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.
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.”
They are told, “with varying degrees of tact,” that they are bound to fail. Their goal is not just to provide a full food supply for customers, but to do it largely through old-fashioned physical labor; using draft horses, for instance, rather than tractors, and milking by hand rather than machine.
“I didn’t understand enough about farming at that point to grasp how audacious this plan was,” Kimball wrote. “And I still harbored a little of the urbanite’s hubris, the feeling that with my education and worldly experience something as simple as farming couldn’t possibly tax me all that much.” Through plowing and milking, harvesting and maple sugaring, she comes to understand.
We know from the prologue that the fledgling farm – and Kimball’s marriage – will survive. Other hints of the future appear throughout, as when a stranger brings the couple into a warm church dinner after their first grim glance of the lonely farm property. “The man who found us on the bench was Wayne Bailey. A few years later his wife, Donna, would knit a pink sweater with white piping for our infant girl, with a little cap to match.”
In some books, such flashes from the future would short-circuit the dramatic tension.
Here, we almost need that knowledge to soften the frustrating days and nights Kimball describes, to allay our worries that she will not learn fast enough or love hard enough for the happy ending we want to see. And by that end, she’s given us a taste of a life that makes us appreciate the hard-won food we all eat and the sense of purpose and connection so many of us crave.
There is difficulty, there is dirt, there is an all-consuming effort that finally “gives back, so bountifully it overfills not only your root cellar but also that parched and weedy little patch we call the soul.”