Posted on Thu, September 03, 2009 by Jerusha Klemperer
0 Comments | Categories: Books, Farms and Farming,
What the hay is an urban farmer?! Its a question both Farm City
author cum Oaklands Ghost Town Farm(er) Novella Carpenter and myself have wrestled with, and heck, had to come to terms with. Even while the word like locavore before it seems to have finally been uploaded to the American lexicon, the term still perplexes a great many, which only goes to show how much more work we have to do collectively to turn the tide in favor of sustainable cities and foodbelts.
I remember my own days in Rochester, NY as an urban farmer growing on school grounds and on borrowed backyard land across the city when Id be approached with the eternal question of what are you doin over there?! You can even imagine the looks of disbelief (and sometimes horror) when Id tell a handsome gentleman in a bar that I was a farmer. Theyd take one look at (cleaned-up) me and say You?!
Often times, when my kitchen floor was covered with dirt and produce awaiting delivery, my countertops lined with foul-smelling jars of moldy tomato pulp, and entire rows of Brussels sprouts thought to be collards were uprooted and sold on the street for crack money, Id stop and say to myself: I should keep a diary and turn this experience into a book. Well, Novella beat me to it. So you can only imagine my great interest in reading this book about a trailblazing young woman with more chutzpah than most dudes workin the land and raising livestock in one of Oakland, CAs less tasteful neighborhoods strewn with tumbleweaves (yes, discarded hair pieces that have become part of the landscape).
The book is organized not by the four seasons as one might expect of a farmers journal, but rather in three sections: Turkey, Rabbit, Pig. For each of three years on the farm detailed in the book, Novella Carpenter and beau gradually up the urban farming ante in the species that thrive on their squatted lot. At times there seems to be an inverse relationship to her level of sanity too hogs in the inner city? Yes, the book is complete with stories of dumpster diving in the alleys behind Berkeleys famed restaurants for pig feed and neighbors complaining of stench, and anxiety leading up to the eventual slaughter of the numerous residents of which she has become so fond. Novella is even a fan of Slow Food, and has taken to raising a few Ark of taste varieties of veggies and poultry.
There is a comedic element to the book, and the author does a wonderful job of depicting not just her tiny farm plot, but her farms place in the wider Oakland and Bay area community. Her neighborhood is not just a cast of characters in Charlottes Web, but also of the Vietnamese downstairs neighbors, the eccentric woman across the street hosting monthly speak-easies, the homeless man Bobby who has taken on the role of block security guard, Buddhist monks, and other colorful Oakland residents.
Admittedly, as this is the authors first full-length book (shes bee a contributor to Mother Jones, Saveur, sfgate.com and others), there are portions of the book which could be a bit tighter, the transitions and allusions a bit smoother, more organic but overall a delightful read. You share in the delight of the authors first taste of honey from her own porch apiary, and wallow in her sadness and anger when the lone surviving watermelon in the yard is snagged by neighborhood low-life.
Its not a book Id necessarily recommend to most vegans I know (there are parts of this book in which Novella not only waxes poetic about bacon, but details the slaughter of a rabbit and later even tastes a piece of pig brain), but as you read you quickly begin to realize that Novella Carpenter has only the deepest respect for the animals to which she tends. They are her (temporary) friends for whom she wants a painless death, and praise for the life that has been offered to sustain her.
Whatever you have to say about the books style in the end, one thing you cant deny is that Novella Carpenter is makin urban farmin work. And for that she deserves respect. Lets hope this book inspires some more city slickers out there.