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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Heirloom: Notes From an Accidental Tomato Farmer by Tim Stark

Every year since owning my own home I’ve grown vegetables in the backyard.  My garden is not for the faint of heart.  The plants start from seeds in the sun room and by mid-July I have a small ecosystem to rival a Brazilian rainforest in the yard.  Carrots, bush beans, thyme, mint, rosemary, peppers, lavender, broccoli, eggplant… all manage to cohabit amiably until the tomatoes take over.  Once those bad boys start sprouting all bets are off.  We refer to my 6 x 9 foot patch of produce as “the heart of darkness” and a chicken wire fence is all that stands between us and it.  Take my word for it, Pennsylvania is a primo spot for tomato growing.

Tim Stark figured this out back in 1994.  He started growing his tomato seedlings under florescent lights in a Brooklyn apartment and after getting booted by his landlord took them home to the family farm in Pennsylvania.  “Farm” is putting it generously – he has 2 acres dedicated to growing which, by his own account, he does not own.  But what he grows on those 2 acres get shipped every week to the Union Square Greenmarket in NYC.  His tomatoes have made him a favorite of chefs throughout the city.

Heirloom: Notes from an Accidental Tomato Farmer is not an account of his journey from PA to Brooklyn and back again.  It’s no more or less than what the title claims – a mishmash of anecdotes put together from 14+ years of farming without chemicals in Pennsylvania and selling the produce in Manhattan.  (There’s a whole archive of articles that didn’t make the cut over at Gourmet.com).  What makes these anecdotes matter is that, in addition to being a damn good writer, Stark sees himself as a farmer.  And being a farmer isn’t the easiest job out there these days.  That edge creeps in.  This isn’t Garrison Keillor or some heartwarming pioneer family mini-series on the Hallmark Channel.  Stark’s stories are about farming in the 20th/21st century, with its ups and downs, gains and losses.  He’s also a bit of a crank.  He complains his way through much of the book… About not being accepted by the other farmers in his area.  About farmers competing with Real Estate developers for farmland.  About what the government charges and the paperwork it requires before you can call your produce “organic”.  About readers of Gourmet sending him hate mail after the magazine published his story about killing a groundhog as he deals with un-diagnosed lyme disease (add hypochondriac to his possible sins).  Stark’s crankiness is a big part of what makes his storytelling so much fun.

Knowing I was broke from buying a tractor and from buying all of the material that went into constructing the greenhouse, they (his Mennonite neighbor, neighbor’s son, brother and father, who all showed up seemingly unannounced one Spring day to help Stark put up his greenhouse) refused to accept payment for their services.  And I wasn’t even a member of their church.  So I tried to be a sport… I threw myself into the next job that had been lined up for the crew: putting the roof on a barn.  I found myself fifty feet up, clinging to a roof beam, cowering and dropping nails to the ground as all around me Mennonites young and old tromped along without the slightest fear in the world.  I hung in there for about forty-five minutes, nervously pounding a nail or two, clinging to dear life and dropping three nails for every one that I pounded in.  When I finally said enough was enough, maneuvering over to the ladder and climbing down to safety, everybody up on the roof thanked me with such sincerity that, in view of my tiny, cowering contribution, I decided they could only have been thanking me for not falling and breaking my neck and leaving them with a real predicament on their hands.

Parenthesis mine.

It’s when Stark switches the focus off himself, his farm, and his experiences that Heirloom becomes a bit lackluster.  An example would be in the very first chapter where he spends too much time on the story of the failed farmer who was the de facto caretaker of Eckerton Farm when Stark moved there as a child.  We’re supposed to see a parallel between the lives of Milt Miller & Tim Stark, but while I understand that the author feels some kinship to the man I never completely buy into it – or into the bigger picture Stark is trying to paint.

Tim Stark is best when he remembers to be Tim Stark… not Michael Pollan.  When he remembers that readers want to hear about his first year growing tomatoes at Eckerton, of a hellish day spent delivering snap beans door-to-door to NYC restaurants, or selling chile peppers to West Indians.  Chapters that start with sentences such as ‘It was inevitable that we would come to be labeled as “the tomato people”…’  “My wife – the farmer’s wife, always sticking her nose where she got no bidness…”  “The bucket on my tractor snapped when I tried to clear the snow that finally stopped falling at noon on Valentine’s Day…”  are the ones that really sing.  Stark still gets his point across and his message out just as clearly as does Pollan, just in his own voice (which, in my opinion, feels more relevant).

Overall, the book is a winner.  I enjoyed it so much that I recommend going online to check out that archive of articles on Gourmet.com (if you haven’t found them already).  And since Condé Nast is closing the magazine, the clock just may be ticking on that.  Hopefully that means they’ll have to publish a follow-up to Heirloom.