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.

farm city 2

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.

Novella Carpenter
Novella Carpenter

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.

21 Comments on “Book Review – Farm City: the Education of an Urban Farmer, by Novella Carpenter

  1. I agree this is a great book. The rabbits’ pyjamas (and removal thereof) immediately come to mind. We can all learn something about steadfastness and sense of purpose from her story.

  2. Oh, I read this one, and yes, it is a very good and fun read. Sometimes I wonder if I could get away with having a few chickens in my backyard.

  3. I was immediately reminded of “The Egg and I” by Betty MacDonald.. I can see the book’s attractiveness just from the outlined plot – people tend to love funny life stories like this one (and especially when they portray something far from their everyday lives – at least thematically in this case).
    I’m really looking forward to this book.

  4. Thanks for the recommendation! I’ve been looking for a good book since finishing Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, which really got me started on the grow your own food movement. Count me in the tenderhearted group, I’d have to be vegetarian if I had to raise my own meat, although I can catch fish and gut clean them, probably because they’re not cute and furry.

  5. I read this book a couple of years and was just amazed at the author’s self sufficiency in a particularly challenging urban setting in inner city Oakland, CA! I thought the pig farming and processing was particulary interesting. I believe she worked in a high end restaurant to learn more about the preparation of salami, I think. I really liked this book!

    • Yes, but it was funnier than that about the salami. She was caught dumpster diving behind a restaurant, then became friends with the owner, who knew how to make sausage. She recruited him into her slaughtering/sausage making enterprise.

  6. Sounds kind of like a James Herriott book–I enjoyed his entire series. I think we have similar book preferences.

  7. Thanks so much for joining in! I love this book. I think the reverence in which she dealt with killing her animals made me realize that the meat I put on my table was an animal at one time, giving up its life for me. Sometimes we forget that, just going to the grocery store. And instead of becoming more squeamish about raising animals for meat, it made me think I could actually do it – the killing and all, because she did it as humanely as possible. The dumpster diving, though, not sure I could do! 🙂 Have a Merry Christmas!

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