Words by Rachel Goldfarb / Photography by James Campbell
We were exiting the Valley of Fire in Nevada when a sign providentially appeared before us. “Eggs and Produce” handwritten on a piece of particleboard, with an arrow to an unpaved dirt road. We showed up wanting fresh food and wound up staying a season on the family farm. It wasn’t the first time; in our years on the road, we’ve worked for room, board, and cash on twelve diverse farms. We were glad to be working the land again.
The Mormon town of Overton sits 65 miles north of Las Vegas, in the Moapa Valley near Lake Mead. A group of pioneers settled this vast land because of the year round water it contains. Small lush spaces of green, suitable for farming, sit as a mirage amidst thousands of miles of exposed dirt, lonely rings of creosote bush, and sagebrush. The Great Basin is not a likely place to farm, but the Mormon culture is hearty and hardworking. This family was making sustainable farming work in the driest desert of North America.
Cultivating life out of the ground is dirty work. A thin layer of earth perpetually coats our hands and faces. Here, spring is a windy season, with gusts that send sheets of fine dust into the air. While planting tomatoes and milking goats, we sweat the sweat of tough labor. At night, grains of dirt follow us to bed and scratch us through our sleep. Farming is living dirt, breathing it, eating it and allowing it to become the physical matter of life.
On an early Friday morning we butcher 60 roosters from a flock of laying hens. The weekend is warm, and after a long winter that seemed lean, we have the luxury of fresh meat. This is our weekend off, and we drive east of the farm, down a faint dirt road carved through untouched miles of BLM Land. Just over the Mormon Mountain Range trickles the Virgin River, a thin ribbon of blue that flows, surreal, through the Great Basin.
Atop the wrinkled bare mountains, a cool breeze in the late afternoon sun, James gathers some cow pies and bone dry branches. We start a fire. It’s early, but tonight’s project will take awhile. There’s a clean chicken in the cooler, a prize from the day’s work. After chopping root veggies and adding some butter, we set our Dutch oven on the coals, right there in the dirt of the dry desert mountains. We do some target practice and run wild through the Virgin River for the remainder of the afternoon.
In the pastel dusk, when it seems time, we carefully uncover the heavy black top of the pot. On the soft sandy ground we forgo plates and eat straight from the smoldering Dutch oven, juices aromatic in the thin air. The meal tastes like the land. It smells heartily of this place, of the minerals and matter of Moapa Valley. Each bite is rich with subtle nuances of our labor on the farm, a whiff our sore muscles, hints of the sweet alfalfa of mornings feeding the flocks.
“In dirt we work and on dirt we dine.” I say aloud.
This is why we farm. This is why we travel.
You can’t know a place until you eat of its dirt.