Archive for the ‘urban homesteading’ Category

Book Giveaway: Farm City by Novella Carpenter

August 31, 2009

In conjunction with the Eat Real Festival in Oakland last weekend, urban farm gal Novella Carpenter hosted an all day soiree at Ghost Town/Goat Town Farm, the one depicted in her very funny food memoir released earlier this summer. I swung by the event, which drew a steady crowd, to see what’s growing in the author’s garden (lots), sample some of Grandma’s peach cobbler, and ask Novella to sign a copy of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. (For the uninitiated — and locavores — she’ll be reading at Mrs. Dalloway’s in Berkeley this Sunday.)

So, attention all city farmers and wannabe urban homesteaders: There’s a free, autographed Farm City to the person who writes the most entertaining comment about their endeavors growing or raising their own food in the asphalt jungle (or their fantasies about doing the same).

Do you have a tale to tell about a veggie patch planted in the ‘hood that produced nary a thing to eat? Have you devised innovative strategies to keep metro-dwelling predators at bay? Are you contemplating or already raising bees, chickens, goats — or even a cow — in city limits?

Bring it on. Tell us a witty, eye-opening, or inspiring snippet about city farming and I’ll pick a winner by 10 P.M. PST on Monday, September 7, which just happens to be Labor Day. Happy Harvesting.

Update: Thanks to all for creative comments about the joys and challenges of city farming.  It was hard to single out just one entry but the autographed copy of Farm City goes to….Velma for her planted chicken story (scroll below for details). The author herself judged the comp and Novella noted that she chose Velma because she was moved by the childhood innocence of her tale.

Velma: Send me your contact details and I’ll ship the book off to you. My email is: sarahhenry0509@gmail.com.

Thanks again for playing. And stay tuned for a school food book giveaway later this month.

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Adventures of an Urban Farm Gal

August 20, 2009

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.”

novella-carpenterPhoto: 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?

The Urban Homestead: An Old Idea is New Again

July 20, 2009

You know how right after you first learn the meaning of a word or hear an unfamiliar expression you find yourself running across that word over and over again? Maybe it pops up in a book, on the news, or in conversation. It’s like the term was floating out there in the universe all the time and you just didn’t know it.

That’s how I feel lately about the au courant label urban homestead. Everywhere I turn the term seems to be sprouting, in chats with friends, in interviews with farm and food folk, in discussions with colleagues, and in the press.

Not sure what urban homesteading looks like? It’s city dwellers who both enjoy all the urban jungle has to offer and turn city lots, their tiny backyards, balconies, or roof tops into little farms by growing their own greens, preserving, brewing, keeping bees, and/or raising and butchering their own animals for milk, eggs, and meat.

Why are city slickers cultivating this way of life in increasing numbers? For some, it’s a way to connect directly with nature and the food they eat. For others it’s about self-sufficiency, independence, food safety, or food security. Some get going for economic reasons. Still others site its eco cred, lowering their carbon footprint (especially those who opt to go off the grid–as much as humanly possible in the urban environment–by installing solar panels and rain tanks, recycling gray water, and hanging laundry). Of course, for many urban homesteaders, all or many of the above apply.

At its core, this homegrown urban farm revolution marks a cultural and political shift from consuming (buying food) to producing (growing and making your own chow). What makes it different from previous back-to-the-land moments? It’s taking place in major metropolitan areas — and there’s an underlying ethos that participants derive pleasure and build community from all this D.I.Y. production and preservation.  It’s meant to be fun, as well as good for the body, soul, and planet. Urban homesteaders throw canning parties, team up to cure meat, exchange eggs and milk for honey and herbs, and enjoy the fruits of their labor in elaborate feasts with like-minded foodie friends, or so recent news accounts suggest. It seems the domestic arts are groovy again and these newly-learned or rediscovered skills and home-based habits may very well outlast the current economic downturn.

For those of us barely keeping a few chives alive on the windowsill it can feel a tad intimidating. Urban homesteading may be a new kind of extreme sport. It no longer feels enough to cook your own dinner from scratch with organic produce from the farmers’ market and whole grain, non-GMO ingredients from the bulk food bin of your neighborhood natural grocer or food co-op. These days folks are routinely making their own yogurt, pickling and drying their own produce, foraging for fruit, baking bread, making pasta, catching, filleting, and smoking fish — the list is long and admirable. (It may also feel a bit insurmountable and exhausting for well, at least this writer, who is just trying to get a meal on the table after a day at the office.)

This emerging trend echoes earlier grow-your-own efforts, like the World War II-era victory gardens that took root after Eleanor Roosevelt planted a veggie patch at the White House. The Grand Pappy of the modern-day city farm trend may well be Jules Dervaes in Pasedena. On his family farm Dervaes and his three grown children cultivate just one-tenth of an acre, which has produced over three tons of food from some 350 different vegetables, fruits, and herbs. Their online urban homesteading journal dates back to the pre-blogging, olden days of cyberspace, circa 2001.

In my corner of the globe several urban homesteaders are making names for themselves beyond their home base. Food forager Asiya Wadud is profiled in a previous post. Anya Fernald, who served as executive director of Slow Food Nation in San Francisco last year, and who recently launched LiveCulture and is organizing next month’s Eat Real Festival in Oakland is another garnering national attention.  More on this food activist’s projects to come. Writer Novella Carpenter, whose memoir Farm City hilariously chronicles the joys and hazards of squat-lot farming in the ghetto, is another. Carpenter and her edible pets will make an appearance in a future post.

Looking to learn about how to start your own small-scale urban farm? Check out the blog spot homegrown evolution, by SoCal city farmers Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne, authors of The Urban Homestead, who pass on urban homesteading tips and techniques gleaned from their experience. “Once you discover that lettuce actually has a distinct flavor, or you eat a sweet tomato still warm from the sun, or an orange-yolked egg from your own hen, you will never be satisfied with pre-packaged and factory-farmed again,” writes Coyne, summing up her urban homesteading philosophy elsewhere in the blogosphere.

Do you keep bees on your roof, chickens in your side yard, or goats on your back deck? Have you hijacked an abandoned lot and become a pirate gardener, turned your front yard from lawn into lunch, or revitalized that strip of unused land between the street and the sidewalk into an edible oasis? Since a central tenet of the city ag movement is sharing the wealth, feel free to fill us in on your success stories, food-raising failures, or obstacles (legal, logistical, or otherwise) as an urban homesteading adventurer.

Flickr photo by chotda used under the Creative Commons license

Book cover image by Gregg Einhorn