A dirty, and hidden, life


A friend, who’s also a local farmer, just lent me her copy of Kristin Kimball’s memoir The Dirty Life. I zipped through it in less than a week. The story of a thirtysomething Manhattanite who finds herself falling in love with a farmer—and with his backbreaking agrarian lifestyle—is captivating. For me, it was like reading an extreme version of episodes from my own life.

Whereas I have worked on farms—never full-time, never year-round—Kimball is a sort of hardcore farmer. She left a pretty nice writing career in New York to become co-captain of a fascinating farm: a “whole diet CSA” that provides its members with most of what they eat in a year. That means not only veggies, but several kinds of meat, eggs, milk, dried beans, maple syrup, and more. Kimball and her husband do this not with gas-powered machines but with draft horses.

The work is absolutely brutal, particularly in far upstate New York, with its inhospitable climate. And both Kimball and her husband, Mark, seem to relish the chance to live a physically demanding life, one that marks their bodies and draws out their deepest inner resources. They exhibit an impressive D.I.Y. ethos, doing everything from blacksmithing to cheesemaking themselves. At one point, Mark chases down a pair of runaway horses on his bicycle…successfully.

It’s a great story, and it’s also a reminder that the people who feed us are living a remarkable existence. We may be familiar with their neighborly greetings from behind a farmer’s market table; we may know well the taste of the meat they raise or the potatoes they grow; but the demands of their day-to-day work are largely out of view.

The “eat local” movement works hard to be friendly to those on the “eat” side of the equation, bedecking itself with gorgeous images of bountiful harvests and conjuring a lifestyle of delicious meals. That’s reality. So is the hard work that makes those harvests, and meals, possible. We’re lucky that, as Kimball explained in an NPR interview, “Human beings are in some way hard-wired to be agrarians.”