(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Readers who purchase Dirt Under My Nails expecting to learn about the life of a typical farmwoman in the Midwest will be disappointed and perhaps confused. Marilee Foster is not the typical—or stereotypical—farmer. A graduate of Beloit College in Wisconsin, she is a writer and artist as well as a farmer; the land she works is not in the Midwest, but in the ultratrendy Hamptons of Long Island, one hundred miles east of New York City. Her slight book—much of which first appeared in Foster’s weekly column for the Southampton Press—comprises a series of light, charming essays, arranged by season from winter through fall. It is more than a quarter of the way through before Foster actually discusses the process of growing plants, starting with the vegetable propagation trays in the basement in which she has planted tomato seeds.

Originally, Marilee Foster went to college planning to become a history teacher. Her focus shifted to liberal arts and she studied art, creative writing, and women’s studies. Following her graduation in 1994, she spent the summer with her family on the farm on which she grew up. After days and nights of moving irrigation pipes through the potato fields, she decided to join her father and her older brother, Dean, in the family business, living with them on the family’s property. There she has built an eclectic life: writing, joining in the regular farm chores, cultivating and marketing exotic and heirloom vegetables, and painting and working on crafts, mainly during the winter.

Dirt Under My Nails is more descriptive of the sights, sounds, and smells of a rural community than a picture of the rigors, trials, and chores involved in farm life. Foster’s lovely word pictures may leave city-dwellers with a romanticized view of farm life. Although the book is set in the United States, the tone, style, and subjects of Foster’s writing should appeal to fans of books such as Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence (1989). Foster’s whimsical line drawings of plants and animals appear at the start of each section and chapter.

The land making up the Fosters’ farm is located in and around Sagaponack (known locally as Sagg), in the Hamptons. Although the ground there is extremely fertile, the Hamptons are now better known as a playground for the rich, glamorous, and powerful than as a farming area. Some of Foster’s more serious observations relate to this dichotomy. In one essay, she contrasts her family and their long, deep connection to the land with what she calls the flash-in-the-pan farmer—the white- collar professional

who gave up a six-figure income and all of life’s superficialities to get a little dirt under his nails and reinvigorate his soul. Sometimes both happen, which suits him just fine until he realizes that he is working harder than he ever did, and with less financial return. What’s more, his new occupation is eating into his retirement fund faster than he had calculated. Often the “wanna-be” sells all his equipment, converts or rents his land, and goes back to not-being a farmer, with maybe a not-so-much reinvigorated soul but a wiser one.

In another essay, she reflects on how much she depends on the visiting tourists and semiretired locals to make her cultivation of unusual crops economically successful. While distressed at the way the outsiders have changed her landscape and even her land, she acknowledges that her expensive crops such as heirloom tomatoes—too fragile to be harvested by machine and shipped to supermarkets—only make a profit because the well-to-do are willing to come to her produce stand and pay high prices for what she grows: “The part-time population wants not just [Sagg’s] views but its tastes.”

After reading an article on the problems of small Midwestern farms in The New York Times, Foster contemplates the differences and similarities between her family’s farm and family-owned ranches in Nebraska. Both are being threatened by corporate factory farms, legislative decisions that Foster considers shortsighted, and foreign-raised produce. In contrast to Midwestern farmers, however, Foster and many other small farmers in her area can supplement the income from their regular crops with specialty fruits and vegetables. When asparagus from Ecuador was selling in supermarkets...

(The entire section is 1769 words.)