Author traces journey from city to farm
MIDDLEBURY — Seven years ago, New York freelance writer Kristin Kimball would never have imagined herself running a horse-powered subsistence farming operation and Community Supported Agriculture operation in northern New York state.
But at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater last week, Kimball launched the paperback version of her book “The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food and Love,” which catalogs her transition from a world-traveling freelance writer to the co-owner of Essex Farm, just across Lake Champlain in Essex, N.Y.
Becky Dayton, owner of the Vermont Book Shop, introduced Kimball with a quote from Middlebury College scholar-in-residence Bill McKibben:
“‘The Dirty Life’ is a wonderfully told tale of one of the most interesting farms in the country,” she read. “It’s the voice of what comes next in this land, of the generation unleashed by Wendell Berry to do something really grand.”
Kimball read several selections from the book, interspersed with discussion about how her farm works and a series of photographs taken on the farm. She opened by reading a segment from the book’s prologue, which sets the stage for her transition from city girl to farmer.
“I’ve slept in this bed for seven winters, and still, sometimes, I wonder how I came to be here, someone’s wife, in an old farmhouse in the North Country,” Kimball read. “There are still moments when I feel like an actor in a play. The real me stays out until four, wears heels, and carries a handbag, but this character I’m playing gets upat four, wears Carhartts, and carries a Leatherman.”
Kimball explained that her writing started her off on the unexpected trajectory she took. In 2002 she had read “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser, and decided to pitch a book about small-scale organic farmers, which brought her to a small farm in Pennsylvania and Mark, the man who would later become her husband.
“Very unprofessionally, I fell in love,” she said. “That’s a big no-no when you’re trying to be an objective journalist. This was not a great career move — but it was a great life move.”
After a whirlwind romance, the two — Kristin with a degree from Harvard University and Mark with one from Swarthmore College — abandoned their separate lives and ended up on a run-down, dormant farm in Essex to start a farm that they hoped would feed them and others, while having a low impact on the environment.
From growing to milking to managing a team of horses, it was no easy learning experience for Kimball.
“I had a background in riding horses. I naively believed that being a teamster would be the same thing,” she said.
But now, nearly 10 years later, the family produces a full diet year-round for their farm’s 160 shareholders — meat, eggs, milk, produce, grains, flour and maple syrup. And unlike your average CSA, which is meted out in equal shares, shareholders arrive at the farm each week and take as much food as they need.
Kimball explained that a two-person share at Essex Farms costs $6,000 each year, and that children cost $100 per year of age. But the Kimballs are also aware of financial limitations, so they offer shares on a sliding scale that runs down to zero.
She also explained that while the farm has an inspected meat processing facility — which, Kimball explained, was built using a repurposed refrigerated trailer — due to federal regulations, they cannot sell their meat retail. But since shareholders are part owners of the animals, the Kimballs can distribute the meat to them.
According to a show-of-hands poll that Kimball conducted toward the end of the April 5 talk, the audience reflected the agricultural profile of the region. Many of the nearly 50 people who attended the talk were farmers, and the couple who had been in business the longest — more than 30 years — won a pint of maple syrup from Essex Farms that Kimball had brought along.
Kimball paid deference to farmers who had been in business the longest, but she also charged the audience with helping young farmers start out. One of the biggest struggles for young farmers, she said, is access to land.
“Right now, we have an army of ambitious, smart, entrepreneurial farmers who are coming into their own. On the other side, we have a huge base of consumers who want to eat the food that those farmers are producing. The only missing link is land,” she said.
While the Kimballs were lucky enough to find a family friend willing to lease them the land free of charge while they were starting out, Kimball said that’s not always the case for younger farmers.
“One of the shocking things to me when I was starting out was that good land is very rare, and very precious, and it’s not always affordable. So go forth and figure out how to get land into the farmers’ hands.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andreas@addisonindependent