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'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. By NPR


In a way, Kristin Kimball was lucky. She'd never farmed before, so when she moved to a farm in upstate New York, she had no idea what she was getting into. Her husband, Mark, did know ? but then, Kimball tells NPR's Melissa Block, "he's crazier than I am."

Seven years after her life-changing move from Manhattan to Essex Farm, Kimball has documented her adjustment to rural living in her new book, The Dirty Life. The title of her book, Kimball says, comes from the fact that farm work is consistently filthy, and pushed the boundaries of what she initially considered disgusting.

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

Farming is often idealized by city folk, and there is some romance to be found in the farm Kimball describes, but there's also back-breaking work and the hard-earned satisfaction that comes with it.

"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," Kimball says. "I find in my life that I experience both of those things almost on a daily basis."

"There's the enormous satisfaction of growing food for people," she adds, "and at the same time it is incredibly hard ? the work never ends, and it never gets easier."

'You Can't Really Refuse When A Farm Needs Your Help'

Kimball's path to farming was a circuitous one. A travel writer living out of a New York studio apartment, she drove to Pennsylvania to write about a young sustainable farmer she'd heard of who lived there. She met her husband on that trip. At the time, she jokes, she was not of farming stock: "I was very much an East Village Manhattan girl."

When she arrived at the farm, Kimball knocked on the door of the farmer's trailer, which also happened to be his office. He said he was too busy to grant her the interview, even though they had previously scheduled it.

"Instead," Kimball remembers, "he handed me a hoe and said, 'There's the broccoli patch.' That was the first time that I actually did any farm work. [My] family, we didn't even have a garden. And something happened that day. I just fell in love with the work."

The farmer came back in the evening and said he was busy again.

"He said, 'I have time to grant you the interview, but I also need to slaughter this pig, and would you help me?' " Kimball says. "At that point, I'd been a vegetarian for 13 years, I also had on an expensive white blouse I liked a lot ? but you can't really refuse when a farm needs your help. And so I helped him slaughter a pig that night."

The blouse didn't really survive, but the demanding young farmer, Mark, became her husband. They were soon engaged and living in a house north of New York. Before Kimball knew it, they were moving to Essex Farm near Lake Champlain in upstate New York. "It was fast," she says. "I think it's best that I didn't have a lot of time to think about it."

In keeping with his granola mystique, Mark also had a vision of what he wanted their new farm to be. Their new farm was not just going to be an example of community-supported agriculture ? it would function year-round, and supply the families who worked there with everything they needed.

"And add to that, that he wanted to do it with horses," Kimball says.

Horses, not tractors. And they hand-milked the cows, instead of using machines. Kimball says they eventually caved on that one ? "we switched to machine milking, that was earlier this year" ? but for years they did everything on the farm by hand.

The Best Way To Eat A Potato

In the beginning, Kimball and her husband were on their own, without farmhands or other support. When asked whether she ever questioned whether this difficult life was of her choosing, or whether it was all Mark's idea, Kimball pauses.

"Hm. I mean, I very quickly became as passionate about the farm as he was," she says. "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."

"It was a surprise, and yet when I started doing the work, I was shocked at how viscerally I responded," she adds. "I think that in some way, human beings are in some way hard-wired to be agrarians. This is what most people in the history of the world have focused their energy on."

Kimball has two little girls now, one of whom is a newborn, and the author says her older daughter Jane's childhood is proving to be dramatically different from her own. In The Dirty Life, she describes Jane's second birthday ? the toddler sat in the kitchen and watched Kimball butcher rabbits.

"It's very interesting," Kimball says. "She's 3 now, and one of her favorite things is to sit outside and watch Courtney, who's our butcher, eviscerate our cattle and pigs. She just loves to watch butchering. At the same time, she's just this incredibly kind and sensitive little girl. It's just normal for her."

In spite of the constant hard work, Kimball's farm still has its quiet, romantic moments. The first year she and Mark planted potatoes, the yield was enormous ? around 10,000 pounds. They called in reinforcements to harvest the spuds, rounding up about 30 friends to help. "It was truly fall," Kimball writes:

The air was 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. ?


Excerpt: 'The Dirty Life' by Kristin Kimball

The pigs became my responsibility. Mark and I were getting into power struggles over every little decision that needed to be made, neither of us wanting to lose control. To diffuse tension we'd decided to split the farm in two. Each of us was captain of half of the farm. As a farm management strategy, it was awkward, but it was necessary for the preservation of our relationship at that time. When we'd divided the livestock, Mark got charge of our one-cow dairy. Lucky me, I got the pigs.

By the time they arrived, my pigs were past the coy, curly-tailed stage and well into the voracious, menacing phase. Pigs really do have terrifically gluttonous natures. They can't help it. We've bred them to be professional eaters, meat packed as fast as possible onto four stumpy legs. They can gain more than a pound a day. That kind of growth is fueled by prodigious appetite, and in a group situation, at feeding time, they are viciously competitive, using their dense bodies to check, and their sharp teeth to bite, and their deep-throated barks to intimidate. The worst part of my day quickly became the moment when I would scramble over their pen wall carrying a five-gallon bucket full of sour skim milk mixed with cornmeal and wade through a swarm of pig bodies intent on knocking me down. More than once I ended up on my back, covered in sour milk and pig manure, shoved and bitten by five frenzied beasts.

One-on-one, they were less menacing but no less troublesome. One pig had figured out how to wiggle past the wall that divided the pigpen from the cow pen, and when I arrived at the farm in the morning, I'd find her in with Delia. There was no way to get her back in the proper place without catching her, lifting her, and dropping her over the chest-high barrier. It was like catching a large greased watermelon, a shockingly fast and willful one, one with an ear-piercing squeal.

I hit pig bottom one day during the darkest week of December, when the temperature had ventured tentatively above freezing and the snow wilted into chilly, slick-bottomed puddles. I was alone on the farm, Mark off to the farmers' market in Troy, networking.

Aside from chores and milking, my only job of the day was to move the pigs out of their pen in the west barn, which they'd outgrown, and into the roomy run-in of the east barn thirty feet away, which I had already filled with a thick layer of mulch hay. I figured I could get this done quickly and then go home, stoke up the fire, and enjoy the almost unimaginable luxury of a quiet, empty house, a hot bath, and a book. The problem was that, when it came down to it, I realized I had no idea how I was going to move those pigs. They'd become too big to carry. I knew from experience that they would not herd, and if I tried to push them they would just push back. I suspected if they got loose outside they'd be gone, quite possibly for good. Okay, I thought, I'm a smart person. I can figure out how to move five pigs thirty feet. The thing to do, I decided, was to build a chute.

I filled a wheelbarrow with things I found in the machine shop that looked like they might be useful: a hammer, a saw, and ? eureka! ? some pieces of metal roofing, three feet wide by fifteen feet long. Then I walked back to the barns and stared at my problem. The pigpen had a door that let out onto the alley between the two barns, but the door to the run-in was all the way around on the east barn's south side. I was thinking I would somehow build a laneway for the pigs with the sheets of roofing, but I didn't have enough material to get all the way to the door of the east barn. Just then, as if on cue, a wet, sleety snow began to fall. The bath and the book that I had been looking forward to all week began to seem remote. I decided I was overthinking it, trying to come up with an elegant solution when any solution would do. We weren't building the Taj Mahal here, I reminded myself. We were trying to move five pigs thirty feet. So I picked up the saw from the wheelbarrow and began cutting a hole in the wall of the east barn run-in, directly across from the door to the pigpen.

I was struggling mightily with the sawing, making very little progress, and the sleet was dripping off the edge of the barn down the collar of my coat, when I heard a pickup idling in the driveway. I looked up to see Shep Shields, our neighbor from over the hill, hobbling toward me. Shep had become a daily visitor, bringing us small things from his barn that he thought we could use, or sometimes a box of cake he picked up at the store. On my birthday, he brought me a potted plant.

He squinted at me through the sleet. I thought about how I must look, wet, red-fingered from cold, cutting a hole in a perfectly good barn for no apparent reason. "I don't want to tell you what to do," Shep began. This, I'd found, was a very common statement in the North Country. You're not considered rude if you don't return phone calls, or if you get drunk while working, or fail to show up as promised, but telling someone how to do something is bad form and requires a disclaimer. I braced myself. "I don't want to tell you what to do," Shep said, "but that saw you're using? That's a hacksaw. You want a wood saw." And he hobbled back to his truck and left.

I was coming up against a cold, hard truth. I was well-educated, well-read, and well-traveled. I could hold my own in cocktail conversation most places in the world. But when it came to physical work, I was virtually retarded.

After I'd traded the hacksaw for a wood saw and made a pig-size hole in the barn wall, I propped the rusty roofing into a chute held together with baling twine and opened the pen door. I braced myself for a five-pig stampede, but absolutely nothing happened. I'd baited the chute and the run-in with loaves of old bread soaked in sour milk, but for once the damn pigs weren't hungry. They had no desire to leave their snug, dry pen, and no amount of shoving, shouting, begging, or cursing would make them change their minds. I was cold, wet, and exhausted, and the sun was going down. It was time to milk Delia again. I'd pinned the pigs' door open in such a way that I'd have to disassemble the entire chute in order to close it, something I was not, at that moment, willing to do. I finished the chores and left, hoping the pigs would feel bolder and hungrier in the dark, and find their way through the chute to the run-in on their own.

I fell asleep as soon as I'd stripped off my clothes and had bad dreams about pigs all night. Mark did not get home from Troy until past midnight, so I got up alone the next morning and went to the farm to milk.

Excerpted from The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Loveby Kristin Kimball. Copyright 2010 by Kristin Kimball. Excerpted by permission of Scribner.

The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love
By Kristin Kimball
Hardcover, 288 pages
List price: $25

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