A Taste of ‘The Dirty Life’ at Essex Farm

In the Adirondacks, overlooking Lake Champlain is Essex; a small town of a little over 600 people where from fertile ground and a lot of dirty work sprouted one of the most inspiring farms in the world. We put our bus on the ferry to New York from Vermont as the harvest rolled out from Essex Farm (“One farm – all your food”) in early October.

If you’re into farm-fresh foods, you’ve likely heard about this whole-diet Community Supported Agriculture program from NYC writer Kristin Kimball and her bestseller The Dirty Life. This true tale of “farming, food, and love” is one of our favorite books, chronicling how she uprooted her city life to get to this wild and abundant place.

It was so exciting to meet the incredible people who run Essex Farm and see in-person what we have envisioned while reading The Dirty Life — a major inspiration for us. We’ve had Essex pinned on our giant wall-map of places to visit since the days at our tiny urban farm in Portland, OR. Kristina picked up this book when we had given away most of our possessions and were sleeping on a mattress on the floor, not sure when we would be able to take the final leap to freedom, leave our jobs behind, and sell our house… The Dirty Life was enough to fuel us through that final push toward the road to our new life.

We were invited by Kristin and her husband Mark to come visit on a Friday afternoon, when the CSA members come to pick up their groceries for the week.

We parked the bus near the barns and soon, farmer Gwen pulled up in her farm Honda, cow skull mounted to the hood, rear hatch flying open and told us where to find the “cute” pigs, the rest of the beef cattle, and meat hens too. We finally found the forest pigs rooting around their enclaves after slouching under several hot fence lines.

Mark is a super high-energy, hilarious Farmer who gave us an informative and entertaining run-down of how their CSA system works and what it’s been like for he and Kristin to run a household and a farm for the last decade. Kristin, whose writing is so beautiful she can make cow shit seem romantic, has a laid-back, serene attitude — This lifestyle is far from her former world where she used to work at a literary agency in NYC. She managed to give us a peaceful and thorough tour of the fields with one kid strapped behind her back. The acres bloomed with rows of juicy, late-season raspberries, carrots, peppers, cabbage, kale, corn, massive beets, medicinal flowers, and an impressive variety of herbs.

These two (and now their two daughters) have worked this land for the past ten years, The Dirty Life details what it took to bring this old farm back to life and into the future (the way things used to be everywhere — including using draft horses on much of the farm).

The 200-some CSA members come enthusiastically from the surrounding towns for the fresh eggs, gorgeous produce, butter, pork, chicken and beef. The Kimballs pioneered the resurgence of the whole-diet CSA in America, and farms inspired by their work have begun to pop up across the country to emulate their very successful model.

The concept of a CSA that incorporates everything you would need to have a well-balanced diet means that with one family membership, you can come each week and grab your fill of diary, produce, grains, meats and sugars (honey and maple syrup) — it all comes from this one place! Many of the members we spoke with expressed that visiting the farm each week provides them not only with delicious food, but also with something that nourishes them in a much deeper way. They appreciate the beauty of the land, the sense of community that comes from visiting with their neighbors, and the peace of mind they receive by seeing exactly where their food comes from.

The Kimballs and their ten employee farmers work 600 acres near the lake using solar power, draft horses and no chemicals. They also feed much of their livestock from the grasses, grains, and produce they grow themselves.

This is their “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.”

Recently, they have started the Essex Farm Institute – aimed at teaching diversified farming to a new generation. The Kimballs told us that at least ten of the 50 or so employees they’ve had have now started their own farms in the surrounding fields of upstate New York.

We have more to share from this area, we learned, tasted, and experienced so much while in Essex — This is why upstate New York is now at the top of our list when it comes to places we think we might land when our Free Range Quest is complete.

Essex Farms is in many ways a model of how we want to live – working hard from the ground up.

-Kristina & David-

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