Archives For Urban agriculture


“Equitable, Convivial and Communal”

A Review of
Two New Books on Food and Agriculture.

Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.

Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud,
from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee
Bee Wilson.
Hardback: Princeton UP, 2008.
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]

Public Produce: The New Urban Agriculture.
Darrin Nordahl.
Paperback: Island Press, 2009.
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]

SWINDLED - Bee WilsonI remember reading, just a couple years ago, Liberty Hyde Bailey’s 1916 list of food adulterations: “Bottled ketchup usually contains benzoate of soda… Japanese tea is colored with a cyanide of potassium and iron. Prepared mustard usually contains a large amount of added starch and is colored yellow with tumeric.” He continues on, adding to the lament that “I wonder whether in time the perfection of fabrication will not reach such a point that some fruits will be known to the great public only by the picture on the package or on the bottle.” Reading this, I was surprised to find that what I had understood as a particularly modern problem actually dated back at least to the turn of the last century, and the growth of industrialized processing and agriculture. Bee Wilson’s book Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, From Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee makes it clear that food adulteration has a much longer history that I had suspected possible; so long as there has been food for sale, there seems to be adulterated food alongside.

PUBLIC PRODUCE - Darrin NordahlWilson narrates a history of adulteration in food that begins in the middle ages, through the industrial revolution, and encompassing everything on Bailey’s list: the ketchup, tea, mustard, wheat flour, jams, coffee and more, and then continues through the mess of additives, flavorings, and nutrient fortifications that still loom large over our processed food system. So as it turns out, the manufacture of food that is bad for us is not a new problem; Swindled puts our current food economy in a long history of food manipulation, and draws helpful parallels between early food adulterators – replacing some coffee bean with some chicory, for instance – with the contemporary swindlers – empty-caloried sweeteners for sugar or roaster chickens with whole new physiognomies. One of the foods discussed time and again is bread, and the reasons are obvious: “The modern supermarket loaf is almost completely anonymous…Effectively, this is food with no person behind it. By contrast, bread in the Middle Ages was personal. Bakers were obliged to indent the bread with their seal, so that if they did break the assize, it would be easy to track them down and hold them accountable…Bakers were obliged to sell bread by their own hand” (69-70).

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The Powells Books Review of
Public Produce: The New Urban Agriculture
by Darrin Nordahl

America’s relationship with food is dysfunctional. Obesity, childhood malnourishment, fast-food addiction, E. coli and salmonella outbreaks — the list of problems is as familiar as it is dismaying. Though average Americans are fundamentally disconnected from the vast industrial networks that disgorge their daily meals, they were not always so removed from food production. Even after the United States converted from an agrarian to an industrial economy, there were periods when large numbers of the country’s citizens helped to grow the food they ate. During World War II, the public heeded the U.S. government’s call to raise “victory gardens” to ease the strain of supplying canned goods to overseas troops. In 1944, an estimated 20 million victory gardens yielded eight million tons of food.

In Public Produce, city designer Darrin Nordahl describes how towns and cities are working diligently to tap that spirit again and create civic cornucopias. He has more in mind than the occasional community garden. He wants the largest landlord in most cities — the municipal government — to expand the uses conceived of for public places beyond recreation and aesthetic pleasure to include farming.

Read the full review:

Public Produce: The New Urban Agriculture
Darrin Nordahl.
Paperback: Isaland Press, 2010.
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]

THE NY TIMES Review of
the new animated movie

There is a lot to look at in “The Secret of Kells.” Nearly every frame of this 75-minute animated feature is dense with curlicued and cross-hatched patterns and figures. Your eye travels over Celtic crosses and through forest glades, studies architectural schematics and drinks in delicately washed landscapes. The human characters come in a variety of shapes and hues. Some are cute, some are sinister, some angular, some roly-poly. A few resemble science-fiction robots, while others look like pixies out of Japanese anime.

But you might take special notice of their hands, which are squared off and elongated in a way that suggests both crudeness and grace. These appendages are also large, appearing slightly out of proportion to the bodies, which makes sense given that the subject and method of this film is handicraft. “The Secret of Kells,” directed by Tomm Moore, concerns the Book of Kells, a medieval illuminated manuscript that ranks among the most important artifacts of Irish civilization. And it is only fitting that a movie concerned with the power and beauty of drawing — the almost sacred magic of color and line — should be so gorgeously and intricately drawn.

Read the full review:

Now playing in select US cities…


A Brief Review of

Farm City: The Education of An Urban Farmer.
Novella Carpenter.

Hardback: The Penguin Press, 2009.
Buy Now:  [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

FARM CITY - Novella CarpenterFull 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!).


THE NY TIMES Review of
Novella Carpenter’s

I had a feeling I might like this memoir when I came upon on its first sentence, a gentle twist on the opening of Isak Dinesen’s “Out of Africa.” Here is Novella Carpenter: “I have a farm on a dead-end street in the ghetto.”

But I didn’t truly fall in love with “Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer” until I hit Page 38. That’s when the bees that Ms. Carpenter has purchased from a mail order company arrive at her post office in Oakland, Calif. A panicked postal employee calls, begging her to pick them up because they’re attracting other bees and “freaking everyone out.”

So Ms. Carpenter hurries over, picks up the humming box, and casually plops it into the front basket of her bicycle. Then she has a parade. “I proceeded to ride down Telegraph Avenue, laughing out loud at the bees who tried to follow us amid the traffic,” she writes. “At stoplights I looked down at the mesh box, the bees churning around, and told them to get ready for” — and here she gives her neighborhood’s nickname — “GhostTown.” Fresh, fearless and jagged around the edges, Ms. Carpenter’s book, an account of how she raised not only fruit and vegetables but also livestock on a small, scrubby abandoned lot in Oakland, puts me in mind of Julie Powell’s “Julie & Julia” and Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love.”

Read the full review:

Novella Carpenter.

Hardcover: Penguin Press, 2009
Buy now: [ Doulos Christou Books $22 ] [ Amazon ]

by Laura Jacobs.

Laura Jacobs is an urban miniaturist. In her sleek, pitch-perfect second novel, The Bird Catcher, she lavishes delectable attention on the subtle distinctions wrought by taste, class, money, and style in the city on which she trains her eagle eye. But there is nothing diminutive in her vision: Under the force of her piercing, halogen-bright gaze, the world cracks open, large and luminous.

Her latest protagonist, thirty-one-year-old Margaret Snow, is quietly but desperately trying to keep her head above water. A dropout from the graduate art-history program at Columbia University, Margaret now spends her days at Saks, where she creates extravagant displays for the windows that line Fifth Avenue. Much of her free time is spent bird-watching, either in the upper reaches of Central Park or at her weekend cottage on the Chesapeake Bay. Jacobs limns Margaret’s mounting despair with deftness and restraint; it’s not until page 59 that we learn Margaret’s adored husband, Charles—a scholar of ancient Assyria, university professor, and fellow bird enthusiast—was killed in a plane crash.

Read the full review:

Laura Jacobs.

Hardcover: St. Martins, 2009.
Buy now: [ Doulos Christou Books $20 ] [ Amazon ]

A review of David Sedley’s
Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity

In case you haven’t noticed: 2009 is Darwin Year. On 24 November, 150 years will have passed since the theory of evolution by natural selection was first fully presented and defended, in the first edition of the Origin of Species. Darwin’s theory dealt the coup de grâce to the teleological way of thinking about nature which had dominated the minds of both the learned and the lay for more than two millennia, before it was gradually undermined by the rise of modern science (though, typically, perhaps, it spawned more arguments in its last phase than it ever did before). At least that is what people used to think where I come from. But then they had not yet been confronted with American Creationism.

‘Creationism’ in the contemporary everyday sense of the word is the view that the account of creation in Genesis is literally true and can be supported by science. According to recent polls, up to 66 percent of Americans share this view.1 Historically, this sense of the word seems to have developed from the more precisely defined (though extensionally wider) notion that the biological species inhabiting the earth have not evolved gradually from variants of other species but were created the way they are from the outset. Creationism in the everyday sense emerged in opposition to Darwinism. It invariably (I think) comes in a package with the belief that the biological species were created the way they are so as to be well adapted for a purpose. That is to say, it is closely related to a teleological way of thinking about nature.

Read the full review:

Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity.
David Sedley.

Hardcover: U. of California Press, 2007.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]


 A Brief review of  The Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen

 By Chris Smith


Readers who are familiar with the new monasticism will recognize that urban neighborhoods represent many of the “abandoned places of Empire.”  The new monastics are marked by their call to such abandoned places and in settling there, they prayerfully seek the transformative wisdom of God that will redeem these presumed wastelands.  Although the language of new monasticism is probably foreign to the authors of the new book, The Urban Homestead, what they offer in this excellent work is a similar vision of the holistic redemption of urban wastelands.  The authors, Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen, describe their vision in terms of:


  • Growing your own food
  • Urban Foraging
  • Raising Livestock
  • Revolutionary Home Economics (Preserving and Preparing Food)
  • Water and Power for the Homestead
  • The Transportation Triangle (Walking, Biking, Mass Transit)

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Green Congregations Workshop

 Saturday, January 31, 2009

12:30—1:00 p.m. Registration & Information Fair
1:00 – 4:00 p.m. Workshop

Presented by a group of congregational green teams from different faiths.

  • View exhibits and learn about local resources
  • Learn how to start a green ministry
  • Share experiences with others
  • Obtain information on energy efficiency
  • Get inspiration and ideas for your faith community

Second Presbyterian Church
7700 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis

This event is free and open to people of all faiths
To register, contact Brady Hansel
at or 317-686-4790
Deadline for Registrations: January 24

Indy’s First Urban Farming Forum

All Indianapolis fans of backyard gardening for food and growers of goodies should take note of Punxsutawney Phil’s next big day of Monday Februrary 2nd, 2009. This will be the date upon which more will arrive to Indy than news from some groundhog harbinger of more foul winter weather. Instead, at 1029 Fletcher Avenue – (see: from 5:30PM to 7:00PM the new Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, Inc. (KIBI) headquarters site will host Indy’s FIRST “Urban Farming Forum.”

Chris Harrell, brownfield/urban redevelopment specialist (and local produce fan); Sarah Wiehe, IUPUI medical researcher and pediatrician (and ardent urban gardner); Matthew Jose, urban agriculture specialist; Laura Henderson, Founder of Indy’s new Winter Farmer’s Market will join together to host all attendees at this FREE event.


The Urban Farming Forum expects to bring together the many disparate groups, individuals, churches, non profits, and more to discuss multiple topics of interest. Main topics will include: health and safety issues sometimes confronted when farming urban sites, how to mend soil if health concerns are discovered in the soil, what crops are best suited for Indianapolis and environs and related garden growing hints, and lastly how to share the bounty from urban gardens with the your neighbors or the public at large by market or through non profit assistance (churches, community gardens, poverty relief, or supplying urban schools with fresh and healthy produce, etc.).

More info: