When I read Kurt Timmermeister's new book Growing a Farmer: How I Learned to Live off the Land, I immediately thought of Thoreau's Walden (you remember, the whole back to the land thing, living deliberately, etc. etc.).
On the surface, Timmermeister has the same general idea as Thoreau - he aims to get away from the 'corruptions' of modern food and live more essentially. For Timmermeister, the impetus for this move is embodied in the form of dreadful cases of frozen chicken breasts ("chicken popsicles") and frozen pork loin that weeps pork fluid as it defrosts, that he finds himself bringing into his restaurant, the former Cafe Septieme in Seattle. He yearns to get back to what's real - in this case, real food. And while he is not entirely certain what that is or what it will mean, he knows he wants to try. The rest of the book is that journey.
As Timmermeister leads us through his story, we begin to see that this project of growing, making and producing 'real' food on his small farm is complex, expensive, incredibly time and labor-intensive...and that's not even the half of it. Timmermeister's city-boy plunge headfirst into agriculture looks at times like a noble undertaking and at other times a quixotic quest. And he is as frank about his failures as he is about his successes, which is one of the things that makes this book so refreshing and compelling. His play-by-play of setting up and maintaining a beehive, slaughtering an animal, or even growing vegetables (for fun and profit!) is simultaneously a instructive primer and a stern warning....instead of reading this book and plunging headfirst into the idyllic life of a farmer, some readers may run screaming from the idea, never to return. And that's kind of the point. That being said, Kurt Timmermeister has made farming work for him - he's making and selling cheese. Probably he's milking a cow while you're reading this. So it CAN work, he seems to be saying. But can you handle it?
There's a lot of Thoreau's idealism in contemporary notions about farming and food: we celebrate all things rural and tend toward putting farmers on pedestals without always taking the time to really understand the complexities behind who and what makes our food. Growing a Farmer is kind of like a Walden for the twenty-first century, a book that takes us back to the essence of real food and real farms while simultaneously problematizing the cultural constructs we've built around those very things. Because beauty and harmony and pleasant sunsets are real, but so are cold winters and bad soil and disease and death. And crop failure and listeria. And ultimately, it may be that you can't have only the good parts of the life you choose, because it just doesn't work that way.
In this day and age we're way too jaded for the pastoral idealism of days gone by, but Timmermeister is deftly forging a new ideal in this book (and in real life). Best of all, the story's not over yet. I loved the fact that there's no real answer here. Growing a Farmer is ultimately a snapshot of an ongoing event; Timmermeister himself is quick to say that he doesn't know where this whole farming project will end up over time. Fair enough - I for one can't wait to see what happens next.
---> Watch Kurt Timmermeister's recent appearance on Martha Stewart's show here.
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Growing a Farmer: How I Learned to Live off the Land by Kurt Timmermeister W. W. Norton, 335 pages, hardcover $24.95