It's a Long Road to a Tomato: Tales of an Organic Farmer Who Quit the Big City for the (Not So) Simple Life
Keith Stewart had the stones to do what most merely dream about: In the late 1980s, the New Zealand native gave up a numbing office job in New York for a plot of land upstate and moved there with his wife to start a new life as a small organic farmer. That said, Stewart isn’t about to romanticize his new career. His book, an appealing blend of personal and political essays, describes many of the pleasures of rural life, but Stewart also makes strikingly clear just how hard growing tomatoes, garlic, or just about anything else is these days—especially if you are trying to clear a profit.
The essays are short, plain, and direct, and yet they have their own poetry. In “A Good Knife,” Stewart describes the indispensability of a sharp blade on the farm. “The eye, hand, and arm, and even the whole body should come together in the act of cutting,” he writes. “When the blade is sharp and the body understands the motion, the effort is minimal and the outcome satisfying. When any element in this equation is missing, the results are usually painful to watch—at worst, strenuous and undignified sawing, hacking, and striking. Wretched to behold.”
Many essays in Long Road invoke pastoral scenes. But many more are about the violence and struggle of rural life—a stillborn calf that is dug up and torn apart by farm dogs, the roosters that gouge and scratch each other for dominance, or the farm machinery that turns with a menacing, limb-threatening power. In one moving essay, Stewart describes the death of his favorite dog by his own hand—he accidentally ran over it with a tractor at the end of a long day.
In more political essays, the book is about the subtle violence farming does to the land and to farmers themselves. Many cover familiar issues—genetically modified crops, soil erosion, and farm consolidation—yet they are clearly and appealingly detailed in Stewart’s straightforward style. Even more poignant are essays that describe the difficult business of farming. In “The Price of Milk,” Stewart opens the ledgers of his neighbor, Eddy Bennett, a traditional dairy farmer, to show that, despite working 15 hours every day, Bennett clears only a few thousand dollars every year. In a sequel of sorts, “The High Price of Milk,” Stewart eulogizes Bennett, who was killed in an accident while hauling felled trees, “a way to make a few extra dollars to supplement a lean milk check.”
By the last essay—“What Will Happen to the Land?”—Stewart seems to have economics and his own passing in mind. He bought the land for just over $200,000, he explains, and now it is worth about a million, but only as a housing development. This free-market arithmetic permanently drives land out of production and into subdivision. Stewart might be unromantic about the business of farming, but he clearly holds out hope that small farming in America will continue. Do people care about seeing farms within their communities? “If the answer is yes,” he writes, “then one must ask, do we care enough to do something about it? That is the real question.”