In 2003, writer Kristin Kimball fell in love with her interview subject, Mark Kimball, a charismatic farmer, and moved from New York City to Champlain Valley to start a sustainable farm. Just as seductive as their romance was Kristin’s transition from urbanite to agriculturist — with Mark’s help, Kristin learned how to turn dark earth into leafy vegetables and fresh cream into rich butter.
“When we met, I fell so fast and so deeply in love, not only with Mark, but with what he was doing,” Kristin, 47, tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview.
But in Kristin’s new book, Good Husbandry — which follows their relationship and the birth of their two daughters in the five years after they formed Essex Farm — the author explains that both her marriage and the farm almost failed.
“We definitely have had moments in our marriage where we weren’t sure if we could or should get through it together,” she says. (Kristin’s first memoir, The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love, which follows their first year on the farm and ends with their wedding, was published in 2010.)
Kristin and Mark’s now-1,300 acre farm offers a community-supported agriculture membership that feeds about 300 people a full diet all year round. Their dedication to sustainability inspired other farmers, who started their own operations and helped revitalize the rural area. The work is unending, with each day beginning for the Kimballs and their 10 employees at 6 a.m. (Essex Farm produces a wide array of products, from milk and meat, to vegetables, flour, herbs, and even soap.)
During one of their worst years, Kristin had two daughters under four, a depressed and bedridden husband (Mark had sustained a debilitating back injury), and a farm teetering on financial ruin. But the Kimballs survived.
“I think the power of what we have made together is what kept us together,” the author says. “The farm itself kind of breeds a loyalty to the farm and to each other and to the family.”
In Good Husbandry, Kristin wants readers to learn from their struggles as a family and business owners, as well as the joy and hardships that go into farming.
“I would love to give people a glimpse of the deep truth and details of what it takes to pull food out of the ground. Farming is the only business that produces something that everyone needs every day, three times a day,” Kristin explains. “I also want people to understand, especially people slightly younger than me, that love and marriage and family are also equally complex and complicated.”
Keep reading for Kristin’s thoughts on love, raising kids, and the pleasure of true farm-to-table cooking.
What was it like to transition from living in New York City to being a farmer in a small town?
When I first came here, I felt for a really long time like I was on a trip, like I was traveling. And I dug into it with that same spirit of just exploring how different it was and meeting these interesting characters who lived here. I’m fully and completely made of this place now. But it was an often awkward and very jarring transition to go from the East Village to this little town of 700 people. There were more people on my block than there are in this whole town.
What were the biggest problems you faced that you detail in the book?
There was a stretch of time when Mark got hurt and he had never been hurt before, seriously. He’s the sort of person who wakes up in the morning and goes, and his body is this amazing tool that he has used so hard for his whole life. When he got hurt, it wasn’t just his body that crashed — it was his whole shining being that went dark. And suddenly the man that I had married, the big, strong, energetic, effervescent person wasn’t there anymore. That was terrifying. At the same time, the farm was in trouble. It started to rain one spring during planting season and it just didn’t stop.
Can you explain the benefits and challenges of raising your two daughters on the farm?
I love this path that I found. It is certainly open to them, but if they choose to go into farming, I want them to choose it. I want them to have the skills and the ability to do what they want to do in the world. And I want them to see how big and diverse and beautiful and vast the world is. I’ve overcompensated in some ways, especially with my older daughter. She’s on her way to France for three months as an exchange student at 12, which I realize now is extreme and is a good example of me overcompensating.
How do you see farms like yours being part of the solution to problems like climate change?
Agriculture is a huge contributor to climate change. I think it’s something like 30% of greenhouse gases are produced by agriculture. And what we know is that we really can switch that around and agriculture could be a force for good in climate change — an industry that can sequester carbon instead of releasing it. My wish is that more people will experience it. That they’ll get their hands in the dirt and come to a deeper understanding of what healthy soil, healthy farms, agricultural diversity, what all of those things look and feel like.
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How has farming expanded your love of cooking?
That is such a huge part of the reward of what we do. Every day, every week, every season has its perfect food. And your body almost physically learns to anticipate what’s coming next. You get to eat food that is in its very perfect moment of seasonality. It’s fresh from the field. There’s no comparison to the food that I used to eat when I lived in the city and ate mostly at restaurants, which were very good.
What are some of your favorite moments with Mark on the farm?
The last thing that we do almost every day is that Mark and I take a walk around the farm and see how everything’s doing. Check the plants. We usually sample whatever delicious thing is in the field. That’s the best part of our marriage, that moment of reflection and togetherness at the end of the day when we get to see what the farm has produced and make a plan for what’s happening in the coming days and weeks and months and years. When I think about our marriage, that’s what I see: the two of us walking through the field together in whatever season it is. Living and loving each other in this landscape that is full of food around us.
Good Husbandry is on sale now.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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