Stewards of the Heartlands

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Soil, Spirit, Sweat: Keys to Sustainable Family Farming

Smith Meadows Shenandoah Valley • Berryville, Virginia

“Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals.” Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1949

In the sweltering Virginia days of July, John and Kent met up in Virginia’s beautiful Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains with a modern Aldo Leopold, Forrest Pritchard. We visited his farm, Smith Meadows, to experience firsthand his principles of husbandry and agricultural ethics in our quest to chronicle sustainable family farming.

Forrest is a noted author and lecturer on ethical, sustainable farming who practices what he preaches. His book, Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food and Saving the Family Farm is a New York Times best seller. His second book, Growing Tomorrow: A Farm-to-Table Journey in Photos and Recipes garners five-star praises from editorial reviewers as “a down-to-earth look at how sustainable farming is changing the way we eat.” Forrest has become a leading light in the United States in the sustainable family farming movement and has proven how one can renovate a struggling farm, transforming it into a productive operation that produces healthy food for the local community.

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As a literature and geology major from the College of William & Mary in Virginia, Forrest shares a farming philosophy with another Virginian farmer and William & Mary graduate, Thomas Jefferson. Mr. Jefferson wrote to George Washington words that still ring true in the 21st Century:

“Agriculture ... is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute most to real wealth, good morals and happiness.”

During our time with Forrest on his farm, his passion and spirit for sustainable, ethical agriculture production was obvious and we found his enthusiasm to be inspirational.

Smith Meadows has a long heritage of 200 years. The Shenandoah Valley was the breadbasket of early America and fed the soldiers of the American Civil War. Forrest traces his lineage to the farm through seven generations as he took over operating the farm 21 years ago from his parents who could not make it profitable and had to work other jobs to subsidize the farm.

Forrest took on the daunting challenge and after much perseverance to overcome setbacks, he pulled the farm back together by returning to traditional methods and principles of husbandry. By using natural, sustainable methods to restore his pastures (paddocks in New Zealand), Forrest is turning the tide and successfully returning his farm’s depleted soil from 200-years-of-farming back into productive, fertile ground.

To return his pastures back to productive health, Forrest looked to different methods of grazing livestock. His first priority was to rebuild the depleted soil structure with organic matter and carbon for moisture retention and return essential minerals back into the ground without using expensive fertilizers and mineral additives. He investigated intensive grazing methods known as rotational and mob grazing to enhance soil and grass development.

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Rotational grazing is less intensive with animals left on larger pastures for longer periods before being moved on to other pastures. Mob grazing is based on highly intensive grazing in which animals are kept on smaller pasture sections and moved on a daily basis.

Forrest experimented with both forms of grazing his cattle, sheep and pigs and even with his free-range hens. He found that rotational grazing was less efficacious for the development of the soil, perennial grasses, and legumes. Animals tended to graze on only the tastiest plants, leaving forbs (weeds) to develop instead. This resulted in lower plant diversity, and manure and urine were far less dense, resulting in lower soil fertility.

Because returning the farm to productivity and profitability was his highest priority, Forrest found mob grazing to be more advantageous in his Shenandoah Valley environment.

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Mob grazing achieved what he needed because more intensive grazing helped cultivate the ground, discouraged weed growth, and concentrated manure and urine. These benefits improved the soil and provided the natural nutrients needed to fertilise preferred grass and nitrogen-fixing legumes while reducing weeds.

The results of Forrest’s soil development, animal management, and grazing methods over the past 21 years have allowed his farm to achieve a high status of sustainability. He has achieved success while pursuing environmental, conservation, profitability, and social goals.

This hard work and persistence has allowed Smith Meadows to market its grass-fed meat products and free-range eggs directly to consumers from its store nestled between pastures on the farm and at farmers’ markets in Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia.

The Essence of Place: The Shenandoah Valley

The Shenandoah is the fabled region of songs: O! Shenandoah and John Denver’s popular Country Roads. There is something in the valley and the river that creates an inspiration for life that is gathered in a spirit of its beauty, history and culture. The Shenandoah is a bread basket of the ages and survives in modernity. The region is bounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east and the Appalachian Mountains to the west. In between the mountain ranges lies the Shenandoah River and its fertile valley extending from Virginia into West Virginia where the river joins the Potomac River. Smith Meadows lies just east of the Shenandoah River on the Virginia and West Virginia state line.

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Smith Meadows and the Smithfield Farm Bed & Breakfast entrance on Wickcliffe Road, northeast of Berryville, Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Mountain region.

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Smith Meadows historical name is Smithfield Farm and is recognized on the National Register of Historical Places. The farm is now 200 years old.

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A view of the pastoral scene of Smithfield Lane crossing the Long Marsh Run leading into Smith Meadows and the farm’s Smithfield Farm Bed & Breakfast.

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One of the first views of the buildings of Smith Meadows along the drive into the farm.

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Smith Meadows is an active supplier in The Buy Fresh Buy Local movement in the Shenandoah Valley supported by the Virginia Extension Service and Virginia Tech.

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Driving down Smithfield Lane, the farm’s manor comes into view. It has been completely renovated and converted into the beautiful Smithfield Farm Bed & Breakfast accommodation. The farm offers guests guided tours of the farm and nature trails to explore.

The Soil, Pastures and Grazing

Returning the soil to fertility is the heart of the story of Smith Meadows. It brought the improvement of pastures, and through careful grazing methods and skilled animal husbandry, the farm established sustainability in raising livestock profitability. In photographs and text, here is the story of the key elements Forrest Pritchard brought together to rebuild the family farm.

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Forrest describes the history of the farm with its orchards (notice the old trees in the background), the depletion of soil nutrients over the 200 year history of the farm, and how he renovated the pastures with grasses and legumes to recover the soil’s organic matter, carbon and nitrogen.

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Forrest explains the necessity of having healthy ground cover to protect the soil. The farm was able to increase the carbon and organic content of soil from 1% to 5%, enabling moisture retention to increase from 20,000 gallons (75,000 litres) of water to 65,000 gallons (approx. 250,000 litres).

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This image shows the difference in the pasture usage for the free-range poultry operation. On the left is what the pasture looks like after two weeks of the hens grazing, exercising and fertilizing the ground. On the right is pasture that has recovered its growth.

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In this image are the electric-fenced lanes for the pigs to exercise and make their way to the feed troughs (out of view). The pigs root, turn over the soil, defecate, urinate and break up the soil. After two weeks, the electric fence is shifted over to new pasture to let the lanes recover their growth.

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Forrest and farmhand Alec Condon in the pastures for pig rearing that were once covered in orchards. With the farmers' management, grass and legumes have taken over. The Blue Ridge Mountains are in the background and the Shenandoah River runs in front of the hills behind the trees.

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Forrest shows an earthworm casing that disintegrated as he put it in his palm, a sure sign of healthy soil.

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A close-up of a thick ground cover of clover, a legume that Forrest relies upon to fix available nitrogen (from manure and urine) back into the soil. He uses no commercial fertilizers.

Grass-fed Beef, Lamb and Grazing Management

The key to making a success from the development of the soil, grasses and pastures is to assess the best methods to graze and raise different animal species. Animals have their distinct requirements yet maintain the health of the soil and grasses.

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Beef cattle and sheep mob grazing together after just being moved from yesterday’s pasture.

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Forrest and farmhand Alec shift a water tank over to the next pasture for the cattle and sheep after they were moved from a previously grazed pasture. Forrest laid down water lines through his different pastures to ensure drinking water was available in separate grazing sections. This allows for efficient mob grazing.

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Cattle on the move from yesterday’s pasture to the day’s new pasture. Mob grazing requires a daily move to a small section to ensure only the top chomp of grass is consumed, the bottom part is tromped to help retain moisture, and manure and urine are well concentrated on the soil. Alec uses a natural fly spray on the cattle faces as he moves through the herd.

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The cattle were not too happy leaving the shade of the previous pasture on what was a hot and humid Shenandoah Valley day. Fortunately, there was even more shade in the next pasture.

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Forrest purchases weaner calves from a neighboring farm which lessens transport stress on the animals and preserves the calves' health. His beef cattle are mostly Angus and Gelbvieh crosses which give a high quality carcass for his grass-feed beef market.

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The farm raises their own lambs from its flock of Katahdin sheep, an American breed with a coat of naturally-shedding hair. They do not need to be sheered. They are known for their fertility, meat quality and resistance to parasites.

Free-Range Pigs

Smith Meadow purchases weaner pigs from a local producer and rears them on free-range pastures to their finish weight of around 250 lbs. Most of the pigs are Berkshires, known for their high quality carcasses and preferred by chefs for their flavor, tenderness and juiciness. Forrest uses an ingenious method of free-ranging the pigs by placing their quonset hut housing and water supply some distance from their grain feeding troughs. This requires the pigs to walk through the pasture down electric-fenced lanes, working up the ground with their rooting, and leaving their manure and feces as fertilizer. The lanes are moved every two weeks, allowing grasses to regenerate growth. Over time, the entire pasture is renovated as the pigs act as bioturbulators with their digging and fertilization of the ground.

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Smith Meadow’s pig hotels, based on a quonset hut design, can be oriented according to sun and weather so they offer shade in the summer and warmth in the winter. They are placed far from the feeders so the pigs must walk to eat, forcing them to get some exercise.

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An afternoon nap in the shade.

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Alec cleans the pigs' water tank that doubles as a scratching post.

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The feed bins that the pigs must hike to in order to have a feed. The bins hold about two weeks worth of feed. The feed is locally produced and is non-GMO.

Free-Range Hens and Eggs

The farm keeps a flock of 900 hens on pasture with feeding, watering, nesting and roosting facilities that can be moved to allow pastures to recover. For ground predator protection, hens are surrounded with concentric electric fences that deter would-be predators from penetrating the facility. Baited traps are kept on the outside of the perimeter fences. For protection from aerial predators, netting is used over the laying facility. A covered roosting facility adds further protection from aerial invaders and also shelter from the sun and inclement weather.

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The farm’s free-range facility consists of nesting, roosting and shade. The structures are mobile and are moved to new pasture every two weeks.

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The farm brings in finished pullet (chicken) that are ready-to-lay rather than raising them from day-old chicks. Forrest considers chickens to be time vampires because “They suck time out of you!” A good reason to bring in reared pullets that are all vaccinated and ready to lay free-range eggs.

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A good stockman always takes time to quietly survey his animals and listen to them because critters will always tell you how they are feeling. Forrest with his flock, capturing him in that moment when he "listens" to the hens.

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The three electrified fences that keep ground predators out of the chicken yard. Foxes and coyotes are the primary problem. There are baited traps set around the perimeter to catch smaller critters.

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Alec gathers eggs during the first collection of the day. There are three collections: morning, mid-day and late afternoon. Eggs are taken to the on-site farm store where they are cleaned by hand, placed into cartons and stored under refrigeration. They are sold through the farm’s retail store and at weekend farmers’ markets in the Washington DC area.

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Alec fills the feed buckets used to fill the feed bins in the hen yard. The feed is non-GMO. Organic feed is difficult to source.

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Alec fills the hens’ feed bin in the early morning.

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Forrest climbs over the predator fence with a scissors walk. The barrier consists of three electric fences around the hen yard. You don’t want to touch and get zapped by the top wire!

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The morning's eggs have been collected and taken to the farm's store for washing and grading, and they are left to dry on the bench waiting for farm staff to place them into cartons.

Farm Maintenance

Looking after the critters is only part of the day’s work. There is general repair work for vehicles, buildings and fences. Fences and gates demand a farmer’s frequent attention. In the blistering afternoon, a brief farm staff meeting in the cooled farm store provides a short break from the summer’s heat.

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Alec and Forrest put in a new gate post. They plan to replace and repair the fencing in the background, as well, but perhaps on another day that isn’t 95 degrees Fahrenheit with 70 percent humidity.

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Alec and Forrest pull down an old fence: A tedious process of pulling out old staples, coiling up rusted barb wire (tetanus shot required!) and bringing in the ol’ big green John Deere tractor with hydraulic bucket to pull out old fence posts.

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Alec on the John Deere as they pull out the old fence.

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Alec pulls up the old fence’s strand of barbed wire.

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Forrest rolls up the old fencing and moves the bundle out of the way so the tractor can pull out the old fence posts.

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The old fence posts have been pulled out of the ground and Alec loads them into the tractor bucket to move, store and eventually recycle elsewhere on the farm. Forrest wraps up the old fencing wire.

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Forrest drives the tractor away with a load of the old fence posts to be dropped off near the barn for storage and recycling elsewhere on the farm.

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Forrest updates animal counts on the farm's wipe board in the work shop. His only three rules for working at Smith Meadows appear on the right.

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Time for a break from the hot sun in the air conditioned farm store’s kitchen with farmhands Pam Kirschner, Alec Condon and Forrest. A chance for a cold drink and a short farm staff meeting to talk about what needs to be done next.

Farm Store and Farmers’ Markets

The objective of the farmer’s enterprise, of course, is selling his production to the market to recover his costs and make a profit. Smith Meadows focuses on serving its local clients from its on-farm store. On weekends, the farm takes advantage of the growing farmers’ market outlets in Washington DC and nearby suburbs in northern Virginia and Maryland that are about a 90-minute drive from the farm. This allows them to sell direct and pick-up the middleman’s margins.

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Smith Meadow’s on-site store where all it produces is sold – on the honor system: grass-fed beef, lamb, pork, free-range eggs, a range of pastas and local jams and honey, as well as Forrest’s books.

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The farm store is unstaffed, so customers are on an honor system to buy what they need and pay with cash or credit card. A wonderful tradition that speaks volumes about trust and integrity of the folks of the Shenandoah Valley.

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The farm store's cashier's counter with no cashier to be seen because this is all on the honor system. Just write down what you are taking, calculate the bill including the sales tax, place the cash or check into the honesty box, take your change, or fill out a credit card slip and file it in the box.

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A customer checks out what’s for sale in the meat freezer in the farm store.

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Farm staff member Andrea Dove has washed each egg with care and even offers a silent blessing for each one. Here she is packaging the graded eggs collected earlier in the morning for sale in the farm store and at the weekend’s farmers’ markets.

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Cartons of free-range eggs placed into coolers which will be held in the walk-in refrigerator and ready to be trucked into the Washington, DC metropolitan area farmers’ markets on Saturday and Sunday.

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Forrest in the farm's walk-in freezer with the coolers stacked and ready to be taken to the Washington DC area weekend farmers' markets.

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A sticker on the rear bumper of the farm's delivery truck that transports products to weekend farmers' markets. A wonderful summary of Smith Meadows' farming philosophy.

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The Saturday and Sunday farmers’ markets schedule for six locations in Washington, DC and the nearby suburban markets in Virginia and Maryland. Washington DC is about a 90-minute drive from the farm, um, depending on traffic conditions.

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Smith Meadows employee Emily works the farm's stand at the Falls Church, Virginia Farmers’ Market. It is a year-round busy market with a cornucopia of local farm produce. All of the marked coolers are lined up, filled with everything the farm sells.

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Smith Meadows product list and pricing at the Falls Church, Virginia Farmers’ Market.

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Emily serves one of her customers on a busy Saturday at the Falls Church Farmers’ Market.

Summing Up Stewards First Visit to Smith Meadows

Turn two seasoned photographers loose in an environment like Smith Meadows and the Shenandoah Valley, and there's sure to be more imagery than one blog post — and its kind viewers? — can handle. Here's a video that sums up the bucolic setting of the farm and the spirits of its people and animals with a few additional images. We look forward to our next visit to Smith Meadows.

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