The Dirty Life is a memoir about Kristin Kimball’s transition from an urban life and career in New York City to launching a bootstrap CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm in rural Essex, New York with her then soon-to-be husband, Mark Gunther.
At one point in my childhood Essex Farm was briefly a Christmas tree farm. I remember visiting it with my mother, and my clearest memory there is watching my feet as we walked around on the farm to pick out a tree. I only went there for a tree once or twice because that venture was short lived. But the CSA at Essex Farm has demonstrated far greater endurance. Running since 2003, it’s going strong and increasing in both members and output.
The Dirty Life is quintessentially an Essex creation. It portrays a picturesque lifestyle in a small rural Adirondack village, and it captures the unconventional and often quirky character of our Champlain Valley community. And while I have never lived or worked on a farm, Kimball’s agricultural drama is familiar. Kimball gives the reader a view into life on a farm including the hardships and the joys. Although the CSA model is still relatively new to the North Country, farming is intrinsically woven into our local culture and history. Typical farms that I have observed in our regions of the Adirondacks produce hay, corn, apples, milk, and/or eggs as their main product and usually a smattering of vegetables to sell at a stand or the local stores. At different points in a farm’s life, produce and husbandry may change as time and trials pass by, but there is generally a specialized or restricted focus at any given time to maximize efficiency at the cost of diversity.
Draft Horse Farming
Driving through the Champlain Valley during the summer I am bound to see farmers cutting or baling hay with trucks and tractors, and if not I will see the finished bales of hay sitting in the fields. Essex Farm is unique in that it uses draft horses to power the field machines. It is a pleasant sight to see horses in lieu of heavy machinery for my environmentally aware eyes. Another staple of summer has always been Sayward’s sweet corn that was a much looked forward to treat for many locals, including my brother. Unfortunately Sayward’s farm no longer grows sweet corn. That’s just the way with farms sometimes, a farm may need to change staple crops and sometimes farms can even be forced out of business due changing markets or declining financial returns. On the bright side, these changes can also bring about opportunities for new crops or new farmers, just like the past failure of the old Essex Farm created the chance for the Kimballs to begin their successful CSA.
Farming a Full Family Diet
While traditional farms usually focus on a few products (or simply vegetables in general), Essex Farm is exceptional in that it is trying to produce a full diet: meaning meat, dairy, grains, and vegetables (and what fruits our climate allows the farm to grow). Essex Farm does not sell its produce to stores or distributors. Members of the community sign up to join the CSA and for a yearly fee they are supplied with a share in the farm that supplies all the food they need.
Essex Quirks and Charms
Kristin Kimball writes about several features of our community that she found strange or just at odds with what she was used to in the city. The importance of mowed lawns for example became known to her that first year, which is something I have also noticed, it seems as though lawn care (or non-care) is a good guide for giving people impressions of the homeowners (The Dirty Life pg. 222). Hence mowing the lawn is a good habit to keep up if you do not want your neighbors to silently judge you. She also quickly found out about the rampant gossip that exists in small towns when she heard a rumor concerning her alleged past as a retired hooker that was decided upon seemingly because of her tailored clothes and heels (pg. 74). Thankfully it was quashed just as quickly as it began, and she was able to find the humor in it. Kimball was mystified about the draw of the Essex County Fair’s Demolition Derby(pg. 226). As a local I have to admit that I occasionally enjoy the strange appeal of watching the cars smash each other to pieces (if only it wasn’t so loud). Kimball was also struck by the generosity and friendliness of our small community. It was startling at first, but certainly welcome and pleasing during the CSA’s fragile start-up phase. She remarks that “this was a place where neighbors took care of each other, [and] where well-being was a group project” (pg. 48). Joining such a community was a blessing and even the quirkiness became charming.
Before long Essex Farm and its farmers became just another part of it. For example, when work on the farm was too busy and Kimball first noticed the importance of lawns her solution was to let their cattle graze in the yard and tend the grass for them. Mark and Kristin married in one of the farm’s barns using bales of hay as seating in a complete country wedding (pg. 249). When Kristin wasn’t sure about giving up her name Mark decided to take on her surname. I’d say they fit in just fine! Visit the Essex Farm website to learn more, and if you want to see some ongoing glimpses into farm life right now check out Kristin Kimball’s blog.
- The Dirty Life – A Barncast by The Wild Center (essexonlakechamplain.com)
- State of the Farm | Kristin Kimball (essexonlakechamplain.com)
- The Farm Has Eyes | Kristin Kimball (essexonlakechamplain.com)
- Tastes of Spring (essexonlakechamplain.com)