A Brief Review of
Farm City: The Education of An Urban Farmer.
Hardback: The Penguin Press, 2009.
Buy Now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
Full of grit and wit, Novella Carpenter’s Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer is one of the best pieces of writing that I have read this year. She begins, memorably:
I have a farm on a dead-end street in the ghetto. My back stairs are dotted with chicken turds. Bales of straw come undone in the parking area next to my apartment. I harvest lettuce in an abandoned lot. I awake in the mornings to the sound of farm animals mingled with my neighbor’s blaring car alarm.
Having long been intrigued by the idea of urban farming and having dabbled in it a bit myself and with friends over the last few years, I knew that Farm City was a book that I had to read. What came as a surprise, however, was how mesmerized I became by the honest, raw beauty of Carpenter’s writing. Readers should be forewarned that this is not a how-to book (even the most passionate of my urban farming friends admits that raising pigs in the city, as Carpenter eventually comes to do, is unfathomable in most cities in the U.S.). The book unfolds through three main storylines, all of which revolve around Carpenter’s raising of a certain type of animal: turkeys (intended for Thanksgiving dinner, although only one survives), rabbits and finally the almost unimaginable, pigs. Interspersed throughout these primary stories are tales of her raising chickens and bees and growing a host of fruits and vegetables, both familiar and exotic.
Carpenter’s urban world is full of vibrant characters, both humans and farm animals. It is not insignificant that Carpenter, her boyfriend Bill and this host of colorful characters inhabit a neighborhood of Oakland known as GhostTown, which she describes with her typical humor:
…[W]e discovered that our neighborhood was called GhostTown, for all its long-abandoned businesses, condemned houses, and overgrown lots. The empty lot next to our house was not rare: there was one, sometimes two on every block. And through the vacant streets rolled GhostTown tumbleweeds: the lost hairpieces of prostitutes. Tumbleweaves. (11)
The abandonment of this place is a key factor in the narrative of Farm City, creating in a sense a clean slate on which Carpenter and friends can reimagine urban life. One of the book’s most striking examples of this reimagination is Carpenter’s stumbling into the opportunity to learn Italian-style meat-processing (salami, prosciutto, etc.) from Chef Christopher Lee of Berkeley’s swanky Italian eatery, Eccolo. She meets Lee after she is caught plundering of Eccolo’s dumpster in search of feed for her ravenous pigs. They strike up a friendship and Lee eventually helps her to process much of the meat from her pigs.
While Carpenter’s superb writing will be savored by readers of all sorts, her stories of urban farming will be an inspiration to those of us who daily imagine the transformation of abandoned urban places and who are convicted that a return to the basics of a locally-oriented agricultural existence is key to that transformation (even if we will never be so bold as to raise pigs in the city!).