The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food and Love

The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food and Love By Kristin Kimball Scribner, 2010 Hardcover, 288 pages, $25
The Dirty Life:
On Farming, Food and Love
By Kristin Kimball
Scribner, 2010
Hardcover, 288 pages, $25

KRISTIN KIMBALL’S The Dirty Life is the story of an urban, highly educated woman and how she moved to the Adirondacks and learned to be a farmer. Instead of worrying about commuting and her 401K, now she thinks about the weather and whether the hogs are warm enough. This profound shift in priorities puts her in touch with a way of living and thinking that most Americans know nothing about, but these are “the kind of thoughts that have occupied the majority of the human race—the agrarians—for most of the history of the world.”

She and her husband, Mark, operate a farm in Essex County that sells shares to members—part of the nationwide movement known as community-supported agriculture (CSA). They feed a hundred people, and they do it without pesticides or herbicides. They milk their own cows and slaughter their own hogs and cattle. They work hard, and they also derive contentment and exhilarating satisfaction from their labor and their life together. Farming is incredibly demanding, but “it gives back, so bountifully it overfills not only your root cellar but also that parched and weedy little path we call the soul.”

Like Henry David Thoreau, who lived in a small cabin on Walden Pond in the 1840s and then wrote a deeply introspective and illuminating book about his time there, Kristin Kimball describes the first year of her life on the farm and asks us to join her in pondering what really matters. Is it the latest electronic toy, or learning how your muscles respond to truly hard work? Is it staying out till four in the morning at a trendy Manhattan club, or getting up at four to feed the stock? Unlike Thoreau, however, Kimball has a loving partner, and throughout this moving book, she interweaves and explicates the often surprising, always intriguing parallels between the “two love affairs that interrupted the trajectory of [her] life: one with farming—that dirty concupiscent art—and the other with a complicated and exasperating farmer.”

At the beginning of this saga, Kimball lives in the East Village— single, working long hours as freelance editor and writer, participating, often with minimal enthusiasm, in the New York bar-anddating scene. One summer day, she drives to State College, Pennsylvania, to interview a young farmer for an article on organic agriculture. Mark is a talented, committed organic farmer, but he is working land that belongs to someone else and contemplating getting his own place. Mark is also smart, well educated, well traveled, optimistic, and ambitious—but in a low-key, spiritual way—with an uncanny knack for bringing out the best in the people around him. More than anything else, Mark lives as much as possible outside the consumer culture, preferring secondhand or homemade to new, distrusting everything made of plastic and almost everything not made by his own hands.

Kristin Kimball gave up life in the city to become a farmer.
Kristin Kimball gave up life in the city to become a farmer.
Courtesy of Scribner

What hope is there for a happy union between a city girl like Kristin and a rural iconoclast like Mark, even though the chemistry is promising from the start? But it’s far more than infatuation with an intelligent, good-looking guy with firm abs (which, according to Kimball, Mark most assuredly is and has). It’s also what Mark does and what he stands for; it’s the way he lives in the physical world of animals, crops, and dirt. He engages everything earthy in a way that habitués of the East Village can only imagine. His crops, his animals, the weather—these and so much else have a meaning and day-to-day significance to him that the urban or suburban shells where most of us spend our days cannot provide.

Not only that, he’s a cook of heroic skill, and his superb culinary talents are integral to the courtship that eventually includes his inviting her to leave the city and join him in marriage and look for a piece of land where they might carve out a life together.

By way of New Paltz, where they live for a spell during their search, they eventually pick up a lead on a farm near Lake Champlain. The first encounter with Essex Farm is not promising: the weather is dreary, and the buildings are run-down. But when Mark pokes his shovel into one of the fields, he comes up with a rich, coffeecolored loam. He even tastes it, and he knows that this place has potential.

What follows is a detailed, passionate account of what it’s like to farm in a way that modern commercial American agriculture has largely dismissed. Mark and Kristin decide they will put together a new sort of CSA. They will provide their shareholders with all the food they need; in addition to the vegetables that most CSAs furnish, they will keep livestock and run a dairy. And they will do all this with a minimum of fossil fuels and chemicals. This means draft horses, milking by hand, and repairing buildings and tools on their own.

Kimball and her husband raise and slaughter their own hogs.
Kimball and her husband raise and slaughter
their own hogs.

Kristin is a fast and enthusiastic learner, open to anything, honest about her skills or lack thereof. Her account of learning to milk a cow—it takes a month of cramped hands and spilled milk to get it down—is a model of candor and good writing. After that comes figuring out how to make butter and a variety of cheeses. In addition to coming to understand the farm and farming, Kimball looks into the heart of small-town American culture. Church potlucks and rural amiability, along with a current of sexism and doubts among some of the locals that the newcomers will last, color the first year in Essex. They make many friends, and one neighbor in particular believes they are on precisely the right course. His philosophy is the same as theirs: “Keep it local. Feed yourselves, feed your neighbors.”

Their first year on the farm is no romantic dream. Life is full of manure, blood, and uncooperative animals. The farmhouse is infested with rats. New kittens are killed by a weasel. Inevitably, misgivings about the viability of the whole scheme creep in. But Mark’s vision of their future never falters. And it soon becomes clear that Kristin’s calling in life, notwithstanding her Harvard education, was to be a farmer. Inexperienced, initially lacking the most basic knowledge, she takes to it instinctively. The work is backbreaking and smelly, but “I had never cared so much about anything in my life.” One of her chief skills is handling horses, and she spends hours manipulating plows and harrows behind a team of draft horses.

So well does she adapt, in fact, that it doesn’t take long for her early inclination to defer to Mark to become stubborn insistence on doing things her way. Conflict eases when they get their first subscribers, and it begins to look like the whole experiment might actually work.

The year proceeds with incredible work at the height of summer, much hindered when one of their horses comes up lame. Kristin and Mark calculate that they need five thousand bales of hay to get their animals through the winter; weeds get out of hand, but they are saved by the helpful intervention of neighbors. The list of chores is endless. Days are never long enough. Sleep is always postponed. But the crops come in.

Mark prepares the draft horses for a day’s work.
Mark prepares the draft horses for a day’s work.
Photos by Pat Hendrick

The book wraps up with their wedding, at the end of their first year on the farm. The ceremony, of course, takes place on the farm and is a chaotic, largely unplanned event. “Our wedding day was exactly like our marriage, and like our farm, both exquisite and untidy, sublime and untamed.” But, perhaps not surprisingly, right after the marriage a hint of buyer’s remorse sets in, and Kristin accepts a month-long writing gig in Hawaii. Mercifully for her readers, who by this time are rooting enthusiastically for the farm and the marriage, the time away from Essex Farm seals the deal, and she can’t wait to get home, where the CSA continues to attract shareholders and where they have been joined by their daughter Jane, born in their farmhouse.

The Dirty Life is a book for readers who need to know where their food comes from and how it was produced, who appreciate a simple but vitally important tale of people conscientiously cultivating their inner lives and the land that sustains them. If we are to help this depleted, ragged, and abused earth recover from the atrocities visited upon it by our species, it will be people like Kristin and Mark who show us the way. If we’re lucky, they’ll also cook dinner for us.