We are what we eat: How food, farms, and community can save the planet

A field of rye, stretching as far as the eye can see, awaits harvesting at Essex Farm in New York’s Champlain Valley. Photo by Mark Kimball.

New Marlborough — For Mark and Kristin Kimball, a diet made up entirely of whole food — in season, and in abundance — is the norm, not the exception. It’s a philosophy turned way of life the owners and operators of Essex Farm share with the tight-knit community they are cultivating in the Champlain Valley of Vermont. Each week, the Kimballs nourish their neighbors — to the tune of several hundred Community Supported Agriculture members, from 150 families — by providing good food, delivered straight from the dirt; it’s a model as simple as it is revolutionary. On Saturday, August 6, 2022 at 4:30 pm, The New Marlborough Meeting House will host the Kimballs for a conversation rooted in food, farming, and community — which, when combined, create a symbiosis of sorts that not only elicits mutual benefits but also stands to make big changes in the world.

Mark Kimball, owner of Essex Farm. Photo courtesy of Essex Farm.

“The team of all of us is so incredible… [and] we’re creating a miracle,” Mark Kimball told The Edge, after our morning phone call was delayed due to the rye-harvesting team arriving to glean their goods from the dry, summer ground; after the combine broke, a scant 30 feet into the job, he found a quiet spot, deep within an endless sea of ​​nine-foot-tall corn stalks, to field a handful of questions about what it takes to alter the landscape that is the average American’s food source and, by extension, way of life.

“We’re so disconnected from agricultural sustainability, much less regenerative practices, that we have given ourselves a false sense of complacency by going to wonderful farmers markets where people did work really hard for very low wages to make almost none of what we need ,” Kimball explains of his big-picture view of agriculture, one that extends far beyond farm to table and includes thinking about the issue both topographically and geologically. Rest assured: Kimball is anything but pessimistic; he simply had deep thoughts on the fluctuating factors affecting our day-to-day life (with sleep and screens topping the list) which means he’s looking for actionable answers that, when adopted, pay off.

The tall tips of corn — which, when harvested, stands to feed enough cows to produce 400 gallons of milk — soak up the August sunshine at Essex Farm. Photo by Mark Kimball.

The central question guides him: “Who can catch the most sunlight, keep that sunlight where it was caught and meet the most human need?” The answer, of course, extends far beyond what’s for dinner where it was grown and begs deeper exploration, as evidenced by a slew of follow-up questions — How do you fuel your vehicle? Did you feed your horse to go on a run like the Amish? How do you heat your home? How did you build your home? Considering each of these factors has allowed the Kimballs to, “[aspire] towards a more complete, wise and holistic approach [to food and farming].”

Almost two decades ago, the Kimballs pioneered the free-choice, full-diet, year-round CSA for which their farm is known, featuring a panoply of food — all grown from the ground up. To complement the fifty different kinds of vegetables they grow, the Kimballs raise grass-fed beef, pastured pork, chicken and eggs plus milk, grains and flour, fruit, herbs and maple syrup (plus soap!). Their weekly distribution network, featuring custom-grown food that can be picked up or delivered, stretches through the Adirondack and Capital regions as far south as New York City. The Kimballs’ animals are fed certified organic food; no conventional pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers are used; and solar- and horse-powered equipment are employed whenever practical. Packaging is kept to a bare minimum, and what plastic is used is BPA-free. Their shared desire is to build an agro-ecosystem that is economically, environmentally, and socially — as evidenced by continuous striving to make a farm that is better tomorrow than it is today.

Anna Houston, of Off the Shelf Farm in New Marlborough, points to the Kimballs’ “incredible farm model” as beyond her wildest (local) dreams: “The Essex Farm model is slightly radical, totally inspiring, and incredibly hard. What they offer is more than food; it is an exercise in how one thinks about how we value food and how we eat,” said Houston, who will introduce the Kimballs at Saturday’s event. Sitting at the helm of a pasture-based farm, where flocks of chickens and sheep rotate through nearby hilly pastures, undoubtedly informs Houston’s perspective. Her most burning question of the celebrity farmers: Is the model replicable?

“If you want to make a big impact, you have to start by training,” says Mark — drawing upon an analogy to physical health: “Don’t do 1,000 push ups because there’s a competition to save the world, do ten [a day] to get in shape… and see how you can radiate who you are to be contagious [to others].” Becoming aware of who you are the first step, he underscores, pointing to a process both he and his wife have undertaken since acquiring Essex Farm.

Kristin Kimball, owner of Essex Farm in Vermont. Photo courtesy of Essex Farm.

“Kristin’s writing and her stories are what anchor people in emotion which turns to action,” Mark says, pointing to the pair of memoirs she penned — “The Dirty Life” (2011) and “Good Husbandry” (2020) — each of which chronicles a different slice of their shared adventure, and subsequent challenges, of living off the land and raising a family (portions of which Kristin plans to read at Saturday’s event). The Kimballs will discuss their farm, food and diet (with samples, to really taste the soil); the rising awareness of the benefits of organic food and sustainable farming; plus new systems of distribution, and what they have in store for the future.

Climate activist Bill McKibben (who, with his wife Sue Halpern, was part of last years’ program) calls the Kimballs, “two of the most interesting farmers America has to offer — hopeful, engaged, funny, hard-working, and armed with a new model for feeding people that will make you stop and think!” Furthermore, their aim is not limited to growing and selling healthy and affordable food; it extends to ensuring that Essex Farm remains a working farm, ecologically and financially viable for years to come. In 15 years of operating their farm, the Kimballs have mentored over 50 beginning farmers who have gone on to start more than a dozen farms. In 2012, the Essex Farms Institute with the Adirondack Council began as a formalization of their success training new farmers.

The Kimballs’ CSA model, dubbed an alternative food and farm system, suggests it does not reflect the predominant way that we eat. As to will it ever be? “That’s up to you and me, really,” Mark says, again underscoring the power the individual has to elicit change in their respective community — which points to the real takeaway:

“We envision the Champlain Valley as the birthplace of a new generation of sustainable agriculture,” the Kimballs say, revealing the real nugget: “We foresee a future where farms power themselves, their communities and the world.”

NOTE: Tickets, which include a discounted rate for local farmers, are available here.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: