jess's Reviews > Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer

Farm City by Novella Carpenter
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Nov 16, 09

bookshelves: 2009, audiobook-d, food, growing
Read in November, 2009

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 perspective, insight, politics and cursing. It's not a "how to" but there is a lot of learning to do. Carpenter cited sources, quoting other authors, and referring to older sustainable/farming projects (like Thoreau, who squatted at Emerson's Walden Pond or the history of "making do" in the Bay Area and America) in a thoughtful way. I felt a real sense of historical continuity - from survival tactics and historical urban farming during the Great Depression to Carpenter's parents' generation and their hippie "back to the land"ness that left them isolated and alone in rural areas. With all this context and history, Farm City brings the sense that this current "urban farming trend" is actually a natural and necessary progression in the history of urban space. I will say, however, if I never hear the phrase, "American thrift at its finest" ever again, it will be too soon. Carpenter has so many examples of "American thrift at its finest," I was like, whoa, there are so many "finest" (exclusive superlative) moments, I can't keep track!

From raised beds and beehives, it seems like such a slippery slope to raising birds for meat, then raising bunnies for meat, and then culminating in the raising two piglets into enormous pigs, seeing them through butchering and curing. The butchering and breaking down is fairly graphic, so if you aren't prepared to hear about the death of the thanksgiving heirloom turkey, the Big Sleep of a flock of chickens, and "pulling off the pajamas" of a rabbit, etc, then this might be a good book to skip. The hard part for me was this conundrum that yes, it is very difficult (maybe impossible?) to raise enough vegetarian protein for a human to be sustained on a small urban farm, and if you are going to eat meat, I agree with Novella that there's no better way than to raise it yourself, feed it well, know that it had a happy life, died a humane and respectful death, and that the meat was not contaminated or treated badly before it got to your table. But after decades of vegetarianism, it would take a better person than me to become a hog farmer. I'm left feeling like, "okay, I guess I'm just inherently less committed to sustaining my own nutritional needs, oh well, guess I'll go to Taco Bell." I am not sure that was the intention. I grew up on a similar (but less hardcore!) "back to the land" hippie-parent farming experiment, like Novella Carpenter, and I raised guinea hens and held a baby lamb that grew up to be lamb chops, and that drove me to vegetarianism... so I don't know how I fit into the larger locavore picture, despite my very best intentions.

Novella does a month-long 100 yard diet challenge, which is cool, and then she starts musing on the importance of sharing food to strength relationships and social bonds. How much smug self-satisfaction do you get if, at the end of the month, you realize you haven't broken bread with your sweetheart in 30 days? Total bummer. I love eating meals with my sweetheart and our pals, so that 100-yard diet would not be a worthwhile challenge for me. All in all, I am really glad I read this book but I don't think I will read it again, and I will probably steer clear of books about animal slaughter until I feel a little less emotional about baby piglets and turkey poults. Yes, I sound like a big tittybaby and I don't care. Oh, and I audiobook'd this, which I think was a fantastic way to read it. I probably would not have enjoyed it as much if it had not brought me such entertainment in my commute.
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