It would be hard not to love a book that begins: “I have a farm on a dead-end street in the ghetto.” From this line through the end of the book, Novella Carpenter’s Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer had me hooked.
The premise of the book is simple, Novella and Bill (the author’s boyfriend) live in a community in Oakland, California that is suffering from urban blight and turn a vacant lot by their home into a garden. Despite the simple plot, the author weaves together a story that sheds insight on human relationships — our relationships with food, our relationships with plants and animals, and our relationships with each other. For example, when a stranger wonders into the garden and picks carrots, the author talks to the stranger and details his response “‘This place reminds me of my grandma.’ His eyes filled with tears. Everything’s so growing.’ he said.” Later, when the author realizes that slugs have consumed the heirloom watermelon she was trying to grow, she states “Other people suggest drowning them [slugs] in beer moats crafted out of tunafish cans. The slugs would fall into the moat and die a drunken, Janis Joplin-esque death. This seems suspiciously close to buying the slugs a beer, which was more generous than I felt.”
As time passes, the author expands the garden and begins to raise bees, chickens, turkeys, rabbits, and pigs. She begins to identify herself as an urban farmer, noting that “The term ‘urban farm’ had become part of the popular vernacular, and people –especially real, rural farmers — took umbrage at it. They were especially annoyed when the self-proclaimed urban farmers had only a few heads of lettuce and a pair of chickens. My definition of ‘urban farming’ involved selling, trading, or giving the products of the farm to someone else. There couldn’t just be a producer; there had to be a separate consumer. A real farm also had to involve some kind of livestock.”
I am definitely not an urban farmer and have no plans to raise livestock in my yard, but I do enjoy having a small garden in my backyard. Despite not being an urban farmer, I appreciate both the humor and the sentimentality expressed in the book. Farm City is an enjoyable account of the author’s growth as an urban farmer, but it also serves as a handbook on how to grow community by the way you interact with nature and neighbors.