Farming is fun; it’s creative; it’s hard and without a doubt it’s “dirty” work. As Mark and Kristin Kimball explain it, though, it becomes an appealing and infectious way of life.
Mark Kimball was in perpetual motion physically and verbally, maintaining a constant banter with Kristin, and for two hours entertaining an audience of about 200 people who attended their lecture at Hamilton College on March 10.
The tall, rambunctious, Peter Pan-boyish farmer and his petite, quiet, practical-minded wife provided an insider’s view of life on their Essex farm in northeastern New York as detailed in Kristin’s 2010 book, “The Dirty Life.”
The theme of their talk was how they maintain food ethics and sustainable agriculture on a 600-acre farm in northeastern New York State and cater to more than 200 subscribers. The couple said their goal is to produce a farm “that’s better tomorrow than today.”
Right off the bat, Mark invited the audience to ask questions on one of three topics: carrots, butter, beef (with an exclamation point)! He directed the audience to shout out the words in unison, like a choir, by pointing to hand-drawn cartoons on the blackboard as they discussed each topic in detail.
He addressed such problematic and ethical issues as genetic engineering; organic farming, weed control and the lack of herbicides; crop rotation; water usage (their farm has clay soil and an overabundance of water); the ratio of energy input (crop and dairy production) vs. energy output (tractors, trucks and transportation); animal rights (including singling out male calves for veal); climate change; solar power, and providing a few jobs to their neighbors in an economically-depressed region.
As the program got underway, two of their friends, Matt Volz and Gillian Goldberg from Greyrock Farm in Cazenovia, surprised the crowd by bringing in their own Brown Swiss bull calf on a harness for show and tell.
That prompted Mark and Kristin to discuss their dairy, beef, vegetable, everything-under-the sun (and solar panels) operation they founded in 2003. Essex Farm is located two hours north of Albany on the New York-Vermont border, a mile from Lake Champlain.
According to its webpage, Essex Farm offers a year-round, full diet, free choice membership. “We produce grass-fed beef, pastured pork, chicken, eggs, 50 different kinds of vegetables, milk, grains and flour, fruit, herbs, maple syrup and soap,” and sauerkraut for spring.
Some 250 members go to the farm on Fridays and take what they need for the week, in any quantity or combination. Members are encouraged to take extra produce during the growing season for freezing or canning, to supplement the produce from the root cellar during winter and early spring.
Kristin, 43, grew up in a “conservative” household (her father was an Air Force veteran) in Rome, NY, not far from Hamilton College. She graduated from Harvard University in 1994, moved to New York City and worked as a freelance travel writer for the New York Times.
She introduced Mark as “a second-generation hippie.” He grew up in New Paltz and graduated from Swarthmore College with a degree in agricultural science. “He has been farming for 19 years, and has traveled across the country and around the world in search of a truly sustainable, diversified farm,” their website noted. The couple has two young daughters, who were shown playing in the fields during a power point tour of the farm. “If I could glimpse into the future, my daughters and I are driving the team (of horses),” she said. The Kimball’s emphasize they farm with an environmental conscience and a dedication to animal welfare.
“Don’t let anyone tell you that farming vegetables is not a violent act,” said Kristin, reading aloud from her book. “It’s about plowing and breaking ground…” not to mention hard, physical labor, even with a limited use of machinery.
Mark observed there is a “life and death struggle” of everything on the farm, right down to the worms and microbes in the soil.
Kristin converted, literally overnight, from a vegetarian to eating meat. When she was working on her story for the Times and visited Matt at his Pennsylvania farm for the first time, she assisted with the chores and watched in amazement as he slaughtered a pig.
Many parts of the animal later went into a gourmet meal lovingly prepared by Mark. A day or two later, she began hunting deer with him on his property and learned to handle a gun.
In an interview following the lecture, she said she had no hesitation about eating meat once she saw “where the food comes from” and how the animals were raised and treated humanely. That’s the portrait of farming the Kimball’s present to the general public, too.
They admit they are troubled by their reliance, to some extent on tractors and fossil fuel, but they constantly weigh the needs of their members and consider the appetite of the world’s population (seven billion, and counting, Kristin said).
Essex Farm is now shipping produce to New York City, which Mark admitted helps their bottom line, but contributes to their carbon footprint.
“We see the farm as a gateway to raising questions,” he told the audience. “Pursue the life history of your food and start asking where your food comes from.”