Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Green book review: "Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer" by Novella Carpenter

Today we have a great book for those who secretly dream on growing vegetables and maybe some animal farms, or in other words: becoming an urban farmer.

Our book today is:

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer

Author: Novella Carpenter
Novella Carpenter grew up in rural Idaho and Washington State. She majored in biology and English at the University of Washington in Seattle. While attending Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, she studied under Michael Pollan for two years. Her writing has appeared on,,, and in Mother Jones. She also keeps a popular blog about her adventures in city farming at GhosttownFarm:

Publisher: Penguin Press

Published on:
June 2009

What this book is about? (from the publisher's website)
Novella Carpenter loves cities—the culture, the crowds, the energy. At the same time, she can’t shake the fact that she is the daughter of two back-to-the-land hippies who taught her to love nature and eat vegetables. Ambivalent about repeating her parents’ disastrous mistakes, yet drawn to the idea of backyard self-sufficiency, Carpenter decided that it might be possible to have it both ways: a homegrown vegetable plot as well as museums, bars, concerts, and a twenty-four-hour convenience mart mere minutes away. Especially when she moved to a ramshackle house in inner city Oakland and discovered a weed-choked, garbage-strewn abandoned lot next door. She closed her eyes and pictured heirloom tomatoes, a beehive, and a chicken coop.

What started out as a few egg-laying chickens led to turkeys, geese, and ducks. Soon, some rabbits joined the fun, then two three-hundred-pound pigs. And no, these charming and eccentric animals weren’t pets; she was a farmer, not a zookeeper. Novella was raising these animals for dinner. Novella Carpenter’s corner of downtown Oakland is populated by unforgettable characters. Lana (anal spelled backward, she reminds us) runs a speakeasy across the street and refuses to hurt even a fly, let alone condone raising turkeys for Thanksgiving. Bobby, the homeless man who collects cars and car parts just outside the farm, is an invaluable neighborhood concierge. The turkeys, Harold and Maude, tend to escape on a daily basis to cavort with the prostitutes hanging around just off the highway nearby. Every day on this strange and beautiful farm, urban meets rural in the most surprising ways.

For anyone who has ever grown herbs on their windowsill, tomatoes on their fire escape, or obsessed over the offerings at the local farmers’ market, Carpenter’s story will capture your heart. And if you’ve ever considered leaving it all behind to become a farmer outside the city limits, or looked at the abandoned lot next door with a gleam in your eye, consider this both a cautionary tale and a full-throated call to action. Farm City is an unforgettably charming memoir, full of hilarious moments, fascinating farmers’ tips, and a great deal of heart. It is also a moving meditation on urban life versus the natural world and what we have given up to live the way we do.

What we think about it?

My grandfather's cousin, who passed away recently, told me once that getting old is not for sissies. After reading "Farm City" I'm positive urban farming is not for sissies as well. At least not Novella Carpenter's version of it.

It's not only the fact that Novella's farm is not located in a rough city like Oakland (or as she describes it "I have a farm on a dead-end street in the ghetto"), but also the fact that is a real farm, with farm animals that the author and her boyfriend are taking care of, loving and eventually butchering and eating. It's not easy to read about it, not to mention to actually do it.

If you're wondering how it works for Novella Carpenter, here's a video clip from a conversation she had with Michael Pollan, her former professor, who questions her on how she is able to slaughter the animals she raises on her urban farm (the full video is available at

This fascinating book is a personal journey and it reminded me somehow "Into the Wild". Just like Christopher McCandless, the hero of "Into the Wild", Novella Carpenter keeps exploring her limits while going further into new territories. Only here it's downtown Oakland and not Alaska. One more thing I found similar between the two heroes is the willingness and commitment to their believes, no matter how extreme they have to go (i.e. dumpster diving to get food for the pigs).

I was intrigued with this journey not only because of the author and her farm, but also because of the neighborhood, the city and the people in GhosTown, like Lana and Bobby, who are part of the story and the author's daily life. The author managed to portray them in what I think is the most kind, generous, and funny way anyone has ever portrayed Oakland.

And yes, Novella Carpenter is nothing but a sissy. You can know that from the first page of the book, but by the end of it you got all the assurance you need. And you can be sure then that if there's a model character for a real urban farmer, it should definitely be based on her.

Bottom line: it's recommended to everyone, from new urban farmers all the way to readers who (still) prefer to do their shopping in the supermarket.

Disclosure: We received a copy of this book from the publisher.

If you're looking for other interesting green-themed books, you are invited to check out our green books page on Eco-Libris website's green resources section.

Raz @ Eco-Libris

Eco-Libris: Promoting sustainable reading!

No comments: