I sometimes wonder whether farmers are actually superheroes. Take the case of Kristin Kimball, petite, soft-spoken, frighteningly intelligent. She cannot fly, she does not have X-ray vision, but she can plow a field with a team of horses. She can plant and harvest, blog and market. She can manage a staff of Amish and anarchist farmhands, fill out a grant application, use a microscope to analyze the number of strongyle eggs in a mare’s manure. And, while nine-months pregnant, she can snatch an old hen from her front yard, caress its feathers, offer thanks, break its neck under her foot, eviscerate it over the compost pile, and turn it into an uncommonly good pot of chicken soup.
She can do all of this while being a mother, a volunteer firefighter, and a popular author. If you haven’t read her books—her best-selling 2010 memoir The Dirty Life and the excellent new follow-up, Good Husbandry—and you visit her Essex Farm on the shores of Lake Champlain in far upstate New York, you will need some time to figure out why this place is no ordinary agricultural operation but rather, as the environmental writer Bill McKibben says, “one of the most interesting farms in the country.”
It doesn’t look like much on an icy day in late November. The rolling fields, once lush, have been harvested and lie brown and stubbly under their cover crops. The farm buildings are shabby, the paint chipped. Many of them are converted from disused trailers or mobile homes. The dirt path that leads to the barns is lined with rusty antique farming equipment. Amish women in rubber boots and bonnets scurry around filling CSA baskets. A small tractor drives by, two gigantic bales of hay completely blocking its windshield.
“How do you see where you’re going?” I ask the red-cheeked young woman operating it.
In the harsh light of winter, this place looks more like a dystopian penal colony than an agrarian wonderland. And yet the trailers are full of unusually delicious vegetables and fruit, the Jersey cows are warm and shaggy in their winter coats, the pigs are snuggling in the open-air compost barn, which smells amazing, more like hay and cheese and frost than the piercing stink of a typical barn. And inside the tumbledown farmhouse, there is the smell of cooking—acorn squash roasting in butter and spices, potato leek soup, chicken liver mousse, cheese, breakfast radishes. I call it a gourmet ploughman’s platter, but Kimball calls it lunch; the kind she makes every day from whatever is lying around.
Kimball and her husband Mark began Essex Farm in 2003. They had 80 acres, $15,000, and a plan. “It's either brilliant,” Mark said at the time. “Or very, very stupid.” They fixed sagging fences, patched leaky roofs, and installed a grant-funded solar panel array. Then they started producing all types of food: Not only grass-fed beef, pastured pork, free-range chicken and eggs, but also vegetables, berries, tree fruit, flour milled from their grains, syrup from their maple trees, even soap from excess animal fats.
Unlike many community-supported agriculture (or CSA) programs in which local farms offer a weekly box of fruit and veg during the growing season to supplement a family’s grocery purchases, the Kimballs planned to offer a “full-diet” CSA. Their 300 members, Kimball writes in her latest book, “eat the way farmers do—or the way they did two generations ago: a whole diet, year-round, unprocessed, in rhythm with the seasons, from a specific piece of land, with a sense of both reverence and abundance.”
The goal of Essex Farm is deceptively simple: “feed people, be nice, don’t wreck the land.” And yet achieving that goal has been anything but simple. Their CSA business is strong, their farm now covers 500 acres (plus another 800 leased acres in the neighborhood). It is a buoy for the community—it supplies a local food bank and school cafeteria, brings in revenue and jobs to the tiny rural town of Essex, N.Y., and has become a model for young agrarians, many of whom have apprenticed here. Yet the Kimballs, like so many American farmers, are always teetering on the edge of financial abyss. Whatever they make goes back into their land. Margins are razor-thin. They are constantly one crop failure, one natural disaster, from losing it all. They offer a vivid example of what a good, sustainable, modern family farm looks like but also a reminder of how furiously, almost masochistically, devoted you have to be to keep such a place alive.
“The longer I farmed, the more complicated it became,” Kimball admits. “Were we adding health to the soil? Producing what the land could reasonably carry? Protecting the quality of the groundwater? Were we paying our workers a living wage and treating everyone fairly? Were we sequestering more carbon than we released? Were we keeping the farm financially stable? Did we have enough time away from farming to be a healthy couple, a healthy family? Any one of those things alone was a straightforward proposition. The challenge was to do them all simultaneously.”
Kimball could not do it all without her husband Mark, who is “missing the gene for anxiety…unlike me, he does not spend energy considering the full rainbow of disaster that could take place,” she writes. Mark is one of the most willful, irrepressible farmers you will ever meet. He has a seemingly unlimited reserve of energy. He plows barefoot, even in winter; he takes ice-cold showers (good for the mitochondria); he does wind sprints every morning. Left-handed, he has trained himself to be ambidextrous. His curiosity for the farm is less infectious than alarming. Everything about it excites him—the crops, the soil, the ancient clamshells he finds in his fields (evidence that this land was once covered by water, a fact which thrills him). He likes to stick the shells in his mouth and crunch them between his teeth. It has something to do with communing with nature, something to do with testing himself, something to do with celebrating the moment.
This is a trait I recognize. I have spent the past few years at work on a book about the agrarian writer Louis Bromfield, who in 1939 began a farm in Ohio called Malabar that was built out of the same adventurous DNA as the Kimball place. Bromfield once described the very best farmers as being teched, or slightly crazy. Mark is teched. Kimball is nothing like Mark—she’s an ex-New York media person, an ex-vegetarian, an ex-globetrotter, who discovered farming only by chance. Sent by a magazine in the early aughts to profile Mark (who was then farming in rural Pennsylvania), she interviewed him while he butchered a hog. Blood splattered on her white agnès b. blouse. She fell in love, and a few years later the two were married in the hayloft of their new barn.
Kimball has since learned to embrace all the craziness and madcap moments that come with farming, which in her book feels less like a Wendell Berry poem and more like an episode of I Love Lucy. One of the most hilarious scenes comes when she is making 100 gallons of sauerkraut, which has to be crushed and compacted to eliminate air and bruise the cabbage (to help fermentation). When you are making only a few pounds of sauerkraut, this can be accomplished with a mallet. But when you need to make enough to feed 300 people without specialized equipment, you have to improvise.
“That’s how I found myself standing inside a fifty-gallon barrel in our cabbage-strewn dining room, wearing a miniskirt, with freshly scrubbed bare feet, stomping the cabbage down into its chilly brine like a deranged Germanic bacchant.” It is at this moment when a parade of food inspectors from the USDA and the state Department of Ag and Markets stop by the farm for a surprise inspection.
Yet for all the moments of comedy, there are many more hardships. The family is poor, if not in land and food than at least in their bank account. Kimball cuts her own daughters’ hair. Their clothes are torn. The work is nonstop, and physical. Some days they pick raspberries, other days they pick maggots out of the rear end of a sick calf. “Forget a vacation,” Kimball writes. “We milked cows. We couldn't be away from home for more than 12 hours.” Horses run away, Kimball falls off the plow, Mark seriously injures his back.
Some of the most difficult sections of the book come when Kimball admits to feeling her love of the farm clash with her love for her children. For a time this drives a wedge between her and Mark, whose inner radio, she writes, is “tuned to WFRM: all farming, all the time.” Kimball is less single-minded. She worries that she has chosen to live this life of a farmer—with all its pleasures and privations, risks and rewards—not only for herself but also for her children. What are they getting out of the deal? After her first daughter is born, she tallies up the benefits.
“She’d have the best food. She’d have the run of five hundred acres and a sense of complete physical freedom. She’d belong to a place more deeply than most people. She’d get two parents who were very busy but always present, right here at home, working hard at what they loved and believed in. And she’d get to grow up in the intimate company of nonhuman living things, the sort of company that was entirely normal once, which I had craved as a child but which has become increasingly rare. She’d have garden spiders, barn cats, dogs, cows, pigs, crayfish, and chickens to play with, woods and fields to explore.”
But at times Kimball has her faith shaken, as when her mother held her infant daughter in the stairway of their falling-apart farmhouse and told her, “’You owe this child a better life than this.’ It stung. And it raised that pesky question I still hadn’t answered: What is a good life?”
This is the central conflict of Kimball’s second book—”family versus farm,” as she puts it—but it is not the only one. There is also farm versus nature. One season their fields are drowned by rain, which keeps them from planting. Another season they watch a huge investment in tomatoes nearly dry up during a terrible drought. One night that summer, the Kimballs are awakened by a thunder clap. They run outside in the darkness to see if the storm will come. If it does, “the plants would live. If it missed us, they would die...We stood there in our underwear, moonlit, barefoot, mosquito-bitten, with arms intertwined and hoped.”
The rains came that night, but there would be other near-disasters. The key, Kimball says, is learning to live with it all, to love the farm for its challenges as well its rewards, to find a state of equilibrium, “a feeling of floating in the generosity of the earth and sun, of plenty.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue