GROWING A FARMER: HOW I LEARNED TO LIVE OFF THE LAND
By Kurt Timmermeister
Norton, $24.95, 335 pages
Twenty years ago, Kurt Timmermeister, a Seattle chef looking to buy his first house, acquired a 4-acre property on Vashon Island, a short hop by ferry from the city. He ended up falling in love with the land overrun by brambles and littered with garbage. He eventually added to his acreage and improved the soil. “Growing a Farmer” is an honest memoir of his journey from the city life of a restaurateur to his present life as a farmer.
Perseverance and resourcefulness are key components for embarking on a career that Mr. Timmermeister acknowledges is frequently inadvisable. Disfigured, insect-eaten produce and young deer that nibble on freshly planted fruit trees come with the territory. As he gained in experience and improvised and experimented on his land, his attitude toward food changed. He began to question his own habit of using shrink-wrapped chicken and dairy produce bought in bulk from factory farms for his Seattle restaurant. “We have lost our culture,” he concluded. “Culture is now Philadelphia cream cheese, Kraft singles and Yoplait, not farmstead butter and cheese.”
As Mr. Timmermeister discovered, it doesn’t have to be that way. Kurtwood Farms is the result of the author’s self-discovery. If, by the end of reading “Growing a Farmer,” you are in a supermarket and pick up a small round of cheese, pause and contemplate how it was made - then the author will have achieved his goal. What he wants is for Americans to gain a new perspective on where our food comes from and how it is prepared.
Chapters are devoted to particulars: bees, fowl, pigs, pastures and grazing, raw milk, slaughter and butchering. Although “Growing a Farmer” is not a how-to guide on farming, recipes and useful tips abound. Two appendixes include a glossary and “The Farm Bookshelf,” books that helped the author when confronted with challenges or simply when he was looking for new ideas. They include Joel Salatin’s masterful treatise on grass-based animal farming and a 1917 classic on beekeeping, Alice Waters’ cookbook from Chez Panisse. There is even a 1940 British agricultural text on farming that remains timely and instructive.
From the outset, the author aimed small: to grow enough to pay the bills so that a job in the city was no longer necessary. From 9 in the morning to midnight every day, including Christmas, he continued to work at his successful Seattle restaurant, paying off the farm’s mortgage. Without his city income, the viability of his farm could not have been achieved.
The turning point in Mr. Timmermeister’s venture was the purchase of his first Jersey cow, named Dinah. After traversing the legal hassles of selling raw milk, creating value-added food products became his best model for financial self-sufficiency. His specialty is “Dinah’s Cheese,” a Camembert-style delicacy popular among individuals and restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. Weekly cash infusions have resulted from his Sunday farm dinners, made from products from his land with menus that change with the seasons. Although he has no debt, profits are slim.
Mr. Timmermeister says he is fortunate to have his farm in the Pacific Northwest, a temperate zone that is never too hot or too cold. Timing worked in his favor as well. He opened his first cafe in 1986, when Seattle was at the epicenter of the onset of the espresso craze. His business benefited immensely. In 1990, Vashon Island was small and simple, the land inexpensive. Moving there felt like going back in time to the 1960s. The cost of his 12 acres would be prohibitive today.
Although the book’s tone is warm and engaging, several anecdotes make “Growing a Farmer” less than satisfying. Sitting astride his new, green Deere tractor or standing beside the cows, Mr. Timmermeister writes, validates his sense of importance: “I am strong; I am powerful.” After the first mention, the humor wears thin, making one wonder where was the editor to cut this sophomoric commentary. Although Mr. Timmermeister prides himself in being a responsible steward of the land, his acknowledgment of his occasional use of chemical fertilizer is dismissed by the justification that “few choices in farming practice are black-and-white.” Many organic farmers would beg to differ.
If anything, the running candor of “Growing a Farmer” makes it a realistic primer for city romantics who dream of chucking their day jobs in favor of operating their own small-scale organic farms. It is hard work, monetary rewards are meager, and triumphs are few and far between. The author is the first to say that he never expects to be rich. His stock portfolio consists of fruit trees, cows, sheep, pigs, goats and vegetables. Like a 401(k), they grow on compounded interest. The first two or three years: nothing. Then they take off. After all these seasons, the plentiful harvest still remains a wondrous mystery. “I’m not sure if Warren Buffet would believe in this system, but for me it’s as valid as any money market account, hedge fund or 401(k).”
Mr. Timmermeister likely celebrated the usual tax day, April 15. That was when he received his shipment of bees. Later, a gallon of golden harvest will pour, slowly and with deliberate formality, from the spigot of his hive extractor. “To see a gallon of honey flowing out of a two-inch valve is positively regal,” writes the author. Biblical references to the land of milk and honey literally ring true. As Mr. Timmermeister pushes forward in his journey of self-sufficiency, he notes, “the animals are content in the field, the gardens are lush with vegetables, the orchards are ever more prolific, and most importantly, the table, the center of this farm, is filled with food and family.” For him, true wealth lies in these luxuries. What greater reward in life is there than that?
Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the biographer of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast” (Oxford University Press, 2005) and editor of H.L. Mencken’s “Prejudices” (Library of America, 2010).