Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter

Novella Carpenter obviously had Isak Dinesen in mind when she typed the opening line of  Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer – “I have a farm on a dead-end street in the ghetto”.   The similarities between the two are hard to ignore.  Both women were/are professional writers, as well as farmers.  But I find Carpenter the more likable, and in all honesty, the more comfortable in her farmer persona.   Dinesen had a huge coffee plantation in Africa while Carpenter has only a small, empty lot behind her apartment – yet, somehow Carpenter appears less the hobbyist.

It’s hard not to love Farm City.  Prior to reading it I had merged the concept of urban farmer with community gardener.  I envisioned the 2008 documentary The Garden or, probably more apt, Rooftop Farms in Brooklyn.  Chickens, inexplicably, were permitted in my personal Farm Town fantasy – which was otherwise strictly vegetarian.   Novella Carpenter has a decidedly different definition of an urban farmer.  One which, by the end of Part 1, I found myself surprisingly comfortable with.

At parties lately I sometimes had to defend my urban-farmer identity.  The term “urban farm” had become part of the popular vernacular, and many people – especially real, rural farmers – took umbrage to it.  They were especially annoyed when the self-proclaimed urban farmers had only a few heads of lettuce and a pair of chickens.  My definition of “urban farming” involved selling, trading, or giving the products of the farm to someone else.  There couldn’t just be a producer; there had to be a separate consumer.  A real farm also had to involve some kind of 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.

She begins with poultry, comparing it to a gateway drug.  4 chickens within a few pages increase to 3 turkeys, 3 ducks, 2 geese and 10 more chickens (aka the Murray McMurray Hatchery’s mail order “Homesteaders Delight”).   They are not pets.  She will be raising them for meat.  Like most urban dwellers, it is not a concept I easily embrace.  I still like to keep a healthy distance between myself and my dinner.   Blame it on too many Disney cartoons.  I don’t want to pet the entrée.

Farm City is divided into three parts  – Turkey, Rabbit and Pig.  By the time I finished Turkey I realized that not only was I comfortable with what Carpenter was doing, I’d come to better understand my earlier aversion to it.  In my mind the butchering of animals was associated with crowded livestock trucks passed on the highway.  Novella Carpenter provides a better example, a more humane and a more responsible one.  She defines animal sacrifice in the form of honey stolen from bees or meat butchered from a pig.  These animals have been given a fair trade – food, care and comfortable lives.  The farmer has earned her meal through caring for them… and worked hard doing it.

Caring for livestock is no easy feat.  Caring for livestock on the small plot of land in Oakland, California that she has named Ghost Town Farm should be listed among the labors of Hercules.  Escapee pigs and turkeys headed for the highway, packs of stray dogs, vegetarian neighbors and the constant threat of having her farm replaced by condos – Novella Carpenter encounters obstacles Laura Ingalls Wilder never dreamed of.

But she also makes discoveries, inseparable from the urban environment she has chosen. Livestock feed that comes from dumpsters behind produce markets and restaurants.  Greens donated to the local Black Panthers to be made into lunches for children as part of a literacy program.   Fennel harvested from beside train tracks.  Carpenter finds resources, supporters and mentors in seemingly the most unlikely places.  It is made abundantly clear that she farms in the city by choice and that her methods are strictly urban, not suited to rural farming.  Reading Farm City you never lose the sense of where she is or of the potential of what she is doing.

In Part 2: Rabbits, to prove the legitimacy of her urban farm lifestyle (to herself more than anyone else in my opinion) she spends the month of July eating exclusively from her farm.  There are some exceptions:  items previously grown and preserved, fruit from neighborhood trees and some barter is allowed.    On Day 10 she finds a plum-tree growing next to an abandoned house.  She reaches it by climbing onto the roof of the adjacent carport.  She eats some fruit, describing it as “vaguely dry, maybe too sour” but on a hunch picks two bags worth to take home.

…I dunked the plums in a bucket filled with water and mercilessly scrubbed them down.  I loaded my oven with widemouthed jars, and boiled water in a giant blue enamel canning pot.  After the jars were sterilized – really hot – I crammed as many whole plums into the jars as could fit.  I boiled the jars of plums in the water bath – this process is called raw-pack canning – and once some plums had softened and cooked down, I crammed in a few more until they were an inch from the top of the jar.  Then I screwed on the lids and let the jars rumble under two inches of boiling water for about an hour.  When I pulled the jars from the water, they plums had turned an amazing fuchsia color.  I placed the hot jars of plums into our pantry to cool down overnight and set the seal…

The next day for breakfast, while Bill heated up his unbearably delicious smelling Dumpster rolls, I opened a jar of the stewed plums.  Just as it should be, the lid was tight and hard to pry off, but finally yielded with a satisfying pop.  Inside, a thick juice the color of wine covered the plums.  I took a swig.  Sweet, thick nectar with a slight hint of cherry filled my mouth.  I dug into the flesh of the plum on top with a spoon.  It was dense and puddinglike, tart but not as sour as the raw fruits.

There’s a kind of beautiful symbolism in that which, like so much of Farm City, fits.  I can’t help but think that Novella Carpenter and her fellow urban farmers are the new pioneers in a world changing.  Evolving old methods to work in a new setting.  Seeing the potential and reaping the rewards of what has been abandoned by the rest of us.

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