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A good friend of mine who is a backyard beekeeper in Oakland invited me a couple of weeks ago to meet his fellow urban farmer Novella Carpenter for a reading of her new book, Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. Novella has taken the art of urban farming to a whole new level by not only growing veggies galore but raising chickens, turkeys, rabbits, and a couple of hogs, squatting on a vacant lot in downtown Oakland. She is one of those people who has "Yes We Can" programmed into her DNA, and in true American pioneering spirit she is setting a great example of how we can ween ourselves off the corporate controlled food chain. Aside from being a radical yet down to earth farmer with a wonderful sense of humor, she is also a ridiculously talented writer, so I thought I'd whet everyone's appetite with this review...  

There are people — in fact, the vast majority of Homo sapiens — who see and define their existence through the lens of what they do: Teachers, bus drivers, nurses, architects, accountants, and any number of professionals whose modus operandi is collectively understood and agreed upon. Then there are those who teeter along the edges of known and accepted ways of existence, their divine operating systems not quite programmed for vocational compatibility. Some of these unique characters, after juggling their ingenuity across the crevasse of socially accepted activity without tangible reward, settle for a real job. Others stay on the rope too long and fall into the glacier of oblivion, their contributions deemed unfit for intellectual or material recognition. A third category is comprised of those rare, bold and mischievous contemporaries who raise chickens, turkeys and pigs on a vacant inner city lot and call themselves Urban Farmer. Enter Novella Carpenter.

Raised in rural Idaho by back to the land parents, Novella and her co-conspirator boyfriend Bill decide to settle on the wrong side of the BART tracks in a rough neighborhood just south of downtown Oakland, called Ghost Town. Barely ten pages into the book, the author’s reasons for picking Oakland had me almost lose my frothy adult beverage for the first time:

Portland (too perfect). Austin (too in the middle of Texas). New Orleans (too hot). Brooklyn (too little recycling). Philly and Chicago (too cold).

Picking a shaggy apartment in a crime-ridden and economically depressed hood over, say, a nice refurbished Craftsman home with a well-kept backyard in Portland speaks volumes about the author’s predisposition and sets the tone for the entire book. While Novella, unlike most of her adopted neighborhood’s residents, lands in Ghost Town via free will, there is not a single moment throughout these wildly entertaining 276 pages where one is left feeling that this is a setup. Unlike the embedded reporter who gets her shocking and ratings-boosting story from the war-zone and then goes home to picket fences and flat screen TV’s, Novella’s shoot from the hip humor and authentic passion for all things living around her — be they of human, animal, or plant origin — leaves no doubt that this is not a "write and run" piece of journalism, but rather a deeply personal and spiritual (though she would probably balk at that description — sounds too hippie) discovery of her own paradise on Earth: The fertile little cracks in the spaces between urban decay and human resilience.

me reading farm cityDisclaimer: I used to work in a meat processing plant in Germany, for a couple of summers. I hung sausages, threw pig heads into vats of blood, salted rumps, and extracted intestines. I didn’t like it. It’s why I worked twice as hard to make it through high school and to college. After fifteen years of vegetarianism I eat meat again. While I love the concept of growing and raising your own sustenance, when it comes to pulled pork and prosciutto I will happily defer to the hog farmers and butchers of the world. As Novella was killing the turkey in the book, I sat on a cliff overlooking the ocean.

What makes this book so gripping and addictive is the matter of factness with which the story evolves. You know, like, the turkeys (Harold and Maude) are hungry and we’re broke, so let’s see what we can find in the Chinatown dumpsters. It’s as if the protagonists are just doing what anyone would do in their situation, had we been crazy enough to get ourselves into it by inviting turkeys, chickens and a beehive into our urban backyard. It’s the magic in the mundane that makes our jaw drop with incredulity at this very logical, age-old, and really, very biologically correct way of feeding the cycle of life.

But she’s in the city, for crying out loud, there’s something in her DNA that makes her different from the rest of us mere mortals!

Well, just look at how our grandparents did it back in the day. Or go travel anywhere in a developing country, and the sight of cows and water buffalo and any other creature under the sun running around busy city streets elicits no more than a yawn, with the occasional elegant swerve to avoid collision.

Judging by my own — and I would posit from initial reviews and feedback, most readers’ — reaction to Farm City, I’m thinking that we have it all backwards anyway, that it is we in the so-called developed world who are in need of some developing: developing our sense of soil, nourishment, and community. And Novella’s education as an urban farmer shows that this doesn’t need to be done in a guilt-trippy, proselytizing way. In fact, some of my favorite passages in the whole book are the author’s hilarious smackdowns of the self-righteous — noble as the cause may be — finger-wagging that sometimes accompanies our Western interpretations of ancient wisdom. Here is a particularly uproarious gem: (sorry Yoga people ;-) )

Yoga people have been telling me for years that I should give up coffee, that it’s full of toxins and other bad things. But when they suggest that I should stop drinking coffee, I want to tell them maybe they should saw off their legs.

Delivered with irreverent gusto and a hyper-alert bullshit (pun intended) detector, Novella’s radical message is that aside from the great taste and some of the larger global implications of keeping our food sources local and fresh, it’s actually loads of fun to grow veggies in your backyard, keep bees and raise turkeys, then share the delectable fruits of this labor of love with friends and neighbors. While it may not be everyone’s "gateway drug" to 300-pound hogs and home-made salami it’s a great way to debunk the conventional wisdom that the origin of food production is so complex that it needs to be in the hands of engineers in far away factories, and to reacquaint ourselves with the most basic, important, and timeless of all human activity: eating!

Farm City is a tour de force of unadulterated American pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit, a beautifully subversive dumpster-diving squat and- slopfest of ravenous (pro)portions. The founding mothers and fathers would be proud to see that gigantic middle finger flying in the face of the tightly controlled empire of industrialized agriculture whose profit-driven motive is to keep We The People removed from our food source, wandering like lost lemmings in supermarket aisles full of shiny prepackaged foodomercials. Novella Carpenter’s voice is refreshingly new for some and profoundly ancient for others, but from her own perspective she’s just a hungry gal jonesing for tasty food, determined to let her belly do the talking.

Check out Novella’s GhostTown Farm blog.

Cross-posted at Sven's World of Words

Originally posted to Ecomusings by Sven Eberlein on Thu Jul 02, 2009 at 10:13 AM PDT.


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Comment Preferences

  •  Don't know about pigs but I'll bet there (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Nulwee, citisven

    are more than a few goats in NYC.

  •  I think I would probably draw the line at pigs. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:


    But I would love to have some more animals on my little less than quarter acre.

    You are entitled to express your opinion. But you are NOT entitled to agreement.

    by DawnG on Thu Jul 02, 2009 at 10:19:12 AM PDT

    •  it can be done (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      DawnG, Ivan

      you could start out with rabbits. The whole middle part of the book is about raising rabbits...

      •  We'll see. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I'm game but I'm pretty sure my husband isn't.

        Plus I don't know if I'd have it in me to butcher an animal.  I'm slowly trying to transition my landscaping to more edibles (berry bushes, going to try and espaliered fruit tree, etc), but I don't know if I would go so far as to keep food animals.  Except maybe hens for eggs.

        You are entitled to express your opinion. But you are NOT entitled to agreement.

        by DawnG on Thu Jul 02, 2009 at 10:25:53 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Slaughtering an animal (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      dejavu, A Siegel

      is one of the toughest and most sacred things to do. It's really fascinating to read the part of the book where she goes through that process. One of the things she says is that when you kill an animal you have a whole new understanding of life on earth and a more sacred relationship with it. I think it can be a good lesson, especially for those of us who eat meat to see what's behind it and how hard it is to kill an animal as opposed to going to the supermarket for that squeaky clean cut of meat. That said, I also would have a hard time with it - egg laying chicken seems like a great alternative. However, once you get started you may want to go further...that's what happened to Novella.

      •  Treat butchering with respect (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        dejavu, Dar Nirron, citisven

        Treat all meat animals with respect, always. People always asked me how I could live with hogs that I reased from weaner pigs, and then look them in the eye and butcher them. "Don't you get attached to your little porky pals?" they asked me.

        I replied that sure, I get attached to them -- how could I not -- but that every morning, come rain, hail, sleet, or snow -- and I raise my hogs from fall to spring, so this applies -- I get up and feed those hogs, and I water them, and I change their straw when I need to, and I make sure they're happy and comfortable.

        And when it comes their turn to feed me, they hold up their end of the bargain.

        "Lash those traitors and conservatives with the pen of gall and wormwood. Let them feel -- no temporising!" - Andrew Jackson to Francis Preston Blair, 1835

        by Ivan on Thu Jul 02, 2009 at 11:37:59 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Thanks for that comment Ivan (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Dar Nirron

          I'm sure Novella would love to exchange some stories with you.

          That's totally it. By raising animals the way you do they actually get the most respect they could possibly get. And when the time comes for slaughter it isn't a drive-by shooting a-la slaughterhouses execution, but a sacred exchange between human and animal. I'd love to hear more people such as yourself write about the experience because it is so important in our collective effort to move closer to that which sustains us.

  •  We're zoned for chickens here in Eugene, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Nulwee, citisven

    but I'm afraid it would drive our toy poodle crazy (er).

  •  This Should Be On Green Diary Rescue, Et Cet. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    dejavu, citisven

    As for pigs, I don't know why a she-goat wouldn't suffice? They eat rubbish and provide milk, which even many lactose-intolerant people find tolerable, remarkably.

    I can understand why the slaughterhouse experience made you uneasy. What a sensory overload... all day, constantly, animal after animal? That would unnerve many people, not least me.

    That is all. Individually, I wish you the best, but collectively, my dearest hope is to outlive you - groovetronica

    by Nulwee on Thu Jul 02, 2009 at 10:33:09 AM PDT

    •  Yes, that was a crazy experience (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      but I'm also kind of thankful for it, because I got to see first hand what goes on in slaughterhouses at a young age, and it made me very sensitive to how food is produced and what goes into it.

      As far as raising pigs, I do agree that's quite extreme and certainly won't become a trend. Kind of like extreme climbing. But what this story does is that it can inspire folks to try out some of the smaller animals, like chickens or ducks, and start having a relationship with our food sources again.

      •  The Most Radical Thing We Can Do (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        The most progressive course we can take, is to cut the petroleum-coated middleman out of our food.

        Most of these craftsman neighborhoods were actually built as one of the first halfway city neighborhoods between the poor (who grew food and raised chickens) and the rich who mostly didn't. Sure, some of the older and more DYI members of the Lost/GI generation created breakfast and herb gardens in their backyards, but many converted to the hedgings and formal gardens of 1920s. In a sense, they're decadent developments, and we're reclaiming them.

        That is all. Individually, I wish you the best, but collectively, my dearest hope is to outlive you - groovetronica

        by Nulwee on Thu Jul 02, 2009 at 10:43:20 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  Just look at "developing" countries (0+ / 0-)

      A big reason why their energy use is just a fragment of ours is because most of their essential resources still come from nearby. What I think is interesting is that while the period you mention was the beginning of when it became "cool" to get away from the land or get your hands dirty we might be entering an era where it becomes cool again to work up a sweat in your backyard. Books like Farm City certainly help.

  •  A favorite urban homestead site ... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
  •  Great Diary... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
  •  Poll: Chicago, of course. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Carl Sandburg (1878–1967).  Chicago Poems.  1916.

    1. Chicago

        HOG Butcher for the World,
         Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
         Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
         Stormy, husky, brawling,
         City of the Big Shoulders:        5

    They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
    And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
    And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
    And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
    Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.        10
    Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
    Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
         Wrecking,        15
         Building, breaking, rebuilding,
    Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
    Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
    Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,        20
    Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse. and under his ribs the heart of the people,
    Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

    To say my fate is not tied to your fate is like saying, "Your end of the boat is sinking."--Hugh Downs

    by Dar Nirron on Thu Jul 02, 2009 at 11:57:31 AM PDT

  •  A wonderful discussion (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    thank you.

    Sent out to DKos Environmentalists, which you might want to join.

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