The Dirty Life by Kristen Kimball: A Book Review

The insanely snowy weather the past two weeks reminded me of how much I love to read, so I was finally able to finish a book I have been slowly going through called The Dirty Life, by Kristen Kimball. This is a memoir about her transition from a writer in New York City to a farmer in upstate New York through love, loss, and a fair amount of insanity. Taking us through the seasons of the year aligning with the seasons of her transition, Kimball combines great story-telling with a refreshing dose of honesty and practicality. Her romantic notions of farming (and love, for that matter) are backed up by an actual knowledge of the intensity of the work, and she jumps in anyway:

“ As much as you transform the land by farming, farming transforms you. It seeps into your skin along with the dirt that abides permanently in the creases of your thickened hands, the beds of your nails. It asks so much of your body that if you’re not careful it can wreck you as surely as any vice by he time you’re fifty, when you wake up and find yourself with ruined knees and dysfunctional shoulders, deaf from the constant clank and rattle of your machinery, and broke to boot. But farming takes root in you and crowds out other endeavors, makes them seem paltry. Your acres become a world. And maybe you realize that it is beyond those acres or in your distant past, back in the realm of TiVo and cubicles, of take-out food and central heat and air, in that country where discomfort has nearly disappeared, that you were deprived. Deprived of the pleasure of desire, of effort and difficulty and meaningful accomplishment. 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 overfills not only your root cellar but also that parched and weedy little patch we call the soul.”

But she didn’t always see farming this way. Kimball came across her now-husband, Mark, while she was writing a story about his farm and was subtly persuaded to work in the fields. She frequently makes jokes about her choice of outfits that work in New York City but prove to be not so useful out on a farm in the midst of hard work, sweat, and dirt. As her perspective changes slowly through dating Mark, working on his farm, and cooking the food he has grown, she slowly begins to realize her need to farm and to live away from the convenience we have begun to feel entitled to. While it sounds idyllic and quaint on the surface, Kimball does not shy away from the difficulty of learning how to live and work on a farm, learning how to love Mark, and learning how to build her new life. She describes breakdowns and fights, hilarious and not-so-hilarious mistakes made by the two of them, and the many shenanigans that seem to always come alongside farming. There are parts of the memoir that are not for the weak-of-stomach, they do slaughter animals for meat on their farm, they have predators attack their dairy cow, chickens, and barn cats. But I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in learning what daily life is like for farmers and to anyone who enjoys good storytelling. Kimball takes her readers through her life in a way that makes it seem as though you have spent the whole afternoon in her presence, exploring her farm and drinking tea by her woodstove.

Lucky for us, here in NC, we have many farmers with incredible stories similar to Kristen Kimball’s. Cecelia Redding, owner of Down 2 Earth Farms in Rougemont, NC, worked in Mechanical and Agricultural Engineering before she became a farmer 4 year ago. She studied Mechanical Engineering at University of Florida and fell in love with the soil and agriculture classes. It was during this time that she realized that she ultimately wanted to be a farmer—a vocation that she has come to believe is more of a birthright than a job. After graduating from Florida she worked as a Mechanical Engineer for 5 years until she decided to truly pursue her passion and get a degree in Agricultural Engineering at Iowa State. She worked as a food engineer in Iowa until she and her husband moved to Raleigh where she worked in a start-up business for 10 years and got her Masters of Business at UNC. Finally, in 2011, she bought land and began to farm.

Photo by Anna Kirby Photography
Photo by Anna Kirby Photography

Curious about her transition from the business-world to the farming lifestyle, I asked her if she had any difficulty getting used to the life and work of a farmer. “I enjoy the physical side of the job,” Cecilia responded, “my real love of farming comes from being outside, working in the soil, and using so many different disciplines of science.” In the professional world you are expected to specialize, but in farming it is necessary to combine knowledge of biology, botany, animal sciences, soil sciences, etc. Down2Earth now has 5 acres in production and are working on little projects this winter so that they can grow during the cold months in the future. They’re building a hoop house to protect plants from the freezing cold, building an 8-foot deer fence as they grow their production, and expanding their irrigation system. They also plan on doubling their shiitake mushroom production in the spring.

Farming, it seems, takes root in some people and doesn’t let them go. Kristen Kimball fell into it and never could climb out; Cecelia Redding dipped a toe in and knew she wanted to go swimming. Thankfully, they both stayed with their passion and their stories are helping to build the foundations of a sustainable food system.

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