'The Dirty Life': From City Girl To Hog Butcher In her memoir, The Dirty Life, former Manhattan travel writer Kristin Kimball recounts her move from the big city to a muddy farm — with a love story along the way.

'The Dirty Life': From City Girl To Hog Butcher

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.


BLOCK: A late harvest work day for Kristin Kimball starts early, and involves a whole lot of mud.

Ms. KIMBALL: It is wet out here today.

BLOCK: This Adirondack farm is quite a different habitat for someone who not so long ago, lived in a tiny apartment in New York's East Village, worked as a freelance writer, and had never farmed a day in her life.


BLOCK: On this harvest day, Kimball pulls a hand cart out to the fields on the 500-acre farm she runs with her husband, Mark. It's in far northern New York state, near Lake Champlain. Today, they're harvesting celery and spinach.

Ms. KIMBALL: And really, no yellow leaves?

Mr. MARK KIMBALL: Well, I mean, there's - no leaves have no yellow, so you're going to have a little bit. But just the yellowest ones, I would omit.

Ms. KIMBALL: Okay.

Mr. KIMBALL: They're not terrible tasting.

Ms. KIMBALL: And we're cutting to the ground?

Mr. KIMBALL: Nope. Just a little bit above.

BLOCK: And they and their workers are snacking as they go.

Mr. KIMBALL: So delicious.

Ms. KIMBALL: It's sweet, isn't it?

Mr. KIMBALL: It's got that froth, and it tastes like sugar right now.

Ms. KIMBALL: Yeah. I know.

Mr. KIMBALL: Was this - the stuff you cooked sweet, too?

Ms. KIMBALL: Oh, it was so beautiful, I couldn't believe it.

BLOCK: Kristin and Mark Kimball are both first-generation farmers, and they are feeding a community. One-hundred fifty families pay to be members of the farm. And the Kimballs provide them with a year-round diet: 50 kinds of vegetables; also fruits, herbs, dried beans, milk, eggs, beef, chicken, pork, maple syrup, butter, lard, grains and flour - all grown and produced organically on Essex Farm. As Kristin Kimball puts it, she traded heels and handbags for Carharts and a Leatherman when she fell in love - first with Mark, and then with Essex Farm. She writes about both in her new book; it's titled "The Dirty Life."

Ms. KIMBALL: I had no idea you could be dirty in so many different ways. There's dirt dirt. There's blood. There's sweat. There's your own sweat, the sweat of animals. We do all of our butchering and slaughtering on-farm, and so there's that whole level of dirt, also.

BLOCK: And I guess for any of us who have this kind of romantic notion that someday we may, you know, leave it all behind and go out to the country and start farming, I am not finding much romance in the farm that you describe. I mean, it's just - it's a ton of back-breaking work and a lot of satisfaction too, but really, really hard.

Ms. KIMBALL: You know, one of the things that I tried to get over in the book is that farming is both incredibly romantic and also extremely hard, and can be very ugly. I find in my life that I experience both of those things almost on a daily basis. You know, there's the enormous satisfaction of growing food for people, and at the same time it is incredibly hard. The work never ends, and it never gets easier.

BLOCK: Well, let's talk about how you ended up on this farm in upstate New York. You were a travel writer, single travel writer, living in a studio apartment in New York, and got an assignment. You decided to write about this farmer you'd heard about out in Pennsylvania. And that's where you met the man who would become your husband. But this was not your world. You were not of farming stock.

Ms. KIMBALL: I was very much an East Village Manhattan girl at the time that I embarked on this project. I drove to Pennsylvania to interview this young farmer and knocked on the door of his trailer, which was also his office. He answered the door, but he was too busy to grant me an interview, even though we had scheduled it. And instead he handed me a hoe and said, there's the broccoli patch. That was the first time that I actually did any farm work. I grew up in a family - we didn't even have a garden. And something happened that day. I just - I fell in love with the work.

And he came back that evening. And he was - again - busy, but he said, I have time to grant you the interview, but I also need to slaughter this pig, and would you help me? At that point, I had been a vegetarian for 13 years. And I also had on an expensive, white blouse that I liked a lot.


Ms. KIMBALL: But you can't really refuse when a farm needs your help. And so I helped him slaughter a pig that night.

BLOCK: I imagine the blouse didn't really survive that.

Ms. KIMBALL: It did not survive, unfortunately.

BLOCK: I wonder if you could read a part of the book where you're describing how deeply different you and Mark were when you met. This is on page 42; Mark has strong feelings about a lot of things.

Ms. KIMBALL: Sure.

(Reading) Beneath my bohemian crust, he found I was the fairly predictable product of my middle-class upbringing. I believed in the uplifting nature of manicures, or a pair of new shoes. And under Mark's protean exterior, I was finding layer upon layer of unreconstructed hippie. I learned he'd spent his sophomore year in college, including the entire eastern Pennsylvania winter, barefoot. I noticed that the unmasked pungency of his armpits made other people roll down the car window. I suspected that if we'd met at a different time in our lives, we would've run as fast as possible away from each other.

BLOCK: Mark, the man who becomes your husband, also just has this vision of what he wants this farm to be - not just community-supported agriculture, but year-round supplying everything these families will need and, really, becoming a community of its own.

Ms. KIMBALL: Yeah, that's right. And add to that that he wanted to do it with horses.

BLOCK: Horses, not tractors.

Ms. KIMBALL: Horses, not tractors.

BLOCK: And hand-milking, not machine-milking.

Ms. KIMBALL: We switched to machine-milking; that was earlier this year. But until then, we were doing it by hand.

BLOCK: Were there times, Kristin, when you were in the middle of this - especially the beginning, when it was really hard and you were mostly on your own - that you really questioned whether this was the life you were choosing, or whether it was Mark's idea and you were sort of along for the ride?

Ms. KIMBALL: Hmm. I mean, I very quickly became as passionate about the farm as he was. It became this thing between us that's almost like another child. And both of us have a deep love for it and are very focused on the farm's primary goal, which is feeding 150 people every week. So no, once I was on board, it was very much my project as well as his. I certainly didn't know as much as he did, but I was equally passionate and, I think, dug in as deeply as he did.

BLOCK: How do you explain where that comes from, for you?

Ms. KIMBALL: It was a surprise and yet when I started doing the work, I was shocked at how viscerally I responded. I just - I think that human beings are, in some way, hard-wired to be agrarians. You know, this is what most people through the history of the world have focused their energy on.

BLOCK: You have a part of the book where you're describing the first potato harvest on the farm. The yield was something just outrageous. It was, what, 10,000 pounds of potatoes that you had to harvest?

Ms. KIMBALL: I think it was 10,000 pounds, yeah.

BLOCK: And you call in reinforcements - everybody you know, basically. You got 30 friends out there who are waiting to help you bring in the potatoes. And why don't we end with this section, if you wouldn't mind reading from the bottom of page 241.

Ms. KIMBALL: (Reading) It was truly fall. The air still cold at noon, despite the bright sun. The rows of popcorn had lost every trace of life, their leaves like brown, paper flags rattling in the shifting breeze. We boiled potatoes in their skins in the field, and served them steaming in napkins. We all warmed our chilled fingers on them, popped them open, invested them with quantities of butter and salt. If there is a more perfect way to celebrate the potato's earthy, sustaining essence, I have not discovered it yet.

BLOCK: Doesn't get much better than that.

Ms. KIMBALL: It's a good way to eat a potato.

BLOCK: I can tell.

Well, Kristin Kimball, thanks very much for talking to us.

Ms. KIMBALL: Thanks, Melissa.

BLOCK: You can read an excerpt from "The Dirty Life," and find an audio slide show of Kristin Kimball's life on Essex Farm. Visit npr.org.

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