The Dirty Life chronicled a young journalist's upheaval from New York City to 500 neglected acres in the Adirondacks that would become Essex Farm: the word's first full-diet CSA. Both her marriage to Mark, the obsessive pied piper of farming, and the wild idea of feeding hundreds of people all their food, 365 days a year – using draft horses – kept readers biting their nails. Would the farm survive? The marriage? The writing career? The children?! In the laundry room in the pre-dawn hours, Kimball managed to find the time and space to bring us along for the ride.
You wrote your first book, The Dirty Life, in the broom closet of the fire department where you volunteered. Where did you write this one?
This is my laundry room book. I have a little table in my laundry room. When I got stuck, I would fold. Mostly early mornings, before the house got moving, before the kids were up, and before there were any big farm emergencies coming my way.
Four to seven were my golden hours – when I wasn’t milking.
Did you have any of that dreaded second book syndrome?
Oh totally. The beauty of the first book is you can kind of write it imagining that nobody’s going to read it. That’s very freeing. The second book, you kind of have to just force yourself into that mindset. But it’s a lot harder, especially after the first one had some surprise success.
There are a lot of memoirs like yours out there, but yours seemed to resonate with non-farmers.
I think that’s true. The first one especially connected with people in all types of jobs who were thinking of changing their life, radically, you know? Because that was the narrative stress of the first one, leaving an old life and starting this surprising new life. Also, the first one hit the world at a time when there was a lot of energy around the possibility of small farms and around local eating. So it connected with people who were just basically interested in food. I think the second one does too, but it doesn’t have the drama of changing your life completely that the first one had.
That’s what I attribute the success of the first one to. People who were thinking about doing something completely different, maybe leaving a job that wasn’t satisfying to them to do something that they were passionate about, even if it seems crazy or radical.
Your farm itself is radical in its financial model. Explain how it works.
So we are a year-round, free-choice, full-diet CSA, so our members sign up for the year. And they can take whatever they want in any quantity or combination for the year. We produce milk, beef, pork, chicken, eggs, lamb, about 50 or 60 different kinds of vegetables. We grow our own grain and grind it into flour. We grow dry beans. We make maple syrup. We have a bunch of value added products like sauerkraut and kimchi and lard and scrapple.
What kind of grain do you grow?
Wheat, corn, some years we grow rye. We grow soy beans also.
Among the many ways-to-get-it-all-done tactics your can-do husband, Mark, comes up with is micro-parenting, which is doing as little as possible without negatively affecting your kids’ health or happiness. Did Mark coin this concept?
As far as I know.
As far as the internet knows, too. Can you give some examples of micro-parenting in your household?
Well my kids are much older now. My younger daughter is 9, my older daughter is 12. And I have to say micro-parenting works a lot better at this age than it did when they were tiny. You know, we really settled into our roles of me being primary caretaker of kids, and I don’t ascribe to the micro-parenting philosophy, so I don’t know if I have much to tell you about that. I can tell you that for me, what I took from it and what was really useful to me was the freedom to let the kids learn on their own, to have independence, to understand that I don’t need to be their entertainment. My older daughter just got back from three months in France. She was on an exchange, we had a girl from France who lived with us for three months, and then Jane went and lived with her family for three months, in a tiny village of 60 people in the north of France. Seeing them survive micro-parenting when they were little gave me the confidence that she could go away, across the ocean, and survive without me for three months, at 12. And she did. And she came back, you know, so grown in so many ways. I give Mark credit for that.
You live in a place that is often the coldest spot in the continental U.S. in the winter. Any survival tips you’ve picked up over the years?
I love winter. It’s quieter. There’s not the crushing, sort of emergency work that vegetables demand of you. I love being outside in the cold. We skate, we ski, we hike, we snowshoe. I think the key is just have good clothes, have enough clothes to be outside and be comfortable. That’s our recreation season for us, because it’s just a little bit less intense on the farm.
This is a tough time of year for local food. Tell us what you had for breakfast today, a random Monday.
I don’t generally eat breakfast. The rest of my family does. I can tell you what they had: tortillas with pork sausage, spicy cheese curds, cilantro from our greenhouse where it has somehow magically survived, sour cream and hot sauce. All of that from the farm, every bit of it.
Yep, we send the corn down to Brooklyn to Nixtimal. They make tortillas for us and they send them back frozen, for us and our members.
The hot sauce?
Yep, that’s fermented from our own hot chili peppers.
I had a cup of chicken broth because I don’t get hungry til ’11, then I make up for it.
Your mom was not completely sold at the beginning. She said your kids deserve a better life than this. Has she come around?
Yes, she’s definitely come around. She sees that my kids are thriving. That Mark and I are happy, that we’re deeply engaged in our work. I think we also found a balance between home and farm life that was healthier maybe than what it was like before the kids were born. She saw that, and she loves us, and she knows that we’re happy and that the kids are okay.
Do you struggle with the worry about what your family and friends will feel, seeing themselves reflected in the book?
Um, yes? I think everybody who writes memoir thinks about that. It’s one of the hard parts of that genre. And I think that you have to consider people’s feelings and also tell the truth, which is of course your own point of view and very subjective. And I think people understand that.
The community that’s snowballing around you... people who’ve come to work at your farm have gone on to get married, have babies, start farms.
There was one born yesterday, actually. Yeah, Gwen and Chad, who were mentioned in the book, they had their first baby, a little boy.
How does it feel to be responsible for this fledgling community that’s springing up, up there?
I think this fledgling community that’s springing up around here is beautiful. I think we are one piece of all of the things that had to come up together for it to be possible. I think part of the reason that it sometimes looks or feels like we started it, is just the timing of it, you know? We happened to come into this place at the beginning of a wave of young people who were willing to try something new to make farms work. We happened to live in a place where there’s beautiful farmland available and underutilized, which you know is tied to the very tragic death of the dairy industry, because so many farms around us have gone out through no fault of our own, except that they’re stuck with bad milk prices. I’m really grateful that we have this community around us. I give credit to a lot of forces besides us.
I think we were able to give people courage because they saw what we did. I think Mark’s at a pretty extreme end of comfort with risk-taking. That’s not always the most comfortable place to be as his partner. But it gives people who come to work with us a view of a realm of possibility. It gives them courage, too, to try something.
You use draft horses – which were responsible for a badly broken hand of yours. Can you talk about why they’re so essential to what you stand for?
The horses were what I loved best when I was a kid, and it was part of what I found so appealing when we started the farm. Not only did I just enjoy being around horses, but the idea that we could power the farm with this living creature that we could grow the food for, and use the manure to fertilize our fields. To not have to use fossil fuel? That was just a beautiful idea to me. If you’re going to work 16 hours a day, you should be probably doing something you enjoy. And I just enjoyed the time that I spent with the horses.
That said, at the end of the time the second book was set, we were starting to rely less on draft horses, and more on tractors. That didn’t dim my enthusiasm for growing food, but it definitely shifted the type of work that people were doing day in and day out.
In an unexpected twist at the end, the Amish start coming into the area and you pick up using more draft power again. How has that played out?
Yeah, the horses are a big, relevant part of our farm again now. The Amish guys who work for us don’t drive tractor at all, and they’ve obviously been driving horses since they were five years old literally, so we have two and a half really functional teams right now of horses, and they get utilized very regularly during the growing season.
It’s such a tight, well-told story and life isn’t that taught. What’s your writing process?
I keep a notebook, so that I remember what’s been happening and record impressions. I try to do that every day. When I’m working on the farm I have a little notebook so I can jot down notes. And then the process of putting the memoir together is really, then – for me anyway it seems to take a good five years before I really know the shape of the narrative. Then you just have to choose, you know, an arc, and figure out, out of the material of your life, what stories fit into that arc, and how can you put them together in a way that people will feel satisfied by.
It must be kind of empowering to be able to choose the arc you want to focus on.
It is. It totally is. It’s very empowering, because you realize that that’s what we all do with our lives. We choose which stories we are going to call the story of our life. You could take the same stories that happened to me, and make a tragedy out of it, right? But you get to pick which ones you get to call your own story, and reframe it in a way that, looking back on it, is satisfying and makes sense.
It’s probably early for you to be thinking about a next book...
Oh, I can’t wait to start the next book. I hate not having a project.
I’m kicking things around with my editor. I think I’m going to take a little break from memoir for a while. I probably shouldn’t say much more than that right now.