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Jan 24, 2013 03:12PM

Page turners: Recent farm memoirs that earn two green thumbs up

Radish staff
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John Greenwood
Chris Greene wrote one of the reviews on farms for Radish Magazine.
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"Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works" by Atina Diffley
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"The Wisdom of the Radish: And Other Lessons Learned on a Small Farm" by Lynda Hopkins
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"Barnheart: The Incredible Longing for a Farm of One's Own" by Jenna Woginrich
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"The Feast Nearby: Essays and Recipes" by Robin Mather
Winter winds are blowing and the prime growing season is still months away. What can you do with your green thumb to wile away the hours indoors? Why not get your fix by flipping through a memoir about life on the farm? An abundance of books have appeared in recent years written by growers who know a thing or two about making a living from the ground up -- here, our Radish staff recommend a few favorites.

Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works
By Atina Diffley (2012, University of Minnesota Press, 344 pages, $24.95 hardcover)

In her debut memoir, Atina Diffley shares the challenges and passion for the land she had as a pioneering organic farmer in Minnesota. She and her husband, Martin, ran one of the first certified organic produce farms in the Midwest, Gardens of Eagan.

Atina achieved her childhood dream of becoming a farmer when she joined Martin to work the land that had been in his family for five generations. Then, eminent domain for suburban development caused them to move to another farm. But their new farm fell in the path of a proposed crude oil pipeline.

Everyone loves an underdog tale, and this is certainly one. To keep the pipeline from coming on their land, the Diffleys received the support of many in the organic community as they worked to teach the powers that be that organic farms are special cases when it comes to energy projects. But this book is not just about struggles. Atina also explains why she farmed, and how she loved being connected with the land to feed and nourish others.

Farmers and nonfarmers alike can benefit from learning about holistic farm management, the system Atina and Martin used to plan and set goals for their business and lives.

Favorite sentence: "Organic farms are valuable natural resources and need to be protected as such."
Perfect snack pairing for your book club: What else? Popcorn!
-- Heather Thorstensen

The Wisdom of the Radish: And Other Lessons Learned on a Small Farm
By Lynda Hopkins (2011, Sasquatch Books, 248 pages, $23.95 hardcover)

Lynda Hopkins wasn't raised on a farm. Far from it. This doesn't stop her diving headfirst into sustainable agriculture, investing all her energy, intelligence and $1,260.52 in savings into trying to turn two borrowed acres into an environmentally-friendly farmstead.

Why? Partly to save the world. Throughout the book Hopkins offers statistics and studies about agricultural practices that make a case for doing things differently. Also, she's in love. Like Hopkins, her boyfriend, Emmet, is invested in the idea that there is a better way to raise food. Unlike her, he has some farm experience, being the son of a California grape grower.

Of course, they aren't growing grapes. But they do try their hand at an impressive array of just about everything else —tomatoes, beans, squash, greens, chickens, goats, alpacas and sheep. Along the way, things go wrong. Sprouts rot in the tray. A fox gets into the coop. They plant more beans than they can harvest. Hopkins is able to relate the heartbreak, both financial and emotional, with touching honesty.

She's also able to relate the buoyant hope that keeps them going. Little by little, she and Emmet learn from their mistakes and find their way. They also get married. I'm not going to give away the surprise of the proposal, but suffice to say a radish plays a prominent role. How could I not love it?

Favorite sentence: "We can't know everything -- but we can keep trying."
Perfect snack pairing for your book club: Spicy kale chips
-- Sarah J. Gardner

The Feast Nearby: How I lost My Job, buried a Marriage, and Found My Way by Keeping Chickens, Foraging, Preserving, Bartering, and Eating Locally (all on $40 a week)
By Robin Mather (2011, Ten Speed Press, 272 pages, $24 hardcover)

What do you do if you not only lose your job but are also faced with the end of your marriage? If you are writer Robin Mather, you pack up your belongings, your poodle and your parrot, and you head out of Chicago and home to your native Michigan.

Mather hunkers down in a small lakeside cottage and begins a journey of self-discovery and self-reliance. As she adjusts to a reduced food budget, she learns to adhere creatively to her vow to eat as locally — and as well — as possible.

Sprinkled throughout this book are hearty recipes (I highly recommend the million-bean salad and the savory cheese-chive biscuits), local food wisdom and moving life lessons.

Mather not only discovers how bountifully she can eat on a limited budget but also how bountiful her life can become when the static of city life is removed. Her journey follows the natural rhythm of the seasons, and her prose has an easy way of inviting the reader along, causing one to feel the warm breezes of spring, the sultry heat of a Michigan summer, the crisp snap of fall, and the frigid cold of winter. It's within that cold that Mather comes truly to embrace how full and
satisfying her simple life has become.

Favorite sentence: "Foresight and planning to be able to meet one's needs -- whether by a pantry rich in wholesome food or by a woodstove bright with dancing flame -- creates confidence in the future."
Perfect snack pairing for your book club: Mather's oatmeal-maple syrup drop cookies
-- Chris Greene

Barnheart: The Incredible Longing for a Farm of One's Own
By Jenna Woginrich (2011, Storey Publishing, 184 pages, $14.95 paperback)

Woginrich first introduced readers to her homesteading dreams in "Made from Scratch," and she continues the journey in "Barnheart." The book details her cross-country move to Vermont and her attempts to rebuild what she had started in Idaho.

While some of her stories are lighthearted, much of the book deals with her struggles to live the life she wants on a rented homestead. She writes about the heartache of not having someone to share that life with, besides her animals. Her foray into the world of sheep leads to a sad setback when it comes to a sheepdog. A skirmish with a neighbor who overreacts and doesn't get the true story causes a chain reaction that throws her life into chaos and makes the reader wany not only to keep reading, but to have a few choice words with that neighbor as well.

The book isn't all bad news. After watching her whole world nearly collapse, Woginrich shows that she truly has a Barnheart as she picks herself up and starts another chain of events that leads to a delightful ending. There are surprises, too: Her efforts to ensure a happy, safe life for her animals cause her to rethink her long-time vegetarianism. A turkey chick that she bought on a whim ends up as a Thanksgiving story that her family will
probably retell for years.

Favorite Sentence: "And when you find yourself sitting in your office, classroom, or cafe and your mind wanders to dreams of the farming life, know that you are not alone."
Perfect snack pairing for your book club: Crudités, preferably organic and grown by you, in honor of Jenna, the former vegetarian
-- Sharon Wren

Spicy Kale Chips
Enjoy with "The Wisdom of the Radish"
1 bunch kale, washed and patted dry, stems removed
Olive oil
Salt, to taste
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Place dried kale leaves in a bowl. Slowly drizzle olive oil over the leaves 1 teaspoon at a time, stopping to toss the leaves before adding another teaspoon, until the leaves are all lightly coated. Lay flat in a single layer on a baking sheet and sprinkle with red pepper flakes, cayenne and salt. Bake at 350 degrees for 7 minutes, then use a spatula to toss the leaves gently for even baking. Return to oven and bake 5-7 minutes more, until leaves are crisp.

Oatmeal-Maple Syrup Drop Cookies
Enjoy with "The Feast Nearby"
1/2 cup salted butter, soft
1 cup puremaple syrup
1 egg
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 cup whole milk
1 1/2 cups rolled oats
1/2 cup dried cherries
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350. Prepare two cookie sheets by greasing lightly or lining with parchment paper. In a large bowl, beat the butter, maple syrup and egg until the mixture is light and fluffy. Set aside. Sift together the flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and cloves. Add to syrup mixture alternately with milk. Mix well. Stir in the oats, cherries and nuts. Drop by rounded tablespoonfuls onto the prepared cookie sheets, leaving 1 inch between each cookie. Flatten the mounds with your fingers or the oiled bottom of a drinking glass.
Bake for 15-20 minutes, one sheet at a time, until the cookies are golden and look dry. Cool on the cookie sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling.
Recipe source: Robin Mather, "The Feast Nearby"

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