July Read of the Month: “Blueberry Years,” by Jim Minnick

Jim Minnick’s The Blueberry Years, re-released in paperback a few weeks ago, proclaims itself, in the subtitle, as being a “memoir of farm and family.”  And so it is.  Yet, while Minnick is too humble to proclaim it as such, it is the reader’s prerogative to make of a book what it really and truly is; and, in this case, Jim Minnick provides us with a meditation on the meaning of farming and family, and not simply a recounting of his and his wife’s years as blueberry farmers in the Shenandoah Valley.  To be sure, that is the narrative of the book, and a fine and entertaining one it is.  Yet, the book would not be as compelling as it is if it merely re-told the narrative.  In The Blueberry Years, Minnick tells a story, and makes sense of that story:  what it means in a wider, more human context.  In so doing, he shows what good agricultural writing should aspire to be.

In my view, agricultural writing—a genre that has become increasingly popular in the past two decades—falls into two camps:  good and bad.  Bad agricultural writing is trendy, sentimental, and does not move above platitudinous statements; these books—and you’ve seen them around—are to Walden what Fifty Shades of Grey is to Jane Eyre.  Good agricultural writing, descended from Crevecoeur, is of three broad, overlapping types.  You have that which seeks to make the land and its husbandry a near-philosophically comprehensive approach to human existence; this is seen in Wendell Berry, I’ll Take my Stand, and such things.  Then, you have the how-to book cum manifesto that Joel Salatin produces.  And finally, there’s the “grand experiment” and (sometimes troublingly myopic and nigh-elitist) political statement book, produced by Pollan, Kingsolver, et. al.  What Minnick gives us is certainly good agricultural writing, and good agricultural writing that, in an un-presupposing, humble way, occupies all three registers of good agricultural writing.

The book has a simple enough premise:  Minnick, a hardy Midwesterner who grew up around blueberry farms and has had a lifelong love for the bush and its fruit, and Sarah, his suburban Carolinian wife, with an artistic mindset, love of adventure, and no fear of hard work, buy a small farm in the Shenandoah Valley where they want to cultivate 1,000 blueberry bushes of various varieties, and open a totally-organic, community-minded “you-pick” blueberry business in the summer months.  Eventually, they hope to make enough money to live totally off-grid, quitting their day jobs as teachers, focusing on their farm and their art—handicrafts and other visual arts in Sarah’s case, writing, and particularly poetry, in Jim’s.  The book is a chronicle of their adventure into self-sufficiency as a business model, and is cleverly, and often humorously, told.  The regularly-occurring “interludes” provide a fascinating history of the blueberry itself and its cultivation, alongside tips about the raising of the plant, dealing with problems, what types of soil blueberries need, and so on.  (And there are recipes in the back, too!)

But within all this humor and lightness, the reader recognizes a distinct, powerful loneliness.  This is not, then, simply a book about blueberry farming; it is about finding a place in a community.  Jim and Sarah, with their wide-eyed idealism, thought that farming would find them a place, a world that made sense to them, a community that would invite them in and give them rootedness and peace.  And that, ultimately, is what this book is about—that quest, and its successes and frustrations. 

The Minnicks are unabashedly progressive and environmentalist.  They are child-less:  for “various reasons,” we’re told, and made to later understand that one of those reasons is the concern for overpopulation’s effect on the environment.  They are “spiritual” and not “religious,” trying out churches, but never finding the politics just right, unwilling to play the catty games small-town and rural churches demand of their parishioners.  And Minnick makes clear that they are “strictly organic,” understanding non-organic practices as little more than “poisons.”  Yet, for all this, Jim and Sarah are too traditional, too culturally conservative to fit into the various “intentional communities” (read:  hippie communes) that dot the landscape of the southern Appalachians, and with whom the Minnicks have contact throughout the book.

Thus, two people without a community go looking for one, and find, again, both success and failure.  Jim and Sarah never fully “fit” into a community, and are overwhelmed by an intense loneliness throughout the book.  Yet, the land itself—their blueberry farm—produces a community, a community made up of individuals with whom the Minnicks often share little in the way of politics or personal philosophy, yet who provide love, support, and meaning to Jim and Sarah’s lives.  These are exceptionally different people, from hippies to Mennonites to Joe, the memoir’s most compelling character, an indefatigably anti-organic strawberry farmer from up the road, whom Minnick presents with nuance and love as an avuncular, big-hearted, and ultimately very, very lonely man himself.

A book, then, where community is found by and through the land.  But again, this is not the “community” Jim and Sarah ever expected—and how their community violates and surprises their desires is a constant thread in the narrative.  But one takes what one is given by the land.  Ultimately, The Blueberry Years focuses on the land’s limitations, and Jim and Sarah’s recognitions of it.  The land makes one humble; it provides unexpected beginnings, challenges throughout, and abrupt, even brutal, endings.  Minnick writes with a humility and lack of pretension seemingly tempered by his experience of the land.  He writes movingly of frustrations, of endings, of beginnings, writes unsentimentally of the beautiful promises of new beginnings.  And, most importantly, Minnick writes of people in a truthful, nuanced way.  At the end, this book is, as I said at the outset, a meditation on farm and family, not merely a memoir.  That is, The Blueberry Years is a book about learning to live with the land, and being taught by the land how to live with people.

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