, the goal is to get a crop in and to make ends meet. And the best way we know how to do that is the way that most farmers across America did it and continue to do it. We raised corn and soybeans. We planted just conventional crops and harvested them with a combine. And, you know, this is the way the book starts out. We'd done the math and we were convinced we needed $10,000 minimum including my parents' off-farm jobs. My parents were not farmers. They were working here.
NNAMDIThey were working here in Washington.
PRITCHARDPrecisely. And we, you know, we needed $10,000. When the farmer that we collaborated with came and told us that we'd made 1816, we were shocked, assuming we'd made roughly $2,000. We reached some kind of a...
NNAMDIAnd for our listeners, that 1816 is not $1,816, okay. It was $18.16.
PRITCHARDPrecisely. So my first year in farming, despite raising -- doing farming the way we were supposed to, raising, you know, tractor trailer load after tractor trailer load of grain, our profit was not quite $20. You can imagine...
NNAMDIAt that point, Forrest Pritchard decided we had to do something different. By the way, if you'd like to join the conversation, you can shoot us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. How much do you take it upon yourself to learn about where your food comes from when you buy it? Do you care about knowing where it's from at all? 800-433-8850 is the number to call. Before we go any farther, where do small family farms like yours fit into the modern ecosystem of American agriculture? You and your family were facing the very real possibility that your farm was going to be portioned off to agribusiness.
PRITCHARDSure. Well, they fit in in the same way that they've always fit in. I mean, our country is built on small family farms. And our food, you know, in 2013 still comes from family farms. They're just on enormous scale that we're not familiar with. Where the small family farm -- and by that I mean probably -- you know, my farm for example is about 400 acres. And that's not of any kind of scale where we can achieve, you know, an economic advantage.
PRITCHARDWhere our farm fits in is in the direct marketing aspect of things. It comes -- where consumers, where customers truly care about the products that we bring. And how do we do that? Well, we can have a farm store. We can have farmers' markets. We can have CSAs. We can collaborate with restaurants, for example. And we -- you know, what made so much sense to me in 1996, 1997 in hindsight it turns out we were kind of early adopters. We were, you know, about ten or fifteen years ahead of our time.
PRITCHARDBut as more customers become genuinely motivated and genuinely care where their food comes from and where their food purchasing choices -- you know, the economics of that ends up, than it creates more opportunities for small farmers like myself.
NNAMDIWell, you were a customer yourself. You write early in the book about a reaction you have to buying food at grocery stores that they're often dedicated to creating quote unquote "an identity for food that's been stripped of its identity." What do you mean by that?
PRITCHARDWell, it's ironic. You know, my grandparents who had farmed for 65 years, they -- I literally saw them putting so much care and heart into the food they were growing. They grew apples and cattle and some grain. And this food would be picked at the absolute peak of freshness. The food was alive when it left the farm. But that was the end of the story for them. I mean, the end of the story was when they get a paycheck in their mailbox. The food basically disappeared.
PRITCHARDAnd I write in the book, you know, I don't know if it became -- if their cattle became a taco in Alabama or an apple pie filling in Chicago. But, you know, that food just became anonymous essentially. And the stores themselves then became dedicated to recreating an identity for this food. and I just thought, even at an early age, that's just a -- that's a real conundrum.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Where do you think family farms fit into America's cultural DNA? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Forrest Pritchard, your first solutions for the family farm when you took it over did not necessarily involve your cattle. You tried selling firewood, straw. What was your mindset at the time when you were, like, throwing out all of these ideas just to get things going again?
PRITCHARDI wanted to survive. I mean, like any ambitious kid you want to be successful. And you don't really know what success looks like. But I was raised in a culture where if you wake up early and you work hard and you give it your all, success just kind of takes care of itself. So, you know, I figured if I pitched enough straw bales or I chopped enough wood, the money would take care of itself. And the book, you know, kind of details just a hilarious set of failures in hindsight that were just excruciatingly horrible to experience as a -- when I was going through them. But...
NNAMDIHilarious indeed. We're going to get to some of that in a second. At what point did it occur to you that livestock was going to be the way for the farm to survive?
PRITCHARDYeah, that kind of came at an intersection of me deciding to -- that I felt there was some hypocrisy in the way I was eating as just -- I was eating very indiscriminately. You know, when I was in college, you know, a feast to me was an 85 cent burrito at 7-Eleven. It didn't matter if it was beef or chicken or what it was, as long as, you know, it was under a dollar and it would fill me up.
PRITCHARDAnd about two or three years after being back on the farm, not yet raising livestock fulltime but -- that is to say, selling them at farmers' market but raising my cattle, I was eating a cheeseburger at a nationwide restaurant that will go unnamed. And, you know, it just occurred to me, as I was eating it, there must be 1,000 cattle in this hamburger patty. And here I was raising, you know, a modest head of about 50. And I could pretty much know them all by name. I knew them by sight.
PRITCHARDAnd I got to thinking, look if I'm going to be this, you know, conscientious farmer that's going to be growing cattle and trying to attract people that really care about the food that I'm raising, that I'm going to have to be eating -- I'm going to have to be walking the walk. I'm going to have to be living the lifestyle, you know, that reflects what I'm doing.
NNAMDIEarly on you also started raising free range chickens, which your dad took to his job in D.C. on the metro no less and sold cubical to cubical at his office. What did you make of your father when he put it on himself to become the chicken man?
PRITCHARDMan, I was proud and amazed. And, you know, we raised these chickens, okay, and they're free range and they're gorgeous and they're -- you know, they're just suitable for framing much less eating, you know. And there we go, have like 100 chickens ready to sell and we sent out these flyers and email promotions. And keep in mind, this was like 1994, 1995 where the internet didn't exist. And nobody came. We gave, like, our date and nobody came. And, you know, we'd been told by friends, I'm going to tell my friends and this and that. Not a single person came.
PRITCHARDSo we're standing there with 100 chickens and my dad suggests, well, I'll just put them on my lap in a cooler and ride the Mark train from Brunswick, Md. and I'll sell them six at a time. And he sold every last one of them down on Third Street off the mall.
NNAMDIAmazing. You write in the book that goats are the most frustrating animal you've ever encountered And that by the time you stopped raising them, goat had become a four-letter word for you. Why do you feel this way and who, by the way, is Pedro.
PRITCHARDWell, you know, there's a reason that we're capricious. Has its root in goat, so to speak. And goats, if you spend any time around them, if you just look them in the eye, they just have this gleam in their eye. It just speaks mischief. And that's fun for about, you know, 48 hours or so until you've got a flock of about 100 of them two miles away in someone else's cornfield. But Pedro, who I talk a good bit about in the book, came to us because he had basically eaten himself out of a home, and...
NNAMDIThey will eat anything, won't they?
PRITCHARDWell, they sure try. And yeah. He was one of my first experiences with, you know, figuring out, you know, how do you navigate the interaction between being a farmer that has to grow for production, and yet have this connection to your livestock as well. And, you know, that's an impossible decision for some people, and that's why some people are vegetarian. And for me, you know, having the story -- having a story like Pedro, and raising the animals like I do, just makes it so much easier to stand behind my table at farmer's market and be able to have a communication with my customers when they say, look, how do you raise this?
PRITCHARDAre the animals treated humanely, you know, are they genuinely free range, you know. Yes. If you don't believe the book, just come out to visit my farm anytime.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. How much do you take it upon yourself to learn about where your food comes from when you buy it? Do you care about knowing where it's from at all? 800-433-8850. If you've called, stay on the line. We're going to take a short break, but when we come back we'll continue our conversation with Forrest Pritchard. He is a professional farmer and author of the book, "Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers' Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's Food Wednesday, and our guest is Forrest Pritchard. He is a professional farmer and the owner of Smith Meadows Farm in Berryville, Va. He's also the author of the book, "Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers' Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm." Forrest, let's talk about your decision to stick with raising grass-fed cattle. What are the basic differences between your grass-fed method of raising cattle and what happens on most large farms?
PRITCHARDSure. Well, you know, and I don't want to speak for my fellow farmers because every farm is unique, and that's one of the beauty -- one of the most beautiful aspects of farming, and one the most compelling reasons that we become farmers. But long story short, what I do is a strictly grass-fed diet, and that means from the moment the calves are born to the moment that I personally load them and take them to our local Mennonite butcher shop, they've been eating pasture their whole life. And grass is a bit of a misnomer.
PRITCHARDThat means diversified pasture. It means, you know, native legumes in the form of red top and white top clovers, and lespedezas and bluegrass and you name it, including a fancy name for edible weeds, which is forbes, which are packed full of nutrition as well, and these are all a byproduct of us also not spraying our pastures. We don't use any herbicides or commercial fertilizers, and for our production, it takes us a full two years to finish a grass-fed steer.
PRITCHARDSo when you come to farmers' market and you buy a rib eye steak from me, or a package of ground beef, that steer has been on my farm exclusively, eating pasture, and has never received any antibiotics, any hormones, and we've personally taken care of that steer from birth to finish. That is in contrast with, you know, 99 percent is not an exaggeration to say that the rest of meat is not raised this way.
PRITCHARDAnimals are taken from a certain age at weaning where they usually run five or 600 pounds and then sent to a feed lot, and the feed lot is compromised of many, many, many thousands, if not tens of thousands of animals where they are fed a diet of corn and sometimes soybeans to fatten them. These animals finish more quickly, but they're also given antibiotics as a byproduct of the environmental conditions, largely as a -- it's often misunderstand because conditions are so filthy.
PRITCHARDBut it's actually because grain is such an unnatural component of their diet that it causes their internal temperature to raise. So they're constantly fighting off like a low-grade infection so to speak.
NNAMDIYou say the grazing grass on your farm is essentially a big living solar panel.
PRITCHARDWell, it's a true loop of sustainability. In a former life, in college, I was a geology major. And the carbon cycle, you know, despite how people might subscribe or not subscribe to issues of global warming or climate change, the carbon cycle is this long understood aspect of our climate and the way carbon returns to the ground. And grass farming is this beautiful closed-loop system where we're able to basically, you know, and I pun upon in the book "Gaining Ground," we're literally able to gain ground because we're taking carbon out of the air via photosynthesis, and put into our roots, and the roots on grass are especially important because the biomass reflected underneath the ground is four times as much as is on top of the ground.
PRITCHARDSo the more we can leave that grass in a natural state, and forgive me, I'm not talking about a lawn out in Bethesda or Rockville, I'm talking about grass that's, you know, going to cause a homeowner's association to pull their hair out. Grass that's three, four, five feet tall, and essentially expressing itself. The root depth underneath that is going to be just accelerating the capture of carbon, and that's all -- that all happens through sunshine, you know. And this isn't like, you know, new age-y crystal, you know, hippie stuff. This is, you know, Biology 101.
NNAMDIHere now is Mark in Richmond, Va. Mark, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARKHi. How you doing today?
MARKI have a local CSA that I run out of Richmond, Virginia and Washington D.C. and in Capitol Hill called Farm to Family. What I do is I go and gather up a lot of these products around the state and I visit meat producers like (unintelligible) Mount Vernon, and so my customers, they're having a really hard time, some of the new ones, when the prices of meat, you know, are so much higher than what they're used to paying, and they're just not used to it. So I have to give a lot of education of them. But how do you get people to value the price of either produce or meat when no one has to produce their own food anymore and they don't know what it takes -- the efforts that you're putting into your beef, two years to get through that steer to get it to market.
MARKHow -- you know, I'm having a really hard time. How do you get people to realize the value in that product?
NNAMDIIf they don't have any relationship with food at its source.
PRITCHARDSure. No. I think Mark hit on the perfect word, which is value. And value is a word that I found has kind of been hijacked from us right underneath our noses. It's been used to associate value, like the value meal, okay? And in politics, you know, what are our, you know, American Values. And what we can value is -- with a farm like mine, which is the only reason my farm is really successful, is because my customers do value what I bring.
PRITCHARDAnd what do they value? They value transparency. Okay? They can talk to me as a farmer, they can drive out to my farm, and there's no no trespassing signs. They can value the fact that the following years I'm gonna be there to fire up my operation again because I'm economically sustainable and my farm isn't going to have a for sale sign out at the end of the road. They can value that my animals are genuinely free range, that there's no smoke and mirrors where like I open a barn door for one hour a day and the animals kind of get a glimpse of some sunshine.
PRITCHARDSo, you know, some of these things either have to be taught or, in our farm's case, as in the case of Polyface which is Joel Salatin's famous farm, a farm day, or farm tours are an integral part of that persuasion of value.
NNAMDIMark, thank you very much for your call. And one of the things you can do if you run into Forrest at a farmers' market, he recently wrote an article titled, "Why I Can't Raise a $1 Cheeseburger." He will be able to walk you through some of the economics behind what it takes to raise a grass-finished steer over that two-year period that Mark talked about. So Mark, thank you very much for you call. And we got an email from Alyssa who says, "Buying from farmers' markets is more than just about the food. It's about knowing the providers, seeing the same faces, talking to the same folks every week. A harkening back to living in communities where you knew your butcher, your grocer, your baker.
NNAMDI"It's like the little town in Iowa where my dad grew up. You knew everyone and you feel kinship with them. You know when they're not there. I wouldn't miss Saturday at the courthouse farmers' market. I'd feel like I was missing something important." We move on now to Sherry in Arlington, Va. Sherry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHERRYI want to thank you for having Forrest on, Kojo. And Forrest, I read your book word for word for our book club, and it's beautifully written. Your training in English comes through. And I grew up on a farm myself in Northern Illinois, and so much of what you said just brought back memories, including my 4-H days and how much I learned. Are you working at all with 4-Hers to help them learn these things that you've learned the hard way?
NNAMDIWell, Sherry, before he responds, listen to this email that we got from George in Jefferson County, West Va. "I am so very pleased to hear that Forrest and his farm are doing well. I remember him and his family from years ago. I remember transporting him back home from Jackson's Mill State 4-H Camp in West Virginia one year. 4-H does pay off." This would be George Taft.
PRITCHARDOf course. Of course. I remember George very well.
NNAMDINow you can respond to Sherry about working for...
PRITCHARDYeah. I mean, for -- okay. Like, how do I address that. The long story short is yes. I still volunteer at our state 4-H camp every year, and, you know, it's mostly a volunteer of energy. So how do you translate that, you know, across 180 kids who might be interested in ballet or, you know, law into farming? You know, that's best -- that's one of the reasons why I wrote this, and give nods to 4-H and other youth groups. FFA is another great one, where, you know, we can take a 17 and an 18 year old and help them segue that youthful energy, which is such a mandatory component.
PRITCHARDYou know, God bless all the 50- and 60-year-old farmers out there, but guess what? We have a nation of 60-year-old farmers. Statistically, the average of our famers is 60 years old. We've got a missing generation of farmers. I'm 39, and my generation, it's missing. You know, we put on khaki pants and button-down shirts and we went to work in the cities, and we've got to have a generation of 20 year olds to pick up the slack, and 4-H is just a perfect mechanism to, you know, not only is it teaching, but as a positive peer pressure, you know, as a positive role model.
NNAMDIThank you very for your call, Sherry. You're -- a big part of your farm story is about farmers' markets. You've literally spend thousands of hours at farmers' markets selling your product directly to consumers, but you didn't find a market where you were very successful until you made the decision to come closer to the city and start selling at a market in Arlington. Why was it that economically it made a lot more sense for you to start bringing your product closer into the city?
PRITCHARDYou know, it remains mysterious to me. I'm grateful for it, and I don't fully understand it, you know. But, you know, I don't know if it was -- like we were a little ahead of our time, or, you know, if familiarity breeds contempt at home or whatever, but we tried and we tried and we tried, and that's not to say Berryville listeners and Winchester listeners that we didn't have like a core really devoted clientele back at home, but, you know, the amount of revenue we were making in the late 90's, it was not going to keep us going in that direction.
PRITCHARDSo, we got recruited basically by this gentleman, Tom Tyler, at Arlington, and then I met this wonderful guy John Hyde (ph) who was actually a guest on your show many years back, and he got me into Takoma, and one thing just lead to another and, you know, you get these people -- these customers that come to farmers' market, and it's, you know, it's like a rainy day in November, and they -- and I'm like what am I doing here, and then they just start showing up. Or it's a snowy day in March, or it's a hot day in June, and they just show up.
PRITCHARDAnd it just almost makes the, you k now, the hair stand up on the back of your neck, like what are these -- like, I know what I'm doing here, but if these people are coming, like I'm gonna keep showing up. Like I want to work for these people. These people that care about the food that we're growing, they're invested in it. They have nice things to say, they're complimentary, and they're encouraging. You know, what's not to like about that.
NNAMDIHere's one of those people. Kim in Fairfax, Va. You're on the air, Kim. Go ahead, please.
KIMOh, thank you. Hi Forrest.
KIMI just wanted to congratulate you. I have purchased many of your products at the Falls Church farmers' market, and...
PRITCHARDCool, thank you.
KIM...they are amazing. And I also wanted to give a little advertisement for your family's bed and breakfast…
KIM...which is also on the property. I have been several times over the years, and it is a great destination for Washingtonians, and the breakfasts which your family makes, and ingredients on the property are amazing.
PRITCHARDAwesome. Thanks, Kim.
PRITCHARDI don't get to eat them too much because I'm at farmers' market.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Kim. Here is Mike in Needmore, Pa. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEYeah. I'm literally hauling my produce back to Baltimore as this program is going on. So I'm a -- I've been a farmer for 41 years, and I've been selling in Adams Morgan at the farmers' market on Saturday morning for 40 of those years. But there was a piece this morning on NPR on FSMA, the Food Safety Modernization Act, that I fear will drive a lot of us family farmers out of business. So whereas FSMA might not apply to him, I'm wondering about government regulation and how they impact, help, or hurt his production.
PRITCHARDSure. Well, first of all, thanks, Mike for being a forerunner. I feel like I'm certainly standing on your shoulders for being one of these extremely early adopters if you've been selling for 40 years in Adams Morgan. So thanks for that. Yeah. Of course, I have to deal with all sorts of regulations and the FSMA, to the best of my understanding was enacted -- signed into law in 2011, and they're still working out some of the details, and there's supposed to be a $500,000 threshold under which farms don't apply, and there's some number being bandied about like that's 90 percent of family farms.
PRITCHARDBut, you know, to a certain degree, that's going to stifle innovation. I mean, or family farmers are not only incredibly innovative, but, you know, every four years we all hear about, you know, it's the economy and small, you know, small business owners, small business owners all the time are the generators of the economy. Well, guess what? Small family farms are huge economic generators. Our farm has 10 employees for example, and we only have 400 acres. So if there's a situation with FSMA, then that's definitely going to be a problem, so I look forward to following that carefully for sure.
NNAMDIYou should know that Forrest Pritchard will be speaking and signing copies of his book this evening at Middle C Music in Washington D.C. The event takes place from 5:00 to 7:00 at 4530 Wisconsin Avenue Northwest, just around the corner from here. Is that correct, Forrest?
NNAMDIForrest Pritchard. He is a professional farmer and owner of Smith Meadows Farm in Berryville, Va. He's also the author of the book, "Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers' Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm." Forrest, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd good luck to you. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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