July 15, 2007

SPECTRUM: Essex Farms

Farm living the life for Essex couple


The last place one might expect to find a Harvard graduate -- with a degree in Literature and seven months pregnant -- would be behind a horse-drawn plow.

But that's exactly where Kristin Kimball can be found on a hot summer day at Essex Farms, which she and her husband, Mark, operate.

The farm itself is also unusual from the perspectives of its economic base, as well as its adherence to food grown without the use of chemicals and a basic reliance on manual and horse-drawn labor.

The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) economic system by which the farm operates might be considered a cross between Wall Street, with the selling of shares, and a Russian commune or Israeli kibbutz. Basically, it consists of a community of shareholders who financially, physically, legally and spiritually share in the harvests and responsibilities of the farm's operation.

There is always a risk of a poor harvest, and a financial loss, due to a number of factors, such as weather.

Farming was always in the mind and blood of Mark Kimball, who grew up in New Paltz and obtained an agricultural degree from Swarthmore College. He has bicycled across the country and worked at a number of farms throughout the U.S.

To Mark, "The constant challenge of success and failure" brings him fulfillment.

Kristen's writing background -- she did travel articles and worked for a literary agent in New York City -- led her to Mark as she was writing an article about a farm in Pennsylvania in which he was working.

Kristin's attachment to farm life stems from her belief that, "Theoretically, everything you do has a very clear meaning. There's a sense of satisfaction "¦ and I love the horses."

However she admits, "The work never ends. I worry about the financial part and going into debt."

Both Mark and Kristin are proponents of horse and manual labor wherever possible. Mark feels there is no future in fossil fuels, while Kristin explains that she wouldn't enjoy farming as much except for the fact that she really likes horses.

"I don't want to smell of diesel, and rather smell of something else," she said with a smile.

Mechanization is not completely ruled out as there are four tractors which came with the farm, and they hire out for the haymaking. The Kimballs own an aged Honda, the hood of which Mark has festooned with a set of Highland bull horns that are the width of the vehicle.

Farm worker Sarah Kurac, who hails from Cincinnati, might also seem an unlikely prospect to work at a farm. She had been a graphic designer in Boston, but hated being confined to an office, and wanted to become more physically active.

Kurac and her partner, James Graves, originally from Louisville, Ky., checked out Essex Farms one weekend and have been there for approximately 16 months.

Sarah was enticed by Essex Farms due to her desire to become "more environmentally responsive, and to raise food for people. The graphic design work was so far away from what you really need in life. What I am doing now is not a part of the money chain."

Kurac continued talking while using a stirrup hoe to clear undesired vegetative competition.

"I'm pretty beat by the end of the day, but it's a nice exhaustion."

Another of the regular farm hands is Paige Atkinson, whose roots are south of Pittsburgh. Atkinson has done considerable traveling, and has twice biked across the U.S. She first came to the North Country to work at Camp Treetops near Lake Placid as an art teacher.

Initially, Atkinson brought students to Essex Farms on field trips, and then decided to try it.

"Mark and Kristin had me work for a day, sort of like an audition," she mused. Atkinson has been at the farm since September 2006 and "can't figure out why I would be doing anything else in life."

Like many farmers who have cows, Mark is up at 4:30 a.m. to attend to the bovine ladies. At present, the milk is for the Kimball's own consumption, pending governmental agency approval.

The crew, which consists of Sarah, Paige and James, usually arrive around 6 a.m. Chores are rotated between animals and field work depending on what needs to be done with planting, hoeing and harvesting. A weekly list is handwritten on an old notebook that is literally stained by the farm hands.

Lunch reminds one of the stereotypical extended farm family, as farmers, workers and guests sit together to partake in the harvest of their labors. The meal consisted of a pork stew, the aroma of which could send salivary glands into secretion upon approaching the farm house.

Home-baked bread was sliced from a giant round loaf. A simple grace is shared with the touching of fingers. Not all of the food is generated by the farm as they still purchase pasta, rolled oats and rice.

Once a week, they slaughter. Kristen admits to becoming attached to some of the animals, particularly the beef herd, but being practical she rationalizes their "ultimate destination."

There are about 50 Highland calves for meat and seven Jerseys for milk. In addition, the farm raises hogs.

Nothing is wasted on the farm. Cows will graze, keeping the weeds down. This is followed by the chickens being brought to the field, often in small movable fenced-in areas.

The poultry devour the insects and grubs that flourish in the cow pies. The hens deposit approximately 90 eggs per day. In addition there are about 1,000 broiler chickens.

The land has been farmed since the American Revolution, and was once part of the Greystone Manor in Essex. Essex Farms is being leased from Lars Kulleseid, but the Kimballs are in the process of purchasing the house and 80 acres.

Community Supportive Agriculture (CSA) was started in Switzerland and Japan in the 1980s. There are over 400 CSA farms, with most near urban centers in the eastern U.S.

Shareholders of the farms pledge in advance to cover the anticipated costs of the farm operation and farmers' salary. In return they receive shares in the farm's bounty. They also may actively donate their time for a variety of chores which may range from weeding, taking care of animals or doing repairs around the farm.

The farm supports 60 members who pay $2,400 each, with about a dozen on the waiting list. The Kimballs started with seven members about four years ago. Late spring is the hardest part of the year, as the crops have not come in, and they rely on what's left from the previous harvests.

Fridays are set aside for when shareholders and volunteers collect their weekly allotments. It is generally the day the volunteers work.

The ration's variety will vary depending on the time of year and growing season, but it typically consists of meat, vegetables and eggs. There may also be maple syrup (the collecting of sap is done by horse-drawn sleigh) and several types of flour which are grown and ground at the farm.

Market day is also a cultural event as the shareholders have gotten to know each other through the weekly visits. Each shareholder takes enough provisions to last a week. It is based on an honor system, though sometimes when there is extra, members can take a little more. The customers bring back the containers and usually bring their own bags.

In addition, Mark has his drums set up in a corner of the shed that houses the food containers, freezer and refrigerator. Others may join in the impromptu sessions. The reverberations of the drums reach the ears of the cattle in the distant fields.

On the large chalkboard is a listing of the weekly produce, as well as other tidbits about the week:

"It's too hot out here for anything other than meatsicles. We decided not to butcher this week so we could put our energy into bale stacking and weed control. Back next week with pork or beef."

Under the heading of Veg World the members are informed that, "Chard is here. This week is final tater time until new potatoes."

Shareholder Emily Schmidt of Wilmington has 5-week-old Colba in tow, as she picks up her weekly ration.

"I appreciate buying food locally. We get to know what goes into everything. I also enjoy the sense of community."

Francisca Irwin from Essex said, "I believe in supporting endeavors like Mark and Kristin's. They use all natural things here. It's environmental. They have wonderful stock."

Don McCormick of Wadhams is a member and volunteer as, "It's amazing food." He and Sarah Cannon purchase over half their food through the program.

There are also the weekly Essex Farm Notes supplied to the shareholders, which also serves to keep Kristin's literary talents sharp.

"Raking hay is somnambulant work "¦ and on a hot afternoon the jangle of the teeth and the steady thump of the horses' hooves on the turf at a walk can be hypnotic."

The missive brings the members up to date on other news such as, "Matt's back. He'll be with us for a couple of week's this summer." It concludes with, "And that's the news for this weedin' plantin' hayin' non-stop 24th week of 2007."

In addition to being a working farm, Essex Farms is available to school groups for field trips. Schedule by calling 963-4613 or e-mailing

The farm is located off Route 22 just east of the village of Essex. You can just stop by (except for Sundays), but don't be surprised if you're handed a rake or hoe.