Foraging sustainable farming

Forrest Pritchard, of Smith Meadows Farm, explains the grazing and fencing of his chicken flock on Friday. Kevin Green/Daily

Forrest Pritchard, of Smith Meadows Farm in Berryville, has a lot to say about natural rotational grazing.

On Friday, farmers throughout the valley and Northern Virginia gathered in Berryville to discuss organic grazing and foraging that can be both profitable and sustainable.

Virginia Cooperative Extension, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and Virginia Forage and Grassland Council organized Friday’s field day.

Corey Childs, livestock extension agent for the Northern Shenandoah Valley [NRCS], said, “We are hoping that different producers around identify that there are multiple different ways to look at forage and livestock production.”

Mike Liskey, NRCS conservationist with the valley district, noted that 125 farmers from various areas of Northern Virginia attended Friday’s field days.

Representatives from the NRCS and the conservation districts were on-hand to discuss soil diversity and health, temporary electronic fencing and grassland diversity.

“You can utilize grass and the environment and do things in a completely different way than what traditional agriculture has been,” Childs said.

Through a 2-mile field walk tour of his farm, Pritchard explained how a multiple species rotational grazing farm works.

Pritchard, 41, is a seventh generation farmer who has been working and managing the 450-acre farm since graduating from the College of William and Mary in the early 1990s.

With 10 full-time farm hands, Pritchard helps manage the livestock as well as the farm’s expansive pastures.

“Everything we do is rooted in recipe of economics meeting environmental sustainability,” Pritchard said.

As an illustration, Pritchard explained that he has not mowed anything in the fields, made hay for the livestock or bush hogged the farm in the last five years.

Instead, Pritchard rotates the grazing in sections between 160 head of beef cattle, sheep and hogs to keep the animals fed and to retain nutrients and moisture for the pastures and the soil.

“You gotta have something to prime the pump … we’ve got to have biomass,” Pritchard said. “If that biomass is thistle, if that’s what nature gives me, that is carbon and nutrients that I can start to build soil with.”

The result from this natural and organic approach, Pritchard noted, are agriculture products that are fresher for the consumer.

Pritchard takes the products from this livestock and sells them at farmers’ markets in the Washington, D.C., metro area, which he said have experienced a massive increase in interest in the last five years.

He noted prior to the tour that the customers who come out to the markets – sometimes in the pouring rain – are the bread and butter of Smith Meadows.

Of the Smith Meadows model, Childs said, “They’ve developed a market that is not your normal market, but there’s still room for growth in there.”

He said shifting to an organic, rotational grazing practice similar to Smith Meadows takes a long time and a lot effort for producers.

“For individuals that decide that they want to take on that additional management … it’s an opportunity for growth and more sustainability and profitability,” Childs said.

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com