Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer
By Novella Carpenter
Penguin, New York 2009
Reviewed by Chris Thompson

The term “urban farmer” has come into use over the last few years as a kind of catch-all for anyone deciding to try to grow something edible in a window box or patch of city soil. Whether the impetus for this phenomenon is faddish, ethically motivated, or a re-arousal of deep-seated agricultural instincts may be beside the point. In the first decade of the 19th Century, 95% of Americans lived on farms of some sort. By the last decade of the 19th Century, the number was 45%. Today, the number is less than 2%. At the same time, however, blighted neighborhoods in cities large and small across the nation are riddled with empty lots. The people living in these neighborhoods are often poor, hungry and reliant on snack foods from corner stores for sustenance. And there amidst this dystopia are patches of land being reclaimed by nature via weeds, bugs, and other critters rustling furtively amid the old tires and bedsprings. One such forlorn lot provides the setting of Farm City. A few years ago, Novella Carpenter, who grew up on a farm in Idaho, found herself living with her boyfriend, Bill, in a downtrodden section of Oakland, CA, with a seemingly abandoned empty lot next door. Her thoughtful gaze upon that lot is the genesis of her Farm City memoir. Over the course of 269 pages, covering several years of her life, we see a person with farming in her blood figure out what agriculture you can do—and get away with—on a small parcel of land in the frayed outback of a city.

For starters, Carpenter is well aware that simply gardening a plot of land in the city—or a suburb, for that matter—isn’t really farming…it’s a hobby…a hobby with off-thegrid ethical and maybe political overtones, but not a fulltime job. But Carpenter seems to be a woman of passions and obsessions, so, before long she is not only converting a “squat-lot” into arable land with raised beds and compost, she is also setting up a beehive and getting some animals. Edible animals. In fact, Farm City is organized in three major sections: Turkey, Rabbit, and Pig. In each of these, several of the eponymous animals are raised, killed, and eaten. We see an enterprising Carpenter reckon what she can find to feed her stock on the cheap (she and her boyfriend Bill spend a lot of time dumpster-diving in Oakland, which becomes pretty much of a full-time job towards the end of the book, as the two pigs are eating seven big buckets of dumpster slop each per day). Practices like this—startling thought they may be— remind us that farming in the city has certain advantages. There are resources around that are free and would go to waste; there are plenty of people around to barter with and to keep you entertained, and it’s not hard to get some off-farm income together working in nearby restaurants or gas stations (Carpenter’s sells biodiesel) or in an auto repair (Bill’s shop, which seems to be right next door to the farm).

The farm itself is about 1/10th acre—next door to the house Bill and Carpenter rent part of, not far from the freeway, on a dead-end street. The owner of the lot seems not to care that it is being squat-farmed, especially since it is less of an eyesore with Carpenter keeping after it. He threatens to sell it off several times during the course of the book, but we get the sense that no one of right mind would buy or develop this land, given what we learn about the neighborhood. In the lot, and in her own yard, and on her deck, Carpenter keeps ducks, chickens, turkeys, geese, rabbits, and eventually, pigs. She and Bill forage not only in dumpsters (those in Chinatown are great for greens) but also in other empty lots and even in cracks in unkempt sidewalks, where prolifically grow certain weeds that the chickens seem to love. These foraging expeditions put our protagonists in regular contact with the junkies, homeless, and otherwise lost souls who populate that section of Oakland. To her credit, Carpenter willingly shares the products of her farm with those among the needy who know what to do with fresh produce. Indeed, she looks at it as a kind of community vegetable garden. Along the way, we meet her colorful neighbors on her end of 28th Street—a woman who runs an illegal speakeasy in a warehouse, a man who lives in a collection of junked cars, some of which he has had towed to his kingdom at the end of her block, and the Vietnamese family downstairs, who luckily are not weirded out by living in proximity to farm animals (although Carpenter’s experiment in adding dumpster-cured fish guts to the pig slop does finally bring a complaint).

Carpenter is a very good writer (she studied journalism in graduate school at Berkeley), and her skills make Farm City an enjoyable read. She imparts a lot of information, letting us learn things about bees and turkeys and sausagemaking as she does. Her rural roots (her parents were back-to-the-land hippies) help lesh out her story too. When it comes time to harvest a rabbit, she calls her mom to ask how she used to do it, and we get this conversation: “So how did you actually do it?” I pressed. It’s one thing to hear a story about our childhood bunnies and my mom’s biology lessons on the farm, but another when I was going to have to execute one. The French could cut a rabbit’s throat, but I was sure I would botch that delicate operation. “Well, I can’t believe I could do this,” she said, “but I’d bash then in the head with the blunt end of the hatchet, then chop their heads off.” And then, I imagined, she would pull off their pajamas.

Carpenter’s mom then sends her the hatchet, her family’s equivalent of passing on the good silver or Grandma’s wedding ring. In the end she kills the rabbit by a method she found in a book (Farm City has an extensive bibliography) wherein you put the animal on the ground, put a broomstick on the back of its neck, stand on the broomstick and quickly yank up the rabbit’s back legs, breaking its neck. She tried this first on the bully of her brood, and the technique was quick and efficient. We also see Carpenter harvest a duck by putting it in a full bathtub, and while it paddles around, snipping its head off with pruning shears. Also quick, efficient, and as painless and humane as seemed possible.

If you don’t like reading about such things, Farm City probably isn’t the book for you. Carpenter looks at meat animals the way a vegetarian looks at plants…these are living things from which we can get sustenance, and should be treated as well as possible before harvesting and, hopefully, final honors via culinary elevation2. She believes in killing what she eats (although this turns out not to be an option for the pigs, given their size and her plans to turn as much of their bulk as possible into food, from sausages to bacon, to head-cheese and chops), and in sharing the bounty with friends, neighbors, and the needy. Her forays into the various branches of agriculture mostly begin in ignorance, and often, comedy. But she learns, and tries things, and learns some more, and thinks hard about the whys and wherefores about what she is doing. She makes the idea of reclaiming abandoned or unused urban land and turning it into very small farms that can help feed and invigorate a neighborhood seem possible, and wise. As she notes, there is nothing very new about small-plot urban agriculture…it used to be, and still is, a pretty common practice in cultures all over the world. Farm City is the story of one entrepreneur’s education, and it is a thought-provoking good read.

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