Megan Kimble Reviews A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography by Kayann Short
Ialways believed that I was lucky to be raised without weather. I grew up in the mountains above Los Angeles where it was either sunny and warm or sunny and cold and sometimes it rained. We played basketball outside on Thanksgiving and camped on the beach for Christmas; when it did rain, traffic accidents piled up on the freeways because no one remembered to slow down to accommodate the weather. I was, of course, living in the ignorant bliss of the urbanite. In A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, Kayann Short sets us firmly in a world where the whims of weather matter. Short co-owns and operates Stonebridge Farm, an organic, community-supported agriculture farm in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. A Bushel’s Worth is the memoir of this place—it is as much Short’s story as it is the story of a community, of a piece of land that’s been farmed continuously for more than a hundred years.
Divided into 26 short, focused chapters that are roughly organized by the trajectory of a year in farm life—from snow to seeds, mud to sun, transplants to harvest—the book begins first in remembrance, as Short recounts visiting her grandparents’ farms in North Dakota. She admits that she never imagined living on a farm: “as a child, I believed the farms would remain, season after season, waiting for my return. Now both farms have been sold, the farmhouses razed, and I haven’t been back in years.”
She seeks the memories of those years in her grandmother’s journals that offer taciturn accounts of the harsh life on the prairie. Each begins with a weather report, ranging from the succinct—“Wed, March 9: 45 degrees above, snow melting”—to elaborate: “Fri, March 4, 1966: 12 degrees above hi for today. It’s nice here today but not so warm. Is close to zero. We were lucky to miss being in the storm the last three days. Some lives lost in S. Dakota. I baked a pie.”
What these reports all reveal—apart from just how many pies prairie women baked—is the influence of season, of outside variables, on the intricacies of a person’s life. Today, for most people, certainly for the world’s urban population, that influence has all but disappeared. Indeed, for an urbanite with the propensity to romanticize the rural, these journal reports also offer a glaring reality check. “In rural North Dakota, the weather . . . determined the possibilities of each moment and the strength needed to endure the extremes of life on the prairie,” writes Short.
Much like her grandmother, Short recounts her journey from urban to rural with clear eyes. She didn’t set out to become a farmer; she was teaching English at the University of Colorado at Boulder when she met her now-husband, another professor and a farmer on the side. “We joke that after we met, I got a tetanus shot and John bought a watch,” she writes. “With each day, we discovered that farming was the perfect way to spend time together.”
Although she’s honest and open about the realities of farm life, moments of rural romanticism do indeed peek through, most notably when speaking of the farm’s finances. “We have to slow down to match nature’s pace,” she writes. “To live and work on the farm, we must come to a different understanding of ‘accomplishment,’ one not measured by our resumes or awards or bank accounts, but by how well we care for this land and each other.”
Of course, while it’s true that what ails modern farming might be precisely this rush, the hurrying of nature’s pace, it’s also true that many small farms find themselves unable to care for the land they’ve claimed because their bank accounts don’t account for such nebulous accomplishments as “creating community.” If farmers must accommodate weather, they also must answer to income, a crucial component when considering the sustainability of our local food systems, and one that Short doesn’t address.
That said, the importance of building local, accountable communities—of both producers and consumers—cannot be understated, and Short’s joy at her particular community is palpable, imbuing narratives of potluck pancake breakfasts and drought-breaking rain dances with a lightness and intimacy that makes one wonder: How can I do that, too?
Stonebridge operates under the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model: members join in the spring and receive a weekly share during the growing season, which runs from May to October. What’s rare among other CSA models is that members can also barter their time and labor for their shares, an advantage that allows them to take part in decisions facing the farm. Community members help prepare the earth, plant seeds, harvest the fields; they raise barns and thresh grains. “The relationship we are building in our community is a reciprocal one that challenges the anonymity of food systems today by placing those who eat food face to face with those who grow,” writes Short.
Indeed, as she points out, throughout our country’s rural history, communities survived or failed based on their level of cooperation. I borrowed your horse, you borrowed my plough; together, the work got done. She reminds us all that has changed in today’s individualistic society: “As consumers, we’re supposed to purchase all the tools, technology, and goods we need for ourselves, rather than own them communally.”
Scattered in among musings of local food systems, community action, family history, and current farm realities are clear moments of reflection that demonstrate Short’s acumen as a writer in her own right. “Appling offer[s] a solitary delight in roaming the orchard, choosing the perfect color, shape, and texture, picking one apple, polishing it on a shirttail, taking that first bite, and smiling yes, we are lucky . . . In a good apple year, even the light tastes like cider.”
Despite her family’s concerns about global warming, their worries of drought and genetically modified organisms and pesticide drift, amid their struggles with the bottom line and the start of a new season, Short writes that the “apple trees continue to bear fruit, trees go on leafing, and the air after a rain still smells good.”
Although I still live in a city, I am working to grow into weather, to believe in it, to allow it to shape my life and days and behavior. Being responsible for an eight-foot by three-foot garden plot helps me pay attention, reminding me to check the temperature, to plan for hard freezes. Reading stories like Short’s likewise remind us to live, at least for a handful of evenings, in a world that exists out there, in the wind and weather.
The reason to read a memoir like A Bushel’s Worth is the reason to step outside in the rain, to stick it out in the snow. Even in a world of technology on-demand and expanding choice, there are some endeavors intimately tied to the qualities of a place that cannot be chosen, avoided, or ignored. For those of us who eat, there is no such thing as life without weather.
Fresh vegetables photo courtesy Shutterstock.