Now, in late August, the peak of the year’s garden work appears to be behind us. Last week I harvested pumpkins, and in the space vacated by the dying vines, I sowed a fall garden of lettuce, spinach, collards, turnips, carrots, and beets. For the next few weeks, the only time-consuming work should be the never-ending need to pick and can green beans. I put a batch in the pressure canner every four or five days, and so far I’ve put up 70 pints. I don’t think we should have a problem making it through the winter!
But with cooler weather and less manual labor on the horizon, my thoughts naturally turn to books. In case you’re thinking along similar lines, I want to share with you three of my favorite farm reads. They are all memoirs, each good enough that I’ve read it multiple times. They’re the sort of books whose lines drift back to me while I’m gardening. While I’m hoeing corn or picking beans in the heat of late July, I’m thinking how exotic and inspiring the authors of these books make this sweaty, repetitive work sound. To the point that I’m sometimes tempted to lounge in the shade and read about someone else doing my chores. But generally I save these books for winter. When the palms of my hands have lost the callouses of spring digging and the soles of my feet are longing for contact with new grass and freshly turned soil, these three books are my transports to the fantasy land of summer. I’m sure they’ll get read again this year–maybe by you!
In The Dirty Life (2010), New York City journalist Kristin Kimball goes out to the country to interview a young farmer and never looks back (okay, only briefly). After a courtship laced with irresistibly fresh and flavorful vegetables, Kimball embarks with said farmer on a harebrained scheme to turn a rundown 500-acre farm upstate into a CSA producing everything essential to a family’s diet: beef, pork, chicken, milk, eggs, maple syrup, grains, flours, dried beans, fruits, herbs, and vegetables too numerous to name. He is, by the way, convinced that they must do all this with horse-drawn equipment! Suffice it to say, there are a few bumps along the way: things like smashed fences, escaped pigs, blinding blizzards, infected cow’s ears. But Kimball’s prose is so magical–and her descriptions of the farm’s culinary products so mouth-watering–that by the end you’ll risk wanting to grab a pitchfork and join her in her irresistible romp in the mud. [Read my full review of The Dirty Life here.]
Even more than about farming, Eric Brende’s memoir Better Off (2004) is about minimizing the use of modern technology. The story follows Brende and his wife as they live for a year and a half in a community of people who are a lot like the Amish–except that they use even less technology. Most Amish, for instance, will accept a gasoline-powered hay baler if it’s pulled by horses, but this community of “Minimites,” as Brende nicknames them, instead employs a baler powered entirely by the horses themselves (the invention of a local blacksmith).
When Brende arrives in the Minimite community, he expects the work to exhaust him. After all, there’s no electricity, no running water, and acres of land to care for. What he discovers, however, is that where modern conveniences are lacking, human skill and ingenuity shine. As does the value of community. When he and his wife reluctantly depart a year and a half later, they realize that one of the things they are going to miss most is all the time their Minimite life afforded them: time for each other, for their family, and for their neighbors. Full of anecdotes, philosophy, and practical wisdom, Better Off is a must-read for anyone interested in life in the slow lane.
The Last Farmer by Howard Kohn is somewhat older than either of the previous two memoirs, with a publication date in 1988. And whereas Kimball’s and Brende’s books are stories of relatively young people discovering farming for the first time, Kohn’s book is about a farm-raised middle-aged man who has found a comfortable, fulfilling life in the city, but is reluctantly drawn back to rural Michigan by the growing economic problems faced by his father, the family’s “Last Farmer.” Kohn’s book, besides being expertly written, is uniquely perceptive about the personal and historical realities of America’s disappearing independent farms. And it is a fascinating portrait of the fiercely self-sufficient father Kohn comes to admire deeply, despite his inability to follow in his footsteps.