Kristin Kimball is the author of The Dirty Life. If you haven’t read it, put it at the top of your list. She tells the story of meeting the man who became her husband, and how they started a farm together. The story is unvarnished, but page-turningly grand. Their farm is pretty unique, in that they provide a year-round, fill-your-larder CSA. Their experiences in starting the farm, though, share the ups and downs of farming that anyone can recognize.
Here’s a little about the farm from Kristin’s website:
“Essex Farm offers a year-round, full diet, free choice membership. We produce grass-fed beef, pastured pork, chicken, eggs, fifty different kinds of vegetables, milk, grains and flour, fruit, herbs, maple syrup, and soap. Members come to the farm on Fridays, from 3pm to 7pm, and take what they need for the week, in any quantity or combination they choose. We sometimes limit scarce items, like maple syrup or the year’s first tomatoes, but most food is available on an all-you-can-eat basis. Members are encouraged to take extra produce during the growing season for freezing or canning, to supplement what is available from the root cellar during winter and early spring. In addition to food, we offer members the opportunity to hike the farm, visit fields and animals, and join us as volunteers for harvest and field work.
“This is our wonky-but-useful mission statement: We strive to produce an abundance of high quality food while fostering the health and resiliency of the farm, the farmers, the members, and the community. Our desire is to build an agro-ecosystem that is sustainable economically, environmentally, and socially. We work to make a farm that is better tomorrow than it is today.”
Here’s an update on life at the farm now, in an interview with Kristin. We don’t think it requires a spoiler alert though it will tell you that all does end with Kristin and Mark on their own farm. She shares a good picture of how they balance farming, marketing, writing and home life.
Kristin: We are farming over 600 acres now. The soil ranges from sandy loam to heavy clay, with some of everything in between. The ‘home farm’ is comprised of a little more than 500 acres. We own 80 of it outright, along with the barns and the house; we are about to sign a mortgage on another 270. We have a lease on the rest. We also lease 100 acres of hay ground a mile down the road.
Most of this land is flat, except for some gentle slopes and our sugarbush hill. About 450 acres of the 600 are open. 50 acres are now tiled (drained). That last bit has been a huge capital investment but it has exponentially increased production and quality, and decreased frustration.
The farm had three main barns on it when we got here – two large wooden barns, and one metal one with a roof but no walls. There were also several smaller outbuildings, including a granary. Thanks to an NRDC grant, we’ve added two large composting covered barnyards to winter our livestock in. Another combination of grants funded most of the cost of a 25kw solar array.
Kristin: Much has changed in the last ten years, but our model has not. We are the same highly diversified full diet year round CSA we set out to be on our first year. The goal, as always, is to grow enough delicious, nutritious food to keep ourselves and our members happy in the kitchen 52 weeks a year. We now feed 250 people. We produce beef, pork, chicken, eggs, milk, grains and flours, dry beans, vegetables, fruit, herbs, flowers, and a little bit of lamb and mutton. We also make hay and grains for our animals.
We market most of our food through our CSA. We also supply vegetables to two local school districts, and this fall, we added a farm stand where we retail vegetables, eggs, and chicken.
OP: Where do you obtain information about grazing practices (e.g., magazines, internet forums, visiting other farms, extension programs and publications, manufacturers of grazing technology), and which are most important?
Kristin: All of the above. Every farm is different, every farmer is unique, and I think it’s important to gather information from many different sources in order to make good decisions. Of course, even after you have all the information you can handle, there will still be a lot of trial and error.
Kristin: Time and labor management are usually the limiting factors on how well we graze. A highly diversified farm is a complex, dynamic system. We have to consider the good of the whole over perfection of any of its parts. So for example, in the spring, when everything on the farm is cranking and the grass is growing like crazy, we might not move cattle as often as would be ideal, because we also have to stay on top of planting and weed control. It would help tremendously if we had permanent perimeter fence in all of our pastures, but we do not. Yet.
OP: What advice do you have for anyone interested in grazing livestock?
Kristin: Don’t forget that marketing your product is every bit as important as raising it. If you are just starting out, think about sales and marketing before you think about all the fun animal and grass stuff.
6) Finally, how do you balance family, farm, and just being you – an author, wife, mom, farmer, person? Do you ever sleep? Kathy has $10 riding on “never.” I’ve optimistically suggested 6 hours/night. We await your response to settle this wager.
Sorry, Kathy! I am an 8 hour per night woman. It doesn’t always happen, but it usually does. We have to accept that we can’t do everything, especially with young children. I farm less when I’m writing hard, and vice versa. We have employees, so I have some flexibility in where I spend my time.
Of course, there are points in the year when it’s all hands on deck, and everyone eats peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner, and falls into bed exhausted. But that’s not every day, and when I look back on the year, those times when everyone pulls together and gets a massive job done are some of my favorites. I hope our children will think so too, when they are grown.
I’ve also had to learn to set priorities and limits. A farm will take everything you’ve got and then some, if you let it. But you’ve got to remember why you’re doing it. I don’t know many farmers who are in the business in order to get wildly rich. We do it because we think it’s a good life and a good way to raise a family. If we’re overwhelmed and tired and miserable, what’s the point?