During the summer, you may find yourself in need of a good book. Consider picking up A Farm Dies Once a Year, a portrait of life on an organic farm in rural Pennsylvania.
When he was thirty-one, Arlo Crawford decides to uproot his life in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and return to his parents’ farm for a few months. A Farm Dies Once a Year is a memoir of that summer, with poignant imagery and observations. It is also a reckoning with the past, as Crawford considers his childhood on the farm, his relationship with his parents, and the sometimes ugly side of rural America.
In the 1970s, Crawford’s father dropped out of law school to try his hand at organic farming. With the help of his wife, he established New Morning Farm in Hustontown, PA. After several years of trial and error, business began to bloom — nowadays, you can find New Morning Farm products at four different weekly farmer’s markets in Washington, D.C.
Despite his parents’ deep attachment to the farm, Crawford never saw himself as a farmer — instead, he went off to boarding school, then Cornell, spending some time in New York City before eventually settling in Cambridge. His years in Massachusetts left him feeling restless and unsatisfied, however. By leaving Cambridge behind for life on the farm, Crawford hoped the hard labor and return to his roots would help him figure out what he really wanted to do.
Crawford’s prose gently moves the reader through a full growing season on the farm. The reader comes to know well the anxieties of Crawford’s father, the quiet balance of his mother, and the steady rhythm of the days. Crawford cooks breakfast with fresh eggs from the chicken coop. He picks okra, berries, and squash. He builds his own shelter in a remote corner of the farm, where he is joined by his daring girlfriend later in the summer.
He also explores a murder that occurred on a neighboring farm twenty years before. His search for answers takes him from local courthouses to the coast of Maine. Throughout the process, he grapples with the complexities of rural life and the clashes that can occur in such an isolated place.
As the season winds to a close, Crawford prepares to depart for San Francisco and start anew. When he returns to his shelter almost a year later, the land has begun to retake it — the wood is weathered, hornet nests occupy the corners, and a sparrow flutters out from behind the bookcase. Eventually, the farm’s endless cycle of death and rebirth will swallow it completely.
New Morning Farm is a striking success of the 1970s back-to-land movement. Crawford’s memoir is a touching perspective from a son who knew it was never his purpose to follow in his parents’ footsteps but cherishes his time on the farm just the same. A quick read, it will start your summer off on the right note — you may even find yourself inclined to visit a few more farmer’s markets than usual.