A bountiful crop of agri-lit sprouts
Back-to-land revival spurs publishing trend
A man holds a chicken outside at organic farm. (Andy Ryan/The Image Bank / June 15, 2011)
Call them agri-lit, if you like. Titles often include the words "hobby farm," "urban farming" and "homesteading." Some of the authors have had minimal exposure to farming's realities; others bring decades of farming experience to the pages.
While most of the books are how-to volumes, with charts, color photographs, discussions of manure management — as well as the occasional drawings of, say, a cow's reproductive system — three of the 15 books are memoirs recounting the day-to-day challenges and joys of partnering with Mother Nature.
That so many books (and websites and blogs) are geared to those who want to do more than grow tomatoes and pumpkins shouldn't be surprising. In this country, the number of farmers markets has grown steadily in recent years (to 6,132 last year from 5,274 in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture). Words such as "sustainability," "organic" and "farm-to-table" pepper conversations and restaurant menus. Why, even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg pledged this year to eat meat only from animals he had killed.
None of this surprises Pamela Riney-Kehrberg.
"Americans have this enormous nostalgia for the land, but it does come and go in cycles," said Riney-Kehrberg, head of Iowa State University's history department, who teaches agricultural and rural history.
"We want to know where our food comes from, to have some responsibility for producing it, and there's a nostalgia for the way food used to be," she said. "When budgets are tight and people start thinking of ways to try and improve their standard of living, you start thinking about turning the backyard into a garden."
Victory gardens sustained families through two world wars. In the 1970s Euell Gibbons' "Stalking the Wild Asparagus" preached a gather-your-own-food mantra, while Mother Earth News urged people to plant their own food, Riney-Kehrberg said. In 1976, the Mennonites in Doris Longacre's "More With Less Cookbook" counseled readers to "eat right, not just for your body but for the world."
The memoirs deliver straightforward talk about farming's realities (slugs, manure, birth, death); occasional tips (check local laws, and don't name baby chicks if you plan to eat them); and the distinct voices, sentiments and humor of the authors' tales as they climb the learning curve to farming.
A sampling follows.
The Quarter-Acre Farm: How I Kept the Patio, Lost the Lawn, and Fed My Family for a Year
By Spring Warren
(Seal Press, $16.95)
Fascinated by victory gardens and troubled by food recalls, Warren announced to her husband and two sons she would grow in their Northern California backyard much of what they would eat. They told her she was crazy. Warren, who wrote the novel "Turpentine," tells her story with good humor, whether it's describing her pursuit of the culinary potential of garden snails or her invitation to a local farmer to check out her "farm."
Of finicky tomatoes, she writes, "In a not-so-funny twist, while the zucchini looked bad but kept up production, my tomatoes appeared fantastic — the Chippendales of the garden, sporting strong limbs and good color, throwing blossoms left and right, and seemingly bursting with virility — but they were giving me no satisfaction. There was nary a tomato on most of the plants."
Growing a Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the Land
By Kurt Timmermeister
(W.W. Norton & Co., $24.95)
Twenty years ago, home ownership lured Seattle restaurateur Timmermeister to Vashon Island in Washington's Puget Sound, where Mother Nature and 4 acres of land seduced him. His prior farming experience? Spending two weeks at a summer horse camp and watching TV's "Green Acres." He devoured books on farming, working his way from vegetables to bees, fowl, pigs and his first cow, a Jersey named Dinah (fodder for a section on cows in heat). Today he has a dairy farm (Kurtwood Farms) with a focus on cheese-making. He wrote the book "to add a perspective on the food we eat."