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.
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.
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:
“I started as a waiter 30-and-some years ago. I think I was a good waiter because I’m always very calm and not much bothers me. Things happen constantly, and you just need the ability to keep going and trying to keep calm and so on. I think I’m pretty good at it at this point. I may be screaming on the inside….”
"With raw milk, “I think I was one of the very few people who was in the middle on that, where I liked it but didn’t love it, and I understood the problems with it but I also understood there was some benefit to it. I liked being in the middle. Both ends of it were ridiculous … and there was no middle for them to come to.”
On the responsibility of keeping cows, with a milking ritual that the book says has “become my practice – in the Buddhist sense of the word":
"Every day of my life, I do the same thing, in exactly the same way.... Ninety-nine times out of 100 that Zen experience is very positive. One percent of them are just hell, it’s frozen or the power’s out, or there’s so much rain. It’s hard to present that as writing about reality, that doesn’t sound like you’re whining.”
On why he didn’t give in to the temptations of giving up the farm and returning to city life:
“I’m very, very stubborn, and I don’t like to lose – ever. I stick with almost anything, I’ll stick with it and learn it and make it right. I’ve certainly often been tempted … to say I can’t do this anymore. Cheese has been another challenge. It’s incredibly complicated, far more so than I anticipated, to make a consistent excellent cheese every day in different seasons and different conditions.”
On the next book he hopes to write:
“A cookbook that starts on the land. [For instance]: ‘These are cows, this is what they are fed, this is how they are slaughtered and butchered. Now we have 25 different cuts of meat and here’s what we are going to do with it.’
"Food doesn’t show up at the grocery store independently. It’s a really weird paradigm we’ve created. I want to break that down a little, and explain where these things come from, and how they’re cooked and manipulated.”
On the future, and why he is ending the farmhouse dinners that kept Kurtwood financially sustainable in the early years:
“I’ve done it…. I realize that, as is my nature, I have to stop it or I’ll just go through the motions….
"Maybe it’s a function of age. I’m 48, and life is really short and we’re just flying through it. I don’t want to do anything that’s rote and predictable at this point. I like projects that are 5 years and 10 years long, and I’m challenged, and I can learn something new....”
“I want to always be standing on that cliff, looking over, and not sure how it’s going to work.”