The Dirty Life: An Excerpt

March 23, 2011

sites/default/files/the_dirty_life_by_kristin_kimball_softcover.jpgIts rare to find a book about farming that is as beautifully written as Kristin Kimball’s The Dirty Life. The memoir takes readers along on her path from New York City (where she works as a journalist and lives in a rent controlled  studio apartment), to the sprawling, ramshackle farm in Upstate New York she tranforms with her farmer husband. In the book’s prologue, excerpted below, Kimball writes: “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 up at four, wears Carhartts, and carries a Leatherman.”

In preparation for Kimball’s visit to the market tomorrow (see schedule above), we thought we’d present our e-letters with a small sample of this compelling, honest book.


Mark and I are both first-generation farmers.The farm we’ve built together could be described as antique or very modern, depending on who you ask. The fertility comes from composted manure and tilled-in cover crops. We use no pesticides, no herbicides. The farm is highly diversified, and most of the work is done by horses instead of tractors. Our small fields are bordered by hedgerow and woodlot. We have a sugar bush, the beginnings of an orchard, an abundance of pasture and hay ground, and perennial gardens of herbs and flowers. We milk our cows by hand and their milk is very rich and the butter we make from the cream is taxicab yellow. We raise hogs and beef cattle and chickens on pasture, and at butchering time we make fresh and dried sausages, pancetta, corned beefs, pâtés, and quarts of velvety stock.

The food we grow feeds a hundred people. These “members” come to the farm every Friday to pick up their share of what we’ve produced. Our goal is to provide everything they need to have a healthy and satisfying diet, year-round. We supply beef, chicken, pork, eggs, milk, maple syrup, grains, flours, dried beans, herbs, fruits, and forty different vegetables. For this our members pay us $2,900 per person per year and can take as much food each week as they can eat, plus extra produce, during the growing season, to freeze or can for winter. Some members still shop regularly at the grocery store for convenience food, produce out of season, and things that we can’t provide like citrus fruit, but we and some of the others live pretty much on what we produce.

I’ve learned many things in the years since my life took this wild turn toward the dirt. I can shoot a gun, dispatch a chicken, dodge a charging bull, and ride out a runaway behind panicked horses. But one lesson came harder than any of those: 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 the 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.


Excerpted from THE DIRTY LIFE by Kristin Kimball. Copyright © 2010 by Kristin Kimball. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Listen to an NPR piece about Kimball.

Photo of Kristin Kimball by Deborah Feingold.