A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography by Kayann Short
Kayann Short’s collection of essays in A Bushel’s Worth is a fine addition to the bumper crop of farm memoirs that recently have become so popular. Focused on the Stonebridge Farm csa (Community Supported Agriculture) that she runs with her husband, John Martin, on the front range of the Rockies in Colorado, Short’s collection ranges broadly on farm-related topics, including cooking for threshing crews, painting a barn, seed saving, and so on. Although these sound like old-fashioned farm topics, Short is careful not to color them with the nostalgic gloss that I’ve seen in other memoirs addressing similar subjects. In her description of her North Dakota grandmothers cooking mountains of hearty food during the endless days of harvest season, she acknowledges that we may be sentimental about the bygone days of cooking for threshers but goes on [End Page 232] to contextualize the scene, first with the 1934 Grant Wood painting titled Dinner for Threshers, which allows her to discuss women’s traditional labor on farms, and second with Meridel LeSueur’s 1929 short story “Harvest,” in which a threshing machine symbolizes the uneasy transition from human labor to mechanization.
Then Short recasts and updates the threshers’ dinner scene by describing the annual pancake feed held on Stonebridge Farm for csa volunteers after a long day of harvesting. The menu includes decidedly modern, gluten-free pancakes made with rice milk, but Short is more interested in discussing the social function and cultural implications of such events in the here and now, writing that “[i]n the highly individualized consumer culture of the US today, sharing [work, food, tools, and machinery] is a custom we rarely practice” (91). However, the “ethics of sharing” that are at the foundation of the csa movement mean that “maybe, in these times, working cooperatively can come back” (79).
Short’s focus on a csa makes this memoir distinctive from other recent farm-related nonfiction. Within the genre you will find dozens of memoirs about, for instance, the “urban farming” movement (Novella Carpenter’s Farm City); raising backyard chickens (Michael Perry’s Coop comes to mind, as does Manny Howard’s My Empire of Dirt); farmers selling specialty items at farmers’ markets (Heirloom by Tim Stark); the transition from modern agricultural methods to organic methods (Forrest Pritchard’s Gaining Ground); the locavore challenge to eat only food grown and produced locally (Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle came out in 2007, the same year locavore was word of the year); and back-to-the-landers (Josh Kilmer-Purcell’sThe Bucolic Plague shows that these tend to focus on the comedic possibilities of the unlikeliest farmer “going country”). There are also dozens of how-to books about starting a csa, gourmet csa cookbooks, and journalistic nonfiction on the csa’s role in the rebirth of small-farm culture and “ethical” eating.
But I know of no other memoir about a csa. The closest thing I am aware of is the 2005 award-winning documentary film The Real Dirt on Farmer John, which is by and about John Peterson, the quirky, eccentric, small-town-boy-turned-hippie who started one of the country’s first csas just outside of Chicago. Like Peterson, who emphasizes that csas offer “shareholders” a sense of ownership in [End Page 233] farms, Short focuses on what she calls farmgiving, a concept that links land stewardship with a sense of reciprocity within community. In other words, farming has a cultural function, something she points to when she writes, “the biggest crop we grow at Stonebridge is community” (14).
If I have any quibble with the book, it is that Short gives insufficient attention to her coined term ecobiography, which she uses as her subtitle and to describe the writing workshops she offers at Stonebridge Farm. While she does discuss how the term is different from nature writing on the farm’s web site, she lets the subtitle stand without full explanation. As a scholar I think a term like eco-biography bears discussion. But that is a small issue with an otherwise satisfying read.