I fell for Julia Rothman’s book Farm Anatomy the moment I laid eyes on it. The hand-drawn guide covers everything from how a cow’s stomach works to how to build a bean tee-pee, knowing tractor parts, even instructions on felling a tree and stacking cords of wood, all told through delightful drawings that the author-illustrator created at home in Park Slope.
She told me about the book’s roots and germination, including childhood trips from the Bronx to visit Vermont shepherds.
Edible Brooklyn: How did you get the idea for Farm Anatomy?
Julia Rothman: The idea was partly my publisher’s idea after seeing an instructional illustration I did. They approached me about creating a whole book of images like it. My husband grew up on a small farm in Iowa so I used that as inspiration. I wanted to learn more about his experience taking care of animals and growing and preserving fruit and vegetables. A map of his family farm can be found in the beginning of the book.
EB: Did any of your own childhood experiences experiences inspire you?
JR: I grew on City Island in the Bronx. We had a small vegetable garden but my childhood was spent in an urban atmosphere. Almost every summer though we would drive up to Maine. My parents had old friends who left the city to become sheep farmers and we’d visit them on our vacation. (This still happens actually. We’ll be going up there and seeing them this summer.) I couldn’t help but imagine those loud sheep when I was drawing that section.
EB: Tell me a bit about the process of creating the book — how did you conduct the research? Did you visit, say, Brookyn Grange, or go cherry picking up in the Hudson Valley?
JR: I used a lot of books! Storey has published thousands of books on every aspect of country living. From small books on just chopping wood to big, glossy picture books of every horse breed. For starters, I went to their offices and combed the shelves and took boxes of books home. I put post its on all the things I thought I should include and by the time I was done, I had used up a few pads of post its. Then we worked with an expert farmer to make sure I got things right. While there were visits to Iowa and Maine in between, I can’t glorify the process and say I observed a farm for a summer, writing and drawing, which would have been much more fun! It was actually just me in my tiny Park Slope home studio sitting on the floor, sweating, surrounded by books.
JR: Ha! It is funny to be in such busy city while dreaming of vast green acres. I was so immersed in the project though that it didn’t really feel like a disconnect. I was doing so much drawing and painting that I could hardly think about doing anything else. It’s 224 pages of painting and hand-lettered text. It was my life for a year and there were deadlines to make. There wasn’t really an option to go cherry picking. It was more like, “Ok, quickly let’s go to the farmers market and buy some cherries because I need to draw them ASAP.” But now that I am done, and also just put out the second “Anatomy” book, Nature Anatomy, I get to see the value in the content of the books. I remember a lot of it (I can name breeds of animals when I see them) but I also forget things I learned and drew. While putting away groceries the other day I took out Farm Anatomy to make sure the kind of purple carrot I bought was not a bitter variety.
EB: How will people use this book? Is it more for people who never actually set foot on a farm or will some readers actually use it to milk a cow or build a barn?
JR: I think the illustrations disguise it as a pretty coffee table book, but it’s packed with information. I don’t think you could actually start a farm with this book, but it’s a good guide to letting you know all the aspects to consider. I think the best thing is that it is inspiring to people to get their own farm going. One Amazon review ended with “If you ever dreamed of living on a farm or have that itch to get your hands into the dirt, Ms. Rothman’s book lowers the hurdle and gives you the confidence to get going. You’ll definitely put the book down, the boots on and charge out into the yard with a ‘yes, I can do that!’ attitude.”
Interview has been edited and condensed.
Illustrations excerpted from Nature Anatomy (c) 2015 by Julia Rothman. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.