A dirty love story

‘The Dirty Life’ explores the birth of a farmer
by Rachel Turiel

Kristin Kimball, co-owner of Essex Farms in New York and author of The Dirty Life, was not looking for a life of physical labor, tethered to one small microcosm of land before she met Mark, the farmer who changed everything. Kimball was living in a coveted Manhattan rent-controlled apartment, scraping by as a freelance travel writer, often lonely, “caffeinated and frazzled” and trying to convince herself that this was all normal.
It was late August – harvest season – when Kimball drove six hours north to interview a farmer for a story about the explosion of interest in local organic food. Mark, muscled, fit and a blur of movement, greeted Kimball in the kitchen of his trailer – bursting with colorful and unpackaged food – and then dashed off on urgent farm business, promising Kimball an interview later. He directed her toward his intern hoeing rows of broccoli.
Kimball notes two impressions in her notebook: “First, this is a man. All the men I knew were cerebral. Second, I can’t believe I drove all this way to hoe broccoli for this dude.”
That night, the interview was shelved for a pig slaughter. Kimball, a vegetarian for 13 years, assisted because “being on Mark’s farm without helping felt as unnatural as jumping into a lake and not swimming.” Kimball found herself not disgusted but “strangely enlivened … by the hard white purse of the stomach, the neat coil of intestines … the still-bright heart.” The next morning she ate cornmeal pancakes and pork sausage with the farm crew, stating as matter-of-factly as if reporting on the weather: “and that was the end of my life as a vegetarian.”
After spending three days on Mark’s farm, watching cows graze on lush pasture, chickens scratching around in the compost, and eating food so fresh dirt still clung to it, Kimball wrote, “It all seemed so much simpler than I imagined. Dirt plus water plus sun plus sweat equaled food … I felt of all damn things, safe. Planes could crash into buildings, jobs could disappear, oil could run dry, but here, at least, we would eat.”
When Mark (whose last name we never hear until he marries Kimball and takes her last name), finally stopped moving long enough to give Kimball an interview, he unleashed a torrent of articulate and radical ideas. He was against plastic first, but now is suspicious of all metals he can’t mine and smelt himself. He believes in second-hand everything, including underwear. He finds the economic system boring and dysfunctional. He imagines a farm where no money exchanges hands, where goods and favors flow from a place of surplus to a place of need.
While Kristin Kimball listened to this farmer, considering narrative possibilities for her article, Mark was hearing a “persistent and annoying little voice” in his head. It said: you’re going to marry this woman.
Essex Farm has 100 subscribers paying $2,900 annually for membership in their year-round CSA. The farm is a “whole diet farm,” providing enough diversity and quantity of food to live on, assuming you can get by without chocolate, coffee or Cheetos. The CSA members receive throughout the year: pork, beef, chicken, eggs, milk, flour, dried beans, grains, maple syrup, flowers, herbs and 40 different vegetables.
Kimball doesn’t sugarcoat farming life. In fact, reading her “memoir of farming, food and love,” will not likely inspire you to start up your own farm. Their cattle get mites and then dysentery, the work day pushes the boundaries of daylight on both ends, turkeys are picked off by raccoons, blight steals 3 tons of crops, and just as the farm is in gorgeous full bloom, so are the weeds.
Woven between the tales of pre-dawn milking and ushering a litter of baby pigs through winter, is a love story. Mark and Kristin as a couple are almost as preposterous as tackling “a whole diet farm” with horse-drawn machinery and a deflated savings account. Mark, who has never smoked, drank, cussed or downed a can of soda fuels himself on optimism and wholesome physical labor. He became a farmer because of his desire to have access to fresh, quality food. In her old life, Kristin’s exercise came from regular games of pinball; her fridge contained the Manhattan phone book and a bottle of Polish vodka.
Kimball’s writing is both gorgeously lyrical and as practical as someone who uses every part of a slaughtered cow: kidneys, testicles and tongue (which she does). She leads the reader intimately through the birth of the farm, the fiery courtship, and not only does the preposterous begin to appear plausible, but you will find yourself rooting for this unlikely couple, whose calendar reads, in the same October square: wedding and 50 chicks arrive.
There are other great books on farming, like Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a story full of gardening successes stacked up like a year of bank deposit slips. If Kingsolver is a cheerleader for the local foods movement, Kimball is a straight-shooting friend who will tell you the gritty, bloody, dirty truth.
Kimball says, in the prologue to The Dirty Life, “A farm asks, and if you don’t give enough, the primordial forces of death and wildness will overrun you. So naturally you give, and then you give some more, and then you give to the point of breaking, and then and only then it gives back, so bountifully it overflows not only your root cellar but also that parched and weedy little patch we call the soul.”
This inspiring and delightful book, written within the fever of a year-round farm, is as much a miracle as a seed itself, dropped into the soil as an inert speck and transformed into nourishing food.