Have you ever wondered what life as an organic farmer is really like? Arlo Crawford takes you behind the scenes in his new memoir, A Farm Dies Once a Year, released in April by Henry Holt and Co. Having grown up on his family's homestead, New Morning Farm, in Pennsylvania, the author returns at thirty-one to chronicle the agrarian cycles of farming.
Named for a Bob Dylan album, New Morning grows nearly 100 varieties of vegetables and fruits, from kohlrabi to dill, with tomatoes being the largest moneymaker. There are also 300 free-range chickens on the seventy-five acre property.
Started by Crawford's parents in the seventies with the intention of going “back to the land” and finding meaning, New Morning is located in a hardscabble and isolated portion of south-central Pennsylvania. The farm struggles annually against the elements, with a very narrow margin for error.
It's easy to romanticize the “farm” in farm-to-table, but Crawford tries his damndest not to. The flexibility and sheer hard work that goes on everyday, and the continual setbacks would make a lesser family throw their hands in the air and walk away.
In fact, Crawford had walked away. First to boarding school at sixteen and on to a more urban existence in New York and Cambridge, Mass. Echoing his parents' own desire for meaning as young adults, Crawford finds himself at loose ends, unsure about his life choices. “I wasn't making much progress in my job or other pursuits,” he writes. “And I wasn't really sure about what I was trying to achieve in general.” So he makes the decision to commit to the farm for a summer and write about his experience.
New Morning becomes an unlikely sort of spiritual retreat. Unlike most retreats, this break from Crawford's more 9-5 existence, working at the Fogg Museum, comes with little free time for meditating. In fact, keeping busy seems to provide the author with what he needs to take stock of his life and plan for his future by looking at the bigger picture, rather than just getting through the days. Its as if the farm becomes the soothing background noise to his frayed nerves, the intense work allowing him to keep his hands occupied while his mind sorts out his future.
With his parents behind his decision, paying him a “standard wage,” Crawford finds himself readjusting to farm life and his place in it. His parents' commitment to New Morning consumed them completely and it takes the author a moment to find where he fits in: “Everyone was busy, and there wouldn't be much time for anyone to welcome me home.”
As Crawford tells it, the basic act of collecting an egg for breakfast, “wasn't always the charming, pastoral task that most people imagined; the building itself was horrible, always smelly and dusty and filled wth hot air that was impossible to breathe, and the chickens themselves were nasty and mean.” The long days of planting and picking and going to market are compounded by days traveling to the farmers market in Washington, D.C., where the produce is sold. The family also sells to high-end markets, food co-ops and restaurants, having figured out a diversified way to keep income coming in.
The author's descriptions of working sunup to sundown, the summer's heat and the winter's bitter cold, do a terrific job of placing you right in the action. With sincerity and insight, Crawford's description of the rewards and punishments feels clear-eyed and true. When he writes about picking strawberries, which consists of “crawling down the rows on hands and knees for three to four hours at a stretch, hay sticking to all the sweaty places,” you can't help but appreciate the exquisite moment of biting into the sweet, red fruit that much more.