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Book Review: The Dirty Life

On the spectrum of major lifestyle changes, Kristin Kimball’s move has to qualify as extreme.

She left a rent-controlled apartment in New York City, a career as a freelance writer and all the comforts and excitement of living in a big city to join her fiance, Mark, in a backbreaking endeavor to turn a piece of wasted land into an ambitious community-supported agriculture operation.

This journey, for which it’s hard to predict success at many points during the story, is the subject of “The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food and Love.” The book was published in 2010, but  a reader recently recommended it to me.

This blog has examined the community supported agriculture, or CSA concept, and local farmer Emmett Snead recently wrote about how it got started in the Fredericksburg area. Most CSAs around here provide a variety of vegetables, with some eggs, honey and other goods thrown in.

What Kimball and the man who is now her husband set out to do is more audacious. They call it the “whole diet,” which amounts to collecting a large sum of money from members each year, and then pledging to provide them with everything they need to feed their families for the year, from produce to grains to sugar (in the form of maple syrup and honey) to several kinds of meats, dairy products, eggs, firewood and other goods.

Shares in this program cost about six times what most CSAs in our area cost, and Kimball writes eloquently about what a change in consumption habits it would represent for their prospective members:

At the price we were charging, most people in our community couldn’t afford to use our food as a supplement to their usual grocery store haul. … The central question in the kitchen would have to change from What do I want? to What is available? The time spent in the kitchen–in planning, in preparing, in cooking–would jump exponentially. … Farm food itself is totally different from what most people now think of as food: none of those colorful boxed and bagged products, precut, parboiled, ready to eat, and engineered to appeal to our basest desires. We were selling the opposite: naked, unprocessed food, two steps from the dirt.”

It’s an interesting shift in thinking about where the things we need in our daily lives should come from. Even Kimball admits it’s tough to give up the comforting exercise of pushing a metal cart through a store full of stocked shelves.

Kimball and her husband learn many of their farming skills–including using a team of draft horses to work the land–on the fly, from books and trial and error. But as you read the book, you can go online to the author’s blog and find up-to-date notes that confirm that this is indeed still a working farm, that the couple succeeded despite the doubts of the neighbors who help them along the way.

Kimball’s memoir is a poetic testament to the daily warfare that is farming. If you’ve ever felt tied down by the pets in your house, her account of life with a dairy cow will leave you feeling free.

As we enter the peak of “harvest season,” when farms all around are opening their gates to pumpkin-pickers and picnickers, “The Dirty Life” is an enjoyable way to get an appreciation for what it takes to keep those farms going year after year.

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