Share this article

print logo

Down on the farm; Kristin Kimball's 'A Dirty Life' tells about life-changing decisions and finding love and a home on 500 acres of land in Essex

Catch Kristin Kimball early on a weekday afternoon and she has to talk quickly and in scattered bursts of thought. As is usual for a farmer and writer and mom, she is doing many things at once.

In this case, Kimball is cooking lunch for her two daughters, 4-year-old Jane and Miranda, 18 months. They will sit down to bowls of chili made with home-raised beef, paired with homemade bread and home-grown cabbage -- the latter served with cheese.

"Cheese makes everything delicious to children," said Kimball, in a tone of bemused acceptance.

The sturdy lunchtime meal is just one of many prepared by Kimball, 41, but it is also, in a way, an encapsulation of Essex Farm's philosophy -- and Kimball's own metamorphosis -- on a plate.

Kimball, a former New York City resident, and her husband, Mark, built Essex Farm from scratch on 500 acres in Essex, a picturesque New York town between the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain.

Begun with a dream of eating better and providing for the community around them, Essex Farm was started by the Kimballs with the idea that they would provide a full diet of products (meat, milk, vegetables and fruit, maple syrup and more) to people who would become "subscribers" to the farm. They would raise crops, slaughter livestock and even plow their fields with horsepower, not machines. (Kimball herself often drives the draft teams.)

Today, Essex Farm is a success -- as is "The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love," Kimball's warm and absorbing tale of their adventures in starting the enterprise.

The book -- perfect for the start of spring -- is the April choice of The Buffalo News Book Club.

Western New York readers, many of them also avid gardeners and farmers, will surely find Kimball's book a revelation: unvarnished and plain-spoken, unsentimental and smart. Kimball evokes Barbara Kingsolver in her descriptive passages, Susan Orleans in her eye for detail. Her sense of humor -- often directed at herself -- is wholly her own.

As Kimball tells it, her true story is about choosing farming as a way of life and creating a relationship with her husband, but it is also about a very deep and primal quest that everyone can relate to:

Finding a home.

"I had no idea I was looking for it," Kimball said, "but it's what I found."

As the book describes, Kimball was a city-loving freelance writer specializing in travel stories when, in her early 30s, she began to feel something was missing from her life.

That's when she met Mark Kimball, in a scene straight out of a romantic comedy. She showed up to interview him for a magazine story about organic farming, pitched in with farm chores and cooking meals, and started to become smitten during their first interviews.

"At that point in my life, I knew I was missing something, but I didn't know what it was, or how I would find it," Kimball said. "Meeting Mark, I feel I was so lucky."

Seeking a place to create their vision, the Kimballs chose a vast spread in rural Essex that had fallen into disrepair, as Kimball tells it.

The couple began with some basic crops, dairy cows and other livestock. They repaired farm outbuildings and reclaimed pastures. They even decided, in a countercultural move, to do much of their plowing and other fieldwork with draft horses instead of a tractor. (The Amish do it, and it works for them, Kimball points out.)

Today, Essex Farm has grown into a 500-acre operation that feeds 200 subscribing members and employs 10 people, Kimball said. The farm's goal is to be fossil fuel-free by 2016.

"The farm is very different now from what it was, its first year," she said. "It's no longer just Mark and me."

Kimball and Mark married on the farm -- in the hayloft of the barn -- a year after taking over its operation.

By the time they get to that part of her memoir, Kimball hopes that readers have learned a lesson that applies to any life.

In short: Change can happen.

"People become immersed in their lives, and they forget it's possible to change things," she said. "I hope ... even if you're not interested in farming, people would take away from it that it's possible to change your life completely."

Now, their two small children are growing up on the farm and having a childhood that, Kimball said, not many kids get nowadays.

"It's very different than what most children have, pretty much anywhere in the United States right now," said the author. "To them, it's what they have, it's very normal. Their lives revolve around the seasons, as ours do."

Kimball's life, too, is now very different from the one she describes in the beginning of "The Dirty Life," when expensive clothes, clubs and fancy restaurants were her daily diet.

For instance, on her recent 41st birthday, Mark presented her with a gift she never would have imagined receiving when she was in her 20s: a flock of sheep -- seven ewes and four lambs.

The sheep have gone over especially well with her daughters, Kimball said.

"You can actually work with the sheep more than the cattle or the draft horses, who are just too big for [the children]," she said.

Best of all, in the midst of all this change and hard work, is that Kimball and her family have become firmly anchored in their community.

"It's almost nine years that we've been here now," Kimball said, "and I really feel more a part of this community than I have of any other place I've ever lived."

Farming, she said, has a lot to do with that.

"Farming is something that connects you to many parts of a community at once -- the people that eat our food, and all the people in the farm families around us, because we trade equipment, and ideas and help," she said.

"We became deeply, deeply connected."

***

Kristin Kimball and her publisher, Scribner, have agreed to send a few signed paperback editions of "The Dirty Life" to The Buffalo News, to be given away to Book Club readers this month.

To be considered for one of the copies -- which we will award after gathering and reading through the entries -- send us a note by mail or email, explaining why you would like a copy of the book.

By U.S. mail, you can reach us at The Buffalo News Book Club, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240. By email, we're at bookclub@buffnews.com.

***

See Essex and find a listing of its local farms, including Essex Farm, at the community's website: www.essexnewyork.org/blog1/. For more about Essex Farm, see Kimball's website, www.kristinkimball.com/ and click on the tab for "Essex Farm."

email: cvogel@buffnews.com

***

The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love

By Kristin Kimball

Scribner

paperback 273 pages, $15