In his whimsical memoir, Gaining Ground, Forrest Pritchard describes the often absurd and comical trials and tribulations that transpired in his journey to turn a struggling family farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia into an alternative farming success called Smith Meadows. The author mingles anecdotes of his youth growing up on the farm with the spawning of a grand agricultural scheme (against the better judgment of those who told him to get a decent job) and the colorful characters he meets along the way. Pritchard relates the many failed ideas and mishaps with butchers, herding chickens, and transporting cattle that eventually led to improved visions and successes.
Pritchard’s story is also a rumination on the anonymity of agribusinesses and the value of alternative farming practices. The author shares his slow steps navigating into the world of sustainable farming, moving away from the conventional corporate farming model that has invaded the country. He explains his many conversations with baffled farmers as he attempted to convey the beauty and necessity of solely feeding grass to ruminants, free-ranging poultry, and allowing pastures to rest and recuperate for investments in future nutritional and soil productivity. The author portrays understanding and respect for the animals that he raises and discusses them with great humor as he describes his high school-like chickens with a pecking order that does the opposite of Facebook, as they “unfriend” each other for the best position at the feeder. His writing is also evocative, as when he describes his first taste of “dry-aged” beef. “My tongue identified tastes and smells from my childhood, distinctive notes of black walnut and warm oak leaves, a bouquet of orchard grass on a sunlit day,” adeptly noting what has been lost in modern food production.
Gaining Ground is an inspiring story for any aspiring farmer because it not only makes the prospect of living off the land and providing food to the community feasible but shows that failure is par for the course, that doubt and set backs are just part of the journey. These mishaps make the farmer stronger, provide a spring board into better and more efficient ideas, and offer up fodder for great storytelling later on down the line. For those not wishing to wade into the deep, dark waters of agriculture, the memoir provides a lively read and insight into how food should reach the public’s plate, by the local entrepreneur down the street who respects the land and the animals that maintain our nourishment.