4:30 a.m.: Time to Get Up

Basket of tomatoesI’ve wondered for many years why a small farm that grows a variety of vegetables and fruits, maybe raises a few animals, is called a “truck farm”. I always kind of thought it must have something to do with, you know, a truck. I’m not positive about that, though. I mostly grew up on a truck farm, as we lived next door to my grandparents on their farm in Georgia. There was a great variety of vegetables and fruits on the farm. I still recall the bushel baskets sitting in a row across my grandparents’ back porch, filled with large tomatoes as red as God’s blood, and huge baskets of fat strawberries as sweet as Satan’s kiss.

I was a child and had no clue what remarkable bounty surrounded me, what amazing food we had access to. In fact I was a stupid, distorted child, wanting to eat from the grocery store. As kids, we had to work on the farm, though I clearly remember how lazy I was, and it’s not a proud memory to recall how unwillingly I picked strawberries, plucked peanuts from the harvested plants, or carried buckets of slop down to the pigpen. I preferred to be in the house reading a book.

And there was a truck on the farm, an old truck that wasn’t very large, with running boards on the side such as Chicago gangsters might have used for a shootout in the fields. With my brothers and my cousin we helped my grandparents gather fresh corn from the field, and then we would ride into town to sell the corn to merchants at the farmers’ market. Because we were country kids, we sat happily in the back of the truck, riding on the corn.

Now I live in an area of remarkable beauty, in central Pennsylvania, and one of the great attractions for me here is that I am surrounded by both large and small farms. I love the visual appeal of agriculture, rows of corn rolling across the fields like the green stripes of modern art. Obviously I’m romanticizing it, since I’m not actually doing the work. Here in our small town I know of four farmers’ markets, one of which is run by a single Amish family.

Recently a friend who I trust with any recommendation gave me the book The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball. It’s a true story about her change from living as a writer in Manhattan to living on a hard-working farm in New York  state with her boyfriend (later husband). Part of the attraction for my friend who recommended the book, and for me, is that the book begins here in State College, as Kimball met her boyfriend Mark here where he was farming.

Most of the story takes place on a farm near Lake Champlain, and Kimball describes in great detail how they worked to create a farm of such ambition that it sounds strange to think about it. Their idea was to run a farm that would supply everything people needed to eat for the year, with no need to ever buy food in a store, and to do this for dozens of members who would pay a yearly amount to the farm. Although the book describes some of the difficult, early years, apparently Kristin and Mark made it work.

Kimball uses details well, so that we can be there as she trudges through a snowstorm after taking care of animals, we can practically smell the shed where she is boiling down maple syrup, or watch as frightened horses tear away from her down a road, dragging a farm implement.

An aspect of the book that gets attention, as the subtitle implies, is the relationship between Kristin and Mark. She does not appear to sugar coat it, and she makes clear that this is not entirely a bucolic portrait of the farm maid and her rural swain. There are some problems out in the country, though in the end it works out.

The relationship part of the book I sometimes found offputting, when Kristen shows the reader that even though she went to live on a farm with Mark, after agreeing to marry him, she was sometimes emotionally distant and hesitant about getting married. I was sometimes disturbed by what I felt was her coldness, though Mark could also be rigid sometimes and insistent on doing things his way. So maybe he wasn’t a picnic every day.

By the end, though, including their relationship adds a second sort of “plotline” on top of whether or not the cow will live and the onions will grow. And that’s probably an aspect of Kimball’s skill as a writer, her ability to make a book that can be rather compelling. And I learned more about cows.

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