Eggs are a special kind of magic. Forged from grass, worms, insects, and grain in the mysterious depths of the hen, they appeared like gems in the nest box each day, cased in flawless shells that were both fragile and strong. You have to put a hen-warm egg against your lips to fully appreciate its particular texture. Inside the perfect packaging lurks its slightly creepy embryonic truth. It’s an animal nut, not life yet, but the rich seed of life. It holds the instructions for feather and nail, beak and brain, scratch and cluck, lacking only a little more magic to make it so—the heat of maternal love.
— Kristin Kimball, on page 61 of “Good Husbandry.”
By STEPHEN LONGMIRE
Kristin Kimball owns and runs Essex Farm, in the Champlain Valley, with her husband Mark. Simon & Schuster recently published her second memoir about her family’s life on the farm, “Good Husbandry,” a sequel to her 2010 bestseller, “The Dirty Life.” What follows is a question-and-answer exchange that Stephen Longmire conducted with Kimball for the Adirondack Explorer.
SL: A big subject in “Good Husbandry” is your changing relationship to the farm, as you became a mother. Your two daughters have both been in school for several years. What is your role on the farm now?
KK: Our girls are 9 and 12 now and my role on the farm shifts depending on what the farm needs, what the family needs, and where I am in the writing and publishing process. Mark and I are equal partners in the farm so I am involved in the major management decisions, but not the day-to-day details. Mark works out the daily priorities and makes a schedule of tasks and chores in collaboration with our crew at the morning meeting, every weekday at 6 a.m.
Among other things I handle lambing season for our flock of Dorset sheep, and coordinate shearing day. I also manage breeding for the dairy cow herd, and am the artificial inseminator for our cows. I sometimes join in for routine vet work, but Anne Brown, who has been with us for over five years, is the smart and experienced manager of everything on the animal side of the farm, so she’s on top of it. I consult with her and her team on anything unusual that comes up, and, livestock being livestock, that happens quite often.
Read Stephen Longmire’s article about changes in Adirondack farming, from the January/February Adirondack Explorer.
SL: What is your writing process? Members of Essex Farm enjoy your weekly farm notes, which read as a diary of the farm. You’ve now written two memoirs about the farm; one about its start-up years (a love story), one covering a longer, more difficult period of its growth into maturity, and your own. Do the farm notes help you tell your story? At what point in the process did you know what this book would focus on?
KK: I try to keep good notes on what happens on the farm in real time (and the weekly farm notes, which are posted on our web site, are part of that record), but based on the last two books it seems to take a few years for that raw material to distill into story. I haven’t been able to see the shape of the narrative until I have some distance from it.
My best writing hours are early morning, before anyone else is up, and before the farm starts throwing curveballs at us. And when I have a deadline, I tend to disappear entirely. When I was finishing the manuscript for “Good Husbandry” I checked into a cheap motel in Plattsburgh for four days of uninterrupted work. It was wildly productive.
SL: This book covers a decade or more, but doesn’t bring us up to date. What is the story of your present life on the farm? Or do we need to wait for the next book to find out?
KK: The present hasn’t distilled into story yet! I suspect there’s another Essex Farm memoir in the future, but I’d like to write other things before that.
SL: How often do you leave the farm? It sounds from your books like it has a pretty strong gravitational field. Where do you go when you do leave?
KK: “Good Husbandry” came out in October and I have been traveling around the Northeast a bit since then, for readings and publicity events. I have some speaking gigs coming up in the next few months (I speak at conferences, universities, etc.) and will probably also do some West Coast events when the paperback edition comes out next spring. I am hoping to get to the UK when they publish “Good Husbandry” in January. I still love to travel but I get homesick quickly for the food here at home. I love cooking and eating what we grow, I love eating with my family. It is the most consistent delight of my farm life, and I only get it at home.
SL: “Good Husbandry” includes refreshingly frank discussions of marital stress – of a sort you rightly suspect is more widespread than most public conversations let on. You tell us in the book that your husband Mark is not concerned what others think of him, but did you worry how he would react to your publishing this narrative? The title suggests you thought it over.
KK: Mark is generous about letting me tell the story of our farm and marriage. He has always whole-heartedly supported me as a writer. He reads everything before it goes to my editor, and I would take out anything he objected to, but he hasn’t ever objected. He doesn’t always agree with my point of view but is also willing to let it be my story. That’s a really tricky thing about memoir – you take the raw material of life and shape it into a story, and it’s inherently one-sided, one person’s perspective. I suspect, if our roles were reversed, I’d be up in his grill trying to control what he said about us, but he has never done that. I’m really grateful for that.
SL: How has having New York City members changed Essex Farm? At this point, I understand half the membership lives there.
KK: Not half the membership, but about half the farm’s gross income comes from non-local members now. It gave us a larger potential market and much-needed source of revenue as more direct-market farms came into our region over the last 10 years. With more farms, and the same size market, something had to change. Making a living at farming is always a challenge, markets grow and shrink, consumers’ desires change, and we all need to stay nimble if we want to make it work. Even more so if we want to attempt to do it in a small scale, socially just and environmentally sustainable sort of way.
SL: How has the influx of Amish families to the Champlain Valley changed the farm? I believe you have some Amish people working for you?
KK: Shortage of labor is a perpetual problem in agriculture and our farm is a very labor-intensive place. It has been great to have a new pool of hard-working agriculturally-minded people here. It’s not simple – we have to work around cultural and religious constraints that don’t always fit neatly with what the farm needs – but it has been really satisfying to get to know the new Amish community well. And of course it is great to have access to the wealth of knowledge they bring about draft horses and draft horse equipment.
SL: Now that the Essex Farm Institute is part of the Adirondack Council, what impact does it have on the farm?
KK: No direct impact on the farm. The Essex Farm Institute and Essex Farm are completely different entities. Mark and I founded EFI, along with a group of like-minded people, in order to support farmers in our region in working toward economic viability, social justice, and environmental responsibility. Thanks to a wonderful board and generous donors it grew beyond us and eventually found a great home with the Adirondack Council, with Racey Henderson at the helm. The Council recognizes the vital role sustainable agriculture has in the life of the Adirondack Park and has brought so much expertise and support to the Institute’s mission. I get chills thinking about what could happen now. We are really happy about it and are looking forward to watching what comes next.
SL: A big subject in your new book is the difficult decision you made to limit the access farm workers had to your home, once you had children. Do you think of yourself as a private person? How do you navigate the space between privacy and the self-revelation that informs your writing?
KK: Isn’t that a tricky thing? Yes, I’m quite a private person, and compared to Mark I’m a big introvert. It’s complicated. Part of the trick is to sort of turn off the conscious awareness that what I’m writing all by myself in a quiet room is going to be read by a lot of people. And by the time it is a book the tension between public and private is manageable because it’s something crafted and not just me spewing feelings. Also, beyond my desire for privacy, I want to connect with people, and you can only do that if you share your deep truth, so you have to find a way. And remember that memoir is one aspect of one period of one’s life, shaped into story, so what is eventually on the page is something quite different from the whole real life person, or the whole real life marriage, and there is some sort of privacy in being in control of that. Finally, the writer in me knows it’s not going to be good writing if the story is shined up or if the deep or difficult parts are shaded from view, so the writer in me overrides the private person in me.
SL: A longtime member of the farm said to me years ago, “Kristin would like to have 50 members and Mark would like to have 500.” It was meant as a joke, but I imagine it has some truth. Does it seem fair, as a quick summary of the challenges you describe in growing the farm?
KK: Yes, in that I tend to be the brakes and Mark the gas on any sort of change. But I think Mark and I complement each other. If either of us got exactly what we wanted all the time, the farm would be a very different thing than it is now, and maybe wouldn’t have survived. But somehow in compromise it has found a shape that feels, for the most part, good and right, and is always, always delicious.