At the end of March when spring still felt so very far away and the seeds I had ordered for my garden were neatly bundled in a box, I received an offer for an e-galley of a book called A Farm Dies Once a Year by Arlo Crawford. I had been wondering at the time if perhaps I had missed my calling; wondering if I were in my mid-twenties again whether I wouldn’t really like owning a farm. My dad grew up on a farm and my mom lived on a farm too for a while when she was a kid so I’ve heard stories, I know it’s hard work. But never having lived or worked on a farm myself, really understanding what that hard work is was beyond me so it is easy to wonder whether I would have enjoyed being a farmer. Of course at this time of my life the point is moot but that doesn’t stop me from wondering what if?
After reading A Farm Dies Once a Year I think I would probably have found the work very satisfying but everything that goes along with farming, not so much. My urban garden will suffice, thanks, but I do wish it were just a little bigger. Ok, a lot bigger, but not acres and acres bigger.
At thirty-one Crawford has a bit of an existential what-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life crisis. He had grown up on his parents’ organic vegetable farm, 75 acres in rural southern Pennsylvania. Dissatisfied with city living, and never having lived or worked on a farm before, Crawford’s parents moved to the country, rented some land and started farming. It was hard but satisfying. Soon they bought the land that became New Morning Farm. Crawford’s parents always hoped that he or his younger sister would be interested in taking over the farm from them one day but both of the kids fled to the city as soon as they could.
At the time of his crisis, Crawford is working at a museum in Cambridge, Mass and living with his longtime girlfriend Sarah. He decides that going back to the farm for a growing season will help him figure things out. He convinces Sarah to come too.
The book is written in a plain, straightforward style that fits the subject, but I somehow expected it to be more meditative, more thoughtful about the nature of work and why Crawford, his parents, and even Sarah found working on the farm so very satisfying.
More than anything the book is about Crawford’s parents and the history of the farm. There is also an attempt by Crawford to understand and come to terms with the murder of Bert, his parents’ best friend. Bert, inspired by Crawford’s parents, had also decided to buy a farm not far from them. One day while out in his fields he was shot and killed by a neighbor who was angry about Bert’s dogs getting out and harassing his cows. Bert had a wife and young daughter. His wife was in the field too and saw the whole thing take place.
But when it comes to Crawford himself, it is hard to see how working on the farm for the summer changes him. It does, he tells us it does. But other than his expressing to his father how proud he is to be his son, there is no sense of movement or epiphany. Sure, when he and Sarah leave at the end of the season and move to San Francisco, Crawford takes up work as a produce manager at a natural foods store, but he tells us he still hasn’t figured out what he is going to do with his life. This left me wondering what was the point of the book then? Sure, I got a detailed look into a season on a farm and I am no longer left to wonder just how hard the hard work is. I have a better understanding and a greater appreciation for what small farmers do. But it’s not enough. It’s not so very much more than “this is what I did on my summer vacation.”
I wanted so much to like this book. I tried hard while reading it to muster up excitement about it. In the end, however, I found it spent too much time on the surface and not enough time diving into the depths looking for meaning and insight.