Book chat: ‘The Dirty Life’ by Kristin Kimball

The Dirty LifeKristin Kimball’s transition from tenacious New Yorker to muddied farm wife is lovingly documented in The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love — and it almost made me want to get dirty myself.

I’m a suburban girl with no experience around animals or agriculture. Though surrounded by farms — the last vestiges of Maryland’s tobacco past — growing up, my knowledge of farming practices and experience with homegrown food is incredibly limited. I don’t like to be sweaty or hot, basically; the idea of slaving away all day in the sun pulling tubers from the ground isn’t appealing.

And yet, on some level . . . it is?

It’s hard to describe the immense satisfaction we get from a hard day’s work — far away from a computer. Kristin and her then-fiance, Mark, take over a rundown farm in Essex, New York, with the idea of creating a CSA (community-supported agriculture) and living off the land.

While Mark has extensive farming experience, Kristin does not. She’s just a woman tired of fighting the good fight in New York’s cutthroat journalism world . . . and when she meets muddy, sincere, unassuming Mark, the pair fall into easy conversation. And love.

I felt for Kristin from the beginning, relating to her lack of experience but her drive to learn. She starts out visiting Mark for a story and, with time, finds she enjoys her hours spent on the farm with the crew — especially when it comes to the fresh, organic and healthy meals they’re served. It’s farm-to-table on a literal level, and the authenticity of it all stands in stark contrast to Manhattan’s manufactured happiness.


The Dirty Life chronicles Kristin and Mark’s early courtship and the origins of Essex Farm, which starts as nothing but bare fields and slowly becomes a booming, productive enterprise that brings the community together. I’ve long been interested in the concept of CSAs, and Kristin makes the idea of joining one immensely appealing.

One of the most interesting parts of the story is the idea that, when times are tough, people return to the land. Published in 2010, The Dirty Life arrives in the thick of the recession — and I thought a bit about how and why farming is still considered the noble American profession. While farmers themselves have seen their numbers dwindle significantly over the decades, we all still need to eat. This food must come from somewhere. So why not Essex Farm?

Increasing attention is paid to what we’re eating, where it’s coming from and why. Shoppers seeking “organic” foods have more options at the grocery store than ever before, and farmers’ markets — especially in and around my hometown — seem to be booming. It’s appealing to shake hands with the man or woman who grew your tomatoes, you know? It’s refreshing to hand cash over to farmers living, working and supporting your own community.

So it’s easy to see why Kristin and Mark — with their passion, drive and hard work — would eventually succeed. Her story is quick, interesting and entertaining. The steep learning curve Kristin faces while working with Mark on their great farming adventure is realistic and human. I loved that she did not romanticize all the long hours, exhausting work and painful sacrifices, but she’s not complaining, either. She acknowledges both the slog and tremendous reward of working side-by-side with your family in a place you love. How they have really built something together.

Kristin feels like that cool, bold friend who leaps first and figures it out later . . . and, by the close of the story, I found myself proud by proxy of all she and Mark have accomplished. The Dirty Life is a very enjoyable read — especially for those interested in agriculture.

I might be just a girl from the suburbs, but I do love a good cow story.

4 out of 5

Pub: 2010 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio book borrowed from my local library

Book talk: ‘Harvest’ by Richard Horan

I’ve been interested in farming lately.

Maybe it’s a symptom of feeling claustrophobic and stressed in my chaotic suburban life. There’s something soothing — very appealing — about being in the country, and it’s just that sentiment that led me to pick up Richard Horan’s Harvest: An Adventure into the Heart of America’s Family Farms.

Horan’s story is one of a writer and teacher who embarks on a quest to explore organic farms across the country, meeting colorful characters and exploring various aspects of farming in the months he’s away from his Oswego, N.Y., home. Harvested crops include green beans, tomatoes, wild rice and cranberries, and his locations range from the High Plains of Kansas, to Michigan, Ohio, Maine, California. Horan’s quest is national — and the locales were what most appealed to me about the book. I’m an armchair traveler, you know.

I was sold on needing to read the book when I learned one of Horan’s stops was in Winters, Calif., site of my magnificent hot air balloon ride, where he harvested walnuts. In Winters last May, my boyfriend and I had marveled at the amount of agriculture blossoming in the countryside. Our balloon instructor (driver? guide?) talked about the many crops grown in the foothills of California, and I was enchanted by it all. It’s hard not to imagine a different life in California — one in which we actually take notice of the earth . . . and really depend on it.

That’s sort of where Horan is coming from, too. He wants to get back to basics. He wants to work with his hands, get dirty, get involved in something that doesn’t involve a classroom or book or electronic device. He wants to just be into it. And you know what? I really respected that.

Something about Harvest felt disjointed, though. While I liked following his adventures from one town to the next, the narrative felt sort of weightless — as though Horan had no real point to it all. Combined with the distracting footnotes on many pages, I found myself wondering what I was supposed to “get.” We didn’t spend enough time with any of the farmers or their families/helpers to really connect with them, and maybe that’s where the book veered off for me. Just as I become interested in one gregarious, up-and-at-’em farmer, we were bound for Michigan. Or some such.

Horan is certainly adventurous, pitching in and using all manners of devices (or just his plain hands), but I didn’t fully connect with him as a narrator. I appreciated that he was giving a voice to some of those hardworking folks who harvest and provide food for the rest of us office drones, but I never felt invested in the story. I finished the book and liked it well enough, but something was just . . . missing.

Those interested in farming practices, travel and the state of American agriculture might find Harvest more enjoyable than I did. While Horan can certainly write and I appreciated his observations, I wanted more.

3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0062090313 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonPublisher page
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review