The Dirty Life

· Articles & Essays · ,

by Kristin Kimball

By the end of April our first seeds were well up, in rows of soil-filled flats on the farmhouse’s sunny, glassed-in porch. We’d planted the onions between sap runs in March, and now we had ten thousand small, green, bladelike sprouts striving to grow. Leeks came next, and then herbs, broccoli, pepper, tomato, flowers, lettuce—five types— cabbage, and kale. I’d begun to understand what farm scale meant. Seeding was like running a small, muddy factory. The potting soil we used came in a one-ton sack (“If it weighs a ton,” my friend Alexis said when she heard this, “can you still call it a sack?”). We stirred water into batches of the potting soil until a handful of it would drip once or twice when you squeezed it in your hand. We borrowed a soil blocker, a nifty metal mold on a stick, from some neighbor farmers and used it to form the moist soil into cubes. Into the center of each cube we dropped seeds, some so small you had to squint to see them. Then we dusted the tops of the flats with more potting soil and watered them. I loved that miniature work in the pale spring light. I liked imagining what the seeds would become, and I liked the contrast with the usual farm jobs, which always seemed to involve heavy lifting.

The nights were still dangerously cold for tender young seedlings. When the weather radio warned of freezing temperatures, we opened the windows between the house and the porch and stoked up the woodstove. We bought box fans to push the warmer air around. The porch got so crowded with flats, maneuvering among them for watering was like playing a game of Twister. Then we ran out of room entirely. The tomatoes placed in the porch’s corners were not getting enough light, and they were growing too tall and thin. We stacked hay bales into rectangles on the farmhouse lawn and topped them with windows John found for us at the dump: poor-man’s cold frames. We moved our leggy tomatoes outside and crossed our fingers.

Mark was not used to working with ad hoc systems like this. On his farm in Pennsylvania, the start-up phase had been funded by a twenty- thousand-dollar loan, which had allowed him to buy all the equipment he needed and also build a greenhouse. Because of my fear of debt, and because this whole-diet farm venture was new and untested, we’d agreed to get through our first trial year on nothing but our savings. Since those were already spent by planting time, we were bootstrapping, and sometimes we went too far. We didn’t buy a $250 garden cart—a tool so basic and essential to the everyday work of hauling heavy things on a farm, I now can’t imagine how we did without it—until the middle of our second season. We did not have enough hoses, which meant spending scarce time unhooking and dragging them from one place to another, or else hauling loaded buckets. And with the thrown-together cold frames, we made a bad miscalculation. When the plants were goodsize seedlings, the temperature dipped unexpectedly low one night, and in the morning we found all them drooping, tender leaves and stems turned the darker green of frost-nipped death. It was too late, by then, to start again, and buying started plants did not fit into our budget.

We were saved by a fellow farmer, Beth Spaugh. She had left her job as county extension agent several years earlier because, she said, God told her to farm. She’d turned the small acreage around her house into a market garden and chicken coop, and, through faith, hard work, and sheer stubbornness, carved out a niche for herself selling vegetables and eggs at the local farmers’ markets. When she heard about our frozen tomatoes, she drove over to our place with her truck bed full of stocky, vibrant tomato plants. She’d planted extra, she said, and these were her leftovers. She knew we had no money, so she gave them to us for free.

We found that kind of generosity over and over again our first year. Without it, I don’t think the farm could have survived. Gifts were made quietly, so as not to embarrass us.

We found that kind of generosity over and over again our first year. Without it, I don’t think the farm could have survived. Gifts were made quietly, so as not to embarrass us. When Billy Shields came over to artificially inseminate our cow Raye, he refused to take a check for it. When we pressed him, he looked away. “I like to help a young farmer just starting out,” he said, and that was the end of the discussion. I knew that Thomas LaFountain stored our meat in his cooler at a cut rate, and I suspected that our vet, Dr. Goldwasser, was undercharging us for farm calls. The next spring, when we still did not have a greenhouse, our neighbors to the north, Mike and Laurie Davis, let us use theirs, even though they started their own CSA that year, which made us their direct competitors.

Beth Spaugh’s tomato plants thrived in our cold frames, and by the time the threat of frost was over, they were covered in little yellow blossoms. In the trip between her farm and ours, the plants had lost their identification tags, so when we planted them in the field, the many varieties were all mixed together—slicing tomatoes intermingled with cherry tomatoes, and hollow tomatoes meant for stuffing growing next to a bright yellow variety that looks cheekily similar to a peach. We’d never again have such a wildly beautiful tomato patch, and it produced extraordinarily well, as though even the plants themselves were inclined to help us when they could.

 

Don’t Let Anyone Tell You that growing vegetables is not a violent act. The muted sound of a plow tearing through roots is almost obscene, like the sound of a fist meeting flesh. Before planting, we had to raze the ground.

Plowing is primary tillage, the first and crudest step in making ground ready for seed. It takes tremendous power. Imagine digging a ditch nine inches wide, six inches deep, and eleven miles long. That’s what it takes to plow a single acre. The job of the plow is to rip through the earth and then to flip it over, so that the surface is buried. There are plows for breaking new ground and plows for stubble, for hills, for clay, muck, and sand. The simplest horse-drawn kind is the one-bottom walking plow, a heavy pointed hunk of steel with handles on the back end, a clevis to hitch to the horses on the front. When a walking plow is well-made and properly adjusted, and the horses are fit and well-trained, plowing is pure pleasure. The plow floats through the soil, and the furrow opens up behind you in a long dark wave. Our first plow was an ancient relic that Shep Shields had loaned us, found in the back of his barn. It was a rusty thing with cracked handles, and its share, the curved metal piece that turns the ground, was badly worn. It was missing its coulter, the sharp knife that is supposed to slice through the sod in front of the share. Our first attempt to use that monster was an abject failure.

Sam and Silver had not worked hard for three weeks, since the end of sugar season. Meanwhile, they’d been eating grain and the first green tips of the growing grass, which gave them the energy of kindergarteners after too much cake. We loaded the sorry-looking plow onto our stone boat and set out for the back of the farm. There was a ten-acre piece that had been rented out to another farmer to grow corn the year before, and the soil there was loose. We weren’t planning to use it that year, so we thought it would be a good place to practice before we attempted to open up the thick sod in the fields we wanted for our vegetables.

In the old paintings, the plowman is alone. He holds the handles of the plow, one in each hand, and steers the horses with the lines knotted around his shoulders. We were barely competent driving horses with two hands, let alone with our shoulders, so we decided to split the job in two. I guided the horses, and Mark handled the plow. I had the slightly better end of the deal, because I could keep clear of the plow handles, while Mark kept getting whacked by them, right in the gut. Sam was hitched on the right, the so-called furrow horse, charged with walking in the soft dirt of his newly dug ditch, keeping a straight line. He understood his job and stayed in the right place, but the plow would not behave. It plunged deep into the loose soil and made the horses strain against their collars, and then it surfed upward and popped out of the soil entirely, and the horses lurched forward against nothing. There were almost no rocks in that field, but when we were unlucky enough to connect with one, the plow stopped dead. Then we had to back the horses up, dragging the heavy plow by hand to the last clean place in the furrow, or else come out of the furrow entirely, circle around, and begin again.

Mark was certain that whatever was going wrong was my fault. The horses were moving too fast, and he wanted me to slow them down, but they were high on grain and didn’t want to work at such a slow pace. They pulled at their bits until my arms felt stretched to apelike length. When Mark wanted me to move the horses a fraction of an inch to the right he’d say, “Right!” but he wouldn’t give me time to react before saying “Right!” again, and then I’d be too far right and he would be barking “Left!” Before we finished a whole furrow I wanted to kill him. (If I could have glimpsed the future, this is what I would have seen: Late spring, sunny afternoon, me seven months pregnant with our daughter, driving the team for Mark while he plowed, not because we needed two people for the job by then but for the pure pleasure of it, the knowing horses doing their work and the plow moving smoothly through soil and we two humans enjoying it like other couples enjoy a waltz together. But that was far in the future, with a lot of trying in between.)

We kept at it doggedly for half a morning before we admitted it was hopeless. We had only a small window of dry early spring weather, and at the rate we were going, it would take us about a year to turn the five acres we needed.

Photo by Magnus Hagdorn

 

We hired our neighbor Paul and his big tractor with a five-bottom plow, and in a matter of a couple hours he opened up our vegetable ground, five acres in five fields on the good soil that ran parallel to the road. I walked behind him, in the furrow, in awe of the tractor’s gargantuan tires, the deep throb of the engine, mesmerized by the destructive power of the plow hitched behind. At the end of each row he lifted it and the five shares, scoured by the earth, flashed like swords. He made the turn and they sank into the ground again, and the soft, grassy surface of the earth—its variegated pad of flora and fauna—was replaced by wave after wave of raw soil. The seagulls flocked knowingly to the sound of the tractor. At the bottoms of the furrows, the shocked worms writhed and dove for cover.

We gave the new places their civilized names: Home Field, next to the farmhouse. Pine Field, tucked between two groves of trees. Mailbox Field, at the end of our long driveway. Monument Field, where the best soil was, named for an obelisklike rock that stood alongside it. Small Joy, carved out of a hayfield and flanked by a stream. Each field was an acre, more or less. I could see the fresh furrows from the upstairs window, red in the last late light.

 

The Next Morning, Mark and I walked the headlands, counting steps, taking measure. The land was subdued but not yet entirely broken. Plowing loosens the topsoil and buries sod, but it leaves a rough surface. In our new fields, the sod and the soil clung to their old form, standing up in those dark waves, leaning on each other to make a range of tiny peaks. Stray tufts of grass stuck out between them. Smoothing the seedbed is what the harrow is for. Ancient-sounding word with its connotations of distress.

There was a disc harrow on the farm, but it was the modern kind, humongous, meant to be pulled by a large tractor. Luckily, Shane Sharpe had loaned us his horse-drawn disc harrow. The day after we plowed, Mark and I rolled it onto the driveway and hitched Sam and Silver to it. It was a simple machine, a six-foot-long metal frame that rolled along on a dozen slightly cupped metal discs. The discs were divided into two gangs, their relationship to each other adjustable, so that when traveling on the farm roads, they rolled along in one straight line, but in the field they could be angled toward one another to form a V. The discs cut into the surface of the soil, further loosening it and breaking up clods. Each disc throws some soil inward, to flatten out lumps and furrows, and kill weeds. There was a hard metal tractor seat bolted onto the top of the frame, and a crude metal rack behind, to hold rocks for added weight.

I took to the disc harrow immediately. Harrowing with it was a more reasonable job than plowing for a teamster as inexperienced as I was. If the horses and I couldn’t manage to travel in a perfectly straight line, we left an interesting trail behind us but didn’t jeopardize the whole operation. I relaxed, and so did the horses, who seemed calmed by the steady pull. It was quiet in Small Joy, except for the crazy pinging call of a bobolink and the faint, far-off sound of a rooster. Nico, who’d followed us, matched the horses’ pace with her shepherdy slink. She raised her ears at a killdeer that was desperately trying to make her chase it, flopping around with her wing out, close to the ground. I guess we’d wrecked the bird’s nest with the plow the day before. I tried for a minute to imagine a way of eating that involves no suffering and came down to Thoreau next to the pond with his little patch of beans. Then I remembered that he walked to his mother’s house in town every day for lunch.

The furrows smoothed and flattened out behind us. When I stopped to clear a stick from between the discs, the ground felt springy underneath my feet, like a giant trampoline. It was a good workout for the horses, who were out of shape after their time off. We stopped at the end of each pass for a rest, and they stood and blew, and the sweat dripped from their bellies onto the raw earth like a balm or a blessing.

 


Kristin Kimball is a farmer and a writer living in northern New York. She and her husband live with their two daughters on Essex Farm CSA, which they have run since 2003.

From The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love, Copyright 2010 by Kristin Kimball. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon and Schuster, Inc.

 

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