Farm City: Tales from an Urban Farmer

FoodNov09 458Novella Carpenter compares herself to the witch in Hansel and Grettle, “I fatten things up so I can eat them.” A more apt description might be Charlie from the Chocolate Factory: she’s found a golden ticket to building community through urban farming, and she sure is ecstatic! Carpenter recently spoke about her new book, Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-Op as part of a fundraiser for Soil Born Farms.

Carpenter embodies the passionate social movement surrounding locally grown, sustainable food practices. She’s sharp as a tack, yet laid-back, and comes dressed in her jeans and work boots. She opens by cheering about her afternoon class on backyard chicken farming, “I felt like I was part of the resistance movement. Yeah!” She declares with fist raised, earnest but laughing.

Carpenter takes this work seriously. She lives in a “food desert” in the worst part of Oakland called Ghost Town, where gun fire is a regular occurrence. The only place to buy “groceries” is a neighborhood liquor store packed with cheese puffs and jerky. Having been raised by hippie parents who grew gardens and raised rabbits, Carpenter knows that life can be better than this. And rather than write letters or sign petitions, she has taken matters into her own hands.

In the empty lot next to her apartment, Carpenter has built a 1/10th-acre urban farm on land she neither owns nor rents. She keeps an open-gate policy, inviting anyone from the neighborhood to share in her bounty, pick from her garden, and enjoy the space. After all, it’s not hers to begin with. And in a space that’s otherwise fraught with violence, Carpenter delights in the sense of ownership her tiny farm plot has created. “It’s about being part of the community,” she says. This might be the one spot in the neighborhood where nobody steals or vandalizes. Folks embrace the little farm, and it shows.

The farm began when Carpenter ordered some baby chickens online on a whim. Once they arrived, she knew she had to get serious. Her passion grew with the chickens, and she soon added to her flock: bees, a garden, and eventually goats, rabbits, and pigs. She fattens her animals on scraps found in restaurant dumpsters. As she describes it, “my function is to divert the waste stream of the city,” straight into her pigs’ mouths.

Farm City reveals many of Carpenter’s adventures in urban farming, but her work doesn’t end with the book. As part of her book tour, she’s been traveling the country visiting other urban farms. She’s learning and sharing with others, building bonds for this urban movement as she goes. In Sacramento, she recently taught a course on keeping urban chickens. Because the chicks are currently illegal inside the city, Carpenter is happy to be part of our local movement in her small way.

Whether you’re a backyard gardener yourself, an aspiring chicken owner, or simply looking for a witty tale that will keep you laughing, be sure to add Farm City to your holiday reading list.

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