book review: Gaining Ground by Forrest Pritchard

This book was a breath of fresh air after getting riled up watching Vegucated this week and reading some informative yet disturbing research on the threat of antibiotic resistance. As the subtitle would suggest, Gaining Ground is indeed the story of one man working to save his family farm. It’s hopeful and inspiring and beautifully written.

Frequently we hear from Big Agriculture about how supportive they are of farmers and making their lives easier. We see commercials idolizing the American farmer from these companies (*ahem*, Monsanto) and claiming that their whole company history has a legacy of upholding the American agricultural dream. 

The most poignant part of this book illustrates how that is simply an illusion created in a marketing department. After years of Forrest Pritchard’s family farm taking on more and more debt and trying different things to make it profitable again, the family turned to commodity crops – corn, in particular. Managed by someone they hired to grow the fields upon fields of corn, they hope to get at least $10,000 from the harvest – enough to cover their debt payments at a minimum. The manager shows up on their doorstop and tells them they got “eighteen sixteen.” They are devastated, thinking they only made $1,816 on a harvest that they were expecting five figures from. The manager is embarrassed to relate to them that in fact all of the season’s work – all of the fields and harvesting, the months of time and the use of the land – has yielded them $18.16. Eighteen dollars, sixteen cents. Not enough to fill a car’s tank with gas. 

I’d encourage you to read the book, since Pritchard relates that story in a way that rips your heart out, like you’re standing on the front porch of their house looking at the manager and seeing the truth hit them all squarely in the face. It’s at this point that Pritchard decides to turn the farm around – to abandon commodity farming for a different path. The rest of the book is the story of that turnaround – how they went from growing commodity corn to farming pasture – first for cattle and chickens and then for pigs and sheep.

I don’t want to give away all of the wonderful stories in this book – though I will say the one involving Pedro riding shotgun made me both laugh out loud and shed a few tears. (Pedro is a goat.)

To say the book is hopeful and positive isn’t to say the process of saving the family farm was all beautiful pastures and dollar signs. He even makes a point to say that saving the farm is a journey, not a destination. There is hardship and sadness along the way. But this book was a testament to the fact that good, slow food production can be done. Farmers deserve better than $18.16 for their essential contribution to our basic needs. 

Reading about what it actually takes to start an operation such as Mr. Pritchard’s also gives you an appreciation for why pasture raised meats don’t cost $1.99/pound – and why they shouldn’t. We equate higher prices with quality in so many other areas – why can’t we get to that mentality with our food? When we have to buy an appliance, we don’t go for the cheapest one we can find because an appliance is an investment. Food is an investment too – particularly in our long-term health and well-being, to say nothing of the environmental and community investment.

Treat yourself to reading this book. Don’t be surprised if it makes you want a farm – or a Pedro – of your own.