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In the new book "The Farmer's Wife", author Helen Rebanks balances recipes and life


Helen Rebanks' memoir, "The Farmer's Wife," begins with a young rooster's crow at 5:30 in the morning. Then follows Helen's day as she cooks, cleans, and cares for a family of six and six sheep dogs, two ponies, 25 chickens, 50 head of cattle and 500 sheep. What follows is no less than life in full - births, family, mortality, zoning laws, paperwork and recipes for food and for life. Along with her husband James, who is also an author, Helen Rebanks runs the family farm in the English Lake District. She is the author now of "The Farmer's Wife" and joins us now from her family farm. Thanks so much for being with us.

HELEN REBANKS: Thank you so much for inviting me onto the show.

SIMON: And also joining us is Nick Offerman, the actor and comedian who is also a part-time shepherd and farmhand with the Rebanks. We'll get to that. Nick, thank you for being back with us.

NICK OFFERMAN: Absolutely. My pleasure.

SIMON: Helen Rebanks, how much of any given day do you feel tired?

REBANKS: (Laughter) Oh, tired is a - yes, it's a regular occurrence. Sometimes it's a competitive tiredness in our family.

SIMON: Do you feel women on the farm are often overlooked, and the work they do?

REBANKS: I think I'm finding that women that are doing roles that men have traditionally done are getting lots of media attention now, particularly in the U.K. And that's all well and good, but what about the women that do the behind-the-scenes work that keeps these farms going?

SIMON: I'd like to ask you to read a section if you could. It's a section - your husband, James, suggests you drive up to the barn to see if a cow named Heidi has given birth.

REBANKS: (Reading) Heidi turns around to see what has just appeared out of her. She starts to lick the birth sac away from around the new calf's face and body and moves gently around it. We drive a little closer. The whole herd has noticed the new arrival. They're up and making their way over to see. Dinky moos and calls to her own calf, and she gallops over to her. Kyra and Eyebright (ph) are the most curious and maternal. They are due to calf soon.

(Reading) Heidi stands over her newborn, a proud mother. And all the aunties box around it as it tries to get to its feet. Wow, that's fast, I say. And James looks under its back end as closely as he dares. It looks like a bull calf from there. I can feel the relief in his body - relief that he hasn't needed to intervene. He's smiling. I put my arms around his waist and squeeze. Brilliant, I say. And he leans back to give me a kiss. He starts the engine, and we head back to the house. There are lots of tough days on the farm when everything goes against you. But on a morning like this, there is nowhere else on earth I'd rather be.

SIMON: That is such a beautiful section.

REBANKS: Oh, thank you.

SIMON: Let's get to Nick Offerman, who's been standing by.

OFFERMAN: With tears in his eyes and a smile on his face.

SIMON: How did you enter the - this world of the Rebanks' family farm.

OFFERMAN: Well, it's interesting. I mean, in brief, through my love of the writing of Wendell Berry and other agrarian writers - impossibly led me to discovering Helen's husband, James on Twitter, of all places. And we became friends. And I ended up going to visit them while I was shooting a TV show in Manchester.

SIMON: And you do actually work there, don't you, now and then?

OFFERMAN: Yeah - I mean, yes. You know, that's my Disneyland. They make fun of me because instead of roller coasters, I like to help sort out the sheep in the rain. And for some reason, that's a good time to me.

SIMON: Helen, were you - God bless - were you ever tempted to tell Nick Offerman, hey, Mr. Hollywood, this is no place for amateurs?

REBANKS: (Laughter) Oh, no, not at all. Nick arrived a few years ago with a thick beard and a bald head, and he did look slightly unusual. But when we were all around the kitchen table and we shared food together, it just all fell into place. And he has a few cows here he owns - and just thoroughly enjoy his company.

SIMON: Many recipes in this book. Cooking's important to you, isn't it?

REBANKS: Oh, it certainly is. And I think that's how the book started. I wanted to tell stories around the food. Having meals around the family table is really important to me. And we seem to have forgotten that real food comes from healthy soil.

SIMON: I was struck by the fact that you said living on a farm has made you suspicious of cheap food. How so?

REBANKS: If it's too cheap, then we're paying the price elsewhere, because when we see how we grow food and the investment that it takes, if that isn't paid for properly, we're putting money into industrial food, aren't we?

SIMON: Nick Offerman, what do you absorb in your own life and learn from your time on the Rebanks' farm?

OFFERMAN: Digging in, literally, to their way of life is better than any spa I've ever been to because it involves all of the things you would think of as being roborative and healing - and then for Helen to then turn around and put out this book, which I just was so powerfully moved by, because she gets into the simplicity of what life is all about and, specifically, regarding, you know, the people who produce our food, the people who take care of all of the systems by which our good food is delivered. I found that this is one of my favorite subject matters. If I were - if I had better manners, you could call me a gentleman farmer. And...

SIMON: (Laughter).

OFFERMAN: I love to go participate in the whole thing. When I'm spending time and communing with the Rebanks, then that makes me aware. It redoubles my attention in the rest of my life. Where's this food coming from? - no matter where I am in the world. Who made this, and do they care about us in our health, or do they care more about their profits?

SIMON: Helen Rebanks, you know, I don't believe I have ever asked this question of a philosopher or a poet, but I'm going to try it on you. You see a lot of life on the farm. What's life all about?

REBANKS: Life is about love. The whole book for me, creating this, has been about love. And we want our loved ones around us. We do little simple things every day for each other, and the book very much is about all of those little things.

SIMON: And, Nick, although you've touched on this a bit, what do you think you've learned on that avenue of life by being with the Rebanks?

OFFERMAN: When we do the good work right, that is us expressing our affection for one another and for Mother Nature's creation. When I read Helen's book, I was just astonished at her clarity of vision. She took what is pure and simple about her life and wrote it almost like a beautiful novel. Yes, it's full of recipes, but the recipes are so poignantly placed that she'll tell an anecdote about maybe a childbirth of her own, and then she'll hit you with a shortbread recipe...


OFFERMAN: ...Just like a punch in the gut for you.

REBANKS: It should come with a slight warning that it might require tissues.

SIMON: Yeah. Helen Rebanks' new memoir, "The Farmer's Wife." She was joined by her farmhand, Nick Offerman. I want to thank you both very much for being with us.

REBANKS: Oh, thank you.

OFFERMAN: Thank you very kindly, Scott. I remain a fan.

(SOUNDBITE OF TROYE SIVAN SONG, "THE GOOD SIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

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