Author and Urban Farmer, Novella Carpenter
A child of back-to-the-land hippies, I grew up in rural Idaho and Washington State. I went to University of Washington in Seattle where I majored in Biology and English. I’ve had many odd jobs including: assassin bug handler, book editor, media projectionist, hamster oocyte collector, and most recently, free-lance journalist.
I studied under Michael Pollan at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism for two years. My journalistic work reflects my interests–in farming, food, the environment, and culture. In a nutshell, I like to tell stories about people who follow unconventional paths.
As for the urban farmer in me, I’ve been cultivating the city for over ten years now, and my neighbors still think I’m crazy. It all started with a few chickens, then some bees, until I had a full-blown farm near downtown Oakland. My memoir about this farm was publishing by the Penguin Press June 11, 2009, and is available at most bookstores.
Novella Carpenter’s book Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer is a must read for anyone who is ready to be uplifted in the midst of all of this bad food news.
I was thrilled at the prospect of talking with Novella because I knew that she would impart all kinds of good food wisdom, and she did. But what I didn’t expect was that she would be so full of insight and encouragement for anybody who feels stuck in a rut and just downright discouraged. She sees beauty in places that others have written off as wasteland. She manages to find humor when tears seem to be the easy way out.
Novella Carpenter’s book is a gem. Novella Carpenter is a jewel...
DR: Tell me about your book and about what led you to write it.
NC: I wrote a book called Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. It’s about my adventures in urban farming in Oakland, CA.
I moved to Oakland about six years ago, from Seattle. In Seattle I had been raising chickens and bees and I was doing some vegetable gardening so when I moved to California I wanted to keep doing that. What I found out was that in California winter doesn’t last nine months like it does in Seattle. I discovered that I was able to grow more things than I had ever been able to grow before.
One of the things I had been thinking about was raising my own meat birds. So, I ordered a package of poultry through the mail, which anybody can do. I ordered turkeys and ducks and geese…
DR: Wait. You actually ordered live birds?
NC: Yeah. They send you live birds that are a day old. They are called hatchlings.
After a chicken or duck or a turkey is hatched from an egg they have a lot of energy reserved in their bodies from digesting the yolk so they are good to go at that point. They can travel for a couple of days without any problem.
NC: Yeah. So you get this box of these beautiful peeping birds. You have to give them water and make sure they are okay and then they just grow up. If you don’t live in a place where you have access to chicks, this is a great way to start.
There are actually businesses that cater to people who just want to have a couple of chickens. There is a place called My Pet Chicken and they will send you five chicks for you to just start off. Some companies require that you buy 25 chicks at a time…
One of the reasons that I started doing this is, like so many people, I got swept up in the whole Michael Pollen mania. I read his article in The New York Times Magazine about steer; about the life of a steer in the industrial feed lot and I was horrified. I started thinking about all of the other animals that I was eating routinely, that I got from the grocery store, that probably had the same fate of being raised on a factory farm. That really started to change my perception and I wanted, not just to change by buying sustainable meat or organic meat, which is great, I wanted to actually see the first hand growth of a turkey from day one until the day that it was going to be prepared for the Thanksgiving table.
So, that’s how I got started.
The other thing is that my parents were part of this movement in the late ‘60s of going back to the land and raising your own food, building your own house, that kind of stuff. My father still does these kinds of things so it’s kind of in my DNA to be more self reliant. That is one thing I have been experimenting with on the farm.
DR: I saw Food, Inc. recently and I too have been kind of caught up in the Michael Pollen movement and wanting to be much more intentional about the way that I eat and about the way that my family eats. But after I saw Food, Inc. this summer it took my interest to a whole ‘nother level. I started to mildly obsess over the way that animals are disrespected on the way to the table, among other things. Lately I have become really intense in terms of my interest in growing my own food one day but also, like you, I live in Urban America where that seems pretty difficult.
Do you find that there is a trend of urban dwellers suddenly wanting to explore the possibilities of farming in the city or is that just me because I am obsessing?
NC: It is totally happening.
It’s interesting because when I was on my book tour one of the things that I found exciting is that in every city I went to – LA, New York, Seattle, Portland, there was some urban farming going on. I could walk into any major metropolitan area and be like
“Who’s the urban farmer?”
and there they were. I look on the Internet. They were there! And we all have the same issues. We’re worried about the neighbors. We are worried about rats. We’re worried about acquiring land funding and all of those things.
Urban Farming is happening everywhere.
When I visited Brooklyn and went to The Brooklyn Kitchen. They have this huge garden on the roof of that building in Greenpoint. Oh my god! It’s so exciting that Urban Farming is happening in New York City too. People are really maxing it out everywhere.
You see Food, Inc. or you have this knowledge of the way animals are being disrespected or food is coming through a pipeline that is infected with salmonella or e coli and, I mean, who wants to eat that? So you’re kind of freaked out and then you start noticing that
“Wow I have a back yard”
or in my case this abandoned lot next to my apartment.
I am sitting in a park right now in Oakland and there’s land here that can be used for growing food. I think that there is a strong interested in it because people are really wanting to get back to basics and to start growing their own food just to see if they can do it.
These are the initial stages of a movement that I think is only going to grow because it’s not that hard to do. If you have a lawn and you are watering it then why shouldn’t you be watering edible plants?
There is a shift in perception that has to happen. People have to start accepting urban farming as normal and then get the knowledge to be able to grow the food. It does take some practice…
I can totally see it taking of. More cities are taking off too. The mayor of San Francisco is really interested in figuring out what land can be used within the city limits for growing food.
FARM CITY: THE EDUCATION OF AN URBAN FARMER
From Publisher's Weekly:
In this utterly enchanting book, food writer Carpenter chronicles with grace and generosity her experiences as an urban farmer. With her boyfriend BillÖs help, her squatterÖs vegetable garden in one of the worst parts of the Bay Area evolved into further adventures in bee and poultry keeping in the desire for such staples as home-harvested honey, eggs and home-raised meat. The built-in difficulties also required dealing with the expected noise and mess as well as interference both human and animal. When one turkey survived to see, so to speak, its way to the Thanksgiving table, the success spurred Carpenter to rabbitry and a monthlong plan to eat from her own garden. Consistently drawing on her Idaho ranch roots and determined even in the face of bodily danger, her ambitions led to ownership and care of a brace of pigs straight out of E.B. White. She chronicles the animalsÖ slaughter with grace and sensitivity, their cooking and consumption with a gastronomeÖs passion, and elegantly folds in riches like urban farming history. Her way with narrative and details, like the oddly poetic names of chicken and watermelon breeds, gives her memoir an Annie Dillard lyricism, but itÖs the juxtaposition of the farming life with inner-city grit that elevates it to the realm of the magical.
DR: I heard a little snippet in passing about an idea in Detroit to turn the abandoned lots into farmland as a way for people to be able to survive during these tough times.
Have you caught wind of that?
NC: The Detroit thing is really interesting. I just read an interesting article by Mark Dowie. He went to Detroit and spent time there. What he described was amazing:
There are all of these houses that are falling down. Nobody is ever going to buy them. There is no industry in Detroit. People need to be able to grow food. The city is selling these lots for like a dollar right in the middle of Detroit. People are learning how to farm and they are learning greenhouse techniques because that is what you have to do to get through the winter.
People like Will Allen of Growing Power, he is amazing and he is really teaching people how to do this.
Detroit is huge. Mark Dowie was noting that even though urban farming is taking off, they are still only growing three percent of the fresh food in Detroit. One day you will be able to walk into a bodega where there will actually be locally grown lettuce. I would love to see that in Oakland! Mark’s point was that even though Detroit is the headquarters of growing food locally, it still can’t supply all of its food. I don’t think it should. I don’t want to see farmland go away and be replaced by these urban farms. I think the farmland we have should be used to its highest potential.
We should grow locally the food that doesn’t travel well like lettuce. Why are we shipping that stuff from California to New York? That’s crazy. And we should ship the stuff that travels well like meat or bananas. That makes sense. I think we need to start rethinking our model.
DR: Will lettuce grow as well in Detroit as it would in California?
NC: Yeah! It depends on the season...
The interesting thing about urban farming is that all of a sudden you, as a city person, are exposed to the kind of thinking that farmers in your area have to go through:
“What is the kind of lettuce that grows well here?”
And, by the way, there is a variety of lettuce that grows really well in the cold.
California is the salad bowl of America but we are irrigating like crazy here. Parts of Southern California and the central Valley are stealing water from all over the place to grow this lettuce to ship to Michigan. It is the stupidest system. Just because we have done it, doesn’t mean we should keep doing it.
I am saying that people should try growing some of your own food and see what they get out of it. There are a lot of benefits.
DR: I was reading study about centenarians and why they live beyond 100 years. One of the things that they consistently have in common is that they grow their own food. The study found that people who grow their own food, typically live longer…
NC: Wow! Are you serious?!
DR: Yeah. They concluded that it was a combination of the benefit of the physical activity required to grow your own food as well as the quality of the food. Also, personal satisfaction played a big part in their longevity.
That makes sense to me...
NC: If you are gardening you have something to get your ass out of bed for in the morning.
In my case I have goats. I mean I have to get up at 7:00 every morning. Sometimes I don’t want to - I partied the night before. I stayed up watching a movie. But, the farming gets me up! Then I’m moving and I’m thinking it’s not so bad and I’m having this relationship with these animals and watering the vegetables…It gives me something to live for. Whereas if you just get up and
“Oh, I’m going to go to the café…”
you start to feel this meaninglessness, ya know. That is like the existential crisis…
DR: I am so inspired by the fact that you are doing this because for me it’s been this dream that maybe I’ll get to live out one day when we can organize ourselves to move out of the city and grow old on a farm one day…
NC: I know. But then when you are old and finally move out to the country you’ll have no idea how to do anything and you’ll be totally accustomed to living in the city so…
For me, I feel like everyday is my last day so I better do something right now.
It’s funny because we have this squatter’s garden and any day someone could show up and be like
“I’m bringing the bulldozer and this is going under.”
Some people would be like,
“Oh I just won’t touch that.”
For me, I’m like,
“Dude! We gotta bring the last apple out of this spot. We gotta plant more tress because more trees mean more fruit and I’ll feel like I really did respect and use the land to its full potential.”
People too, right? You just want them to succeed and to reach their fullest potential and they can’t do that by putting things off.
The time is now. You have to just do it!
What is one of the funniest or most incredible things that has happened to you while farming in the middle of Oakland?
NC: The most fun thing for me has been to watch the community react to the garden.
Yesterday I was standing out and a news crew came and started talking about bees. I was standing by the bee hive and some kids walked by and they couldn’t believe the bees and what they were seeing. They weren’t necessarily scared but there was this curiosity. Like the juxtaposition of being on this really busy street and all of sudden you see this goat; seeing a pig on MLK. There’s just this moment of being like
“The world is really messed up but then there is the possibility of a really freaky thing happening.”
I think the garden inspires the people that I live around because they feel like
“My life is messed up but I could change. This doesn’t have to be how everything is. We don’t have to always follow the rules and just do what is expected of us. We can challenge things.”
NC: The most incredible thing?
Finding a Yemeni goat farmer at the liquor store who came over one morning to slaughter our goat and then a chef at Chez Panisse ended up cooking the goat later.
We have these resources in the city that they don’t have in the country. That was cool.
DR: One of the reasons that I am so in awe about you and what you are doing is the whole illogical and audacious nature of it. It is really something that encourages thinking beyond convention and challenges people to be willing to see something another way and to give up excuses.
NC: I hate conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom for the last 50 years has been
“The country is out there and the city is for doing business and making money.”
This is a new thing, this separation of rural from urban. The Italian immigrants in New York brought their farm animals with them when they came over.
For me breaking down the walls of convention is very satisfying.
DR: What do you want people to take away from the book?
NC: I want people to see it as a thing where this woman had this idea and then she decided to go for it. I want them to ask themselves
“What’s my idea?”
I don’t want everybody to be an urban farmer. Do you really want to be a ballerina? Go take that class! Just go figure out a way to do it and don’t be hard on yourself.
So much of our world has become this fake Martha Stewart bullshit where everything is supposed to look perfect and if its not you are a failure. I want people to feel like they know who they are.
“Maybe I’m too fat to be a ballerina but I still want to try it.”
I think it’s important for people to give themselves a break and just go for it.
DR: Yeah, and then who knows what brand new paradigm will be discovered that will cause some wild, amazing, creative thing that will benefit the world.
NC: Exactly! Who knows what could happen. The power of an individual is tremendous. And yet, I realized that I could not do it by myself. See the people around you as a resource. How can we form these bonds together and make huge things happen in the world?
DR: A hundred years from now, what do you want to be remembered for?
NC: I want to be remembered for my writing.
I love authors. I have always wanted to be like E.B. White. I think he is so cool and adorable.
I want my writing to last.
I want to be remembered as someone who told my story with honesty and humor and as someone that you would have wanted to go have a beer with.
Farming and food is really hot right now but a hundred years from now I want people to read Farm City and still be able to get the joke.
Ghost Town Farm - Novella Carpenter.com
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