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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Edith Maxwell

Surely, Cam could try to find an elegant, true solution to this problem.
It wasn’t that different from writing and debugging software. You tried one thing.
If it didn’t work, you tried another. You eliminated possibilities. But this
particular problem involved humans, not “ifs” and “thens.”
Edith Maxwell
‘Til Dirt Do Us Part (Page 98)

Edith Maxwell and I had short stories in Fish Nets, the second SinC Guppy anthology. Of course, I‘d read her short, but I hadn’t read her Local Foods Mystery series. The series starts with A Tine to Live, A Tine to Die. Her second was recently released, ‘Til Dirt Do Us Part. Edith’s main character, Cam Flaherty, a former software programmer, takes over her uncle’s traditional farm and starts a community supported agriculture (CSA) organic farm. There—she plows (sorry) into murder. Edith made me do my homework. I looked up CSA and here is what I found:

A farmer offers a certain number of "shares"
to the public. Typically the share consists of a box of vegetables, but other farm products may be included. Interested consumers purchase a share (aka a "membership" or a "subscription") and in return receive a box (bag, basket) of seasonal produce each week throughout the farming season.

Welcome to WWK, Edith.                                     E. B. Davis

Although I know there are CSA farms in my county, I’m unsure of the process. How does buying shares help the customer and the farmer? 
First, thanks so much for having me!

When a farmer gets the money before the season starts, she can buy seeds, seedlings, and soil amendments without going into debt. She has a guaranteed group of customers and doesn’t have to bring lettuce to the farmers’ market and watch it wilt, for example.

I understand that a start up farm such as Cam’s would benefit from CSA customers’ cash flow in the beginning of the season. But the next season—if the farmer makes a profit, is there incentive to continue the program the next year?
Sure. It’s still a guaranteed market, it still makes it possible not to go into debt, and by the second year the farmer can query the customer base as to which crops worked for them and which didn’t. If everybody hated the rutabaga or complained about how much kale they had to take home, the farmer can change up the mix of crops. And farmers often don’t make that much profit!

If the farmer makes a profit, why would shareholders volunteer time to the farmer?
Lots of customers feel a real connection to the farm. Often they live in apartments or places where they can’t grow their own food, don’t know how to, or need the income from a full-time office job. They still long for the experience of working with plants and getting their hands dirty, quite literally. After I stopped farming and joined a CSA at another farm, I’d get so excited to leave my day-job cubicle and drive to what I thought of as “my” farm to collect my share, pick my own cherry tomatoes and blueberries, cut my own herbs.

In the first book, Cam has just taken over the farm from her uncle, who farmed traditionally using pesticides and herbicides. Does it take time to get rid of these substances out of the soil?
Yes, it can take time. Great-Uncle Albert used pretty minimal off-farm inputs, as we say. Cam would have gotten a soil test and might have minimized growing root crops the first year.

How long does it take to become certified as an organic farmer? Are the states Departments of Agriculture the authorizing institutions?
When my farm was certified, because the vegetable fields had been gardened organically by the previous owner, his letter affirming that was enough to be certified the first year. Because he had sprayed the fruit trees, I needed to wait three years before labeling my apples and pears as certified organic. These days Baystate Organic Certifiers is the USDA–approved certifying agency for New York, New Jersey, and the New England states.

Would you give our readers a synopsis of your series?
When geek-turned-farmer Cam Flaherty takes over her great-uncle’s farm, all she wants to do is grow and sell organic produce to a quirky group of local foods enthusiasts. She has no idea a toxic threat to her quiet life festers under society’s topsoil. Dealing with locally sourced murder wasn’t part of the plan.

In A Tine to Live, A Tine to Die, you take on the issue of illegal immigrants. Hasn’t the political situation for them changed?
I’m not sure it has. Undocumented workers risk deportation and discrimination every day.

Cam’s introverted by nature. She must force herself to socialize with her shareholders. That reminds me of writers communing with readers at conferences. Is there a reason you chose this characteristic for Cam?
She is a former software engineer, and I needed there to be some obstacle to life going too smoothly for her. I used to work in software companies and met many a geek with less than perfect social skills. But you’re right—it is similar to writers who prefer to be alone needing to get out there and schmooze with readers.

Although Cam spends many nights alone, as many single women do, being tired from farming and men’s interest in her doesn’t allow her much time to brood. But each male she encounters has issues. Will Cam have to hunt and peck before she finds the right one or will her cat, Preston, continue to be her main male companion?
We’ll just have to see what happens as the series progresses!

Cam often relates to those troubled in the community because of her own family issues. Being closer to her aunt and uncle than her parents, did the farm represent “home” to Cam?
It absolutely did. It was her safe place to go every summer as she grew up, right through her teen years. She didn’t have bad parents, but they were very much into their academic research, and they went overseas every summer, so having Great-Uncle Albert and Great-Aunt Marie as doting stand-ins was a great comfort to Cam.

Your secondary characters are memorable because they represent women in every community. Ellie—the high school Girl Scout, Alexandra—the young college grad living back home with her parents, Lucinda—an educated Brazilian immigrant who can only clean houses. How do they connect?
They all connect on the farm. It’s the hub, where the customers connect with Cam and with each other. There’s also Felicity, another regular volunteer, who has a long gray braid and is delighted to get her hands dirty. The multi-talented Alexandra designs a logo for the farm and creates the web site, and in ‘Til Dirt Do Us Part, rescues maltreated chickens AND helps build their coop on Cam’s farm. Ellie is working on her locavore badge, Lucinda has read Barbara Kingsolver’s book (see next answer) – and Cam is happy for her farm to be the nexus.

What is and how prevalent is the locavore movement? Barbara Kingsolver wrote a non-fiction book called Animal, Vegetable, Miracle in 2007 in which she described her family’s project to eat only foods produced within a certain radius of their own farm. Locavore was Word of the Year in 2007. The local foods movement is still growing, and with it the popularity of CSAs. With tainted produce from China and the rise of Monsanto and genetically modified organisms (GMO) seeds, many people would rather get their produce from a farmer they can talk to, from fields they can see, from a process they can trust.

The term “dulcify” fascinated me. I looked it up. It means “to sweeten.” Is this a science based term, or one that farmers use to describe a natural phenomenon?
I don’t know if other farmers use it, actually. But the process whereby a warm day increases the sugar content of crops is an important one.

Cam has a fear of fire due to two bad experiences. Do her experiences have anything to do with your real life?
Not in the least. That’s the fun part of making stuff up! But it came out of an excellent workshop I took with Donald Maas, which our New England chapter of Sisters in Crime put on. He said, “What’s the worst thing that could happen to your protagonist. Make it happen. And then make it worse. And then make it even worse.” So I did.

You were an organic farmer for a time. In each book, Cam injures herself while working, a common occurrence on farms. Was this a reason you gave up organic farming?
No. I gave up farming because I needed to make more money than farming on my scale allowed. I actually never turned a profit, and I foresaw, correctly as it turned out, that divorce might be in my future. I had to make sure I could provide for myself and my sons, and a (third? fourth?) career as a technical writer was the way I could do that. Farming is a lovely life, but it’s very hard work, and it’s drudge work. You’re always leaning over, lifting heavy things, shoveling, hoeing, carting things around. It’s hard on the body.

Edith’s books are published by Kensington Publishing. Information about Edith can be found at her website. You can also find Edith blogging at  Wicked Cozy Authors a group of delightful authors, some of who have appeared on WWK. Thanks for the interview, Edith!    



Anonymous said...

I notice your cover designs are in two different styles. Do you think this is a problem for a series? They are both beautiful.

Jim Jackson said...

Edith also has a series she writes under the pen name Tace Baker. That one, which I read and enjoyed very much, featres Lauren Rosseau, a Quaker and linguistics professor. Speaking of Murder was published by Barking Rain Press and the second of the series is in development.

~ Jim

Edith Maxwell said...

KB, with the paperback of TINE that is now out they changed the cover to match the style of TIL DIRT. I never thought the hardcover design of TINE looked much like a mystery cover even though it is a beautiful picture of vegetables! But with a big press, it's totally out of my control.

Thanks, Jim! BLUFFING IS MURDER will release from Barking Rain Press on November 11.

KM Rockwood said...

Thanks for the interview! I just started reading Judy Hogan's Farm Fresh and Fatal, also set in a farmer's market community, which I am enjoying. I now have another series to add to my TBR list.

Edith Maxwell said...

And Judy's book is on MY TBR pile, KM! Thanks for your interest.

Shari Randall said...

Edith, I loved learning more about your series. A couple of my daughter's friends are working on organic farms through a program called World Organization of Organic Farms (one of my favorite acronyms,WOOF!) They work the farm in exchange for room and board - one can travel almost anywhere with the program.
It is really wonderful that you have characters from all age groups in your stories - because that's real, isn't it?
Thank you so much for stopping by WWK!

Gloria Alden said...

Welcome to WWK. Edith, I read your first Tace Baker book, and enjoyed it. I have A Tine to Die, I got at Malice, but I came home with so many books from there, and because it is prime gardening season, I have barely started on tht pile. Although I don't sell veggies, I do garden organically, and only use Roundup on poison ivy in the woods if they encroach on my paths. I'm quite allergic to it

Edith Maxwell said...

Shari, thanks. I know about WOOFing - what a great opportunity for young people and farmers alike.

Gloria - Believe me, I know that towering TBR pile problem! Good for you for gardening organically. It's the only way to go.

FARMED AND DANGEROUS, which will be out next spring, addresses head on some of the issues of using chemicals in the garden, particularly Roundup (which I fictionalized out of necessity, of course).

Sarah Henning said...

I love CSAs! Such a great idea, Edith!

E. B. Davis said...

Your books taught me about the growing of organic local foods. Leslie Budewitz's books taught me about the retail end of the same movement. This has been a real education. But is it real, Edith? Or is this an ideal that hasn't been realized?

Edith Maxwell said...

I appreciate that, Sarah.

Elaine, organic farming is absolutely a real thing (and has been for several decades), as is the local foods movement. Whether it will catch on on a mainstream national scale remains to be seen. Numbers show things heading in that direction, as far as I know.

Either way, thanks for the great interview and for having me over to hang out with an awesome group of authors and readers.

Kath said...

I'm playing catch up, so I purchased A Tine to Live, A Tine to Die. I've just begun but ... Wow! Edith, thank you for such an engaging mystery!

Edith Maxwell said...

Wow back atcha, Kath! Thanks so much - and so pleased you're enjoying the story.