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The Dirty Life

What happens when a Manhattanite in a white designer blouse meets an exasperatingly idealistic organic farmer.

By Rebekah Denn / December 21, 2010

The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love By Kristin Kimball Scribner 288 pp.,$25


Farming memoirs are nothing new, and neither are accounts of city slickers recharged by a move to the country. Kristin Kimball tends her own unique plot, though, in The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love, her leap from single freelance writer to married full-time farmer.

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Kimball’s journey began when she drove from Manhattan to Pennsylvania to interview a young organic farmer for a story on the hot topic. Kimball, a Harvard graduate, was a mildly lactose-intolerant longtime vegetarian wearing a white designer blouse. Mark, a hardworking, “complicated and exasperating” idealist, set her hoeing broccoli because he was too busy to sit for an interview. That summer night, she helped him slaughter a pig. By winter, they were engaged.

Kimball gave up her apartment in the East Village, and the couple created a new life together at Essex Farm in upstate New York, a 500-acre property where their goal was to offer a “whole diet” service providing everything from meat and milk to vegetables and grains. The memoir covers the year where they establish the property, farm their first harvest, and plan their own wedding.

One of Kimball’s strengths is that she is not a dilettante in either career. As well as she now might know disc harrowing or haymaking, she’s also a skilled reporter, with a preternatural ability to document details of her untutored former self. (Normally I would ascribe the specificity to careful note-taking, but no one who reads her account of grueling workdays would think she had time.) Her experience as a travel writer surely helped her explain the customs and kindnesses of her new rural hometown and her new profession, which first appeared virtually a foreign land. “I would have felt more at home in Istanbul, Rome, or Yangon,” she wrote.

The story is a double romance, between her and the farm as well as her and Mark, and it’s hard to say which was the more difficult to sustain. As she wrote, “We woke up and fell asleep talking about stock, seeds, drainage, tools, or how to eke another minute out of the day.... Our bodies were so tired. Sometimes, in the brief moment between bed and sleep, we’d touch our fingertips together, an act we cynically called farmer love.”


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