Getting plowed: Kristin Kimball’s captivating “Dirty Life”

Kristin Kimball on her farm in Essex, N.Y. Photo by Deborah Feingold

The first time I heard of Essex Farm, I was working a kitchen/garden internship at the Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Vermont. The school sent me to the Northeast Organic Farming Association’s 2009 conference, where I carefully chose workshops I thought would help me plan and plant a garden that would serve the school’s kitchen. It was my first farm-y job, and it didn’t fit the usual master/apprentice approach: I had people I could ask questions, but there was no master — just me. I was in a little over my head, and I was nervous. But that didn’t stop me from taking a detour from what I thought was practical to a workshop that thoroughly intrigued me even though the people running it sounded insane.

The workshop was titled “Everything But Sushi” with a subtitle something like “Essex Farm’s Full-Diet, Year-Round, Free-Choice, Horse-Powered Membership Model.”  When I walked into the room, a very tall man (Mark Kimball) was racing around, occasionally laughing loudly and smacking large Post-It papers on the wall that diagramming their model. A very petite woman (Kristin Kimball) was quietly and steadily working with him, handing him Post-Its and organizing notes on a laptop. The room was packed: people were standing, sitting, and overflowing into the hallways.

Mark opened the workshop by telling us his goal was to be so persuasive, and dispel any of our concerns so convincingly, that we would all leave and start our own full-diet, year-round, free-choice, horse-powered membership farms. He then launched into the presentation at break-neck speed, covering each of the four categories like a fiery minister hammering a sermon home. On 500 acres in northeastern New York, Kristin and Mark raise beef cattle, pigs, chickens (meat and egg), grow vegetables, grains and some fruit, milk a small herd of Jerseys, and make maple syrup for 75 lucky CSA members.

Kristin spoke briefly but passionately throughout; Mark mentioned at one point that she was working on a book about the farm. I left with pages full of notes and a mixture of heady inspiration, deflation that I was feeling so overwhelmed by a measly 5,500 square feet of growing space, and confirmation that these people were indeed crazy.

Later, I had the chance to visit the farm as part of a class and left tottering under gifts (as Kristin describes many times in the book), loaded down with vegetables, lard, milk, and Mark’s soliloquies on farming and living well. I couldn’t wait for the book Mark had mentioned to be published–I really wanted to hear Kristin’s side of Essex Farm.

The poetry of the plow

Well, The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love came out in October, and I finally got my hands on it recently. I couldn’t put it down. It’s a sensual and captivating read, full of rich imagery of both beauty and disaster. It’s much more than a book about a farm; it’s a fascinating and unflinching peek into two imperfect, yet determined people’s lives. The commitments they make to each other, to an idea, and to their piece of land are not described with the offhanded relaxation of hindsight. Her new life comes to her the way children are born: yes, there’s the wonder of it all, but there’s no avoiding the pain. That’s not to say there is no tenderness in the book, as there’s plenty.

Kristin offers a riddle on page 211, asking why farming is like a relationship. Her answer, “Because you don’t reap what you sow. That’s a lie. You reap what you sow, hill, cultivate, fertilize, harvest, and store.”

A self-described “snobby urban hedonist,” Kristin was lured to a completely different life and culture in a matter of months by a driven man and the appeal of the hard work of growing food. The gentle buffer offered to her in the transition is the brimming generosity of her new community, from the kinds of people she had probably previously assumed didn’t have much to offer anyone, and the enchantment of what good dirt can bring to fruition with your toil.

“I was fundamentally happier, I found, with my focus on the ground,” she writes. “For the first time, I could clearly see the connection between my actions and their consequences. I knew why I was doing what I was doing, and I believed in it. I felt the gap between who I thought I was and how I behaved begin to close, growing slowly closer to authentic…I was beginning to learn something about the peace you can find inside an infinite challenge.”

In the book, their first year swings between incredibly depressing blows and lows, and breathlessly beautiful highs. From the experiences I’ve had farming over the past few years, it’s a fitting description.

The mystical beauty of working the land puts lightness into your step for a few hours, or even a couple days, then punishing weather or the unexpected behavior of the animals weighs down your heart because there’s no getting around having to deal with it. The middle ground is the steadiness of the work, the routine of chores, the times when you’re doing what needs to be done and bad weather doesn’t happen or the animals don’t get out. Sometimes those times seem almost not worth noting, so low on the excitement scale in comparison, that it can be tough to remember to pay much attention to them. You get wrapped up in the flow, and that’s the seduction of the work of farming: the steadiness and routine strengthen body and brain. Your body’s prowess,  once it’s used to your requests of it, becomes delightful; the agility of your brain as it works its way around an obstacle becomes exhilarating.

Kristin illuminates such times with paragraphs that are sheer poetry. One of my favorite passages describes them planting potatoes in the dark with their horses:

The moon rose, but it was no help—a pale splinter flanked by the fat spring Venus…I couldn’t see where the rows started anymore. I was about to yell to Mark that we had to quit and go in when I realized Sam knew exactly what we were doing and could see better than I could in the dark. Soon as we rounded a turn, I’d give him a loose line and he’d find the right place at the top of the row and stop…When I asked them to step up, the potatoes were right where they were supposed to be, passing between my feet, vague white orbs in deep shadow, and I had nothing to do with it. We finished the whole field that way, the horses’ backs steaming in the chilly night air. To this day I don’t know why they work for us so willingly. They are big enough to say no, but they keep saying yes, even at the end of a long day, even in the dark.

And because I can’t resist — here’s Kristen on compost: “I think it’s worth it, for wonder’s sake, to stick your hand in a compost pile in winter and be burned by a series of suns that last set the summer before.”

And on milking: “There is no better lesson in commitment than the cow. Her udder knows no exceptions or excuses. She must be milked, or she’ll suffer from her own fullness…your cow is the frame in which you must fit your days, the 12-hour tether beyond which you may no longer travel. What she gives you in exchange for your commitment is impressive. She is the cornerstone of the farm, the great converter. She takes grass—that ubiquitous terrestrial plankton—and uses the four-part trick of rumination to unlock its cellulose, release its energy.”

Fast-food farmers

One of the major dangers — and ironies — of farming sustainably is that it’s easy to focus on the health of everything on the farm except for the people. Obsessing over worm counts in the soil, the mineral line in a cow’s back, the thick stalk and bright color of the tomato, the health of the bottom line can be all-consuming, but it’s somehow very easy to forget about the people who are taking care of it all, shouldering the responsibility to feed others.

As Kristin writes, “If you’re not careful, a farm can coerce you into thinking that you don’t even have time to cook the very food you grow. There were weeks that spring when Mark and I would end our days so late and so exhausted we’d drive to town for a bag of chips and a pizza, one with a flabby crust and insipid sauce. I could live with dirty clothes, I was avoiding the wedding plans anyway, and to be honest, I’d never been much of a duster of furniture, but if I wasn’t going to get to eat our food, there was no point in going on.”

A few pages later, she connects the importance of maintaining physical and emotional health while farming to its reflection on your spiritual health: “A farm is a form of expression, a physical manifestation of the inner life of its farmers. The farm will reveal who you are, whether you like it or not. That’s art.”

The book is about her coming to farming, but it’s also about the relationship that brought her there. The fiery love that she forsook her whole life for troubles her as their wedding day looms larger. I think anyone who’s led an independent life but unexpectedly falls madly in love with someone else can relate to the ambivalence you feel as you teeter on the edge of the death of your old life. It’s essential to let go of that old life if you really want the new one, but oh, it’s hard. “I don’t know why nobody talks about it,” Kristen writes. “Marriage asks you to let go of a big chunk of who you were before, and that loss must be grieved. A choice for something and someone is a choice against absolutely everything else, and that’s one big fat goodbye.”

Her frank inclusion of the realities of her relationship and the small fears that plague her make this book stand out from the current crop of I-fell-in-love-with-a-farm stories, ones that usually give you some yummy meat to chew on but skip the part about slaughter.

5 Responsesto “Getting plowed: Kristin Kimball’s captivating “Dirty Life””

  1. Kim Sanwald says:

    Well written review of a book I had passed up before and will now read. Farming is not for everyone, yet those who farm often love it. Do what you love, love what you do. Thank God there are people who are committed to bringing quality farm products to the masses.

  2. Mary Kramer says:

    Loved this book. My husband bought it for my birthday last October…right after it was published. I read in in 2 days and have reread bits and pieces, favorite chapters, since then. Recently, I loaned it to a friend and I think it’s time to retrieve it…I’m experiencing withdrawal. I think it would made a terrific screenplay!! How about it, Kristin?

  3. I’m still swooning over this book, weeks after reading it. This was a great, well-written review!

  4. Sharon Smith says:

    Yes, this book is absolutely amazing! I couldn’t put it down and would find myself cranky if interrupted. There is something about the voice that is captivating. It beautifully describes why we feel that pull in our gut to live such a life, but it doesn’t gloss over all the reasons it’s an endangered way of life. I just can’t say enough about how much I love this book. If you have been hesitating for any reason, please read it. For me at least, it’s been life changing.

  5. Molly Harris says:

    I run an on-line farmers market program in Richmond Virginia and every year hold a mid winter producers meeting. Last year we had 75 small farm and business owners come out for a full day workshop and meeting. This year our meeting will be Tuesday February 28 and we have had requests for Kristin Kimball to be our keynote speaker.

    If there is a possibility of making this happen, please contact me back at the above email or call (804) 334-2439. We look forward to hearing from you.

    Thank you, Molly Harris