Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer

by Novella Carpenter

Reviewed May 2010 by Claire Turner, CISA Intern

Reading Novella Carpenter’s memoir Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer gave me a deeper understanding of the distinctions between farm communities in the city and those in the country. Novella, raised on a rural Idaho farm, seeks the culture of urban California. In her quest for a more vibrant nightlife, she never intended to leave farming behind. When she realizes the empty lot next to her Bay Area apartment will likely remain undeveloped for the foreseeable future, she seizes the opportunity. What she creates is an amalgamation of two worlds: a farm equipped with tomatoes, lettuces and the potential for melons, squash and a myriad of animals, in the middle of downtown Oakland, minutes away from fancy restaurants, art galleries and bars.

Novella captures the oddities that come with farming in the city. She feeds her animals (chickens, turkeys, rabbits and pigs) food scraps that she and her boyfriend dig out of the dumpsters around town. As she describes picking through the restaurant trash, I was saddened by the amount of food wasted and, at the same time, amused at the idea of a pig eating olive oil soaked, herb-crusted, day-old focaccia. A gourmet porker, indeed.

Novella recognizes the importance of the network of urban farmers in her region. “So when I say that I’m an urban ‘farmer’ I’m depending on other urban farmers, too. It’s only with them that our backyards and squatted gardens add up to something significant.” Perhaps this realization comes from reflections on her month-long venture into an extreme local eating challenge: 100-yards or traded from another urban farmer. The Bay Area, like the Pioneer Valley, is full of people who love getting food as locally as possible. She admits that she would have undoubtedly starved had there not been other farmers around to help her out. But there is a kind of contradiction in the way she admires the other urban farmers and, at the same time, calls herself and other locavores “freaks” for being obsessed with “knowing” their food. “No one seemed to think it was odd that a Dumpster-diving, urban pig farmer was in their midst… I was just another one of the freaks.”

Novella is less direct in her recognition of the importance of her community of neighbors to the success of her farm—and does not fully acknowledge the potential gentrifying impact that urban farming might have on her neighborhood.  One of the greatest blessings (admittedly, some would call it a curse) of a city is the immediate connection you have to your neighbors and the pride you feel for your neighborhood. There is no escaping the smells and sounds that come from your neighbors yards—you’re all in it together. So although Novella thinks of herself as the sole farmer on her block, the advice, small gestures of help, and complaints of her immediate neighbors are really what make her farm what it is.  “The Vietnamese families, the African-American teenagers, the Yemeni storekeepers, the Latino soccer player, and yes, the urban farmers—had somehow found a way to live together.” Urban farming takes skill, ingenuity, luck, a willingness to ask for help, and above all no reservations about jumping into a dumpster when the pigs start getting hungry.