A memoir, Gaining Ground follows Forrest Pritchard as he returns to the family farm and struggles to bring it back to life. Wishing to imitate to the pure and personal farming techniques of his grandparents, Pritchard learns the hard way what it takes to farm organically, live sustainably, and turn a profit while taking care of crops and livestock. Pritchard writes honestly about his life and his family in this book; he recounts his experiences, his trials and errors, and his personal hopes and fears about the important work to which he found himself called.
My family was united by the solemn fact that if we didn’t harvest enough hay in the summer, our cattle would starve to death come wintertime. Faced with this reality, haying had always been a mandatory activity. My grandfather had kept two years’ worth of hay in his barns, safely weathering both winter blizzards and summer droughts. The shadowy recesses of our barn contained bales that had been put up decades earlier; properly cured, hay remains palatable almost indefinitely. I now felt a responsibility to keep my own barn fully stocked.
Still, the longer I considered it, the harder time I had making sense of the math. Labor and repairs topped my list of concerns, and it didn’t help that cattle prices had recently fallen again. Our last load of calves had brought only seventy cents per pound at the stock sale, a 10 percent drop from the prior year. As I ran to town on yet another trip for tractor parts, this meager paycheck eroded right before my eyes.
But this was how we’d always done it, I kept telling myself. This was how my grandfather, and all my neighbors, farmed. Haying was simply an unavoidable part of cattle farming, a season of costly aggravation that kept the business afloat. Resigned to my duty, I climbed onto my Ford tractor and headed back into the fields.
One day, by chance, I read about Gordon Hazard, a farmer who grazed cattle on a farm in Mississippi. He was renowned not only because he had raised his animals profitably for fifty straight years (a herculean accomplishment for any business, and doubly so in a commodity-based enterprise) but also for his hard-line stance against owning farm machinery of any kind.
The old farmer owned three pieces of equipment: a pickup truck, a hammer, and a backup hammer. He kept the backup hammer, he said, in case his first hammer broke. I laughed at the wisdom in this. Hazard had long ago terminated his own haymaking operations. Instead, he bought his hay from neighboring farms. If other farms are really good at making hay, he posited, why not allow himself to benefit from their expertise?
By never purchasing hay equipment, he never had to repair it. Extending this logic, he never had to fuel it, change the fluids and filters, pay annual taxes on it, or protect it from bad weather by erecting an equipment shed. After all, he explained, for three hundred and fifty-odd days each year, this equipment sat in storage, unused.
Instead, he put his money into buying hay. He even went so far as to pay someone to place it exactly where he wanted it in each of his fields, eliminating any need for a tractor. Hazard spent the rest of his summer using his hammer to repair and improve his fences. Fences, as Travis had pointed out on day one, were by far the most important piece of infrastructure on any livestock farm.
This new way of thinking floored me. Here was someone with a farm just like mine, and who adhered to the same grass-fed production model. Yet by using no equipment at all, he had enough profit left over at the end of the year to buy his own hay. Over the course of one afternoon, Hazard’s philosophy turned several of my farming beliefs straight on their head.
In our agricultural community, only the wealthiest, most extravagant farms ever bought hay. These farms usually had affluent owners, where no expense was spared as long as their livestock, most often horses, had the best hay available. Each winter I shook my head at the line of pickup trucks idling at the feed store, awaiting their load of premium, retail-priced hay. Invariably, the logo of a horse farm was embossed on the side of their doors.
In contrast, I had always assumed that cattle farms made their own hay all summer long. These farmers spent their time just as we did, running endless circles to get hay into the barn between rainstorms and before the autumn frost. In our part of the world, from May through September, haymaking was the only game in town.
In fact, the most respected farms of all not only made their own hay but also took pride whenever they had excess to sell. These farms set aside their finest cuttings each season, selling it to the very horse and hobby farms they privately derided. For years I had admired these operations from afar, wondering if our farm could ever match their amazing productivity, or ever hope to afford the modern tractors and equipment they owned. Now I regarded them with fresh eyes. Their productivity had to come with a high price tag.
Although it was tempting to take Gordon Hazard for his word and simply drop haying entirely, I knew it wouldn’t be that easy. First, we had no money to buy hay, even if we wanted to do so. But wait just a second, I told myself. If we really had no money, how did we continue to pay for the machinery repairs? We were tens of thousands of dollars in debt, but we still paid our diesel and tractor bills on time. If we stopped spending this money now, I asked myself, wouldn’t it be available to help purchase hay? My head spun with the circular reasoning of the conundrum.
To sort things out, I sat down with a pencil and paper. An average square bale of hay sold for 3.50 dollars. Basic math told me that, after maintenance, repairs, fertilizer, insurance, taxes, fuel, depreciation, hauling, and a modest salary of five dollars per hour, the cost for our farm to produce a single bale was nearly ten dollars.
Having made thousands upon thousands of bales myself, I didn’t believe this number could be possible, so I double- and triple-checked my math. The figure appeared correct. To top it all off, there was still a missing component, a figure I hadn’t been able to quantify: What should I charge for the soil?
The soil. It was the common denominator for every farm. Every backyard gardener understood the importance of rich soil. Fertility was what made a farm a farm instead of a desert, or a parking lot. Dirt, rain, sunshine, and seeds. It didn’t get any more basic than that.
There was no confusion in my twenty-four-year-old mind. If my production costs were ten dollars a bale, and hay was made of soil, then the actual cost must be even higher. The true price must include re-mineralizing the earth, replacing the dirt sold in the form of hay bales. Sensing I had hit on something fundamentally important, I shared my concerns with older farmers, asking them for a value, in dollars, of the earth beneath their feet. Despite my efforts, not a single farmer was willing to speculate what the price of their soil might actually be worth.
Those farmers I had admired for so many years, the ones who sold their hay, were actually selling their soil as well. They were trading their future fertility to other farms, receiving money that would have to be spent rebuilding the soil they were depleting. On the other hand, that clever old farmer Gordon Hazard was importing nutrients onto his farm, stretching his dollar beyond the economics of diesel and steel. Buying his hay, he improved his fertility year after year. His was an investment of increasing returns.
These revelations exploded like fireworks in my young mind. One path was sustainable, while the other was a road of never-ending labor, machinery, and expense. My thoughts quickly turned to the equipment we had on the farm. What did we truly need? What could we let go? As was becoming my habit, I sat down to make a list.
If I was going to haul my own livestock, I had to have transport. Truck and trailer, column one. Column two filled up quickly: mowers, planters, sprayers, balers and rakes, the disc plow, the corn picker, the forklift, the one-man hydraulic boom, and finally, four (yes, four) of our tractors. To save myself from going completely off the deep end, I retained one tractor, a four-wheel-drive, medium-horsepower machine with a large front-end loader. Nearly everything else got the boot.
I was shocked by how much money people offered for our old junk. I ran an ad for each piece of equipment, getting a hundred dollars here, a thousand dollars there. For our larger machines, the tractors especially, I had no trouble making multi-thousand-dollar transactions. By the time I was done, my grandfather’s old equipment shed sat nearly vacant.
It was a leap of faith, but so was everything else I had tried thus far. Every dollar went into a special account to buy hay the following year. Our repair and fuel costs now disappeared, and our improving pastures meant that we could graze longer into the winter, further reducing our hay requirements. As near as I could figure, we now had three times as much money as we needed to buy a year’s worth of hay.
Skeptical at first, Travis watched the equipment disappear down the road. We retained the broken-down manure spreader and the worn-out feed grinder, modifying them into a mobile chick brooder and a gravity feed bin that required no external power. Travis especially liked helping out on these creative projects, and he slowly grew to appreciate giving old implements a newly imagined purpose.
It wasn’t long before I noticed him dreaming out loud. He was mulling over a pile of old tires we had stacked beside the barn, wondering if they could somehow be bolted together and made into a pasture drag. I could almost see the wheels turning in his head.
A few months later, one rainy afternoon, we built it. Made of twenty old tires and pulled behind our one and only tractor, it obliterated fresh cow patties in the field, spreading fertilizer to help the grass to grow. Travis, craving his tractor fix, enthusiastically took to wreaking manure mayhem in the fields. I was happy to oblige. Made of leftover hardware, the drag would never need repairing, and it kept twenty junk tires out of the dump.
No repairs? Fewer bills? Less was truly beginning to feel like more.
For more from Gaining Ground, see: Free-Range Chicken Challenges.
Reprinted from Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm by Forrest Pritchard, with permission from Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press, 2013.