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Growing Your Own: An Urban Farmer’s Memoir

When Novella Carpenter moved into a run-down neighborhood of Oakland, California, she couldn’t help noticing that there was a vacant lot next door. Endowed with a DIY spirit and a green thumb, Carpenter wasted no time turning it into a farm — complete with a beehive and livestock — without bothering to tell the owner. Farm City is her funny and engaging memoir of this experience. Toby Warner caught up with Carpenter to chat about the book, and get a few urban farming tips for the newbie (hint: don’t buy your goats in bulk).

Flavorpill: Tell us about your farm. Where is it and what do you have there?

Novella Carpenter: The farm is in a section of West Oakland known as GhostTown. There are lots of abandoned lots, empty buildings, and boarded up houses. It’s near the 980 highway and I can hear BART in the morning as I milk my goats. There is graffiti. Kids are selling drugs. Crack zombies and homeless folks are sleeping under the highway. I’ve been squat-farming on a 4500-square-foot abandoned lot for the past six years.

In the lot I have a series of raised beds made from found materials (believe me, it doesn’t look “nice”) where I grow vegetables like tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, collards, beets, carrots, and squash. There is also a beehive in the garden. Sometimes I have kept animals like ducks or rabbits in the lot but since it is open, they aren’t totally safe from marauding wildlife like opossums or dogs. In the backyard of my apartment building I keep two Nigerian dwarf milk goats (and their four kids) and six chickens. On the front deck of my apartment, I have a small rabbitry where I have a dozen or so meat rabbits.

FP: How did you get started as an urban farmer?

NC: Urban farming usually starts with keeping chickens or bees. Those are what I refer to as gateway urban farm animals. They are easy to keep, they produce amazing products (eggs, manure, honey, pollen) and give you a sense of connection to the natural world, something many city folks miss. After I kept hens and bees, I decided to take it to the next level and raise my own turkey for Thanksgiving. My parents had been back to the land hippies, who were obsessed with being self-sufficient, and I think I had some of that urge, too, but I wanted to stay in the city to farm.

Around that same time I started meeting fellow urban farmers. I had never used that term before, but it made sense — we were farming in the city — so picked up that identity. It’s a strong one, too, as I journey around the country on book tour, I have met so many urban farmers and we have so much to talk about!

FP: What was your most surprising discovery?

NC: I tried to be self-sufficient — I thought that was the ultimate goal of farming. But after a time, that seemed like such an empty accomplishment, especially in my neighborhood, where people are literally starving for nutritious food. I was surprised to learn that sharing is the best part of farming.

FP: You butcher your own livestock, which is amazing, but something many of our readers might find daunting. What kinds of basic practices would you recommend if some of them wanted to try farming in the city?

NC: Yes, I process my own meat animals (butcher is a term for cutting up animals post-slaughter, commonly misused to mean kill), and I recommend that anyone who wants to begin urban farming with meat animals takes it one step at a time. Many people think they should just go out and buy all of their animals during one big shopping spree (how American!) — chickens, rabbits, ducks, goats, etc. That is a recipe for disaster! I started with one animal per year, gradually working up from chickens and bees to ducks and turkeys, then rabbits, then pigs, then goats. There’s so much to learn that it is unfair to you and the animals if you rush it. Start small and build.

The other advice I would offer is to do the farming with other people. Farming isn’t a loner activity. You need people to help, to harvest, to dig, to plant, to milk. Try to farm with friends! Also, seek out experts from your community. You’d be surprised how much farming knowledge your Vietnamese or Yemeni neighbors might have.

FP: Any other books about food, farming or sustainability that you would recommend to our readers?

NC: There’s a writer from England not many people here read: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. He wrote this wonderful book called The River Cottage Meat Book that is about his efforts raising food on his farm, in addition to recipes. Of course, E.B. White is a major influence. His essays about farm life (one man’s meat) were very important to me. I love Jane Grigson, and Elizabeth David, and consider them important writers who have a staggering knowledge about food.

In terms of how-to, I was suckled by The Encyclopedia of Country Living by Carla Emery, who inspired me to start farming in the city with these words: “I don’t think much of people who say they like to eat meat but go ‘ick’ at the sight of a bleeding animal. Doing our own killing, cleanly and humanely, teaches us humility and reminds us of our interdependence with other species.”

Related video: Brooklyn’s Cool New Backyard Farm