A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail by Jenna Butler

25942773My husband and I often talk about living a simpler life; growing a lot of our own food, raising our own chickens, owning less stuff. But, like most people, we find it hard to be serious about making the switch; to give up an already established good life for one that is a big question mark. We do our best. We have a big garden. And some years it has done well, but lately we’ve been preoccupied with other projects and our garden has turned out looking more like a giant tangle of weeds.

Regardless of how our garden turns out, we are big fans of the local market. We try to get as much produce there as we can, as well as meat and eggs. There are other projects we’re interested in, too – renewable energy sources (my husband is hoping to make a do-it-yourself solar panel), composting (we have had a giant compost pile in our back yard since we moved here 11 years ago – so far our neighbours have been very gracious about it), local sources for baking ingredients (we get most of our flour, oats, popcorn, and other grains and legumes from a local mill), and I do my best to make most of our baked goods and meals from scratch (the older the kids get and the more they eat, the harder this gets…).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAll of this to say that, despite my preference for fiction, I’m drawn to memoirs about farming or people’s attempts to change their lives dramatically. One of my favourite memoirs ever is The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball, in which she goes from being the product of a big city to the wife of an organic farmer. She doesn’t romanticize it – in fact, most people (people in their right minds) would probably read it and think “never!”, but to me it sounds dreamy. Similar books I have read are Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver and The 100-Mile Diet by Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon.

So, when I saw this new book about a Canadian couple living in Edmonton and starting a small organic farm an hour and a half northwest of Edmonton, I requested a copy of it right away. Thank you to Wolsak and Wynn for sending it to me!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA Profession of Hope is a collection of essays written about the experiences of the author and her husband in starting up their small farm. Jenna Butler talks about the reasons behind their decision to take action (the hardest part), and the slow but rewarding process of building their farm. Their land truly needed a lot of work. It was not a prime location, and they were battling against the elements, not to mention the mosquitoes.

Once again, these essays convey the amount of work involved in doing something like this. She doesn’t try to make it sound easy, but she does make it sound satisfying. That feeling you get when you hang your laundry on the line rather than put it in the dryer, or the one you get from eating a home-cooked meal rather than one out of a take-out bag.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAButler writes about nature and what that word means to people. She writes about feeling connected to the land and the importance of improving it for future generations. But she also writes about the hard work, long hours, and dedication needed. As well as being new farmers, they have also kept their full-time positions as teachers in the city, and have continued to travel back and forth between their two lives. Butler is not trying to tell everyone to go out and do this; she knows her life is not for everyone. But she wants to pass on her experiences and what she’s learned about farming in a northern climate; things that she and her husband had to figure out along the way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnyone intrigued at all about this kind of lifestyle and how people are able to make it work (although, she freely admits that things don’t always work, and that their farm is really just one big process of trying new things and figuring out what works and what doesn’t), would like this book. It’s adventurous, meditative, reflective, and above all hopeful. I imagine the kind of people who go out and start up small organic farms must be people full of hope; for themselves, for the earth, and for the future. You can’t get much more inspirational than that.

Yes, I despair for what is happening to the land around me, but I find beauty in the land’s ability to survive, too. I struggle every day with the knowledge of what Big Oil is doing, but I also see the strength of the land around me and think it vital to celebrate.

… I really believe in talking about our sense of place, and that stories are one of our first shared lines of defence of the places we care about.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHas anyone read any good farming memoirs lately?

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34 thoughts on “A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail by Jenna Butler

  1. Claire 'Word by Word' says:

    Sounds like an inspirational read indeed, can’t think of any farming memoirs off the top of my head, but then I’m one who escaped the farmlife, having grown up with the hard work of it, a big sheep farm you, not a lifestyle farm. It was mostly hardwork and the rewards weren’t sufficient to make me want to stay! 🙂 I like the landscape and open spaces, and being in the fresh air though. 😉

    • Naomi says:

      Those of us who haven’t done it, dream of it, and those who grew up with it want to get away from it. That doesn’t surprise me!
      The farms I read about tend to be the small farms that deal with a little bit of everything. I would probably prefer that to a big farm with one main focus. I do like sheep, though. I would like to have 2, maybe. 🙂

  2. Rebecca Foster says:

    Thanks for the recommendation of The Dirty Life; I think I will really enjoy that. My husband and I have gardened off and on in the last few years (whenever our rented property has a garden or we have worked out a land share agreement) but we are pretty hopeless at it. I love the idea of gardening, but success with the nitty gritty has eluded us thus far. We’re probably going to have to move this summer and are hoping our next place will have its own garden we can do what we like with.

    Recently I skimmed A Farm Dies Once a Year by Arlo Crawford and Harvest: Field Notes from a Far-Flung Pursuit of Real Food by Max Watman. I have copies of The Call of the Farm by Rochelle Bilow and Epitaph for a Peach by David Mas Masumoto. Other titles with ‘farm’ in on my Goodreads TBR shelf are Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter, Real Dirt: An Ex-Industrial Farmer’s Guide to Sustainable Eating by Harry Stoddart, and Weeds: A Farm Daughter’s Lament by Evelyn I. Funda,

    Not exactly about farming — but related — are Michael Pollan’s books on food and plants. I enjoyed Eating Wildly by Ava Chin; that’s more about urban foraging. The Biggest Beetroot in the World: Giant Vegetables and the People Who Grow Them by Michael Leapman is a mildly amusing book about a niche hobby.

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks for all the suggestions, Rebecca. This will give me a lot to sift through! I have heard of a couple of these, and I do have a couple of Pollan’s books – In Defence of Food is one of them, I think. I love his quote: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”.
      Hopefully you’ll be able to get the garden you want. Plant beans. Beans always grow. 🙂

  3. The Cue Card says:

    I imagine having a farm in Edmonton is a bit tough. I live in Calgary now and barely can get tomatoes to change color by the end of the summer. But I am interested in her essays, and also The Dirty Life – I will check that out too. Nice topic!! Naomi — I think perhaps you would like the books of Sue Hubbell as well, particularly her books A Country Year and A Book of Bees. They were written quite awhile ago but are excellent books about living in nature etc.

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks for the suggestions – I have just added A Country Year to my list!
      Even here in NS, our season is a bit too short for tomatoes. We have to get them started early in the greenhouse.

  4. Valorie Grace Hallinan says:

    Naomi, can’t wait to read this book, it’s right up my alley. I also enjoyed – really enjoyed – The Dirty Life, and I liked Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, too. My husband and I also think about buying a bit of land and, while not doing full blown farming, at least incorporating some homesteading practices into our lives as we approach pre-retirement. As you know also from my blog, I love to read nonfiction – essays, memoir – about land and place. I will certainly add A Profession of Hope to this year’s reading list!

    • Naomi says:

      I thought of you when I read this book, Valerie. The essays are nice for anyone who likes reading about nature, too, not just farming. She loves to garden and really pays attention to her flowers and the wildlife they attract, as well as other aspects of nature. I think you will like it!
      Wouldn’t it be nice to have fruit trees and berry bushes? We’ve tried growing a peach tree and a couple of cherry trees in our backyard, but it didn’t work out. I’m thinking blueberry bushes might work well.And we already have raspberries – the trick with them is finding an out-of-the-way spot that is still sunny enough.

      • Valorie Grace Hallinan says:

        My husband especially loves the idea of berry bushes and fruit trees. I will never forget one day I took off work and went blueberry picking when my boys were little. It was a large, lush blueberry patch on the shore of Lake Ontario, and we filled several buckets with berries.

      • Naomi says:

        Our kids also love picking berries and other fruit. We usually go apple/pear picking every fall. We get a lot, but unfortunately it doesn’t even come close to lasting all winter.

  5. TJ @ MyBookStrings says:

    I’d love to have a big vegetable garden and maybe some chickens, and my husband and I have talked about it, too. But then common sense interferes… we don’t have enough time, and I probably wouldn’t have enough energy, and it would be a constant battle against deer, rabbits, groundhogs, squirrels, etc. We do usually grow tomatoes, peppers, and beans and shop at the farmer’s markets as much as we can instead. Maybe this year, I can talk my family into signing up with a CSA. Does this book include any useful tips for an average person with a garden? (P.S.: I thought the late-summer Canadian produce was really tasty, when I sampled it a couple of years ago. The shorter growing season must be responsible for the extra punch of flavor.)

    • Naomi says:

      It is so tasty compared to produce at the store – I hadn’t thought of it in terms of the growing season, though. Maybe you’re on to something!
      There are a few growing tips, but not many. Worm casements are good. She even made a tea out of them to pour on her plants. But you can’t use too much (not sure how much is too much, though). There might also have been a couple tips on how to deal with unwanted garden pests.
      Deer are a big problem here. My husband had to put up a deer fence around the garden. It works pretty well.
      We used to get a CSA box, but found that we didn’t always use everything they sent. There were a LOT of greens (ones I didn’t even know the names of) and the kids were younger at the time, so it was just my husband and I eating them. It was nice to get it delivered, rather than haul it all home from the market, but, in the end, we went with the market so that we could get exactly what we needed.

  6. Don Royster says:

    If you can’t live the simple life, at least you can support the simple life industry by reading the books. I guess you could call yourself an armchair simple lifer. I consider myself an armchair traveler. That way I can go there and not have to eat the food.

  7. Grab the Lapels says:

    I’m surprised that the author and her husband kept their full-time teaching jobs. The one thing that greatly irritated me about Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was that the author had already made enough money from her fiction books to be a full-time stay-at-home-mom/farmer. She made recommendations for people living in cities to eat like farmers, but I don’t know of too many apartment complexes that let you grown tomatoes off your window sill (or even have window sills). The author of the book that you reviewed, though, sounds more practical that Barbara Kingsolver.

    • Naomi says:

      I don’t think you’ll have the same problem with this book. One reason they kept their jobs was because they needed to (practical reasons), but they both also love to teach. They feel it’s important to pass on their love of what they do and why they do it. (One of the things Butler teaches is eco-criticism.)

  8. Corinne Smith says:

    I just finished reading A Profession of Hope, and my only complaint is that it wasn’t longer. Jenna’s writing reminds me of Wallace Stegner’s: is vivid, fluid, poetic (she is a poet, after all). She uses simple, eloquent language that clearly conveys her love for and respect of the land. Even if you’re not into farming, it’s a gorgeous, hope-filled book.

    • Naomi says:

      I agree – it’s for anyone who enjoys reading about nature, or just reading something beautifully written. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Corinne!

  9. Carolyn O says:

    I think the last book I read on farming was Dirty Chick last year–I can’t imagine what it would be like to farm in a place that’s so cold! It’s finally turned frigid here and I am not enthused.

    • Naomi says:

      And for the first few years they were living out of their camper van, going up in May when there were still frosts every night. That part I wouldn’t like. I think I’ll start my farm with a cozy little cabin (which they do eventually build).
      I remember your review of Dirty Chick – I still want to read it!

  10. writereads says:

    Well, I believe your post just inspired Kirt to tell me we should read this book for our non-fiction month so there you go :). Jenna is a sweetie and her writing is excellent so I can’t wait to read this.
    You’ve read Susan Juby’s fictional Woefield Poultry Collective, right? I think you’d find it hilarious if you haven’t.
    I do often feel jealous of my dad, who has lived this kind of lifestyle his whole life, without thinking it’s alternative or anything, that’s just how he lives. He gardens, he composts, he shops local for his meat & bread (the only things he doesn’t make on his own).
    I can’t imagine having the time to do what he does, or the energy. Or just the sheer know-how. I’m quite a useless individual. Wouldn’t survive a day without my creature comforts, that’s for sure. 🙂 -Tania

    • Naomi says:

      Awesome! I think her book would make for a good discussion on your podcast!
      I have read The Woefield Poultry Collective – and loved it. That book made me laugh so much. I’m hoping Republic of Dirt will be just as good (when I get to it).
      Now I feel jealous of your Dad, too. It’s kind of scary what most of us wouldn’t know how to do, isn’t it?

  11. Cecilia says:

    It definitely sounds like an inspiring book. Being a complete city person (though coming from (now that I think of it) farming grandparents) I don’t know the first thing about gardening but at the same time I’m becoming more and more discouraged about the kinds of foods we and our children are ingesting. My husband has started composting and now that my mother is staying with us, I may ask her to start a garden here (and teach me). It sounds like you and your husband are doing great!

    • Naomi says:

      Learning from someone else who knows how to do it is probably the best way. And good mother/daughter bonding! The biggest challenge is keeping up with the weeds.
      Going to a local farmer’s market is always a good option, too! The biggest challenge there, though, is trying not to buy too much!

  12. whatmeread says:

    There used to be a man who was a sheep farmer in Virginia who used to do commentaries on NPR. Most of those people were who did those commentaries (like Bailey White or Andre Codrescu) ended up publishing a book. I wish I could be more helpful with this person’s name, but I always thought his essays were interesting, and they were usually about farming or what it was like to be a farmer, or maybe just about the view on the farm, things like that.

  13. whatmeread says:

    I just looked him up. His name is Donald McCaig, and he wrote a book called An American Homeplace, as well as many others. But this book is the one where he gives up everything to become a sheep farmer..

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