Most urban farmers confine their agricultural efforts to vegetables, fruit, and the occasional egg-laying chicken. But on her small plot in Oakland, California, Novella Carpenter has raised bees, goats, rabbits, geese, and turkey, among other fauna.
A graduate of the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, where she studied with Michael Pollan, Carpenter now writes about urban farming and sustainable-food production for various publications, including her blog, Ghost Town Farm. Her memoir, Farm City, is due out this summer from Penguin Press.
Why did you want to start a farm in the city, rather than moving to a rural area?
I think people have a lot of nostalgia and yearning for these pastoral places, but my parents did that — they were back-to-the-land hippies in the 1970s — and it quickly became clear to me that city people moving to the country is kind of a horrible idea. They don’t usually have any skills, for one.
I grew up in Idaho till age six, then moved to Shelton, Washington, which had a population of only 7,000. It was isolated. So when people tell me they’re planning to move to the country, I say, “You’re going to have great food, but you’re not going to have anyone to share it with.”
What percentage of the food that you eat comes from your farm?
I’d say around 50 percent. This Thanksgiving, we raised our own turkey, so that was our contribution to the meal we ate with friends.
What would have to happen for urban farming to really take off in the U.S.?
They would have to drop a lot of the regulations and laws that exist to stop people from doing it. From what I understand, the dualism between the city and the farm has been created by laws, and often they’re anti-immigrant laws.
During the Second World War and after, there were lots of immigrants who moved to cities to work in factories, and often they wanted to bring their animals with them. Italians would want to have rabbits, and people from the South would want to have chickens. So some laws would have to change to make it more possible for more people to keep animals.
It would be great to section off whole parts of cities for people who wanted to have small farms — a kind of farm zone. Attitudes would have to change, too. People would have to stop seeing the “city” and the “country” in such a dualistic way. In Missoula, Montana, there’s a battle going on right now between the people who want to have chickens in the city and those who are violently opposed to it.
People usually do more urban farming in times of economic depression, so who knows? Maybe things will get so bad that everyone will start farming in cities again.
What are the biggest challenges you face in maintaining an urban farm?
Learning to take care of animals is a challenge, but it’s also where you learn the most. I’ve tried raising basically everything short of a cow; they need too much space.
You really have to be in a different zone to take care of animals; sometimes city life just isn’t conducive. If your goat is giving birth, it’s not like you can go to work. So there’s a tradeoff, but I think it’s an all an adjustment, and many people do figure it out.
When people ask how to begin, I always tell them to start slow: try bees, and then chickens. My recent acquisition was to get some goats, but I was thinking, “Wow, if I had gotten the goat, the rabbit, and the geese all at the same time, it would have been a total disaster.”
What was your goal in writing the memoir?
The goal is just to tell the story of one urban farm and the characters that I encounter while farming. It’s a portrait of a time. I also do a lot of describing processes; I think there’s a real hunger for that kind of book. It’s a little like 1,001 Things Your Grandpa Used To Do. Now I’m working on a proposal for a how-to book, because I think people want to know more details.
Where is the line between stepping backwards, or returning to ways we did things in the past, versus moving forward and doing new things with food production?
Some people see what I’m doing as a revival. And it’s true, in a way; it is kind of like going backwards. The difference is, things are so much easier because of the Internet, in terms of knowledge. When I was trying to figure out how to kill my rabbits, I eventually found out some really great instructions on a website. I can order day-old chicks on the Internet and get them the next day in the mail. So it’s not like I’m trying to live in the Stone Age.
There’s also this huge waste stream that wasn’t there when grandpa was alive. Now you can go to the dumpster at the organic grocery store, and it’s just brimming with food to feed your chickens or rabbits.
It’s not like I’m trying to become totally self-sufficient as a hobby; I think that’s kind of a ridiculous goal. But I do believe in using what I have. For instance, I’m going to make soap with the tallow from my goat. And I have rabbits we kill for meat, so I have all these pelts, and I’m learning how to tan them, because throwing them in the compost would just be wrong. Living like this opens you up to the full cycle of life of the animal.
Twilight Greenaway works for the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), where she writes about efforts to create a more sustainable food system throughout the Bay Area.
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