Local farmers to talk ‘Food Matters’ at library program

By Josette Keelor

It grew organically, the idea for a Handley Library program about local farming.

Food Matters, which will be at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, started as a way to put a different spin on a typical book talk and signing, said Barbara Dickinson, executive director of the Friends of Handley Regional Library.

Author Forrest Pritchard, who owns Smith Meadows Farm in Clarke County, will read from his book “Gaining Ground, A Story of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food and Saving the Family Farm.” Beth Nowak, owner of Mayfair Farm in Bunker Hill, W.Va., will talk farming and managing the Freight Station Farmers Market in Winchester, which she started in 1979.

Over the years, Pritchard and Nowak have witnessed a lot of changes, from the foods consumers eat to the way customers want their food produced. Those observations will be the basis for their discussion, said Dickinson.

“And then it’s going to be their personal stories,” she said.

With the Freight Station Farmer’s Market halfway through its 34th season, Nowak said her knowledge will offer a perspective different from that of Pritchard, who will speak about his experience with organic farming over more than 15 years.

May to December, the Freight Station Farmers Market is open 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday, Friday and Saturday; and January to April, it’s open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday and Saturday.

In a twice-weekly email newsletter “We discuss the philosophy of the market, the joys of farming,” Nowak said

“We think it’s an important part of life,” she said. “You’re forming a community that says ‘we’re all in this together.'”

Pritchard, a seventh-generation farmer, took over operations at his family farm in 1996, but converting the business to organic farming has proven challenging.

That first year, he said, “I ended up making $18.” He quickly learned he would have to move the majority of his sales to the Washington area if he was going to make a living.

It was the first chapter of his experience as a farmer, and now it’s the first chapter of his book. The rest of the book tells how he became an organic farmer, making his living by selling organic meat and eggs at eight farmers markets each weekend — one in Berryville and the rest in the Washington metro area.

Every week his customers would ask him about the sustainability of farming, the economics and how they might become farmers too, so writing a book seemed like a logical answer.

“I wanted to broaden our national food conversation,” Pritchard said. And it worked. “It fostered a dialogue about where our food comes from and how we can value it. … Why we should value it.”

Despite the rocky start, he said he hopes not to discourage others from trying.

“Family farms are completely sustainable,” he said. Because he wrote his book as a narrative, he said it focuses on getting past initial trials. And the response, he said, has been “pretty tremendous.”

“Gaining Ground” was named the Top Ten Book of the summer by Publishers Weekly and Washingtonian magazines and won a National Book Critics Circle Award. National Public Radio named it the No. 1 book of the summer through The Splendid Table food show.

Pritchard’s advice to anyone interested in going organic or local would be to start growing a garden, which he said promotes the idea of connecting with food and its seasonality.

“It’s just really important to have a hands-on connection,” he said. “And to experience the beauty and joy of raising their own food.”

Though Nowak doesn’t farm organically, she agrees with the importance of supporting local farmers.

She makes her living selling produce, particularly fruit, but she said the summer humidity in the Shenandoah Valley makes it too difficult to grow tree fruits organically. Greens are about the only produce she can imagine doing well on a local organic farm.

“[Organic farming] is a touchy subject here,” she said, but “organic does not mean pesticide-free. It’s better to do fresh and local than pesticide free.”

At Wednesday’s program, she said she’ll talk about farming as she knows it.

“We are truly a family farm,” she said. “All we’re trying to do is make a living.”

Food Matters will take place at 6:30 p.m., in the auditorium at Handley Library, 100 W. Piccadilly St., Winchester. The program, sponsored by The Friends of Handley Regional Library, is free and open to the public. A book signing will follow. For more information about the program, call the library at 540-662-9041 or visit “http://www.handleyregional.org”>www.handleyregional.org. The Freight Station Farmers Market and Mayfair Farm are both on Facebook, or for more information, call 304-229-3457. For more information about Smith Meadows Farm or Forrest Prichard’s “Gaining Ground,” visit smithmeadows.com or call 540-955-4389.

Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com>