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A Suburban Girl Considers the Farm

Jennifer McStotts reviews The Seasons on Henry's Farm: A Year of Food and Life on a Sustainable Farm, by Terra Brockman

The Seasons on Henry's Farm: A Year of Food and Life on a Sustainable Farm, by Terra BrockmanAs I scanned over the table of contents for The Seasons on Henry’s Farm: A Year of Food and Life on a Sustainable Farm by Terra Brockman, I saw that scattered throughout the 52 food-themed weeks that organized the book are a dozen recipes based on farm-fresh foods. On every page, I saw food, food, food, and I thought: I may not be the right person to review this book. When I think of food, I think of foodies and the friends I always hope will invite me to dinner. Meanwhile, I live in a teeny studio, which means I have a teeny studio-sized kitchen, with a hot plate that just barely fits between my sink and my toaster oven, meaning I have room to cook or I have room to set out my cutting board to do prep, but I do not have room on the counter for both. When I see a food that’s local or organic or heaven help me both, I snatch it up. I don’t even think about price, which is probably why I spend as much on food as I do on rent every month. I also tend to spend more on prepared foods—tubs of pineapple chunks and bags of spiced potato slices—because of the challenge of doing prep work in my kitchen. It’s not that I don’t like to work with food, to cook, it’s just that in my current place, cooking is a hassle.

I wondered if I wasn’t going to have to pass this book on to a friend with more food cred, but then I started to read. Brockman presents a charming vision of farm life, from scenes you expect of big family farm lunches and chains of farm helpers tossing melons from the field to the truck, to scenes a suburban girl like me didn’t expect, little insights into how farms really work. How one of the helpers etches a letter into the skin of the melons so everyone can tell their types. How the author’s brother, Henry, organizes his farm notebooks. How he cures fresh sweet potatoes in a homemade sauna of space heaters and wet towels. How much thought is given—must be given—to the composition of the soil on an organic farm.

Brockman has taken a single year in the life of her family and its farms and divided it into the 52 weeks of the year, then grouped them into the traditional lunar agricultural calendar. She thinks of each of these weeks as “seasons”—the seasons of planting one crop or harvesting another, seasons based around farm chores like seed-ordering or slaughtering or fencing, seasons of growing and dying, seasons based on the feel of the air and the quality of the light. I have to admit that at first I thought the metaphor, being a bit heavy-handed, might drag after I read about it on the jacket, in the foreword, and again in the introduction. But in truth, it fades into the background as a structural element, an unseen scaffolding around which farm life moves, as soon as you get a few pages in.

When I say Brockman’s vision is charming, I don’t mean that it is idyllic or glossy. She neither bemoans nor camouflages the long hours and hard work of a farming life. What makes this book such a well-rounded read is how finely Brockman integrates all of these details together: the beauty of Illinois’ weather and environment, as well as the consequences it has on farming; the science of soils and fungi and biology and botany, and the colors they create on a leaf or flower or fruit; the cycle of life and slaughter, reality and poetry. The Seasons on Henry’s Farm is a book that can be read one season at a time or one four- or five-week moon every night; there are many parts of the book where it was hard to put down. In the spirit of a family-run farm, Brockman not only varies her own voice, bringing in family memoir alongside the agriscience narrative for instance, but she also includes short pieces by her nieces, her brother, and her father, handing the camera to someone else when she feels they can better capture the moment, much in the way the family acknowledges Brockman’s mother to be the only one trusted with tomato sorting and her brother the finest garlic braider by far.

The only section I skipped was “Week 14: Hog Heaven,” because I have a complex and emotional personal history with pig slaughter, but the stories of death, animal and human alike, that Brockman includes in a faithfulness to her year-on-a-farm structure are some of the most beautiful in the book. And for each of those is an equally magnificent moment in nature, a complex scientific explanation made clear, a historical revelation, and a light-hearted anecdote. Sometimes, one of Brockman’s scenes serves many of those categories at once, such as in one of my favorite moments when she contrasts the beauty of fresh asparagus and our society’s long history of “smelling asparagus-perfumed chamberpots,” as well as the chemical and genetic reasons for the odor.

At the end of The Seasons on Henry’s Farm, I remain a suburban girl who was raised without a root cellar and has no means for engaging in the kind of deep “waste not, want not” sustainability that the Brockmans strive for everyday, nor do I have the kitchen to do justice to some of her fantastic-sounding recipes—not yet at least—though many of them are simple enough that if I can access similar ingredients where I live, I’ll give them a go. Her work made me eager to try the farmers market near me when it begins again this spring, but more importantly, it made me feel both grateful for the work of families like the Brockmans and hopeful that there is a way to reverse the cycle begun by industrial agriculture in the 20th century.


Jennifer McStotts worked as a lawyer in Georgia and as a college professor in South Carolina before she figured out that writing clandestinely is not the most effective way to go about being a writer. She now lives in Tucson, Arizona, and has work forthcoming from Brock Review and Re)verb. More about Jennifer can be found at www.JenniferMcStotts.com.
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The Seasons on Henry's Farm: A Year of Food and Life on a Sustainable Farm

By Terra Brockman

   Agate Surrey
   320 pages
   ISBN 978-1572841031


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