A Must Read: Farm City, by Novella Carpenter

Feb 25, 2011 by

With the up and coming Truck Farm project, which will soon pick up speed, I couldn't help but read this fabulous book by an Oakland neighbor, Novella Carpenter. It's a memoir, I suppose, but it's almost more of a travel narrative through the jungles of urban farming. Though gardening and beekeeping are no foreign hobbies of Carpenter's, her virgin foray into raising her own meat in the Oakland ghetto has the exotic surprises, disappointments, and delights of a globe-trotting reportage. In Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, Carpenter guides us through the creation of her urban farm in a shady corner of Oakland. Fatal shootings occur down the street, police repeatedly whisk her car-dwelling neighbor away, and overgrown vacant lots surround the small house she rents. But it's the vacant lot and accepted eccentricity that allow the farm to exist in the first place. Carpenter surreptitiously takes over the vacant lot and plants a full-fledged garden, complete with an apiary of bees and a cast of off-beat Oakland neighbors. But what makes the book so interesting--and is truly the crux of the story--are Carpenter's attempts to raise her own meat. It all starts with a mail-order carton of baby turkeys and chicks that Carpenter feeds with kitchen scraps to raise her own turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. The second section of the book details her adventures with rabbits, with a fairly explicit rabbit killing scene--I should just say that it's honest, really--that had me thinking that I could do it myself, just maybe. (This coming from a recent vegetarian of almost fifteen years). But the third and final section entranced and surprised me most: Carpenter decides to raise her own pigs. I loved Carpenter's tales of trying to feed her pigs (in the end she was feeding the two pigs seven twelve-gallon buckets of restaurant food scraps A DAY). But it surprised me because by the time she slaughtered the pigs and harvested the meat for salumi, I was 100% on board with it all. In fact, I couldn't stop thinking about cured pork products and how amazing well-raised and expertly butchered meat can be. And I only started eating pork about a year ago. What I love about Carpenter is the way she wraps her mind around raising her own food. What exactly does it mean to be an urban farmer? Is it possible to live entirely off her land? What responsibility do farmers have when they raise their own meat? Carpenter shows that the relationship between farmer and animal can be a sacred thing if we make it so. When I finished the book, I called my dad, who grew up on a dairy farm in Wyoming. I told him about the book and we talked a little about what it was like to raise pigs and how their pigs would eat corn feed and colostrum from the cows. We laughed a bit about how hip farming has become, but how many people would actually shun the real farming life that my dad knew as a child. But I was grateful that Carpenter's experience gave me a little glimpse into the real world that my dad knew so well. It isn't an easy life, but the rewards are sweet. Check out Novella Carpenter's book here--it's a great book to return to again and again.

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