Friday, March 23, 2012

Review of Novella Carpenter's book, "Farm City"

Since I am home sick and just finished a great book I thought I would do a little review. The book is called "Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer" by Novella Carpenter.

The book chronicles her adventures gardening and eventually full-fledged farming in a vacant lot adjacent to her apartment in inner city Oakland and doing so on a shoestring. This aspect was appealing to me right away since so many of the "leave the city to start a hobby farm" books focus on people who find the perfect country spot which the pour a lot of money into as they embark on the trials and errors of learning to farm for the first time. Since that isn't real for most of us with the hobby farm dream, it is more interesting to read about folks who do this on the cheap (Kurt Timmermeister's "Growing a  Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the Land" comes to mind). It is even more interesting to read about someone doing this on the cheap and in a dangerous inner city area.

Novella's account is an adorably honest but very real account of one person's journey to develop a closer relationship with her food, experiencing it from beginning to end. We follow her as she builds a squatter garden that becomes a community focal point (with the constant specter that the owner will raze her garden to build condos), raises and kills her first turkey (after losing her other to a pitbull), learns about keeping and killing rabbits and finally graduates to full-fledged farmerdom when she tries her hand at raising hogs. But of course, this takes place in the ghetto (broken glass, drive bys, and addicts shooting up across the street) so there are some interesting spins:

  • How do you feed two hogs in the inner city? By dumpster diving in China town of course! 
  • How do you get free manure from a Northern California farm back to your urban farm when you have no truck? In the back of your station wagon which you line with a tarp (which it turns out doesn't work well)
  • What do you do when your turkey flies on to your neighbor's roof? Get a ladder out.
She frequently reflects on the back-to-the-woods hippie experience of her parents which provides an interesting foil to her own experiences. Through it all, she and her urban farmette become a central point in her little community, allowing her to build friendships with everyone from her neighbors and local shop keepers to fancy restauranteurs and even disaffected urban youth and the Black Panthers while also raising the local profile for the urban farm/local food movement.

The only downside to the book is that the very last paragraph leaves the future of the "squat lot" garden in question with the specter of it being sold again raising its ugly head. BUT...luckily Novella has a wonderful blog GhostTownFarm which I am now enjoying and it seems that so far, they have been able to keep the garden (see this post for details). A happy ending :)

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