Down(town) On the Farm

Farm City
Novella Carpenter
Penguin Press, 2009, hardcover, 276 pages

Idyllic dreams of moving to the country to become a farmer abound – in this era of local food and “who’s your farmer”, most people involved in the local food scene long for their own garden patch and flock of chickens. We tell ourselves it’s impossible in the city, and if we choose to obey local by-laws, it usually is.

The answer then, is to live somewhere that is almost lawless – where the local cops have more important things to worry about than whether your turkey gets loose and runs through the neighbourhood, terrorizing the local crack dealers.

Such is the unique situation writer Novella Carpenter has found herself living in. A resident of downtown Oakland, Carpenter and her partner Bill rent a second floor flat in a house next to an abandoned lot, and over the years, she’s expanded her Ghost Town Farm from a few laying chickens and a garden to include honeybees, meat poultry, rabbits and pigs. She’s also taken over the vacant lot next door, and has encouraged neighbours to join her.

Carpenter’s book, Farm City, The Education of an Urban Farmer, chronicles the growth of Carpenter’s farm, a progression in which she continually pushes the boundaries of what a city farmer can do (and what a motley crew of neighbours will endure).

As a renter who is also squatting on borrowed land to produce her vegetable garden, the longevity of her project is always in question and at risk. At various points in the book, it seems as if the owner of the vacant lot next door will kick her out, citing plans to build condos or sell the lot, yet the projects never materialize because of the rough neighbourhood. At various points, neighbours also complain about the animals – the pigs, in particular, tend to create some unfavourable smells.

It’s not all bad though, and some of her neighbours are happy to join her in the garden, help her round up escapee turkeys (the birds can actually fly enough to get over a fence), and benefit from her honey production. She even sells one of her rabbits, being raised for meat, to a local kid to keep as a pet.

Despite the uncertainty, Carpenter continues to expand her tiny farm, adding more plants and trees, and making her own preserves, wine and eventually her own salami and prosciutto from her two pigs, with guidance from a local chef.

The project flounders briefly when Carpenter vows to spend the month of July eating only food she has grown/raised herself or that has been raised by other local urban farmers. Realizing she’s completely neglected carbs and that neither corn or potatoes are yet ripe to harvest, she actually grinds and eats some dried, decorative corn to keep her going for the month. Carpenter seems to have a habit of delving into a project before fully researching all aspects of it, which occasionally leads to mishaps; some humorous, others not so much. The decision to buy a pair of pigs seems poorly thought out, particularly when the author and her partner find themselves dumpster diving for pig food many nights each week. As well, the sad list of available options when it comes to small-scale slaughterhouses leaves her with no other choice but to use a service that is completely disrespectful to both her and her animals.

But Carpenter manages to make most of it sound like fun, even the less savoury bits. Maybe it’s the vibe of the neighbourhood where she lives, but I’d be a constant ball of stress worrying about dogs attacking my animals, people stealing my vegetables, or the ongoing threat that one day the landlord might show up and make me shut it all down… or the prospect of neighbours not into the urban farm philosophy who could at any time call the police. (Or maybe I’ve just had too many dickhead neighbours and bastard landlords.) While Carpenter does address many of these issues, they feel glossed over or restrained – I don’t get that feeling of pit-of-the-stomach dread coming across in her writing with regards to these issues, although it must be there on some level.

Overall, though, Farm City is a great, inspiring read and an impetus for anyone who’s ever toyed with the concept of urban agriculture. Most of us live places where animal control by-laws are more stringently enforced; so bees, pigs and meat poultry will never be an option. But the fight to permit backyard chickens for eggs is being fought across North America, and anyone with a patch of ground should be encouraged to plant something.

Carpenter is a fun, engaging writer, and some of the images she shares with her readers (I was particularly struck at the thought of the goose in the bathtub as she prepared to lop off its head with the garden shears) bring the reality of urban farming home with a bang. For anybody who’s ever dreamt of setting up a little family farm – in the city or not – this is the book that might be the deciding factor. If you can read Farm City and still want to be a farmer, you’ve probably got what it takes.

Carpenter maintains a blog about Ghost Town Farm where she still lives, and regularly offers farm tours and urban agriculture classes.