Move over Martha. There’s a new high priestess of growing your own food in town, and her name is Novella Carpenter. Who needs a palatial estate in suburban New York when you have a run-down apartment in the middle of a city with an empty lot behind you? If you have ever read Michael Pollan’s seminal Omnivore’s Dilemma and wondered if maybe you too could raise chickens (and perhaps kill them for dinner), take a look at Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter, a former student of Pollan’s who set up her own urban farm on a gritty dead-end street in Oakland.
I first met Novella Carpenter at the Taste3 conference in Napa where she gave a rousing and hilarious talk and slide show about her urban farm adventures. Clearly, this is a woman obsessed. (At Taste 3 Michael Ruhlman introduced her as insane; after reading her book I would have to agree.) Not content to just raise her own chickens, keep bees, and garden in her limited urban space, she moved on to ducks, geese, turkeys, rabbits, and even the more challenging, pigs. Who the heck raises two red Duroc pigs in a postage stamp-sized backyard in the city? They may be cute to start, but as Novella and her boyfriend were soon to find out, they have voracious appetites and they quickly grow very, very big.
There is a fearless quality about Ms. Carpenter that one cannot help admire. She decides she wants to raise turkeys so she can have her own turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. She knows nothing about raising turkeys or butchering them. She buys them young, builds a pen, and when the time comes, reads a book to see how the best way to kill them. This is a process that gets repeated with almost all her animals. Get them first, and then figure what to do. And those pigs? Eventually she and her boyfriend Bill resort to dumpster diving, behind the best restaurants they can find in Oakland and Berkeley to get enough food to feed them.
While Novella’s urban farm accomplishments are inspiring, what really brings the book to life is her humorous (and sometimes scary) retelling of the various oddball situations she finds herself in in her neighborhood and the characters she engages to help her along the way. There are so many juicy stories in the book, I’m hesitant to say anything about them, lest it ruin the delight of the reading. Suffice to say Novella is a master storyteller, and even if you have no interest in raising chickens, if you like a good story, you should get this book. (Unless you are vegan. Vegans shouldn’t read this book; I don’t think they would like it.)
By the way, you can read the first chapter of Farm City online. Check it out!
Here’s a short video of Novella talking about her urban farm: