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'The Dirty Life': From City Girl To Hog Butcher

Nov 15, 2010 (All Things Considered)

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In a way, Kristin Kimball was lucky. She'd never farmed before, so when she moved to a farm in upstate New York, she had no idea what she was getting into. Her husband, Mark, did know — but then, Kimball tells NPR's Melissa Block, "he's crazier than I am."

Seven years after her life-changing move from Manhattan to Essex Farm, Kimball has documented her adjustment to rural living in her new book, The Dirty Life. The title of her book, Kimball says, comes from the fact that farm work is consistently filthy, and pushed the boundaries of what she initially considered disgusting.

"I had no idea you could be dirty in so many different ways," she says. "There's dirt. There's blood. There's sweat. There's your own sweat, the sweat of the animals. We do all of our butchering and slaughtering on-farm, and so there's that whole level of dirt, also."

Farming is often idealized by city folk, and there is some romance to be found in the farm Kimball describes, but there's also back-breaking work and the hard-earned satisfaction that comes with it.

"You know, one of the things that I tried to get over in the book is that farming is both incredibly romantic and also extremely hard, and can be very ugly," Kimball says. "I find in my life that I experience both of those things almost on a daily basis."

"There's the enormous satisfaction of growing food for people," she adds, "and at the same time it is incredibly hard — the work never ends, and it never gets easier."

'You Can't Really Refuse When A Farm Needs Your Help'

Kimball's path to farming was a circuitous one. A travel writer living out of a New York studio apartment, she drove to Pennsylvania to write about a young sustainable farmer she'd heard of who lived there. She met her husband on that trip. At the time, she jokes, she was not of farming stock: "I was very much an East Village Manhattan girl."

When she arrived at the farm, Kimball knocked on the door of the farmer's trailer, which also happened to be his office. He said he was too busy to grant her the interview, even though they had previously scheduled it.

"Instead," Kimball remembers, "he handed me a hoe and said, 'There's the broccoli patch.' That was the first time that I actually did any farm work. [My] family, we didn't even have a garden. And something happened that day. I just fell in love with the work."

The farmer came back in the evening and said he was busy again.

"He said, 'I have time to grant you the interview, but I also need to slaughter this pig, and would you help me?' " Kimball says. "At that point, I'd been a vegetarian for 13 years, I also had on an expensive white blouse I liked a lot — but you can't really refuse when a farm needs your help. And so I helped him slaughter a pig that night."

The blouse didn't really survive, but the demanding young farmer, Mark, became her husband. They were soon engaged and living in a house north of New York. Before Kimball knew it, they were moving to Essex Farm near Lake Champlain in upstate New York. "It was fast," she says. "I think it's best that I didn't have a lot of time to think about it."

In keeping with his granola mystique, Mark also had a vision of what he wanted their new farm to be. Their new farm was not just going to be an example of community-supported agriculture — it would function year-round, and supply the families who worked there with everything they needed.

"And add to that, that he wanted to do it with horses," Kimball says.

Horses, not tractors. And they hand-milked the cows, instead of using machines. Kimball says they eventually caved on that one — "we switched to machine milking, that was earlier this year" — but for years they did everything on the farm by hand.

The Best Way To Eat A Potato

In the beginning, Kimball and her husband were on their own, without farmhands or other support. When asked whether she ever questioned whether this difficult life was of her choosing, or whether it was all Mark's idea, Kimball pauses.

"Hm. I mean, I very quickly became as passionate about the farm as he was," she says. "So, no. Once I was on board, it was very much my project as well as his. I certainly didn't know as much as he did, but I was equally passionate, and I think dug in as deeply as he did."

"It was a surprise, and yet when I started doing the work, I was shocked at how viscerally I responded," she adds. "I think that in some way, human beings are in some way hard-wired to be agrarians. This is what most people in the history of the world have focused their energy on."

Kimball has two little girls now, one of whom is a newborn, and the author says her older daughter Jane's childhood is proving to be dramatically different from her own. In The Dirty Life, she describes Jane's second birthday — the toddler sat in the kitchen and watched Kimball butcher rabbits.

"It's very interesting," Kimball says. "She's 3 now, and one of her favorite things is to sit outside and watch Courtney, who's our butcher, eviscerate our cattle and pigs. She just loves to watch butchering. At the same time, she's just this incredibly kind and sensitive little girl. It's just normal for her."

In spite of the constant hard work, Kimball's farm still has its quiet, romantic moments. The first year she and Mark planted potatoes, the yield was enormous — around 10,000 pounds. They called in reinforcements to harvest the spuds, rounding up about 30 friends to help. "It was truly fall," Kimball writes:

The air was still cold at noon despite the bright sun. The rows of popcorn had lost every trace of life, their leaves like brown paper flags rattling in the shifting breeze. We boiled potatoes in their skins in the field, and served them steaming in napkins. We all warmed our chilled fingers on them, popped them open, invested them with quantities of butter and salt. If there is a more perfect way to celebrate the potato's earthy, sustaining essence, I have not discovered it yet.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love
By Kristin Kimball
Hardcover, 288 pages
Scribner
List price: $25
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