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

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A few pages into chapter one I was already chuckling. I consider this a sign of a good memoir – particularly in the case of farming memoirs because in farming, as in so many other parts of life, if you can’t keep your sense of humor you’re doomed because failures large and small lurk around every corner.

Novella and boyfriend Bill moved to a particularly run-down neighborhood in the crime-ridden and generally run-down city of Oakland, California from Seattle, where they had attended college. In Seattle, which is generally pretty urban farming-friendly, their chickens had roamed the streets with impunity. In gritty Oakland, the sight of her chickens, ducks, turkeys, and eventually even pigs, taking off down the street towards the very near freeway was far more novel.

But Novella and Bill, with their livestock, bees, and giant vegetable garden/orchard on an adjacent lot they do not own, are hardly the only ones in their neighborhood up to something shady: across the street, next door to the Buddhist monastery, is a woman named Lana who runs a weekly speakeasy and all-comers cabaret; Berkely-educated Bobby was evicted before Novella and Bill moved in, and still resides in the parking lot in his broke-down car collection, acting as unofficial concierge for the apartments; down the street is a woman known only as “Grandma” who runs an unlicensed restaurant out of her house with irregularly scheduled southern-style fish frys; and the mini-market is run by a Yemeni man named Mosed – a Muslim who sells beer to make his rent. Novella befriends them all, as well as out-of-neighborhood characters Willow, the urban agriculture activist from the nonprofit City Slicker Farms; and the crew of the local Black Panther office, to whom she donates a large portion of her salad greens.

Despite their passion for homegrown food, Novella and Bill are definitely city folk – Novella bikes all over the neighborhood to bring buckets of weeds back to the poultry to keep her feed costs down, and the two of them are very savvy Dumpster divers, coming up with enough discarded food to grow their pigs to an impressive size for free. Speaking from experience, that’s a heck of a lot of food.

As with any agricultural enterprise, there are setbacks aplenty: urban predator animals, complaining neighbors, poultry taking flight to reside at the nearby Lake Merritt nature preserve, lack of a pickup truck for transporting manure and pigs, the impending destruction of the squat garden (“Condos, right here. Three months,” says the lot’s rightful owner), the death of her queen bee and the subsequent swarm of her hive, to name but a few. But Novella pushes on and has as many triumphs as failures: she gets one-on-one lessons in charcuterie from the owner-chef of one of the city’s finest restaurants, she serves the best Thanksgiving turkey ever grown in the Oakland city limits, she survives a month of eating only what she can grow in her back yard and squat lot, she makes friends and converts left and right, and learns ineffable life lessons from the lives and deaths of her plants and animals.

This one gets a thumbs-up from the both of us. It’s a fun read and very engaging (I only managed to take notes for the first few chapters – after that I didn’t want to look away from the page unless there was something burning in the oven or screaming in the chicken run.) but not at all shallow. After you enjoy the book, keep up with the ongoing adventures at Ghost Town Farm.

— Amanda

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