Book Review – Farm City: the Education of an Urban Farmer, by Novella Carpenter
This book is a fantastic read: funny, thoughtful, unpredictable, and engrossing. It is the author’s tale of urban farming on what started as a garbage-strewn lot (a lot she did not own) in inner-city Oakland, California. I read through the 267 pages not in a single sitting, but close to it.
Carpenter and her boyfriend raised all kinds of fruits and vegetables, as well as beehives for honey. However, it’s the farm animals that generate the best stories. The author started small with chickens, then moved on to turkeys, ducks, geese, and rabbits. Finally, she raises a pair of hogs, who definitely qualify as serious livestock:
When strangers at dinner parties questioned the legitimacy of the term ‘urban farmer,’ I only had to show them a photo of me scratching the pigs’ backs with a rake, the auto shop lurking in the background, and the debate was over.
At one point the male pig, Big Guy (200 lb. and growing at the time), makes a dash for freedom. Carpenter has to organize a posse of neighbors who cut Big Guy off with a cordon of trash containers.
The author’s version of urban farming is not for the squeamish or for those who desire the affluent urban professional lifestyle. She obtains food for the pigs and other animals by dumpster diving. The pigs have a special fondness for fish guts to be found behind certain Chinese restaurants.
This might not be the best book for vegetarians and people who are especially tender-hearted about animals. Carpenter describes slaughtering her chickens, rabbits, turkeys, and pigs in a sensitive but matter-of-fact manner. She doesn’t take these lives lightly, but she isn’t apologetic either.
Farm City talks about people and community as well as fruits and vegetables, eggs and meat. She gets to know the people in her neighborhood, from the homeless guy who sleeps in the abandoned car near her house to the kids who are so excited to see real rabbits. She also introduces us to a wider network of other people striving to raise good food in the city, who provide mutual assistance in a variety of ways.
Carpenter is still pursuing urban agriculture. You can read about it on her blog, Ghost Town Farm.
I certainly have no intention of becoming an urban farmer. However, Farm City makes the reader appreciate what Carpenter and like-minded folks are trying to do, and it is impossible not to enjoy the humor and honesty with which she tells her story.