Good Husbandry: Growing Food, Love, and Family on Essex Farm by Kristin Kimball (Scribner, New York, New York, 2019) is a follow-up to Kimball’s first book, The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love, which came out in 2011. The Dirty Life described how Kimball and her husband, Mark, fell in love with each other and with farming, eventually establishing the Essex Farm in Essex, New York on Lake Champlain. (The town of Essex is in Essex County, which is entirely in the Adirondack Park.) The farm offers a full-diet, year-round CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm share that provides vegetables, eggs, grains, flours, herbs, maple syrup, meat and dairy to its subscribers.
Kimball’s latest memoir picks up several years after The Dirty Life leaves off. Her daughter, Jane, a baby at the end of The Dirty Life, is now a toddler, and has been joined by a sister, Miranda. The grinding hard work of the farm has been joined by the often exhausting hard work of parenthood.
Good Husbandry follows the Kimballs through a difficult few years on the farm – including a very rainy spring, injury and economic peril and the arrival of Hurricane Irene in 2011. As problems mount, the Kimballs become physically and emotionally spent, their farm and their marriage teetering. Even small aggravations – broken equipment, escaped horses, a sick cow, snowstorms – slow down daily chores and eat up precious time.
Part of the couple’s challenge is that, as the farm and the family grow, Kristin necessarily spends more time on child care, while Mark, with the help of a ballooning roster of employees, takes on more of the farm work.
We had fallen in love over work, had poured all the energy of the early days of our marriage into it, Kimball writes. Getting bigger meant we’d begun to lose the intimacy we had needed to create the farm. It was a difficult adjustment. Our jobs had been cut up and redistributed among so many other hands. I’d begun to miss the shoulder-to-shoulder effort that had brought us together.
The couple also argues over the direction of the farm. To be profitable, it has to grow. But growth means a greater investment of time, money and energy, all in limited supply. In addition, Kristin, spending so many hours indoor with the children, longs to make improvements to the somewhat dilapidated farmhouse, but Mark views them as a waste of time and money.
The farm was what we had in common, Kimball writes. We both wanted it to thrive and succeed. But like any shared project that two people love intensely, the farm also gave us things to argue about. Normal couples argue about kids, money, and household chores. Farm couples argue about roofing the house versus roofing the barn, when to make hay, the condition of the animals, agricultural risks, too much debt versus too much work. Also, kids, money, and household chores.
Despite the struggles, Kristin Kimball clearly revels in one aspect of farming life: the food. She lovingly writes about daily meals, such as a soufflé made with fresh eggs, cream, nettles, onion and garlic mustard, and projects like the making of maple syrup or huge amounts of sauerkraut.
In my old life, food was usually not much more than a need that had to be met every day, Kimball writes. Here, it was the center of everything, who we were and what we did. The quality and taste of what we grew was so different from what I had been used to that I felt like I’d discovered a lost continent.
Every food has its moment of perfection on our farm, and every moment has its perfect food, she writes. Asparagus cedes the podium to astounding spring butter, then the first radishes, the first strawberries, then new potatoes, and so on in a harmonious stream. Our grandparents and great-grandparents understood this, of course; it’s just the advent of the global food system over the last eighty years or so that dulled our sense of which food comes in which season.
Kimball also paints compelling portraits of the animal and human personalities on the farm: the cantankerous pony, the hard-working draft horses and the faithful dog, the hot-tempered butcher and the various apprentice farmers that come to help for a season or more. At times the various characters mesh well; other times they don’t.
The overarching themes of the book – the Kimballs’ tie to the land and the value they find in their sacrifice – bring the book full circle, back to the themes established in The Dirty Life. Farming is hard, back-breaking work; it will never make them rich. But it is the work that they have chosen and that they love. It is hard to imagine them thriving anywhere else.
(Gillian Scott, 10/15/19)
[Editor’s Note (FWB): The Kimballs’ Essex Farm is included in our CSA (community supported agriculture) directory. Their extraordinary full-diet CSA farm shares feed a community of 250 people, with weekly deliveries of food year-round. Participants have the choice of vegetables, meat, dairy, grains, eggs, and herbs in any combination the CSA member chooses; with enough food for the entire family to enjoy 3 meals a day, 7 days a week; and specialty items from Essex Farm & neighboring farms: i.e. maple syrup, canned or frozen products, dried herbs. For this full diet farm share, on farm pick-up of food costs $85 per week for an adult, $35 per week for kids (5 and under are free). Farm shares delivered to locations in the Adirondacks and the Capital Region of upstate New York cost $120 per week for adult, $45 per week for kids (5 and under are free). Farm shares delivered to New York City CSA members cost $145 per week for adults, $60.00 per week for kids (5 and under are free). Discounts are provided (i) if the full amount of an annual farm share is paid up front (2%); (ii) vegetarian shares (10%); and (iii) vegan shares (20%).]