Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer
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Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer

3.98 of 5 stars 3.98  ·  rating details  ·  6,343 ratings  ·  1,112 reviews

Urban and rural collide in this wry, inspiring memoir of a woman who turned a vacant lot in downtown Oakland into a thriving farm

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 h...more
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published June 11th 2009 by Penguin Press HC, The (first published 2009)
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Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara KingsolverAll Creatures Great and Small by James HerriotFarm City by Novella CarpenterThe Dirty Life by Kristin KimballHit by a Farm by Catherine Friend
Down on the Farm
3rd out of 89 books — 146 voters
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara KingsolverThe Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael PollanIn Defense of Food by Michael PollanThe Dirty Life by Kristin KimballFarm City by Novella Carpenter
Locavore Reading List
5th out of 55 books — 180 voters

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Community Reviews

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Jun 11, 2014 Diane rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommended to Diane by: Michelle
Shelves: memoirs, gardening
I like reading gardening memoirs, even though I do not have a vegetable garden. As a farmer's granddaughter, I appreciate all of the hard work it takes to grow and raise food.

"Farm City" is an entertaining book about an urban farmer in Oakland, California, and she describes her neighborhood as being in the ghetto. At various times, Novella has kept chickens, rabbits, turkeys, ducks, geese, bees and even pigs in her backyard.* (I visited her blog, Ghost Town Farm, and saw she also had a goat.) Sh...more
I had fair warning: the sections of this book are named turkey, rabbit, and pig.

Still, I was willing to read about the killing and eating of animals because of the good things I'd heard.

The book is as much about living in the down-and-out part of Oakland and general D.I.Y. as much as urban farming. Carpenter's sense of humor is on target for the first half of the book, as is the charm in her descriptions of her neighbors, her farming projects, and even of the animals she keeps. She begins with v...more
I end up on the "it was OK" rating of two stars mostly because Novella simply rubs me the wrong way. She unfortunately comes off to me as someone with just a bit of a holier-than-thou attitude toward her neighbors and neighborhood, although it's difficult for me to pinpoint just how that attitude gets communicated to me. Many times the scenarios are humorous and the interactions zany in a good way. Yet when she confesses that it took her two years to get up the courage to walk off her dead end s...more
Adele Stratton
(Audioversion) (Two and a half stars.) The story apparently sprang from her blog about how she moved to inner-city Oakland California and began growing her own food—moving quickly from fruits and vegetables, to bees, to meat-birds and rabbits, and finally to raising pigs—by squatting on a vacant inner-city lot, next to an apartment she rents. I had some mixed feelings about this one. The book is engaging, and there is a part of Carpenter that seems to have honorable intentions and a good heart....more
So, I read this book for the second time to try to give it another chance. I just WANTED to like it so much. The premise is something that is near and dear to my heart as I want to move from a heavy gardener to someone who is very deeply rooted in the farming scene. I grew up in a farming community and now live in the city, so shouldn't this book be right up my alley? The second try has confirmed, I hate this book. Maybe hate is a strong word, but who the hell told Novella to end her chapters wi...more
Tamara Taylor
I absolutely loved this book. The paralells between Novella's backyard city farm and my own rural spread are uncanny. Both of us are running a veritable shit show where things go wrong, animals are cavorting along public roadways, animals die...and yet neither of us can imagine a life doing anything else. Novella is my kind of gal. She's ballsy, hilarious, adventurous and kind. The people she encounters through her adventure are so genuinely bizarre. I adore her homeless "neighbour" Bobby and fe...more
Ty Melgren
I haven't been very good at sleeping lately, so for a while this is what I was reading in the middle of the night when I didn't want to think about anything or have any emotions. It's about a lady in Oakland who has a garden and some bees and chickens and ducks and turkeys and rabbits and pigs. Towards the end I realized she was giving away quite a bit of her eggs and honey and vegetables, and I wondered if maybe I ought to be a more generous person. As soon as I wondered this I fell asleep. Whe...more
This is the best memoir of urban farming I have ever read.

Novella relays her joys and hardships of farming in Oakland with enthusiasm, intelligence, candor and humor. Aside from growing vegetables and fruit, she merrily upgrades her stock from chickens and turkeys to rabbits finally ending at pigs.

I laughed so hard at the image of hauling pigs in the back of a station wagon! I'm thinking of making hubby Tal read it so he can realize that just chickens aren't so bad in comparison.

Farm City is...more

I should throw it out there that I was so totally psyched to read this book. I've had it on my to-read list since I read a review of it in the Times or the Globe (can't remember which) two years ago. I have lived most of my adult life in a manner that keeps me from growing as much food as I would like, and the premise of this book compelled me. It's the story of the author's move to inner-city Oakland in order to farm a vacant lot next door to her apartment, and all t...more
Novella Carpenter moved from rainy Seattle, WA to Oakland, CA. More accurately, she moved to Ghosttown, an especially rough part of Oakland where "tumbleweaves" roll across the abandoned lots. She took an apartment near an abandoned lot, and began a "squat garden," (illegal occupation of land you do not own for the purpose of growing plants). That squat garden grew into a squat farm, which grew into this book. The book is highly readable, often funny, and I was charmed by the author's perspectiv...more
I really wanted to like this book -- the author's voice and personality shine through her writing very clearly. She seemed like a snotty, self-important, shrill and unbalanced person. I kept reading, hoping that the author would undergo some transformation that would redeem her, and thinking that perhaps she wasn't as self centered as she made herself sound -- but when it got to the section about how demanding and rude she was to the woman who butchered her pigs -- I realized: the author is just...more
I'm pretty surprised at how highly this book has been rated and how many impressive blurbs (Michael Pollan, NYT Book Review, Oprah) it has received. I picked it up to read as a comp title for a narrative I'm working on now, and I thought about putting it down at least half a dozen times as I made my way through it. It took me at least the first third of the book to become invested, and even then I only stuck with it because I wanted to read it for comparison.

Basically I think Novella tries too...more
Novella can pull up a chair next to Cormac McCarthy and Clint Eastwood and sit at the all-time favorite badasses table.
This book riveted me and intrigued me, even though I wasn't such a fan of its author. Even though she retains a dry, slightly detached perspective on her own life throughout the book, urban farmer Novella Carpenter comes across as kind of smug, especially when ranking on her "trustafarian" friends who yearn to be urban farmers too, despite the fact they have all the money in the world and no need for such a hobby.

To those trustafarians, I say: Farm on! Don't listen to your "friend" Novella. Whet...more
The best book I have read in ages, seriously. This is a story about a woman my age who started an urban farm deep in an Oakland ghetto, and the saga of going from bees to fowl to rabbits to pigs. She has a sardonic, witty tone that kept me right with her while she illuminated her awkward, sweaty, brutal, and difficult quest.

She really gets to the heart of what is important about food, and what is lacking in our food culture, without sounding preachy. She addresses the class issues of local/fresh...more
Because I have a secret desire to turn my front yard into a vegetable garden, I loved the brazen confidence with which the author tackles becoming an urban farmer - complete with chickens, turkeys, rabbits, and even pigs. I didn't particularly care for the author's writing style (I found it a little bit annoying; I'm still not exactly sure why), but the story was so interesting and informative that it didn't matter. Novella Carpenter's memoir of urban farming in Berkley, California addresses sev...more
My fiance's been reading a lot about permaculture and urban farming lately, and while I appreciate the idea of self grown organic produce, I haven't been too motivated to read into it myself. But he insisted I read Farm City, Carpenter's account of squat gardening and raising livestock in inner city Oakland, and I'm so glad he did. She explains how she grew vegetables and fruit trees, as well as raised turkeys, chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits and even pigs over the course of several years. At on...more
Bob Redmond
Why is this book excellent?

First, it's a story worth telling. Carpenter transcends the "personal essay/memoir" genre by focusing on the story, rather than herself as narrator. Daughter of rural hippies lives in the Oakland ghetto and ends up raising bees, chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, pigs, and a complete garden.

Second, it's excellently written. The egoless approach to memoir is relevant here as well. She focuses on the story and the action, with the perfect amount of context, asides, humor,...more
Sven Eberlein
Farm City The Education of an Urban Farmer

There are people — in fact, the vast majority of Homo sapiens — who see and define their existence through the lens of what they do: Teachers, bus drivers, nurses, architects, accountants, and any number of professionals whose modus operandi is collectively understood and agreed upon. Then there are those who teeter along the edges of known and accepted ways of existence, their divine operating systems not quite programmed for vocational compatibility. S...more
When the author wasn't describing the ways in which she killed & maimed her livestock, I really enjoyed (most of) this book. To build and share a farm on an abandoned lot in Oakland is a remarkable, awe-inspiring thing. But I wanted to pull the author aside and say, "Listen. You're charming, you spin a compelling little yarn, but I have some pointers. First, stop using 'ghetto' as shorthand for poor, black, and urban. It's a blanket term that is totally devoid of nuance and complexity, and i...more
Novella Carpenter moved with her husband to an apartment in a bad part of Oakland, CA. Their home was located next to an empty lot, on which Novella (being the child of two hippie parents) planted her first squat garden (squat, because she was squatting and hadn’t asked the owner, initially, for permission). Once the garden was flourishing, she expanded her farming operations to bees, chickens, geese, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, and even pigs. Some of her neighbors were puzzled or intrigued by her...more
What a wonderful, light, often funny read! It has inspired me to plant a bigger and better garden this year, learn more about community gardens in our area and to help support school gardens. I very much enjoyed the book and the author's sense of humor. I have many favorite quotes, but here are just a few. I read off my Sony Reader; hope page numbers correlate.

"That I could borrow a firearm like a cup of sugar sure felt neighborly." P. 81

"Even in this ghetto squat lot, I was cultivating human hi...more
Ticklish Owl
When my dentist recommended this book, I was delighted. It sounded like a fun and educational read, with a perspective different from my own. My family had a large (urban) garden when I was a kid. My gran and auntie had enormous gardens too, and they shared the harvest with us. We cellared, canned, and froze a good portion of our food. Being a silly kid, I thought everyone did this. Imagine my embarrassment when the neighbor's kids explained that mashed potatoes came from a box of flakes bought...more
This is an amazing book detailing Novella Carpenter's journey as an urban farmer, from building and planting raised beds of vegetables on an empty lot; raising bees, chickens and rabbits; and culminating in her raising, slaughtering and processing two pigs -- all while simultaneously dealing with the uniquely urban problems of homeless neighbors, drug dealers, and drive-by shootings.

As someone enamored with the idea of homesteading and urban farming, I can get a bit starry eyed about the idea....more
This was a painful read. The major problem of the book was summed up in the conclusion which is comprised of Carpenter's standard combination of hackneyed rhetoric, painfully ignorant social commentary, narcissism, and total inconsistency: In one breath she tells us that she has not changed the land, it has changed her, and in the next she tells us that perhaps she has altered the future of Oakland (so actually she thinks she has changed the land). She tells us that she has finally found her ide...more
I have to admit that I'm biased in my review because this book is set 3 miles from where I live. One of the things I really enjoyed about reading this story of urban farming adventures was the forthcoming nature of Carpenter's narrative, sometimes to the point of oversharing. For instance, I would probably not have written a book in such a way that my readers could figure out quite easily where I live (28th at MLK in Oakland, you can see her empty-lot farm on Google streetview!). But this kind o...more
I admit it: I was hesitant to read this book. I was not a skeptic about the reality of urban farms: Detroit has had many for years. But, having lived in the Bay Area for three years, I saw the title and braced myself for our special local flavor of unbearable earnestness, smugness, and general center-of-the-universe-ness.

You won't find any of that in this book.

This author is honest (and really funny). Novella makes fun of herself when she deserves it, is self-deprecating where appropriate, is...more
I went to see Novella Carpenter speak as part of a panel presentation for the Texas Book festival. Full disclosure-I wasn't there even peripherally to see her, but because Jonathan Safran Foer was on the panel. Had I known then that I would both read and love her book, I would have paid more attention to what she had to say.
This book has so much going for it. First, it's funny. Novella, in her quest to establish and maintain her urban farm, engages in more than one activity that can best be des...more
Rebecca Miller
I wanted to like this book. Hell – I wanted to LOVE this book. I am a proud Oaklander who lives about 5 miles away from Novella, in my own “emerging neighborhood”. I too want to grow my own carrots and snack on my own plums. But, I was turned off by this book for two reasons. First – the meat-centric aspect of the book. I am a vegetarian and although I knew she would be growing her own meat animals, I figured I would just gloss over those bits and focus on the greener side of the picture. It fel...more
I enjoyed this book. About halfway through, I realized that it reminded me a lot of Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" although definitely a grungier version, minus the idyllic country setting (a crucial difference, I'll admit, but I couldn't help seeing connections throughout).

As others mentioned, Carpenter's tone is sometimes grating. A few times, she implies that people of a certain political persuasion are not "her people" and seems offended by their very existence...yet throu...more
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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 urban farm began with a few chickens, then some bees, until she had a full-blown farm near downtown Oakland.

Author photo courtesy of author website.
More about Novella Carpenter...
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“I know the pleasure of pulling up root vegetables. They are solvable mysteries.” 3 likes
“No one seemed to think it was odd that a Dumpster-diving urban pig farmer was in their midst. In fact, I came to learn that the restaurant industry was filled with other obsessive freaks like Samin, who would never buy a factory-made pickle. I was just another one of those freaks.” 2 likes
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