Thursday, August 14, 2008

French Laundry at Home Extra: Meet Forrest Pritchard of Smith Meadows Farm

It's no secret that I live in Takoma Park, Maryland (hi, stalkers!), and one of the things that makes our town equally as wonderful as it does annoying is our dedication to locally produced food and materials. Wonderful, because it means we have access to and support great quality stuff. Annoying because it gives the hippies in town (hi, hippies!) one more thing to blather on and on about as they douse themselves in patchouli because they apparently think it goes really, really well with the b.o. -- I'm sorry, natural -- smell they've already got goin' on. [Why yes, Eric Cartman is indeed guest-writing today.]

Every Sunday from 10 - 2, our town hosts a farmers' market in the one-block "Old Town" section of our fair city. People come from all over the DC area, and it can become quite the mob scene. I like to get in and out as soon as the market opens in the morning, otherwise I end up with bruised ankles from all the stroller pushers (hi, stroller pushers!). Plus, getting there early to scope out the good stuff means you can make a plan for getting in and out and back home to eat it all the more quickly.... like the pint of blackberries I downed in about 3.8 seconds in the car on the way home the other week. Mmmmmm......

My favorite farmers' market vendor and pig head procurer is Forrest Pritchard of Smith Meadows Farm. I buy eggs from him every week, as well as meats, sausages, and the fresh pasta and sauces his wife, Nancy, makes. I had the chance not too long ago to spend some time out at Smith Meadows to see how everything works, and to learn a little bit more about what challenges a small family-run farm faces. I also had the chance to interview Forrest about what he does and why he does it.

I hope you enjoy our little chat ...

* * * * *

Carol: Smith Meadows farm is an 8th-generation family farm, correct? If you'd wanted to be an astronaut, would that have been okay with your parents, or did you always know this is what you wanted to do?

Forrest: Yes, my son and nephew will constitute what will (hopefully) be an 8th-generation family farm. I've been told the secret to keeping kids on the farm in contemporary times is to provide a 'desirable' situation... this could be a productive, sustainable, sensible operation already in business, or a farm with lots of potential. When I was growing up, ours was very much the latter... wonderful soils, great location, but not much direction, particularly a profitable, economically sustainable direction. My parents would have been okay with whatever path I chose, I think, but this combination of potential, heritage and production flexibility was good enough for me to give it a try.

How many family members are involved in the operations, and what do they do?

Forrest: My wife, Nancy, runs a commercial kitchen that takes local and organic ingredients and processes them into all sorts of things -- pasta, pestos, sauces, for example. She's also in charge of most of the bookkeeping, which might as well be a full-time job. My sister, Betsy, manages our flock of sheep (roughly 200 head), and manages 2 of our farmers markets, as well as picks up our stuff from the butcher each week. My mom runs our bed & breakfast, which is full mostly on the weekends, but requires 7 days of gardening, cleaning, etc. She also handles lots of on-farm sales. Sadly, my dad passed away about 6 years ago rather suddenly, but he had plans to retire from his off-farm job and help me on the farm in his retirement.

Can you talk a little bit about your educational background? College? Graduate degree? Ongoing education?

Forrest: Yeesh, school. Okay, I graduated from the College of William and Mary with bachelors degrees in English and Geology. I attended my ten-year reunion a few years ago, which was fun. Other than that, I like being on my farm instead of in school!!!

What's a typical day like for you on the farm?

Forrest: A few years ago, this would have been impossible to even attempt to reply to, as we had so many simultaneous projects going on, I was never quite sure what I was going to do even at the beginning of the day. We now have two apprentices each year (they work a 12-month apprenticeship), and a full-time farm hand, so things have become a LITTLE more predictable. Okay, a day starts around 6:45 a.m. when we move the chickens to fresh pasture. At the height of the season (May through Decemeber) we have as many as 6 flocks to care for... two sets of laying hens (400 birds per flock), 3 different ages of meat-chicks (broilers), and our turkeys. Then, it's off to check the cattle for pasture quality, health issues or broken fences, then the pigs, then the sheep.

We usually get back together around 9 am, and work on some sort of project, such as putting in buried water line for livestock troughs, new cross fencing, building repairs or modifications, etc. We knock off for one hour at lunch. Right after lunch, we take care of all the birds again, gather the eggs for the second time (we gather them around 10:45 am, as well), then either finish up our morning project, or do something different, depending on the season (mow hay, spread manure, run our bush hog over overly-shaggy pastures, cut up wind-felled trees, etc.). We stop at five pm. Of course, every other Monday we haul pigs and lambs, and every other Wednesday we haul cattle, and in season, every other Thursday we butcher chickens. Soooo... all this scheduling gets molded and squeezed and ends up fitting together the best we can!

Is it difficult to do business the way you do: free-range, no hormones, no chemicals? Is it an economic challenge?

Forrest: Every type of farming has its specific challenges. The positive thing about organic livestock production is that I, as a modern farmer, am the recipient of hundreds, if not thousands, of years of selective breeding. Modern animals have been selected and culled over the years for traits like disposition, maternal instincts, fertility, muscle mass, and resistance to disease. The list goes on. Of course, much of this selective breeding occurred well before the use or even development of antibiotics, chemical hormones and conventional chemicals such as petro-fertilizers and herbicides to treat/'enhance' pastures. These animals were raised to perform on pasture (in the case of cows and sheep), or at least have pasture/natural forage/natural scavenging be a very significant part of their feed intake (hogs and poultry).

Keep in mind, not only were these commercial chemicals not available, but grain in general was very costly and challenging to raise... far more likely to end up in 'people food' than administered in significant quantities to livestock. Hence, these animals were 'born' to live on pasture... to convert species such as grasses, clovers and select weeds into delicious, nutritious protein.
I guess that's the good news about organic livestock farming, as with ANYTHING in life, it's certainly easy to screw it up if improperly managed. The biggest X factor in my operation has to be rainfall, as we are utterly dependent on good, average rainfall (say, 3 inches per month, year-round) to produce high-quality pasture for my animals to eat. Other than that, we are constrained by our acreage. We can only have "so many" cattle and sheep grazing our 500 acres before the necessary rest period between pasture rotations will no longer accommodate the grazing pressure. Poultry and pigs impact this to a lesser degree, but it's not far from my mind. In short, I can only grow as much as my farm can 'carry', and only as long as the rain falls and the sun shines!

What kind of regulatory challenges do you face that we may not know about or think about its impact?

Forrest: To answer this obliquely, I'd say the biggest surprise I've discovered since I began this business has been the nearly insurmountable amount of capital, liscensing and daily paperwork required to start and maintain a traditional slaughterhouse, where animals are slaughtered and processed. When I was a kid, we had several (say, 4 or so) small, often family-run abatoirs in my immediate rural area (all within 20 miles)... now, there are only 3 within 70 miles of me, and only two have the inspection credentials for me to offer my products to the general public. With all the frequent, alarmingly massive meat recalls that seem to happen about once a month (keep in mind, these are only the ones that we're "allowed" to hear about!!), the case for lower barrier-to-entry small-scale butcher shops is very compelling.

You sell your goods at quite a few farmers' markets in the DC area. Are farmers' markets doing well in this area, in general, or are there things they can do better to attract more business?

Forrest: I'm constantly grateful for the countless years that "risk takers" have stood out on a street corner, selling their fresh produce. By "countless years" I mean, of course, our shared human history of open air markets -- so ancient in their origins, it wouldn't surprise me to discover they are part of our collective social resonance ("Hey, honey, stop the car! There's a farmers market over there, just like grandma used to talk about!!!"). By "risk takers" I mean, of course, farmers... those who optimistically hope that the rain will fall gently on their fields, and the sun shine warmly on their crops.

I suppose the best way I can answer this question (I know, I know, I'm beating around the bush!!) is to say I'm honored to be part of what I consider a very ancient part of our human history: the food market. Somehow, from about 1950 to 1990 or so, American society (and perhaps parts of the rest of the world as well, but certainly not all of it), rather 'hiccuped': we stopped buying our food from neighboring farms, or open-air markets, or growing it ourselves (perish the thought!), and instead drove our big fat family trucksters (I'm seeing a wood-panelled 1962 station wagon here) to the vast asphalt receiving grounds of the neighborhood grocery store.

When I was growing up, in the late 70s, this required not only driving almost 15 miles in one direction, but also driving past probably 25 different farms to get there. Today, in 2008, I'd say maybe 3 of those farms are still in business, and much of the land is now in subdivisions. The supermarkets still do spanking business. Hooray for Food Puma! Or Food Panther, or whatever your local Food Cat is called.

Will your son take over the farm for you one day?

Forrest: Ummm... well, I'll try to pass on my sense of stewardship, love of the land, and the gratitude that I get when my customers express their gratitude to me. Short of having him grow up on the farm, seeing my sucesses and challenges and disappointments, seeing the seasonality of the business and the specific suite of education it takes to manage a diversified livestock enterprise, I don't know how otherwise to give him a meaningful glimpse into what it takes to run a farm. And if he decides he'd rather go elsewhere, I'll just tie him to a tractor.

Do you cook?

Forrest: I'm the world's finest bacon, eggs (any way you'd like 'em), toast and coffee maker you'll ever find. Short of that, I'm okay around a grill, but don't ask me to cook a roast or make soup or anything like that. When it gets down to weights, temperatures, and times, my head starts to spin. Just let me grow the stuff, and have your own fun in the kitchen! [NOTE: He's being completely modest here, because Forrest makes a killer BLT, minus the lettuce, but with fresh pesto instead. Best sandwich I've had in a long, long time.]

Carol: What's your favorite thing to eat for dinner?

Forrest: Gosh, that depends. Probably brick-oven pizza with fresh mozzarella and some of our crispy rosemary sausage and with some balsamic lightly drizzled over it. And an ice-cold Sam Adams. Or, 3-4 plump lamb chops with some sort of savory chutney as a sauce, a side of some potatoes and leeks, a spring-greens salad and some tiramisu or zabaglione or chocolate mousse for desert. Oh, and another pint of Sam Adams, please.

Did your wife grow up on a farm? If not, how has she adjusted to this kind of lifestyle?

That's a subject for a blog unto itself...!

How has farming changed from what your parents and grandparents did, to how the farm is run now?

Forrest: The biggest change between my grandparents (the last generation to actively farm; my parents both had off-farm jobs, and ran the farm vicariously through managers for about 15 years) and my generation is that commodity prices have remained flat while inflation has soared. Why does that matter? Because, for my grandparents, they could produce food however thet wanted: organic, conventional, small scale, large scale... whatever they did, as long as they got it to market, they could be assured that they would get a decent price for their food, relative to the effort they put into it. I'd say, in fact, that my grandparents had many, many organic practices that are just as sage and sound today as they were back then.

Gradually, however, cost of living/production caught up to the prices they were able to garner, and finally exceeded the actual price they were able to receive for their products. This was a nationwide phenonomenon, and destroyed the fiscal sustainability of American farms from sea to shining sea all through the '70s, '80s and '90s. When Willie Nelson and Mellencamp talk about these farms (Farm Aid, etc.), these are the real family farms which were simply forced out of business because they had no other alternative than to sell their hogs for 25 cents a pound, while the actual cost of production might just happen to be 26 cents a pound. Rest assured, though, that when the supermarket runs a 'special' on pork chops for 99 cents a pound, that each and every middleman along the way is getting his or her share of that 99 cents. It was the family farmer who needed those extra pennies to keep doing what they loved, and doing it well, thoughtfully and caringly. Commodity pricing, largely influenced by speculators at the Chicago Board of Exchange, among other places, assured that profits would be miniscule, if profits existed at all.

I must set my own prices, and not depend on third-party speculators to determine my prices for me. I must raise the best possible meat and eggs I know how in order to differentiate my products from conventional offerings. I must represent my farm personally, face-to-face, at farmers markets, so customers will have a genuine producer experience, and have the opportunity to be educated about their food, and interact with me. That's what I must do differently than my grandparents in order to "make it." I hope that our similarity will lie in the optimism of fair pay for fair work.

Do you listen to music while you work? If so, what do you listen to? C'mon, I know it's REO Speedwagon, right? Air Supply?

Forrest: Björk, while I sleep, at full volume. Good for the sinuses.

* * * * *

Thanks again to Forrest and Nancy for welcoming me to their lovely home and farm, and for being the damn cool people they are. If you live in the DC area and see Smith Meadows at your farmers' market, please stop by and say hello. If you're not in the DC area, I hope you'll take a moment or two to get to know the producers at your own local farmers' market. It's time well spent, I promise you.

Up Next: Chocolate Fondant with Coffee Cream and Chocolate Dentelles

Read My Previous Post: Béarnaise Mousseline


Anonymous said...

Dear Carol,
Since I discovered your blog two weeks ago, I've read every word of your entire archives: I love your blog THAT MUCH! From all this diligent study, I know that you have a special birthday coming up, so let me be among the first to say happy birthday. And thanks for another great post.
-Kerryn (Melbourne, Australia)

oh so hungry said...

Thank you for this interview! We should be so grateful that families like Forrest and Nancy are committed to returning "real" food to our tables. I'm going to move from New York to Texas next year and have already scoped out the farmers' markets, but I'm stunned to hear how much rain Forrest needs per month. I know Texas doesn't get that much. Such a labor of love!!!

David said...

With your skull-sawing abilities, I don't think you have to worry about stalkers.

Ella said...

This was a really great interview -- thank you for posting it, and for giving a family-run farm some much-deserved recognition. I've seen Smith Meadows at the market here in Arlington, but I've never stopped by. Now I will.

Victoria said...

It is not exactly hard to love a man who thinks 3 to 4 lamb chops is a good meal. My kinda guy. Great interview.

So, Carol, someday I'll tell you about our raising a herd of European fallow deer for venison in upstate New York - where we go on weekends! Remember when you said you want to be on some acres raising chickens? Come on up!

I have learned to more than appreciate - to literally revere - small, independent farmers, who raise their animals humanely and, when they can, organically. No mean feat.

Once again, great interview.

craigkite said...

Christ, Carol, couldn't you find a monosyllabic farmer to grunt "Ayup" or "Nope" to your questions? The concept of "value-added" is very strong in all commerce that is going to survive the Mega-Vendors. This is a Great interview, and I can only hope that the next generation inherits Forrest's passion for farming.
Reading Forrest's description of a good meal was a vicarious thrill. I am glad that there are growers near you that care enough about what is for dinner, and lunch...and that last nibble before bedtime...and breakfast. Bacon and pesto... does David Leibovitz know about this?

Sean said...

I was greatly saddened to learn that hippies live in your neighborhood.

Recently we had the misfortune of having a hippy move in next door.

While he rarely steps outside to, I do notice that he occasionally pulls himself away from his couch for schlepping munchies from his car to his house.

spooneroonie said...

Oh Carol-- you forgot "My Kid Won't Listen So I'll Just Talk Louder" Dad. Yeesh, he was annoying.

I had the awesome opportunity to visit the market two weeks ago and briefly met Forrest (hi PigsHeadGuy!) and he could not have been nicer. I've never had pesto before and from now on, I will always compare other pestos to Forrest's. Carol is right--nix the lettuce on the BLT and use pesto instead. Hot damn, that was reeeeally good!

elarael said...

Oh wow. I lived on Elm Street in the early 90's for a few years. And got most of my vegetables from the Grondhog Farm stand at the farmers market. Are they still there? They were the BEST! I missed their incredibly delectable selection for years after I moved away.

Scott Deane said...

This is another great post, thanks! I like the "behind the scenes" perspectives you show with these interviews. Great way to illustrate all the hard work, engergy, and life that goes into dinner before it hits the shelves, farmer's market, or pantry at home.

When is the big dinner at the French Laundry? I thought you mentioned dining there some time soon!

chefjohnpaul said...

Great story! You may like this link:

All small farms in Iowa raising certified Berkshire hogs.