I Interviewed a Professional Farmer

In INTERVIEWS and MORE, MY ARTICLES by James4 Comments

gg300

Forrest Pritchard from Smith Meadows Farm in West Virgina, USA recently took the time from his busy schedule (he’s in the midst of a book tour on top of farming) and answered some wannabe farmer questions I had for him. If you don’t know who Forrest Pritchard is, he’s gradually becoming one of best known grass farmers in America. Like so many others in a sense Forrest is a protege of Joel Salatin. The two are close enough in fact that Joel wrote the forward to Forrest’s new book Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmer’s Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm. I recently had the pleasure to read the book and I have a review posted in the book review section of this very website. I can say without hesitation again if you’re looking for a great story about turning dream into reality, and/or if you want to learn more about food (real food, the kind that grows mold after a few days) and where it comes from Forrest’s book is a great read. For the interview I asked Forrest 10 questions that I thought every wannabe farmer would want to ask a professional farmer if they had the chance. You’ll see why I keep referring to Forrest as a “professional farmer” once you read the interview. Hope this interview helps any wannabe farmers out there, along with anyone generally interested in learning about the big questions when it comes to getting started in farming. And again, another big thanks to Forrest for taking the time to answer these questions. Enjoy!

1. You recently published your first book  Gaining Ground. In the book you write about your journey of becoming a full time farmer. Why did you write it?

To bridge the divide between farmer and consumer. So many of us know who our doctor is, or our kids’ teachers, or our dentist. Why don’t we know the person who grows our food? Gaining Ground tells the story about one family farm, but at the same time it offers a broader context to our food system at large. Every time we eat, we are participating in farming. The book helps readers place a value and deeper understanding on that connection.

 2. As a farmer who has “made it” what do you believe are the top 3 most crucial things wannabe farmers should be doing to increase their chances to “make it.” (sorry, that’s kind of like a 3 for 1 question)

As I mention in the book, ‘saving the family farm’ is a daily journey, not a destination. The only way a farm can be saved is if, at the end of the day, the amount of work we do produces something of greater value than the bills we have to pay. In other words, hard work and dreams are wonderful, but they must intersect with economic reality.

So, I would say that new farmers should 1) Avoid debt as much as possible, 2) Give themselves plenty of opportunities to fail, and to learn lessons by doing so, and 3) to have faith in their dreams, but to be innovative and adaptable along the way.

 3. What is your view on apprenticeships for wannabe farmers? In particular if somebody has very little or no experience should they do an apprenticeship?

Absolutely. Apprenticeships allow young/new farmers the opportunity to learn from an experienced farmer’s mistakes, and to hear first hand all the ways that Mother Nature can disrupt our farming ambitions. On our farm, an apprenticeship lasts an entire year. If that sounds like a long time, look at it this way: I’ve had several former apprentices tell me they wished it was for two years instead of one!

There is a lifetime of learning involved in farming. As such, be patient: there’s no need to be in a hurry. If farming is your dream, then invest the appropriate amount of time learning how to do it ahead of time, and you’ll come out far better for it.

 4. What’s your opinion on the opportunities currently available for wannabe farmers?

The opportunities are currently greater than they’ve ever been. From an education standpoint, there have never been so many college courses, books, internships and apprenticeships on farms. If someone genuinely wants to learn how to farm, and is prepared to work hard, listen to what the farmers have to teach, and keep an open and intellectually curious mind, then the opportunities are limitless.

 5. How do you feel about age? Is there a time when it’s too late to start farming?

There’s no getting around the fact that farming is very physical work. Even the ‘easiest’ farming requires a person to be fairly athletic and in good stamina. In my opinion, a good time to start farming is somewhere between 20 and 30 years old, because inexperienced farmers are also more prone to injure themselves, and people in their twenties heal much faster than older people.

But the bottom line is, passion and dedication are far more important than age. So even if you’re 80 years old, by all means, it’s not too late!

 6. What’s your favorite dish made with ingredients from your farm?

 Easy. A rosemary and garlic pork sausage, perfectly grilled over hardwood charcoal, smothered with sauerkraut and brown mustard and served on a toasted whole wheat bun. Jimmy Buffet wrote Cheeseburger in Paradise, but I think this gives him a run for his money!

 7. What does the word “farmer” mean to you? When is it appropriate to start calling yourself a farmer?

Calling yourself a farmer is rather akin to calling yourself a poet: you almost need to have OTHER people call you that before you start saying it yourself! But seriously, I think you can call yourself a farmer the moment when farming is a full-time income earning job.

In my bio, I always refer to myself as a ‘professional farmer.’ Because so many people farm on the side, while they work their ‘real job’ in the city or town, farming is often considered a part-time job. The word ‘professional’ connotes that this is what I do solely for a living, and I think it’s a useful cultural accentuation to the word ‘farmer’.

 8. You’re in a position that many wannabe farmers are not in – your family has farm land, and has owned the land for several generations. Land is expensive, so what advice can you give to wannabe farmers without land who have the dream of working a piece of land and creating a multi-generational business for their own family?

I would say: don’t make up your mind that you need lots of land to start a farm (or in the instance of renting land to start with, that you even need to OWN it). There are legions of farms that successfully grow food for hundreds of people on only an acre or two. How many of us know what an acre of tomato plants looks like? Let me tell you… it’s a LOT of tomatoes! There are tons of farmers out there supporting themselves on very little land.

So keep an open mind, and be resourceful. Start small, stay out of debt as much as you can, and build the business slowly. When the time is right, you can buy (or rent) more land. Patience and thrift will serve you well in the long run.

9. What’s your view for the future of small farming in America considering the amount of regulations and one size fits all regulations farmers face?

 I think a lot of the concern about Federal regulations is overblown. It’s easy to look at some of these laws and say our rights and freedoms are being taken away, but I think that’s a ‘glass is half full’ attitude. From my experience (17 years), the people who write and enforce these laws are human beings just like the rest of us, and for the most part you can talk and reason with them when it comes to small-farm policies.

In my personal experience, I’ve only ever had two or three instances where my regional health department has given me nonsensical ultimatums. Other than that, I’ve had no issues at all. I think even in the face of lots of regulations, the amount of available opportunities vastly outweighs the hindrances of these laws.

10. Aside from being a farmer, I know you’re a literary man. What’s your favorite novel?

Thanks for asking! The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway has always been my favorite. In fact, I put a little nod to the final sentence of his novel in my book. In the final line, Hemingway writes, ‘“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”’ At the end of Chapter 17, I write, “At least, the English major in me consoled, it sounded pretty to think so.”

Visit Forrest’s farm website to learn more about his farm and what he does at Smith Meadows – Smith Meadows

Buy his book! You won’t regret it – Gaining Ground

Finally Here’s Forrest in the flesh at Smith Meadows

Winter Grazing the Hogs at Smith Meadows from Smith Meadows on Vimeo.

Comments

  1. Addye Thole

    James, really enjoyed this interview!!! Such strait forward questions & answers!!!! The most important response I believe to be true that he made was that, “he looks at his farming life experience to be a journey, not a destination.” Those are powerful & meaningful words we all should live by. Thank you for sharing your interview & for keeping your mind open & curious!!

    1. Author
      James

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Glad you enjoyed it. And I agree, enjoying the journey is the key point. Sadly I think a lot of people live their lives sacrificing almost everything for the happy ending, and usually by the end of the journey they’ve sacrificed their health and mental well being for a destination that turns out not to be what they imagined. That’s probably the biggest thing that attracts me to the farming lifestyle.

  2. Dad

    Nice interview. Forrest has a real passion for farming and he has some helpful advice based on his experiece.

Leave a Reply