The curated kitchen: new release “A Farm Dies Once A Year” with excerpt

What happens when a man, lost and aimless, returns to the family farm? What are his day-to-day struggles with the land? And, more interestingly, what are his day-to-day struggles with himself? Fascinating peek into homecoming and organic farming. See for yourself; there is an excerpt of A Farm Dies Once A Year after the jump.

A Farm Dies cover hi res

Excerpt: A Farm Dies Once a Year: A Memoir

Arlo Crawford
Henry Holt and Co.

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The story of the ninety-five acres at the end of Anderson Hollow Road, or at least the part of it that my family was involved in, started in late February 1976, as my parents followed a real estate agent in my father’s almost-new pickup. The roads were tight and winding, and then they would turn to dirt, and then sometimes, in a way that was slightly unsettling, just trail off into the woods. The agent was lost and she rolled down the window of her long, low Buick when they came to another dead end. “Lonely out here, huh?” My mother smiled tightly at her and nodded. The woman had asked the others in her office where the farm was, but the network of dirt roads was too confusing, and there was no easy way to explain it on a map.

My mother was feeling nervous about how bleak everything looked. She was used to a rural New England landscape of sugar maples, granite, and clapboard, and this Appalachian country seemed thin and used. The drive up from Sleepy Creek was a long, boring hour through the low hills, past the stubby corn and the bare black walnut trees that edged the empty fields. On the left and the right she could see the lines of the ridges running north and south, the sagging farmhouses in their long shadows. The kitchen windows were lit against the gloom, but she couldn’t imagine what the people who lived there were doing with themselves, or how they filled their days.

The agent eventually found the property just as the light was fading. The piece of land was at the end of a long dirt road that followed a loose line along a creek. It was in a hollow, surrounded on all sides by a high ridge. If she squinted, my mother could see a deer picking its way across the slope under the bare trees. Dirty snow clung to the wet places and the air smelled like mud. A few crows complained loudly. Way down below from where they were standing, she could see the creek running flat and cold and syrupy.

My father didn’t want to seem too eager.

“About how many acres is this?”

“Near about seventy,” the agent said.

Eventually they would buy a little more acreages, but my parents nodded their heads like this seemed about right. And it did seem right, even though an acre was an unfamiliar measure. It was almost impossible to imagine it spread out on that uneven ground, and how much of that land was part of the huge ridge that towered over everything. Even so, the land felt like it still does today—it filled the hollow in a satisfying way.

Below the barnyard, along the creek, were long bottom fields. They were flat and even with dark rich dirt, and they looked so fertile that it seemed that it would be a simple job to grow vegetables on them. I don’t know if these fields sealed the deal or not, but I can imagine that they were hard to turn down. Other farmers, real ones, with previous experience, might have noticed how prone this land would be to flooding in the spring, and they would have noticed issues with drainage and soil quality. My father didn’t know anything about these kinds of details yet, but he knew he liked how the dirt smelled when he broke it apart in his hands.

The other parts of the farm were less appealing. The house in particular still had a sense of the Depression around it, with a flimsy porch and fiberboard siding that was mildewed gray and sodden-looking. There was also a pigsty built out of rough locust posts, and an empty calf shed that smelled like ammonia. There was a clothesline strung between two listing wooden crosses at the bottom of the yard, and a rusty burn barrel sat behind the house, smoldering and making the air smell like burnt plastic. And looming over everything was the gray barn, the cracks between the warped boards glowing gold in the late sun.

When the agent turned her back to shuffle papers in the car, my father grinned at my mother and opened his eyes wider. She looked away, at the old house and the narrow fields, the brown grass and the dove-gray clouds, and wrapped her coat tightly around herself. If she had thought more about it she might have wondered about how far she was from her friends and family, from most things that felt familiar, but the distance would only occur to her much later. Anyway, my father didn’t seem worried about it, and she would have felt silly to bring up her concerns about feeling lonely. There were two of them, after all. She turned her face up toward the sky and listened hard. She couldn’t hear a thing, and she definitely liked that about the place.

My mother was twenty-seven and thought she was probably too young to own a farm. She was a hippie, she guessed, and she liked the idea of growing food, milking goats, and making fresh bread. She knew that she wasn’t very ambitious in the traditional way. Her mother, back in Keene, New Hampshire, would have been happiest if she got married, played bridge, and went to cocktail parties. My mother was good at bridge but she disliked both cocktails and parties. She felt uneasy in her family’s big brick house, drowsy under the old elms, annoyed by the smell of gin and tonic.

Before she moved to Sleepy Creek to join my father in 1972 she’d first gone a much shorter distance, to a house in the woods in Nelson, New Hampshire, just a few miles north. It was a typical kind of place in the early seventies, a house where people lived together, made yogurt, and dropped acid on the weekends. She wasn’t really into it, was just along for the ride, and she didn’t like acid either. She told me that once the temperature in the house had dropped below zero, and that the thing she remembered best about all that time spent in Nelson, and liked the most, was how it took days and days for the plows to come after the huge snowfalls, and how they would be trapped way out there in the woods.

On the other hand, my father had always known that he wanted to be a farmer. He’d known since he was a little kid obsessed with growing vegetables in the backyard of his parents’ house in Norwood, Massachusetts. At seven years old, when other kids collected baseball cards or read comic books, he was taking vegetables around the neighborhood in a red wagon, selling them door-to-door. He’d done other jobs since, but the plot in Sleepy Creek was his first attempt to make a living by farming. My mother took the train down from New Hampshire two years after he’d started the business. It was a long-distance blind date, arranged by a girlfriend of my mother’s from college and a friend of my father’s from the navy. It was a big risk for my mother to take that twelve-hour train ride, but my father must have seemed intriguing enough to take a chance on. Two years later they were married.

When my mother first met my father at the train station in Martinsburg, he looked like a cowboy. He was lean and tan, wore jeans, and kept his money in a worn leather billfold with a buffalo nickel on the clasp. He had long hair and a little bit of a swagger. He picked her up in a flatbed truck with the back full of tools and pushed the knives and baling wire off the seat to give her a place to sit. Then, before they went to see his fields, he stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts to use a coupon he had. She didn’t really mind, but she’d been on the train for a long time and didn’t want a dozen donuts. It didn’t matter, though. The first time my mother saw my father at the station she thought she might marry him.

My father had already been in Sleepy Creek for a few years, but he didn’t feel comfortable calling himself a farmer yet, because he felt he hadn’t earned it. He’d gotten through his very first season the year before—when growing vegetables was fun but still not something that he could honestly imagine making his living at—through trial and error. He was barely getting by, but he could feed himself, and he figured he could still go back to law school if things didn’t work out. Then he broke his leg at the end of that summer and spent his winter of convalescence reading books and manuals about improving soil fertility and raising chickens for profit. He met three other young people who were also growing vegetables nearby. One of them had been raised on a farm and another was a lapsed Amish, and they all got to be friends. By the time my mother showed up he had learned a lot, but he knew he still had a long way to go, and the idea that someday these fields could be productive enough to generate a real income was just starting to shimmer into view.

It was on that first piece of rented land that he’d come up with a name for his new farm. It was the end of his first season and there was a party with a bonfire and bota bags of wine and the pot that his friends had been growing in the woods. He’d sat up late talking, tipsy and silly, after other people had wandered off or passed out in the grass. The conversation turned to Bob Dylan and the album he’d just released called New Morning. By now, in the early seventies, Dylan seemed dangerous and unpredictable. My father liked that. He murmured the first line of the song: “Can’t you hear that rooster crowing.” Then, partly as a joke, and with the understanding that he could always change it later, he decided to call his new business New Morning Farm.

Four years after that bonfire, he and my mother got a loan from the bank and made an offer on the property in Anderson Hollow: fifty-two thousand dollars for the seventy-five acres. Farmland was so devalued that the banker was willing to look past the fact that my parents were about to buy seventy-five acres and they didn’t know what to do with it. It must have been nice to see two hopeful young people come in talking about the future, instead of another pale farmer looking for an extension on money he was pouring through a sieve. Farming had always been a hard way to make a living, but a bushel of corn just wasn’t worth as much as it once had been. The economy was already leaving traditional family farms behind, just like small manufacturers and mom and pop grocery stores.

When my parents showed up to take possession of the property that early spring, the family who’d been living in the house was still there. The man and his wife were butchering a deer in the kitchen while their little girl sat at the kitchen table with a fresh tracheotomy. The parents explained that she’d had some medical problem but didn’t go into the details. The girl breathed through the hole in her neck and looked at them with solemn eyes as her parents cut up the cold deer parts with a hacksaw.

My father asked them where they were moving.

“Tammy wants to go on up to McConnellsburg but I said, hell, ain’t nobody hiring, so why bother. Probably go to my pap’s place in Waterfall. Yinz are welcome to stop in if yinz got any questions.”

They didn’t seem unhappy to be leaving; they’d lived here for a few years and now they’d be living somewhere else. Their willingness to move on without any apparent bitterness was comforting, but my mother snuck a peek inside the cardboard boxes they were stacking neatly in the bed of the pickup, and she felt a stab of guilt. The boxes, for reasons she never understood but was too nervous to ask about, were full of empty tin cans and old newspapers.

The first night my parents spent in the farmhouse might have made it clear to them just how far out in the country they really were, and how hard a project this might be. It was a cold night, and the empty rooms were raw and plain. The plaster walls were crumbling, exposing the wooden lathe. The windows rattled in their frames, and the drafts made the iron latch on the bedroom door clink faintly. The toilet and sink were down in the cellar, installed on a concrete slab under a bare lightbulb. As my mother brushed her teeth she put her hand on the wall and felt the damp seeping through the stone.

They woke up the next morning on a mattress in the middle of a bare linoleum floor, to the sound of someone beating the pin out of a metal wagon hitch in the barnyard. My mother lay in bed and watched the flies crawl on the windowpanes, and she looked around at the things they’d brought to make a home. She had a sewing machine, an ashtray set with semiprecious stones, a copy of the novel Sometimes a Great Notion, and a Siamese cat named Eggroll. Her red Volvo was parked outside, a gift from her stepfather before she left for her senior year of college.

My father’s possessions were slightly more useful. He had a Farmall Model C tractor that he’d purchased from an old man in West Virginia for five hundred dollars, empty boxes and crates for packing vegetables, and a golden retriever–Irish setter mix named Molly Cornflake. There was a silk rug that he’d bought when he was stationed in Vietnam and a bed that he’d built out of scrap lumber. He had a wooden picnic table that he’d been using at Sleepy Creek to eat on. He also had the almost-new Ford F-150 in hunter green. He’d traded for the truck three years before, giving up the brand-new BMW that he’d paid for with his discharge money from the navy.

They went to an auction in Greencastle to find the equipment they would need to make the farm a going concern. They walked down the rows of unfamiliar implements, looking at plows and harrows and discs. Even if a lot of the devices looked obscure and complicated, my father knew that he needed a plow and a few other basic things. They also bought a kitchen table, enameled metal in a black-and-white pattern. They bargained hard for it, staring down the pinched-face woman who was selling it.

After a few days of getting settled my parents set about teaching themselves to grow vegetables for a living. It was exciting, but at the same time they were anxious, subject to a growing panic that spring was coming and that things were happening too fast. In the last days of winter, as the ground thawed and the house started to smell like mildew, they sat at the kitchen table and looked at seed catalogues and mostly picked the things that they liked to eat: tomatoes, dill, and Swiss chard.

The one crop that they really agonized over was the tomatoes. It had always been my father’s favorite vegetable, and it had been the centerpiece of all the gardens he’d ever grown. They were important to him when he was seven years old, pulling his wagon around his neighborhood in Norwood, and even more important when he was living in Sleepy Creek, when he took his first crop back to Washington to sell to his friends from law school. There was something obvious about tomatoes, a basic legitimacy that chard or asparagus would never have. Everybody loved the idea of buying a red tomato that was fresh off the vine, still warm from the sun and smelling of soil, picked just hours before in the countryside beyond the beltway. They would be easy money.

My parents also knew that marketing was part of the deal. They knew from their time at Sleepy Creek that customers in Washington would buy tomatoes from the handsome young farmer and his pretty blond wife. My father would flirt with the young women, and my mother would listen to the men while they told her how they’d always thought about moving out to the country, leaving their office jobs behind and seeing if they could make a go of it by working with their own two hands. My parents knew that they should look a little lean and hungry, but that was taken care of because they really were, and it would seem less and less like an act the longer the first summer at New Morning went on.

Once they’d chosen the varieties they wanted to plant, they spent a day building shelves in the living room and then filled them with rows of flats. They hung grow lights from the ceiling, the bulbs making the room glow a weird purple. When they were done they went to bed. All of a sudden my father was up; he had to check the old meat thermometer that he’d stuck in the flats to track the proper temperature for germination and make sure that the scrabbling sound they heard in the wall wasn’t mice eating tomato seeds. My mother lay in the warm pool of the sheets and smelled the scent of wet soil sighing up through the heating vents and watched the fat drops of condensation drip down the windows.

A few days later a huge crash woke them up in the middle of the night. They rushed downstairs and found that my mother’s cat had somehow upset the shelves and spilled all the flats on the living room floor. The pile of dirt and spilled seeds, with the tiniest of green shoots just bursting through, was bathed in the purple light, and everything looked ruined and ugly. My father chased the cat out the door and into the dark. Once he was done being angry they got the shelves set back up, and in the morning they replanted the seedlings. From then on they locked the cat in the basement at night and ignored the sad meows that drifted up through the heating ducts.

A few weeks later, once the seedlings were big enough, they set them out in the field. They started in the Lower Bottom, the field downstream from the Upper Bottom. They’d also planted Swiss chard and lettuce there, a small patch of spinach, and a row of dill. The field of vegetables needed constant attention, and every morning they went down and made themselves busy however they could, tending to them and coaxing them along. They filled buckets from the creek to water the rows, and they used their hands to pick at the weeds. There were so few plants that when one died it left an obvious gap in the straight green line of them.

In the first few days the tomatoes took off. They’d fertilized them with chicken manure, and it made the foliage heavy and green. The plants were growing too fast to support themselves, and when the leaves lay on the ground they developed a yellowish tinge, so they staked up each plant, tying it to an ash pole. The plants seemed healthier but still a little sickly. There were other problems too: a groundhog had been eating the peas, and there were heart-shaped deer tracks all around the crushed dill, but the tomatoes got the most attention. If they kept going like this they’d be bearing fruit in early August.

The first Saturday in June they got up at four o’clock in the morning and piled their boxes of lettuce and spinach in the metal bed of the pickup. The sun was rising as they approached Washington. They’d negotiated the use of a parking lot on a stretch of Columbia Road in Adams Morgan, and even if they had to rouse a drunk and sweep up broken glass, the lot was centrally located and busy. A few professional types, new to the gentrifying neighborhood, came out to buy things. The people who’d always lived there—bus drivers, bank tellers, and the people who worked at the McDonald’s across the street—also came. My parents made a few hundred dollars, and the bills made a solid lump in my father’s pocket. They went out that night to celebrate.

Back on the farm the following Monday, my father was more worried about the foliage of the tomatoes and the yellow color, almost like a spreading rash, that had developed where the plants had first lain on the ground. He looked in manuals and books and tried a few of his own ideas. In the next few weeks he sent soil off to the laboratory at the university extension, and it came back that it was deficient in lime. They borrowed a lime spreader from a neighbor and got halfway through the job before it broke. My mother crawled under the equipment and spent the next three hours with a wrench fixing the problem. Then they dragged the equipment a few more feet, and it broke again.

That night she skipped dinner and went upstairs to read. She smoked a joint, rolled out of the bag of mostly seeds and stems that she had left over from her last trip back to Sleepy Creek, and watched the pattern of the setting sun as it played across the cracked plaster ceiling. She thought about New Hampshire and her brothers and sisters, and how her mother would be making a gin and tonic now in the library of the old house on Court Street. She almost wished she was back with her family, sitting down to the luxury of a dinner that was made by someone else. This was an adventure though, and she could stick it out for a few more months at least.

At night, when my mother kept busy sewing curtains or reading, my father sat at the kitchen table and worried. When he was outside he walked fast even though he didn’t have anywhere to go. In the early evenings he took his Winchester .243 and sat for hours on a rise above the fields, watching for the groundhog that was eating the dill to come out of its burrow. He watched and watched, and then, just for something to do, he shot at one of the crows. He missed, and the flock rose and circled above him, screaming at him, scolding.

By late July there were tomatoes on the plants. My father walked down the rows and inspected every one of them, while my mother pushed a wheel hoe down the line of dill. It was hot now, uncomfortably so, and she would take breaks to sit in the shade under the big trees that grew along the creek. Sometimes she would go down to the water and slip out of her clothes and lie in the current, looking up at the narrow line of blue sky above her. Over the murmur of the water she could hear the soft sounds of my father working, scuffling dirt, and the dull clink of metal and the rumble of the pickup. She ran her hands over her skin and could feel how thin she was getting.

By mid-August it was clear that all the tomatoes were going to fail. The problem had started when the leaves at the bottom of the plants had gotten wet and started to rot. Eventually long dark cankers showed up on the stems of the plants and made them droop from the stakes they were tied to. The fruit was still there and some of it was even turning red, but they had developed the cankers too. They were suppurating black sores, little cancers. Now my father went down the row and looked at every fruit again, trying to find one, just one, that wasn’t ruined, but they were all infected.

They felt that the farm was already a failure. A neighbor my mother met at the store mentioned the early blight that came around every few years. My mother went home, walked upstairs, and locked herself in the bedroom. She smoked the last of her pot, and when my father finally came to bed they didn’t talk. When she woke up in the morning he was gone. He came back later that day with boxes and boxes of muddy turnips that he’d bought from a neighbor. For three days they sat outside with a metal tub and scrubbed them clean, and when they took them to market in Washington they sold every last one.

The season went on like this. Some things died, were eaten by deer, or just never produced any fruit at all. Some things thrived and produced way too much, so much that they couldn’t keep up and had to leave them in the field. They looked in the classified ads and found other local people who were selling their extra beans or potatoes, and they took those to market along with their own stuff. My mother baked some bread, and they sold that beside the few boxes of green beans and the bunches of dill. Every week they set everything out on the folding tables and stacks of crates in Adams Morgan and waited for the customers to buy it all. At the end of the day they went home, counted the money, and went to bed.

By Thanksgiving the season was done. By now they were buying bins of unsorted apples from the orchards around the town of Chambersburg, picking through them, and selling the good ones. The house had a real bathroom now, and they’d set up a couch in the living room. My mother’s Volvo was parked out by the unused pigsty, but it was broken down, and the weeds were already growing up around it. The walls of the house were still crumbling, but in the evenings, when the kitchen was full of the smell of cooking and Neil Young was singing on the record player, it felt cozy and warm.

One season was behind them, and they were happy. If there was another one, if they got through the long winter, they’d know more about what they were doing: no more fresh chicken shit on the tomatoes, less Swiss chard, and more dill. My father had already started talking about doing some building. He wanted to get a foundation dug for a tractor shed before the ground froze. They hadn’t accomplished everything that they’d set out to do, but the most important bills were paid, they had a roof over their head, and they had a plan, which seemed about all they could ask for.

{Review copy courtesy of publisher; excerpt Copyright © 2014 by Arlo Crawford}