What’s wrong with this picture?

May 28, 2012 at 8:12 pm Leave a comment

By Dee Reid

Once I heard Jim Minick read from The Blueberry Years, I knew I had to take one home with me. It wasn’t just that this “memoir of farm and family” was named the SIBA Best Non-Fiction Book of the year.  Or that Jim is a superb writer and story teller. Or even that  his book might contain a young couple’s familiar real-life account of how they found their calling on an organic farm at the end of a dazzling country road.

What really attracted me was Jim’s honest approach to each story, which I suspected would reveal much more than the usual sustainable farmer’s story of salvation.

The first hint was when someone asked about the book’s cover image. Jim winced and quietly acknowledged that the idyllic scene on the front was not his farm after all. The publisher took a picture of a dairy farm, Photo-Shopped in an image of a man walking down a central row, and added some generic berry bushes.  We’re not sure they’re even blueberry bushes. The result is a symmetrical flat field that bears no resemblance to the Floyd County, Va. , hills where Jim and Sarah planted and mulched their pick-your-own berry operation over the course of a decade.

Thankfully, Jim’ s saga of the berry life is the real-deal. It’s a coming of age tale told with love and reverence for the complexities of small farming in America today. I savored the sweetness in each chapter along with the “What’s wrong with this picture?” moments tucked instructively between them, which  Jim labeled “Blue Interludes.” Here’s one entitled “Working off of the farm.” To wit: “One report summarizes that ‘the off-farm income share of total household income…rose from about 50 percent in 1960 to more than 80 percent in the past ten years….the message for those still wanting to farm has become: ‘Get big or get a job.’ Be a not-farmer in order to also be a farmer.”

Jim allows us to taste the freshness of ripe berries, the richness of teaching yourself a new way of life, the  challenge of making new friends, and the inconvenient truths about  the economics of small-scale farming.

Though he and Sarah usually excel at everything they try, they can’t harvest a viable living by cultivating one of the first organic blueberry farms in the mid-Atlantic region. Even after they pay off the mortgage in less than four years (!), it looks like their off-farm income will always have to exceed the dollars they glean from some of the healthiest blueberries the Blue Ridge has to offer.

It’s not their fault of course. It’s the reality of “sustainable” farming that is often not so sustainable for farmers even when they do their homework and their chores as well as these two bright pioneers do.

In the end, Jim and Sarah decide they desire time to pursue writing and basket-making more than farming. They sell the blueberry business and move to the next county, where  they live as teachers and artists, enjoy a slower rural pace, and grow enough food for their table.

The Blueberry Years were hardly wasted, though, in the living or the writing. This is the best small-farm book I’ve read in years, precisely because it’s as much about pursuing one’s passion as it is  about how farming should be.  I wish I could send a copy to every ag official and politician in the country, so they could learn a few lessons about what’s really needed to improve the future of sustainable farming.

I’m glad Jim has more time to write these days and I look forward to the completion of his novel in progress.

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Entry filed under: Books, Learning, Politics/ Policy, Recipes, Sustainable Farming, Sustainable Food. Tags: , , , , , , .

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