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Growing a Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the Land

Kurt Timmermeister talks about his new memoir, his life on the land, and why he chose to build a farm from the ground up.

By Rebekah Denn / January 12, 2011


Even on days when the headlines don’t bring horrors, a book like Kurt Timmermeister’s Growing A Farmer provides a sense of calm and wonder. It’s the story of how a Seattle chef turned a bramble-covered patch of land into paddocks and orchards. It’s also a finely observed education in ethics and animals, crops and cheesemaking, an up-and-down journey that transformed land into a farm and a man into a farmer.

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Timmermeister didn’t set out to write a book, and said “if you call me a writer, I’m extremely flattered.” The memoir’s spark came from the newsletter he sent to customers who dined on home-grown meals at his Kurtwood Farms on Vashon Island. Seattle food writer Hsiao-Ching Chou was on his mailing list, told him “You should do something with this,” and helped him secure a deal with Maria Guarnaschelli at W. W. Norton, the high-profile editor whose projects included the revised “Joy of Cooking”.

As the book’s Jan. 17 publication date approached, I spoke with Timmermeister about writing and life:

On how a farmer finds time to write:

"My attention span is very, very short, which is why I used to run a restaurant and now I own a farm. It was written in 30 minute, an hour, maybe two-hour increments. There are little bits of time that are always available in the middle of the day, and somehow I patched it together.

“I wasn’t making as much cheese then. I was selling milk at the time. The technical challenge was that there’s a point where the book has to be finished, and yet the farm changes every year, so that the book you have sitting there is not about this farm any longer. There are no sheep here any longer. I don’t sell raw milk any more….There had to be a point where I just stopped the clock.”

On how accidental and unreplicable his farming journey was – starting out when land was cheap, working his way through various harvests and herds without a specific plan:

“That’s the way I do most things. I don’t plan that much, I’m just, “Oh, I’ll try this and see how it works.” There are people I see that … plan endlessly. I have a cook who works for me who wants to open a restaurant, and is always looking for the perfect space and the perfect investor. He’s like 34 now. I said, 'You’re late already! Stop looking for that [perfect thing], just do something.' ”

On building his farm from the ground up:

“You can skip a few steps, but I think it’s valuable to not [do that]. I think it’s valuable to spend that time making those mistakes, and paying the price.”

On the book’s frank but reasoned discussions of hot-button topics like selling raw milk or restricting pigs to farrowing crates:

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