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Mainely Tipping Points

TurkeyTracks: Essex Farm in Essex, NY–THE DIRTY LIFE

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Turkey Tracks:  June 13, 2012

This is Part I of a longer story…


About 10 years ago, Kristin Kimball, a Harvard graduate, was earning enough with her free-lance writing to live in New York City.  One day Kristin drove six hours (Pennsylvania, I think) to interview a first-generation farmer named Mark, a Swarthmore graduate who had cobbled together an agricultural degree since he always knew he wanted to farm.  Kristin’s life changed forever upon meeting Mark.  She left behind high heels, meeting for coffee, and all the entertainment a large city offers.

That meeting started Kristin on a journey which led to Essex Farm in Essex, NY–which is just south of Burlington, Vermont, and, of course, across the narrow end of Lake Champlain.  Essex Farm had been leant to them to see if they could make a go of it, which is, in itself, a large bit of the magic that surrounds this story and this journey.  Essex Farm, when they first saw it in the fall, was “sleeping,” as Mark expressed it.  They spent that first winter in an apartment in town (while waiting for the leases of the current tenants of the farmhouse to expire) and spending the days on the farm repairing equipment and some of the buildings.  They bought their first cow and learned to milk her.

Together, over the past nine years, Kristin and Mark have built a farm that feeds 220 people all year long with all the food they need–pork, chickens, beef, milk, eggs, various grains ground into flour, maple syrup, honey, and about 40 different kinds of vegetables, including all the root vegetables that get one through a “north country” winter.  They now have hired 12 employees  and are the largest employer in Essex.  And, they have produced two beautiful little girls and are going to build a family home just behind the major farm buildings.

Kristin’s memoir of their first year on the farm–a year culminating in their marriage–was published in 2010–THE DIRTY LIFE.  It’s a tale of great joys and great despair.  It’s a tale of learning who you really are and what’s important in life.  It’s a tale of learning a whole passel of new skills–like farming with draft horses.  It’s a tale of commitment and how they supported themselves and how a community supported and held them in their times of greatest need.  It’s a tale, now, of many lives being lived fully and, perhaps, of the raising of a new generation of farmers, for Essex Farm has spawned four farms now and two children who will, at least, grow up to know how to farm.

So, Tara Derr Webb read THE DIRTY LIFE about 18 months ago.  Tara grew up with our two sons and had recently moved from the West Coast to Charleston as she and her husband Leighton were ready to put down more permanent roots.  Both Tara and Leighton have forgotten more about food than I will probably ever know.  And now they both wanted to participate in some major way in the farm/food/restaurant matrix.

After reading THE DIRTY LIFE, Tara knew she wanted to do more, personally, with the farm end of the foodway.  So, she signed up to visit several WOOF (Worldwide Organization of Organic Farmers or, also, Willing Organization of Organic Farmers) farms.  The first was near Atlanta.  After being there almost two weeks, a goat mother died just after birthing.  Tara put the baby in her car and brought her home to Isle of Palms, SC, and raised her.   She also made what will probably be lifelong friends on that farm.

Tara wanted to move further north–to the Husdon Valley area of New York–itself a farm foody place.  So she and Leighton rented land for a year to try out the northern farming experience.  They didn’t like it–didn’t like the cold, didn’t feel it was right on their skin.  So, they have just rented land north of Charleston that they will begin to farm.  (They now have three goats and plan on getting about 100 chickens.)  There will also be a restaurant, but you can let Tara herself tell you that part of the story on her Farmbar website.)

When we were in Charleston in late May, Tara was there as well–figuring out fence lines, working out details for their move back South and so forth.  She told me Kristin was having an open house June 9th and asked it I would like to come.  I slept on it, but knew I had to go.

Yes, I said, and got out maps as soon as I got home.


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