Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009
“Food is a beautiful thing because it connects us to the natural world and shows us our place in it. When you really geek out on one thing that you love, you feel more connected to the whole process.”
Lots of great books have been written about living off the land, but they all seem to me too much of a pastoral pipe dream. “Sure,” I always think, “if I had all the time and space and money in the world, and was a totally perfect person.” Or, apparently, if I were Novella Carpenter. She started her farm, complete with gardens and livestock, in an abandoned lot in Oakland, California. Green acres, it is not. She raises her piglets among prostitutes, her shallots amidst shootouts. She makes mistakes. She gets tired, angry, even murderous. This is a chick I could hang out with.
Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer is her chronicle of Ghost Town Farm from inception to success—and pig to prosciutto. With a sense of humor and a marked lack of sanctimony, she shares her adventures as a locavore, dumpster diver, farmer, butcher, and neighbor to some of the quirkiest real-life characters imaginable. And it’s all smartly contextualized with a light touch of agricultural history and a debt of gratitude to her hippie upbringing. Read the first chapter here, and see why The New York Times liked it almost as much as I did. Then hear it straight from the farmer’s mouth:
I have enough trouble balancing watering my window box with making my writing deadlines and paying my rent. Can you describe your daily routine? How much hands-on farming to you do? When and where do you write?
Time is the biggest issue for most urban farmers. I mean, after a night on the town, I have to get up at 7 am the next day and milk my goats. But once you have a routine, it’s just normal, like brushing your teeth. I get up at 6:30 am (in the summer), feed the chickens, drink coffee, milk the goats, then feed and water them. Then I spend about an hour watering the garden (this is only twice a week). I check that the rabbits have water, then head to work—which is either my office which is ten blocks away from the farm or at a biodiesel station in Berkeley. I do all my writing at the office because we don’t keep a computer in our house (too distracting). At night I come home and check on the goats, snuggle them a bit. Then my partner Bill and I will go out to San Francisco, go to bookstores or a movie, followed by dumpster diving at our favorite grocery store, Rainbow Coop. When we get home, I put the goats away for the night and feed the rabbits. Rabbits are nocturnal and do most of their eating then. They love Rainbow’s lettuce, kale, apples, and bread.
In Farm City, you seem to sort of gloss over your day jobs and, to some extent, your relationship. Was it a conscious choice to winnow the focus of the book? What else did you leave out?
I feel pretty protective of my boyfriend and didn’t want to go into too much detail about him and our relationship, which is very special and really is nobody’s business. My editor prodded me to include the tidbits that are in Farm City. As for jobs, having had low-paying boring jobs, there’s really not much to say about them. The memoir is really about the neighborhood and the farm. I was in grad school for part of the action of the book. And who the hell cares about how I had to write a paper or do a multimedia project at the same time I was butchering my turkey?
Your website mentions briefly that you used to work in book publishing. What did you do? Was it a big cubicle-to-manure life change, or a more gradual blending of worlds?
I was an editorial assistant for Sasquatch Books from 1998-2001. By the time I left the job, I had become an acquiring editor and had really gotten into bees and chickens and gardening. I went part-time then got laid off after 9/11. Bill got laid off from his job at the taxi company and we took our savings/severance and traveled to Spain where we worked on farms and ate jamón ibérico.
A lot of books about food sustainability seem to get accused of self-righteousness or coming from an upper class white worldview. Was that something you were worried about? Did you consider your ratio of success and failure in incidents in the book or struggle with how prescriptive to be?
Yeah, elitism is always trotted out when we talk about organic or sustainable ag. I consider myself working class, so I feel twinges of jealousy when I go to the Berkeley Farmer’s Market and can’t afford to buy meat there. It’s depressing. So that’s why I started raising meat birds and eventually pigs and goats. It’s possible to raise your own and not spend tons of money. Since I’m a squat gardener, it’s free to grow the organic, sustainable veggies—and that is pretty liberating. I definitely didn’t want to gloss over the difficulties I encounter and still encounter: farming is hard work, mistakes are made, and that makes the triumphs so much sweeter.
What if I ask you to be prescriptive? What’s one thing everyone should do to improve his or her little piece of the food system?
I hate telling people what to do. But Willow Rosenthal (who is in the book) and I are now working on a how-to urban farm book. We realized that people really want to know details and methods that work. So if I had to tell everyone one thing, I would say that they should take one thing that they love to eat and find out as much as they can about how that one thing is grown. Then try growing or raising it. If it’s an animal or food like bacon, try making your own bacon. Food is a beautiful thing because it connects us to the natural world and shows us our place in it. When you really geek out on one thing that you love, you feel more connected to the whole process.
How did the nature of the neighborhood affect your work? Do you think it was more of an advantage or disadvantage to your farm to be in such a gritty area?
Ghosttown, my neighborhood, has great things about it. The people are really warm and sharing and open. I could have never farmed in an uptight white neighborhood. People would pass judgment on me and find me a nuisance. Which isn’t to say that sometimes I am not a nuisance to my neighbors, but the other nuisances–drug dealing, prostitution, theft–are, in comparison to chickens clucking, a much bigger deal.
Were you worried about portraying real people? Did you run things by friends and relatives first? Do you know if the awful woman who butchered your pigs knows about her cameo?
I asked my mom and sister’s permission, and read passages to them. Some people, like the pig killer, had their names changed slightly so I won’t get sued, but I doubt she reads many books. I read Willow her parts. Lana and Bobby won’t mind, I don’t think.
You seem very at peace with raising and then killing animals. Did it take you time to get there? What do you say to vegans, or the Times reporter who indicated you might be psychotic?
Like most people, I started out not being able to even imagine killing an animal. But I ate meat, so I figured I should at least own up to the fact that when I eat meat, an animal had to die. So I find myself eating more vegetables and fish when I go out to restaurants. Vegans tend to think the way I raise my meat might be the only almost-acceptable way. As for being psychotic, raising, nurturing, and then killing animals has been a way of life for humans for the past 10,000 years. What I think is psychotic is eating some random chunks of flesh and not making the connection that it came from a living, breathing creature.
In the book, you try eating only what you have grown as a brief experiment. In your current life, do you have any rules about what you will and won’t eat?
I’m an adventurous eater and will basically eat anything. I do try to avoid factory meat but I also can’t resist kung pao pork from my favorite dive Chinese restaurant. Rules are meant to be broken, so I don’t have any.
As the book ends, condos and gentrification are looming. Can you tell us if the new building ever went up? Or is your current farm in the same location we read about? What other changes have you made?
Well, the book ends in 2007/beginning of 08. The recession hadn’t officially begun and the housing market crash wasn’t totally out in the open. What I know is that a woman bought the lot for something like $250,000. She came to see the garden one day and I figured she would want it gone. She said that she was going to build condos eventually but in the meantime I could keep the garden. Then the housing market crashed and that lot is probably worth $80,000, if that. Poor lady. But good for me–I’m contemplating building a cob oven out there… As for the animals, they’re all in the backyard and the rabbits are on the deck. I bought a pregnant goat with my first advance from Penguin and now raise Nigerian Dwarf Goats for milking. Goats are a whole different level of care, and the breeding can produce surprising results. We had one goat born this year who may or may not be a hermaphrodite. We won’t know for sure until she reaches puberty. The vet thinks she is, I’m not totally convinced….
READ an excerpt from Farm City
BUY a copy of the book
VISIT Novella Carpenter’s blog