One of the books I was reading while having an existential crisis brought on by seed catalogs is Dirty Chick: Adventures of an Unlikely Farmer by Antonia Murphy. Far from helping me through my crisis, this book served to make it just a bit worse. I want a farm in New Zealand! Granted, Murphy doesn’t do much in the way of food growing, she is more into eclectic animal collecting. And while her adventures with vicious roosters and alpacas launching gobs of green spit at her are hilarious, I was just a tiny bit jealous of her good fortune.
Murphy and her husband were urban dwellers in San Francisco before they moved to New Zealand. Her also city living parents went on vacation and asked her to take care of their very much pet chickens and lonely duck, his mate having recently died. The chicken coop has to be one of the most well appointed around, it had a small chandelier! But her chicken and duck watching ended in disaster when the lonely duck raped one of the chickens to death. So when Murphy and her programmer husband decided to pull up stakes and sail their boat to New Zealand (Hobbits!), she did not have farming on her mind.
Months later when they arrived in New Zealand, Murphy was pregnant. Her husband got a job in Invercargill where they lived before moving to Purua where they rented a small farm from a German couple who were going to be out of the country for a little over a year. Her husband got a job in the city not far away and Murphy stayed home writing and taking care of the two small children they now had and the farm. They decided to move to Purua because her firstborn, Silas, was diagnosed as developmentally delayed. In this small town her son could be integrated into the regular school and not be made to attend a special needs school.
Murphy’s farming adventures are hilarious. She has no idea about anything and as a result is continually making unpleasant discoveries. Sometimes her humor can be a bit crude, but when the two calves you are transporting in the back of your station wagon have a sudden attack of diarrhea, well, the brand of humor is understandable.
I laughed when I read this book. A lot. From the very first page:
As I watched my goat eat her placenta, I was mostly impressed. I did experience some other feelings, such as horror and revulsion, and also a hint of nausea. But Pearl had always been a strict vegan, so her sudden craving for raw meat showed a real taste for adventure. Some vegetarians who broaden their menu choices might spring for an egg, or a soup made with chicken stock. But my goat, Pearl, went straight for the autocannibalism. Which was disgusting. And also worth some respect.
A goat and eventually two kids, chickens, a couple of lambs, a couple of calves, a couple of alpacas, and three turkeys that cost so much to feed that by the time they killed them for a proper Thanksgiving Murphy estimates them to been worth $85 each.
Murphy and her husband quickly make a few friends but have difficulty really fitting into the community at first:
Hamish’s skepticism about our credentials was perfectly fair. Farming was his livelihood, and we thought it was some kind of lark. You don’t see dairy farmers moving to the city with big ideas about being cardiologists for fun. ‘How hard could it be?’ they might chortle, spitting tobacco and hitching up their jeans. ‘I’ll just git me a book from the library.’
Which is what Murphy does quite frequently, raiding the local library for every book on raising goats or desperately searching the internet for advice. She also had a tendency to be a bit weird. When you live in a city there is so much more that is permissible than when you live in a small community. Murphy had long hair and she discovered the cat ears she had from a Halloween costume worked great at keeping her hair out of her face. So she ended up with a collection of various sorts of animal ears as well as devil horns. She’d wear these all the time, not just while on her farm. At first she couldn’t understand why people looked at her the way they did when she showed up to get her kids at school or shopped at the local market or visited Hamish across the road to plead for help or colostrum to feed her baby lambs.
Eventually they do manage to fit in and as their time renting the farm from the absent Germans races toward an end, they are frantic to find another farm nearby they can buy for themselves. They find one in the nick of time and all their neighbors help them move their animals to their new home. They end up having a sort of animal parade and after they are settled in to their new farm, they host a big party for everyone.
The writing isn’t always great and sometimes the crude humor is just too much, but as a whole, the book is highly entertaining. Along with the farming adventures we get a glimpse into what seems like a close-knit, friendly and sometimes eccentric community as well as some more serious notes regarding Murphy’s son. If you are looking for something lighthearted and want to laugh at the silliness of someone who thinks she can farm without knowing a thing about it, then, Dirty Chick is your book.
Thanks to Gotham Books for sending me a copy.
Update: The book is now available on audio read by the author. Interested? have a listen to a twenty minute sample.