6 Books for Aspiring Farmers

Food Lists Farming

Pining to quit the city for greener pastures? Jonesing for pygmy goats and a coop full of heritage hens? It takes more than finding a dream farm and investing in a few more plaid shirts. Read these six memoirs before going hog wild. Each is a firsthand — often unflinching — account of farm life by urban folks who have taken the plunge. If, after all the blood and guts, financial hemorrhaging, middle-of-the night life and death drama you’re still gung-ho, then you really might have what it takes. But — spoiler alert, if you don’t feel up to skinning a newly stillborn lamb – yes, this happens for real — or digging wrist-deep in chicken butt — this too! — you might want to renew the lease on that condo.

1. A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail by Jenna Butler (Wolsak and Wynn)
British-born, Canadian author, professor and poet, Jenna Butler, lives in two worlds, splitting her time between the city of Red Deer, Alberta where she teaches creative writing, and her off-the-grid farm — Larch Grove — about 170 miles north in Barrhead, Alberta. There, she and her husband tend a market garden and keep six beehives on 135 acres of northern boreal forest and muskeg, and 25 acres of cultivated land. In the summer, it’s paradise, with visiting moose, songbirds, bunnies and silvery dragonflies, but in winter, in a place that can dip to a bone-shattering -58F (-50C) with the wind-chill, to call it challenging would be an insulting understatement. Being off-grid, the couple heat their cabin exclusively with firewood, and that means life here is not glamorous, but it is satisfying and rich with the sort of depth-experience that is best expressed with poetic prose. To wit: “For every moment that stops the heart with panic, there’s a balancing moment of beauty.” Ah, pretty, but let’s not forget the swarms of muskeg-hatched mosquitos and waves of lung-burning arctic cold.

2. Trauma Farm; A Rebel History of Rural Life by Brian Brett (Greystone)
trauma farm.jpgPhoto by Signe Langford
Author and poet, Brian Brett, is a fascinating guy and beautiful writer, and no matter the subject he’s tackling — his difficult childhood living with Kallmann’s Syndrome to his beloved parrot, Tuco — he’s a joy to read. Brett shares it all and more: the mama sheep that rejects her newborn, the money that’s lost year after year on his idyllic Salt Spring Island farm off the coast of British Columbia, Canada. Though it wasn’t so lovely, until he — approaching age 60 and in constant pain — and his wife, Sharon, work every available hour to breathe new life into an old abandoned goat ranch by planting fruit and nut tree orchards, going to war with the local rat population and re-introducing a plethora of domestic animals and livestock back to the fields, barn and farmhouse…including a bossy peacock named Ajax. Brett tells of the many little and some big traumas of this place — a kicking chainsaw to the face, for example — but there is magic here too: a soup of venison bones simmering on the woodstove in winter; sleeping under an unimaginably starry sky in summer, his dogs curled up by a waning campfire.

3. Chickens in the Road; An Adventure in Ordinary Splendor by Suzanne McMinn (Harper One)
chickens in the road.jpgPhoto by Signe Langford
This one is less cautionary tale, more farm porn, with its old-time recipes (mmm, biscuits and gravy!), DIY instructions for homesteading crafts, photos of Nigerian dwarf goats all decked out for Christmas, baby lambs snuggling with big fluffy dogs and a cow named Beulah Petunia. It’s also much more than that. With honesty, candor and a good smattering of self-deprecating humor, romance writer, Suzanne McMinn chronicles the day-to-day struggles and pratfalls of building a farm, a business and family in the uncooperatively hilly, remote, and sometimes treacherously slippery landscape of West Virginia. She also lays bare the unraveling of her relationship with an emotionally troubled man, referred to as “52”, thus conserving his anonymity, lest women everywhere hunt him down for his maddening behavior. Ultimately though, this is an engaging story of a woman coming into her own with the help of idiosyncratic farm animals, lots of canning and a little heavy lifting.

4. The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball (Scribner)
the dirty life.jpgPhoto by Signe Langford
A real Cinderella story, only with mud, dawn-to-dusk backbreaking work and some porcine bloodshed. City slicker New York City journalist goes out to Lake Champlain farm country to interview a handsome young farmer, they fall in love, she moves to his 500-acre mixed farm and, well, you get the picture. Though unlike some Disneyesque fairy tale, this one involves our heroine proving her mettle by helping slaughter a pig – some first date! — planting unending rows of produce, tapping maple trees and cooking hearty meals of their own potatoes and eggs in rustic cast iron pans for the farmhands. It’s as idyllic as it is exhausting, and yes, it’s romantic as hell…hayloft wedding, anyone?

5. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper Collins)
animal, vegetable, miracle.jpgPhoto by Signe Langford
In Tucson, Arizona, bestselling American author, Barbara Kingsolver, packs up the family — husband Steve, and the two kids — and heads for a farm in southern Appalachia, where for one year, they would eat only what they or their neighbors grew, raised, canned and preserved, or they would go without. For most urbanites, that’s a terrifying prospect — and with good reason — it’s damn hard to live that way. Gee, feel like chicken for dinner? Fine, catch it, kill it, gut it, pluck it, cook it…voila! … chicken for dinner. Dividing the book into monthly chapters, Kingsolver digs deep into the challenges and joys of self-sustainability, but she also pulls back the curtain of industrial farming — and it ain’t pretty: mad cow disease, climate change — while waxing poetic about cooking with basic and real, homegrown ingredients. Daughter Camille provides a few recipes. Kingsolver tackles a serious subject without being too serious, extolling the virtues of living in small town America — the kind of small town where folks lock their car doors, not for fear of thievery, but to stop over-zealous gardeners from leaving surplus zucchinis on the backseat.

6. Farm City; The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter (Penguin) Photo by Signe Langford
farm city.jpgPhoto by Signe Langford
This gal has moxie. Bushels of it. From her house in a rather gritty, inner-city section of Oakland, Calif. — a decidedly un-farm-y environment if ever there was one — Novella Carpenter sets out to reclaim the urban wasteland, cracked concrete parking pads, and abandoned, weedy lots that surround her. Bit by bit, she stealthily turns this agricultural desert into a lush urban farm, sometimes asking permission, sometimes not so much. The City of Oakland frown upon urban backyard hog farming, but that didn’t stop her from adding a couple of pigs to her backyard, fattening them up on dumpster-diving delicacies cast-off from fancy restaurants in the nicer part of town. The moral of this story: chickens are gateway livestock. One day you’re digging a little kitchen garden and keeping a few backyard hens for eggs. The next thing you know you’re face down in a garbage bin, scavenging stale birthday cake for your pigs, and eyeballing the fire escape for rabbit hutch potential.

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