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On love and farming: The dirty life

Kristin Kimball is an accidental agrarian. A reporter in her early thirties living in New York City, she fell for a farmer in upstate New York–the subject of a story she was writing–and then fell in love with farming with him at Essex Farm. She tells the story of leaving the city to grow food and more in her new book The Dirty Life, a compelling memoir that gives insight into the growing young farmer movement in America.

You will dig The Dirty Life if you are simply curious about how young farmers are making a go at it, breaking the industrial mold, and rebuilding our agricultural system one farm, one community at a time. And if you are a young farmer, there is plenty here to learn from as Kimball weaves her story together with elegant, and at times playful, prose. It’s also possible that reading The Dirty Life will spark an interest in farming and farmers, even if you’ve never tended a flower bed (making it a great read for the parents of young farmers, who might not quite understand why their college-educated son or daughter would want to put their hands in the dirt for a living).

But you will certainly be unable to put the book down if you are like me–a city dweller who dreams of owning and growing on a patch of land someday. In fact, should find yourself in that position, reading this book could be downright painful. You see, a farm requires your senses to be awake. And the trials of the farm, while frustrating, read like an adventure compared to working in an office cubicle somewhere. Here’s Kimball’s lament of weeds, for example:

“Farming, I discovered, is a great and ongoing war. The farmers are continually fighting to keep nature behind the hedgerow, and nature is continually fighting to overtake the field. Inside the ramparts are the sativas, the cultivated plants, soft and vulnerable, too highbred and civilized for fighting. Aligned with nature, there are weeds, tough foot soldiers, evolved for battle. As we approached the solstice, both sides were at full tilt, stoked by rain and the abundance of sun.”

Farming is no easy pursuit. As Kimball shows, sometimes your milk cow gets attacked by a dog, or the financial uncertainty puts a strain on your relationship, or perhaps your neighbors think you are cuckoo when they find out you are using draft horses to grow a complete diet (meat, grain, vegetables, etc.) for an uncertain amount of people. But there is so much joy in it too–in taking simple ingredients and preparing a delicious meal (even when cooking up a late winter pigeon from the barn), the challenge of the work itself and the community that springs up around a farm. Kimball writes, “As much as you transform the land by farming, farming transforms you.”

There has yet to be a new entrant, first-generation farmer to set down words so lucid about the purpose and desires behind the (re)emerging direct-to-consumer, diverse crop model of farming. Writing both of the brutal and beautiful sides of the work, Kimball seems to be saying, “If I can do it, so can you.” Part romance thriller, part guidebook, part high-minded manifesto, The Dirty Life is the kind of book that stays with you, like a softly whispered provocation. Get dirty! it says. The work is hard but satisfying, and you will eat well.

Paula Crossfield is the managing editor of Civil Eats. She is also a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and is a contributing producer at The Leonard Lopate Show on New York Public Radio where she focuses on food issues. An avid cook and gardener, she currently tends a vegetable garden on her roof in the Lower East Side. You can follow her on Twitter for the latest food policy news.

Editorial Notes: Originally published on Civil Eats. Thanks again to Paula Crossfield for allowing us to cross-post. -KS

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