I’ve been reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, the latest book by Barbara Kingsolver. It’s nonfiction, in contrast to her earlier books, and it’s about her family moving to Appalachian Virginia and living on a farm. She tries to do it right: local and seasonal food, sustainable agriculture, all that jazz.
Bookdwarf read it about two months ago and kept going on about how we had to eat locally, especially this summer, since it’s easiest in summer. We already subscribe to the Parker Farm community-supported agriculture farm-share, but she wanted to make sure we got our beef from River Rock (run by the family of a college classmate of mine, who sadly died in a car crash while delivering beef), wanted to make sure we grew at least some veggies from Seed Saver’s Exchange out on the porch, and so on.
I resisted. I resisted a lot. This dream of a pastoral America is easy to have, because people have forgotten just how damn hard farm work is. When I get my vegetables from Farmer Steve (and yes, we call him Farmer Steve) at seven this coming Wednesday, I know he’ll have been up and working since five AM, and won’t get to bed until midnight at the earliest.
Also, I think the people advocating a 100-mile diet have forgotten that healthful food is not some perfect natural state. An all-local all-the-time diet is almost certainly better than the typical American diet in many years, but when you have a bad spring and your harvest fails, you really want some petroleum-based imports from California or Chile. People don’t get scurvy and goiter and rickets much these days, because our artificial-nutrient-laced diet supplanted a local food culture that, in bad years, consisted of lard and whiskey. And while I agree that “food culture” and having dinner with the kids is important, it’s not just a lack of willpower that keeps that out of reach of Americans– it’s our entire economic structure and philosophy of work. France has dinner with its children, but France has an extra hour every day to do it, because France works thirty-five hours a week and has free health care. America works forty if America is lucky: a real salaried professional works sixty if she wants to get ahead, and an hourly worker holds down two thirty-hour ‘part-time’ gigs and doesn’t get sick days or vacation.
Still, I started reading the book, because Bookdwarf said it was important and because she read me some incredibly funny passages (the interactions between Kingsolver and her daughter Lilly are precious: a 7-year-old on a farm says the darndest things). So for the first couple chapters, I reluctantly agreed with everything she had to say: small farms are failing not just because it’s hard work that a lot of kids don’t want to do, but because massive farms and government subsidies tailored to agribusiness are squeezing them unfairly. Our national overproduction of corn and soybeans, and our love of grain-fed beef, are terrible (this I know already, from Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan and King Corn and many others). And then I really began to get into it.
Kingsolver acknowledges that it’s hard, that she’s very lucky in a lot of ways: the farm was already in the family, so they didn’t have to buy it. Her husband is an academic, meaning he gets summers to farm. While working on the farm she was able to write a book about it, which is a contribution to the farmer’s budget that most people won’t have.
She’s just trying to do what she thinks is right, and trying to live it like a normal person. The book is peppered with recipes and notes from her kids and her husband: their Friday night routine involves movies and pizza, like mine does, although they have grown the tomatoes, made the dough, and as often as not made the cheese themselves.
So now I’m halfway through the book and sitting out on the porch with the tomato sprouts and pea tendrils coming up out of pots on the porch, and daydreaming about life on the farm.