Q & A with a Farmer-Poet

When he couldn’t find a job as a sports reporter, he decided writing could wait, and focused on turning his family’s seventh generation farm into a thriving business.

Forrest Pritchard grew up on Berryville’s Smith Meadows farm with parents that worked as professionals, not growers. When he couldn’t find a job as a sports reporter, he decided writing could wait, and focused on turning his family’s seventh generation farm into a thriving business. His tale—“Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers Markets, Local Food and Saving the Family Farm”—will publish next month.

By Stefanie Gans

Courtesy of Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Piquot Press


What was the conversation like with your dad when you told him your decision to work on the farm?

It was very dualist. My dad had a romantic, optimistic side that very much wanted to see the farm succeed, but that was very much weighed down by the cultural perception. Especially—this was the late ‘80s, early ‘90s here—which was a very different conversation to be having. The cultural perception of that time was that farming was very much a dead-end job. One did not go to college to come back to be a farmer. One did not put youthful energy toward something that had a very bleak economic future. He did have a grain of optimism that it could work. If I didn’t focus on saving this farm, there might not be a farm to come back to.


What’s going to save the family farm?

What always is going to save the family farm is retail customer dollars. The more farmers can reach out and make connections with customers, that’s where farms are going to get saved. It’s that extra 25, 30, 35 percent that’s going to make a difference. That’s the shortfall that a lot of these farms are experiencing.


What is the biggest misconception of farming life, especially now that farmers and chefs have reached rock star status?

I think the media that kind of filters this stuff to the public is very interested in portraying a story. And compelling stories are the rock star-type of stories. That was the culture that I was brought up in … to be a Madonna and Michael Jackson. Most people I know as farmers certainly don’t become farmers under any romantic notions of fame.

Let’s examine the motivations: There’s only so many rock stars that can occupy the imagination at some point … and we just become saturated and we’re rolling our eyes. If we attract New York Magazine or The New Yorker or whatever people are trying to attract: How does that translate into financial sustainability? Because everybody I know that dreams of being a farmer primarily dreams of being just that, being a farmer. If one can’t farm, can’t pay bills, if one can’t grow enough food, and get that price, then one can’t be a farmer.

If the message and the story of that farm can translate into financial sustainability, then I think that’s the primary goal. If some kind of celebrity happens in the byproduct, then I would just consider that icing on the cake.


How much do you hate this question: Local verse organic?

I don’t hate the question at all. It doesn’t have to be a versus questions. Organic and local are a natural fit. Companies are constantly looking for the next trend, the next thing, and organics has certainly been that. Where organics has gotten away from local is where big companies are beginning organic production with national distribution. Where the conversation kind of diverges between local and organic is how much are we staying with the spirit of customer perception. If we’re buying microgreens from California and shipping all the way to New York, what kind of extra energy does that take?


You’re a poet and a farmer: How are the two jobs similar?

Poets are famously financially strapped, economically challenged of course; combined with the fact that everybody needs to make a living and that I had this farm. Poetry was more of an avocation and farming was my occupation. I wrote—and continue to write—in a way that satisfies my intellectual curiosity and artistic ambitions. But farming satisfies those ambitions too. The way I’m able to farm is very much like a palette, it’s like a landscape painting every day. And poetry is in many ways a translation of what we see visually onto the page, into words.


Pitch me your next book idea.

What I left out of “Gaining Ground” is a whole book’s worth of really hilarious stories. … [After falling asleep in a barn] I rolled over and my face was an inch away from a raccoon that was pawing my head. Of course the first thing I do was scream like Homer Simpson and jump up on top of a freezer. Holy smokes! It just takes the rock star image out of farming really quickly.


(April 2013)