Winter was tough on the farm. Most mornings Mom would struggle to rustle us from sleep. It would begin gently enough with a song and a gentle carress. Then it would move to a ‘Let’s go’ shout up the stairs, which would lead to the blanket snatch leaving a spastic boy flopping into the fetal position to escape the cold air.
In the basement we would slip our hands awkwardly into two pairs of old Wells Lamont chore gloves. Zip up a sweater and jacket, pull on a stocking cap and cinch down the hood. Feet – clad in two pairs of heavy socks – were jammed into old rubber boots.
Gripping the doorknob, your hands would slip a bit before it would turn, a crunch of frost in the doorjamb, and with that you plunged into the cold. And while chores were about the last thing I wanted to do nearly every single day, once outside, it all seemed to melt.
There’s a stillness once it gets in the range of -10˚where sound seems to slow down. The putt-putt of the milk pump as Dad slipped machines onto the cows barely even made it to the house just a 100 feet away.
My mind was flooded with similar memories while reading ‘Gaining Ground’ by Forrest Pritchard, the story of how the author saved his family farm through a combination of persistence and ignorance, optimism and good humor. The story tracks his lurch against the grain to make small, family farming work in a world dominated by industrial-scale ag.
On the other hand my parents did what they could to encourage us to leave the farm. It was the late 90s, the days when BGH/rBST had hit the scene, and everyone believed the only way to stay in the game was to produce more milk. Small farms all across Wisconsin were bought out or bankrupt, and the ones that remained jumped from 60-80 cows to 500-1,000 or more with round the clock milking.
Not that we had an overwhelming desire to stay on the farm, but even if we’d wanted to, there seemed to be no way to make it work.
But there is an undercurrent and Forrest has followed it. People like Joel Salatin, Wendell Berry and Michel Pollan are pointing us in the direction of small, local. Human scale production that changes land from a resource to be exploited to an extension of who we are.
And yet for all of the books I’ve read, all of the blogs extolling the virtues of returning to the land, and testimonials embracing a deeper relationship with the elements, I’d yet to read one that laid bare the difficulties of moving from current reality to a new vision in all of its gory detail. The romance of life on the farm lures folks to the countryside to commune with our agricultural roots only to find it exceedingly difficult and frustrating (great exploration of this from Lapham’s Quarterly).
Gaining Ground lays its stake here. There is the starry-eyed dream of a young man fresh out of college who wants to save the family farm. His parents, firmly rooted in reality, begrudgingly entertain the dream, but also encourage restraint and realism.
He stumbles from scheme to scheme in good humor almost breaking down in the process. But through an iterative process he finds his niche just as the nascent Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA)/local food market scene hits its stride. And he breaks through by growing grass.
The humor in seeing him move from idea to idea, throwing mud at a wall to see what sticks hides the true nature of the book. At some point, this farm kid realized that farming is not an impossible dream. It’s a boat load of work and a huge risk, but it’s not impossible.
We’ve been lulled to sleep by industrial scale agriculture and lost sight of the fact that food comes from the air and the earth. Every single last bite of it. We begin to believe we are separate from our environment. We confuse choice with freedom. We just don’t have time to cook.
Throughout the book, Forrest’s father accompanies him changing from a naysayer to right-hand man. Even though he can’t change his own ways completely, he sees the value in the direction Forrest is heading. The romanticism is there, but it always returns to the real.
The beauty of the sunset over the fields just before the tractor breaks down. The delicate snow falling over the countryside as your truck and trailer jack knife on the way home from the slaughterhouse. The cows breaking out in the middle of the night that segues into an opportunity to stargaze (once everyone is back in).
Just reading it is enough to make me want to slip the gloves back on and head out into the snow to feed the calves again.