Uber-funny urban farmer Novella Carpenter has gone from indie garage band status to full-fledged rock star of the urban homestead movement in a matter of months. In part, perhaps, because of zingers likes this one, about the lengths she and her partner go to — including nightly dumpster diving sporting head lamps — to keep two hungry and hefty pigs fed in the city. “If we had had time to think about it,” she says, “we would have realized that we had become these pigs’ bitches.”
Photo: Sarah Henry
Carpenter, who grows greens and raises livestock on a dead-end street in the ghetto, is the author of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. For the past decade, the 38-year-old has cultivated land in the city, the last six years on GhostTown Farm, the sunny, squat lot in Oakland, California next to her rundown, coral-colored flat — complete with a back porch covered in goat poop — where she lives with mechanic boyfriend Bill and a menagerie of her so-called edible pets, including rabbits, chickens, and, on occasion, a turkey or two.
The ‘hood is also dotted with long-shuttered businesses, drug dealers, prostitutes, multiethnic neighbors, and what Carpenter affectionately refers to as “fellow freaks.” She feels right at home there. “The neighborhood had a whiff of anarchy,” she notes in her memoir. “Spanish-speaking soccer players hosted ad hoc tournaments in the abandoned playfield. Teenagers sold bags of marijuana on the corners. The Buddhist monks made enormous vats of rice on the city sidewalk…And I started squat gardening on land I didn’t own.”
A child of back-to-the landers, Carpenter has received stellar reviews, most notably in the New York Times, for chronicling her exploits in the urban jungle. An excerpt from the book — some 15 pages on raising pigs and learning the craft of charcuterie — fills the August food issue of San Francisco magazine. She’s been featured everywhere from mainstream outlets like Time, foodie circles, like Culinate, and eco-green arenas like Grist. Not bad for a first-time author.
A former student of Michael Pollan’s, she regaled an audience at a recent reading in Berkeley with tales of foraging for food for her ravenous pigs (everything from rotting fish heads, frosted cakes, and organic peaches for these well-tended swine), before the hogs eventually wound up as cured meat. “You work your ass off trying to feed your pig really well,” she tells a crowd who eats up her colorful quips. “And then you find yourself thinking: This is going to be good. It’s a little sexy.”
But hers is not some sort of groovy-urban-gal-goes-green shtick. She’s the real deal. On a recent Friday at 7 am she greets me at the door and then diligently goes back to milking her goats. Once the task is done, she heads outside for a farm tour. She checks in with and feeds her animals and waters her plants by hand. Clearly, tending creatures and crops nourishes her in more ways than one. “I realized that not only did I make the garden, it made me,” she writes in her book. “I ate out of this place every day. I had become this garden–its air, water, soil. If I abandoned the lot, I would abandon myself.”
It’s also clear it takes discipline to be a city farmer. She goes to great lengths to source supplies for her animals (like trips to the local racetrack to pick up alfalfa for her goats). And she takes personal responsibility for killing the animals she eats. She’s surprised that some vegans buy her book — and pleased that people on either side of the omnivore aisle respect her efforts to eat meat with integrity. (Still, I suspect many vegetarians would wince at her descriptions of slaughtering animals, however humanely and humbly she goes about it.)
For those of us who have a hard time growing veggies in the backyard, a big part of her appeal may simply lie in knowing that a modern day urban homesteader like Carpenter is out there doing her thing, day in and day out. She’s a fixture in the ‘hood, along with hookers, dealers, homeless dudes, and kids who stop by to visit the animals. Her Cuban neighbors take care of the farm when she’s away; the Yemeni liquor store owner down the block offers advice on goat husbandry pulled from his earlier life as a goat herder. Talk about community.
I admire Novella’s moxie, and I suspect others do too. I’m not much of a meat eater, but the fact that she buys these farm animals and learns as she goes, in true D.I.Y. fashion, how to raise them and get them on the table for dinner is pretty impressive. Plus, just like me, she really doesn’t like rats, an unfortunate fact of life for an urban farmer.
Novella estimates that about half of her food comes from her farm and she sells some of her animals to fancy pants restaurants that want well-fed, farm fresh meat on the menu. But the girl isn’t raking it in, with animal expenses, vet visits, and seed and feed costs this is a labor of love not a moneymaking venture. The advance for her book, for instance, promptly paid for a milking goat.
So when she’s not tending her farm, Novella divides her time between writing, she’s currently at work on a how-to book for folks intrigued about urban farming, and running a biofuel station, the Biofuel Oasis in Berkeley, where she’s one of the owner/worker biodiesel divas. It may well be the only fueling station around that holds classes on raising chickens and bees in close quarters.
Her advice to those interested in joining the urban farming bandwagon? Start small, go slow, and grow what you like to eat. Radishes are easy, she points out, but if you don’t love ‘em, why grow ‘em? “The easiest urban farm animal is the bee, since they do most of the work and require little maintenance,” she says. “After that, try chickens; the eggs are amazing and they’re funny to watch.”
Curious to learn more? If you live in the Bay Area, check out Novella on the farm in person on Saturday, August 29, during Oakland’s Eat Real Festival next weekend. She’ll give farm tours, sign books, teach workshops on slaughtering chickens and raising goats, and harvest food to share. Oh, and she has a trio of dwarf goats for sale. Anyone game?