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Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer

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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 her parents' disastrous mistakes, yet drawn to the idea of backyard self-sufficiency, Carpenter decided that it might be possible to have it both ways: a homegrown vegetable plot as well as museums, bars, concerts, and a twenty-four-hour convenience mart mere minutes away. Especially when she moved to a ramshackle house in inner city Oakland and discovered a weed-choked, garbage-strewn abandoned lot next door. She closed her eyes and pictured heirloom tomatoes, a beehive, and a chicken coop.

What started out as a few egg-laying chickens led to turkeys, geese, and ducks. Soon, some rabbits joined the fun, then two three-hundred-pound pigs. And no, these charming and eccentric animals weren't pets; she was a farmer, not a zookeeper. Novella was raising these animals for dinner. Novella Carpenter's corner of downtown Oakland is populated by unforgettable characters. Lana (anal spelled backward, she reminds us) runs a speakeasy across the street and refuses to hurt even a fly, let alone condone raising turkeys for Thanksgiving. Bobby, the homeless man who collects cars and car parts just outside the farm, is an invaluable neighborhood concierge. The turkeys, Harold and Maude, tend to escape on a daily basis to cavort with the prostitutes hanging around just off the highway nearby. Every day on this strange and beautiful farm, urban meets rural in the most surprising ways.

For anyone who has ever grown herbs on their windowsill, tomatoes on their fire escape, or obsessed over the offerings at the local farmers' market, Carpenter's story will capture your heart. And if you've ever considered leaving it all behind to become a farmer outside the city limits, or looked at the abandoned lot next door with a gleam in your eye, consider this both a cautionary tale and a full-throated call to action. Farm City is an unforgettably charming memoir, full of hilarious moments, fascinating farmers' tips, and a great deal of heart. It is also a moving meditation on urban life versus the natural world and what we have given up to live the way we do.

276 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2009

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About the author

Novella Carpenter

11 books108 followers
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.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,491 reviews
Profile Image for Anne.
113 reviews17 followers
June 24, 2010
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 street's block, I have to wonder why the hell she bothered living there? If she's been that afraid of the neighborhood for that long, what was the point? It was all they could afford? Or, as another reviewer suggested, it was all part of the book idea she wanted to pitch?

Her endeavors are refreshing, although I believe a lot more needs to be said about how to really begin doing something about the problem of our food sources. It's not realistic to believe we can all raise all our own food. I participated in a large garden with my family, and it came no where near feeding us, although it contributed many delicious additions to our meals. I don't see giving up flour because I can't personally grow the acres of wheat to create it as a helpful thought. Our human society is based on exchange, and has been for thousands of years. No doubt there have always been specialists in the human communities, and the products they produce can be traded for products others produce. Because we now live in a society that uses currency as an exchange tool doesn't change that reality. On the other hand, I do believe we need to begin to eat more locally, that more diverse farm production is healthier, and that it's good for people to know more about where their food comes from. There are a lot of good thought provoking starting points, but I think she fails to follow them through and her personality just doesn't appeal much to me. I'd rather read Michael Pollan or Barbara Kingsolver.
Profile Image for Diane.
1,080 reviews2,653 followers
June 11, 2014
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.) She planted a vegetable garden and some fruit trees, and even took over an abandoned lot next door, which she uses as a community garden.

I enjoyed most of Novella's stories, but there were a lot of digressions that I had to skim. This book should have been better edited -- not every rambling blog post needs to be printed in a book.

Some gardening memoirs that I thought were better written were "The $64 Tomato" by William Alexander and "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" by Barbara Kingsolver. But "Farm City" was a nice, pleasant read at the start of summer.

*Small rant here, because I HAVE OPINIONS: I thought Novella and her boyfriend were nuts for trying to raise pigs in the city. If you want to raise that kind of livestock, move to the country. There are zoning laws for reasons. Several neighbors of theirs complained about the smell the pigs made, and I don't blame them. If my neighbor started keeping pigs in her backyard, I would raise hell. Look, I love and appreciate urban gardens, but there are limits, you guys.
Profile Image for Sarah.
250 reviews127 followers
December 14, 2011
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 identity (a farmer) and in the next breath tells us that she was recently shocked to discover that roosters crow early in the morning. She tells us that she has a deep respect for animals and her relationship with them, but makes absolutely ZERO effort to understand them and when the rooster crowing becomes annoying she is all to happy to have the animal killed- not as a sacred offering as she describes the process earlier, but because the crowing is a pain in the ass. She loves living in the ghetto, but hopes the ghetto changes to her conception of what poverty could be. She is self-deprecating as far as calling herself (as well as everyone who has ever been useful to her) a "freak" and an "asshole", but is incapable of showing this humility when it comes to seeing what a total lack of care she has when it comes to the animals. In her dealings with animals the attitude seems to be " Well, just because I have no experience and have no understanding of X animal, doesn't mean I shouldn't buy some; If it doesn't work out they'll either die off due to my ineptitude or they'll live long enough for me to kill them."

This woman is insufferably pretentious, made worse by her total lack of awareness or sense of humor. Most of the beginning of the book is devoted to her describing how she has had every cool idea that ever occurred -- but no one appreciates how incredibly cool she is because the rest of us are so lame and stupid-- unless you're a vegetarian and then you're an annoying sentimentalist-- or also if you're from California, you're a fake freak that has come here to "reinvent" yourself-- unlike the author who has always been impossibly cool and ahead of the crowd. Or you work at the post office, or buy your food at the grocery store, or you do farm but don't have bees, or you are a republican, or you live in a good neighborhood, or you live on a rural farm, or you're an anarchist, or you're straight edge...

Who is a jerk?
- people who work at the post office
- urban farmers that don't eat their animals
- rural farmers
- everyone else who lives in California
- people who ask her questions
- vegetarians
- people who shop using catalogues
- homesteaders
- anarchists
- people who name their animals
- the poor
What else sucks?
- clean streets
- Cold weather
- nice things
- house rules when living with roommates

artisan butchers that don't do things the way she imagined them in fantasyThis is made even worse by the totally artless prose, peppered with expletives and horribly boring details that do nothing for the narrative e.g.

-- a page devoted to how she doesn't generally shop from catalogues and has low grade aggression against people who do, but would make exceptions when it came to farm equipment.
-- a story about how she borrowed a friend's truck and decided not to tell him that she had overloaded the truck bed and possibly damaged the suspension. End of story.
--Apparently "no one in the city" of Oakland knows how to tell if a watermelon is ripe so she had to drive to Mendocino. Really? While this is absurd, it also speaks to the fact that she never made a single friend in years of living there- or even on a speaking basis with any farmer/basically competent person in vegetables.
On killing slugs:
"I felt great. I killed so others might live. Death is all around us, even in an innocent watermelon. You just have to know where to look. "

I am not sure what "others" she imagines we're fighting for survival on her watermelon (nutritionally vacuous) but the histrionic prose is abundant.
Profile Image for Kara.
Author 1 book8 followers
March 28, 2011
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 vegetables and fruit and bees, then moves to birds, rabbits, and pigs. There is much to like in this book, but the last third of the book (pig) went to that place that I resent, where a person's hunger is more important than anything else and they forgive themselves violence as long as they "respect" the animal they kill. The last third of the book was hard to read not just because of the detailed descriptions of butchery and gourmet meat preps, but because the drooling obsession with fatty meat drowns any other concerns in the book. Unless you live solely for salami, the book becomes a bore.

I still enjoyed approximately 2/3 of the book, but had to comment on the fact that Carpenter is weirdly uninformed and reactionary about people who concern themselves with animal rights. I chose to sit through her gore to see what else she had to offer, but it was clear she had nothing but disdain for anyone who would ever pass over pork. While she went on and on about the flavor of her pigs, I left a reasonably enjoyable book with a sour taste in my mouth.
1 review
January 7, 2011
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 with those cheesy one liners? Who advised her to consistently try to define herself throughout the book by putting others down? I wanted to feel she is a genuine and funny person, but I literally said "UGHHHHH!!!!" out loud on the subway during various parts. The first time I suffered through this book, I read it aloud with my boyfriend and would sometimes pause and say, "no really, I cannot read this next line I just can't." On that basis alone I thought it would be entertaining to give it another try, especially after seeing so many high recommendations from people that I respect.

Do yourself a favor and read Animal, Vegetable Miracle instead. There was not one part of Farm City that got me as stoked and motivated to grow, harvest and share my food as much as AVM, which honestly changed the entire scope of the way I eat and look at food production. Plus I finished that book LIKING the author.
Profile Image for Robin.
69 reviews77 followers
May 18, 2011

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 the wacky stories that happen along the way.

I started out really liking the book, and gradually found myself disliking it more and more. The book is divided into three sections: "Turkey," "Rabbit," and "Pig"; as one might expect, each chapter is about her farming of that specific animal. As you can imagine, the animals range from least to most outlandish agricultural choices for city life.

I really started to dislike the author when she bought two turkeys. As a breed, turkeys thrive in flocks; they do not enjoy solitary life. I found myself even more frowny-faced when her female turkey died and she didn't get another hen to replace it. The tom was clearly miserable for the rest of his life, and probably never had it so great to begin with. I found it to be pretty hypocritical of the author to be all about giving her animals the best lives possible before killing and eating them when she didn't even bother to ensure that her turkeys would have such lives. Did I mention that the female turkey died because it flew over her relatively low razor-wire fence and was immediately ripped to shreds by a bunch of junkyard dogs that lived on the other side, and that the author knew about both the fence and the dogs while she let her turkeys roam around in her yard? That's a nice, humane turkey raising operation you've got there, Novella Carpenter.

My next big level of irritation came from the Rabbit section, where the author repeatedly waxes poetic about raising rabbits and living some kind of bizarre romanticized version of French peasant life. Let me tell you, I'm sure there was NOTHING more awesome for a French peasant woman than being a peasant. Serfdom is so fun! Perhaps I am wrong and she is romanticizing the lives of French peasant Fascists in the 1920’s and 30’s. Clearly those were some fun times for all involved parties.

When not obsessing over picking and choosing certain aspects of French peasantry to claim as her own, Novella is picking and choosing certain aspects of urban life the same way. Soon after farming the empty lot next door, its owner attempted to sell the land for condo building. Novella is shocked and aghast that someone would 1. tear down her beautiful garden and 2. want to live there. It never occurs to her that her white face is the reason why someone would want to live there- she is actively gentrifying an inner-city neighborhood populated mostly by people of color.

She doesn’t mention this a lot until the end of the book, when the neighborhood’s gentrification has spun far beyond what she has contributed to it- I guess because then she can get off without accepting any responsibility for it. She only directly mentions gentrification once before the end of the book- “Some might argue I had been causing a bit of gentrification myself. But [my] pigs-- and their odors-- had put a stop to that.” On the other hand, some might argue that she was exploiting life in a neighborhood that the cops and code enforcement don’t give a shit about so that she could raise pigs without anyone getting up in her grill about it, without actively contributing much of value to the neighborhood- only raising the rents and eventually displacing the original residents.

Novella is quick to talk about her work with the Oakland chapter of the new Black Panthers; she gives them crops from her garden. But she also seems to be annoying the shit out of her neighbors throughout. She invites the neighborhood kids over to meet the animals, only to kill them soon after, surely traumatizing the kids. She clearly wants to expose them to the realities of where their dinner comes from, but is a really shitty way to do it. I (the reviewer) am the daughter of a third-generation recreational hog farmer. I was raised to understand where food comes from; I saw it up close and personal throughout my childhood. I get that my childhood experience is relatively unique, but come on. You can’t force this stuff on kids like that.

Speaking of coming from a long line of hog farmers, I found myself appalled by Novella’s idiotic methods of hog farming. She calls it pig farming, but let’s be serious- pigs weigh 120 pounds or less. These suckers are big-ass, mean hogs. Have you ever come up close and personal with a hog? Much like the Wu-Tang Clan, hogs ain’t nothin’ to fuck with. They will bite your hand, and then they will eat the fingers that came off in their mouth. When I was a kid I was told time and time again to stay the fuck away from any hogs that came around- they can and will eat children, if given the opportunity. Pigs will eat anything, and they constantly crave protein. Novella lets her hogs run, well, hog wild all over her neighborhood full of children. This was the part where I pretty much threw the book across my bedroom in disgust on every page. She seems to think that it’s quaint and cute that her pigs keep escaping. It’s not. It’s ridiculously dangerous.

Her incredibly patient next-door neighbors complain about the pig stench (a stench which is indeed horrific), saying that it is leaving their young daughter on the verge of vomiting, and Novella merely offers to give them some pork chops once they’re butchered. She probably knows that the neighbors could call the cops a hundred times and they’d never come to her dangerous neighborhood and take the hogs away. She also probably knows that there’s a good chance that her neighbors are afraid to call the cops because they’re immigrants. This is why she’s farming in the inner city, rather than in a hipper neighborhood. It’s not merely because of the low cost of living she’s enjoying; it’s because she can exploit the shit out of all of the poor immigrants around her without worrying about any repercussions. She might not consciously realize this, but it’s clear after reading the book.

Novella talks over and over again about wanting to have a farmer’s life without having to give up the positive aspects of city life. I know a lot of farmers who would scoff at Novella calling herself a farmer. She is probably farming about a half-acre or so, if even, and she is doing it the expense of the sanity and, in some cases, safety of all who live around her. She speaks constantly about the community in her neighborhood, but she never checks in with any of the parents around to see if they mind having child-hungry hogs roaming around the neighborhood. Of course, she doesn’t have to- the city cares about these kids even less than she does. Convenient for Novella, no?

In a lot of ways I really liked this book. I appreciate the author’s commitment to growing her own food, to knowing where everything she eats comes from, and to have a hand in all of it. She is a fantastic writer, and thoroughly researched her book. That said, I can’t help but think that she’s kind of an asshole for all of the reasons I outlined above. There are ways to farm hogs in the city without doing it the way she does- she could move to a city like Detroit, Memphis or New Orleans with lots of urban acreage to squat (although none of those cities are as fabulously cool as SF, so she probably wouldn't dare), rather than doing it in such closely confined quarters. All I know is that if she lived next door to me in her neighborhood, I’d shoot her pigs in the head myself. And I’m a vegetarian.
Profile Image for Adele Stratton.
234 reviews3 followers
July 21, 2014
(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. But there’s this other part of her that’s smug, an it’s-all-about-what-I-think-is-right side, she doesn’t really care much how the strong smells and sounds of her farm affect her neighbors, she mostly hopes they won’t complain because in her eyes she’s doing such good. She uses a lot of salty language in situations that don’t seem to call for it. She finally lets loose an unbelievably crude expletive about Sheila, the woman she hires to kill her pigs when she doesn't do it exactly how or when Carpenter wanted with her oh-so-special pigs. I’ve never heard a female use this term about another female, and putting it in writing where, ostensibly, there was time and consideration given to using it, seriously lowered my opinion of Carpenter. In my eyes she went from a well-intentioned new breed of loving earth mother (she rather affectionately calls herself “a freak”), to a sanctimonious, self-absorbed little twerp. (And that’s a heck of a lot nicer than what she called Sheila...)
Profile Image for Tamara Taylor.
433 reviews15 followers
May 7, 2015
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 feel her anguish at being treated unfairly by the slaughterhouse floozy. I truly wish Novella and I could hang out. I think we'd have a lot in common. She "gets" that eating meat isn't an act of hate. She appreciates the sacrifice of a life and the sheer amount of time and care each piece of meat take. Novella inspired me. Novella humbled me. I admit that prior to reading this book I felt urban farms were a "cutesy" idea, but not the same calibre as a "real" farm. Novella's foray into raising and slaughtering her own food shamed me into realizing that regardless of locale, urban farmers are indeed real farmers. Her 100-yard diet was awe inspiring. She has much more resolve than most of the "real" farmers I know out in the boonies.

Words cannot describe how much I enjoyed this book. I was sad when it was over. I will definitely be purchasing this book to enjoy again and again. This book was a treasure trove of awesome foody quotes. I highly recommend this one.
Profile Image for sunny (ethel cain’s version).
345 reviews79 followers
April 13, 2023
Novella Carpenter is a proud white supremacist, as evident in her own words in her own book. Please be warned that there are a lot of racist slurs in this book used as “jokes” and meant to be “goofy” or “light-hearted.” She hysterically tries desperately to distance herself from hippies and “bush/cheney voters” as if that says something about her moral compass.

She calls a bilingual 10 year old baby who is translating for their parent a “freak” and is incredibly racist, classist, and ableist. She is stealing land (on stolen land) from a man of color for her garden. A proud gentrifier who refused to take a walk in her own neighborhood for two years out of fear of the literal normal people (mostly children apparently..wtf?! Scared of children?) in “her” neighborhood. An absolute human stain.

The author dares to tell a story where she talks about feeding the local Black Panther chapter salads but admits that when she went to ask if she could help she thought they’d dismiss her and call her a “whitey.” She then precedes to completely judge and say the most disgusting things about the people in this neighborhood who live there.

I reject any of her (barely informational) stolen knowledge. She certainly is not a woman that possesses any wisdom.

The one true thing in this book is that she kept referring to herself as a “pig’s bitch.”

May her thumb only touch and produce brown from now on. May slugs haunt her grave. May mushrooms refuse to grow out of her corpse. Amen.

(Google author’s name for jump scare. Happy early Halloween, y’all!)
Profile Image for Rachelle.
47 reviews
October 24, 2010
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 hard to paint the picture of who she "is"; it rang false to me and got old very quickly. She spends a good portion of the book establishing her unusually "kooky" personality and most of the descriptions left me rolling my eyes. There are multiple unnecessary references to political items that serve no other purpose than for her to point out "Ick, at least I'm not like that, am I right? *nudge nudge* If you fit this stereotype, you must be ashamed of yourself. You are clearly not my people." She continually recounts situations that attempt to display how she's the lovable and slightly crazy white lady in the dangerous ghetto--"Aren't I brave and edgy?" she seems to be saying.

However, she does do a nice job of providing references for most of her research (there is an excellent bibliography for further reading) and the last section of the book (about raising pigs) is quite interesting, despite the rather annoying telling and retelling (I'm talking dozens of times) of Dumpster-diving escapades in order to feed her livestock.

Overall I think it has something unique to add to the "farm memoir" genre that is at its peak right now, but I think many of the other offerings are more worthy.
Profile Image for Ty.
129 reviews32 followers
August 18, 2010
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. When I went out to water my garden the next morning, I noticed that several of my tomatoes had been stolen. Generosity was being forced on me. A few days later I was mowing my lawn and my lawnmower kept dying so one of my neighbors who I've never talked to before came over to try to help me. We couldn't figure out what was wrong with it so he just let me borrow his and while we were talking his kid (I guess it was his kid) wandered over by my tomato plants and stroked the leaves. "That one just looooves tomatoes" his dad or whatever said. I have a suspect that I can't be mad at. He's like two years old and rides a tricycle and chews on a Silver Surfer action figure all day. Maybe if he keeps taking all my tomatoes his dad will feel obligated to let me use his lawnmower every week.
Profile Image for Jenn "JR".
458 reviews81 followers
June 2, 2013
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 a bossy, self-centered, judgmental hipster who can't even keep the streets straight (the Temescal street with the upscale Mexican, wood fired oven pizza and bakery is Telegraph, not Shattuck) because she's too busy obsessing over whatever non-existent drama she's invented for herself.

Seriously? Ghetto? I know plenty of people who live off MLK Jr in the 25-33 range -- it's not what I'd call a "ghetto" and I don't know anyone who lives there who would refer to it as such as often as this cracker hipster does.
Profile Image for Erica.
227 reviews7 followers
March 14, 2009
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 seriously fantastic...if you have any interest in growing food in the city, or in learning about how people grow food in a city you need to read this!
Profile Image for jess.
847 reviews71 followers
November 16, 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.
Profile Image for Nick.
175 reviews49 followers
July 22, 2009
Novella can pull up a chair next to Cormac McCarthy and Clint Eastwood and sit at the all-time favorite badasses table.
Profile Image for Sven Eberlein.
Author 1 book8 followers
July 1, 2009
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. Some of these unique characters, after juggling their ingenuity across the crevasse of socially accepted activity without tangible reward, settle for a real job. Others stay on the rope too long and fall into the glacier of oblivion, their contributions deemed unfit for intellectual or material recognition. A third category is comprised of those rare, bold and mischievous contemporaries who raise chickens, turkeys and pigs on a vacant inner city lot and call themselves Urban Farmer. Enter Novella Carpenter.

Raised in rural Idaho by back to the land parents, Novella and her co-conspirator boyfriend Bill decide to settle on the wrong side of the BART tracks in a rough neighborhood just south of downtown Oakland, called Ghost Town. Barely ten pages into the book, the author’s reasons for picking Oakland had me almost lose my frothy adult beverage for the first time:

Portland (too perfect). Austin (too in the middle of Texas). New Orleans (too hot). Brooklyn (too little recycling). Philly and Chicago (too cold).

Picking a shaggy apartment in a crime-ridden and economically depressed hood over, say, a nice refurbished Craftsman home with a well-kept backyard in Portland speaks volumes about the author’s predisposition and sets the tone for the entire book. While Novella, unlike most of her adopted neighborhood’s residents, lands in Ghost Town via free will, there is not a single moment throughout these wildly entertaining 276 pages where one is left feeling that this is a setup. Unlike the embedded reporter who gets her shocking and ratings-boosting story from the war-zone and then goes home to picket fences and flat screen TV’s, Novella’s shoot from the hip humor and authentic passion for all things living around her — be they of human, animal, or plant origin — leaves no doubt that this is not a “write and run” piece of journalism, but rather a deeply personal and spiritual (though she would probably balk at that description — sounds too hippie) discovery of her own paradise on Earth: The fertile little cracks in the spaces between urban decay and human resilience.

Steep RavineDisclaimer: I used to work in a meat processing plant in Germany, for a couple of summers. I hung sausages, threw pig heads into vats of blood, salted rumps, and extracted intestines. I didn’t like it. It’s why I worked twice as hard to make it through high school and to college. After fifteen years of vegetarianism I eat meat again. While I love the concept of growing and raising your own sustenance, when it comes to pulled pork and prosciutto I will happily defer to the hog farmers and butchers of the world. As Novella was killing the turkey in the book, I sat on a cliff overlooking the ocean.

What makes this book so gripping and addictive is the matter of factness with which the story evolves. You know, like, the turkeys (Harold and Maude) are hungry and we’re broke, so let’s see what we can find in the Chinatown dumpsters. It’s as if the protagonists are just doing what anyone would do in their situation, had we been crazy enough to get ourselves into it by inviting turkeys, chickens and a beehive into our urban backyard. It’s the magic in the mundane that makes our jaw drop with incredulity at this very logical, age-old, and really, very biologically correct way of feeding the cycle of life. But she’s in the city, for crying out loud, there’s something in her DNA that makes her different from the rest of us mere mortals! Well, just look at how our grandparents did it back in the day. Or go travel anywhere in a developing country, and the sight of cows and water buffalo and any other creature under the sun running around busy city streets elicits no more than a yawn, with the occasional elegant swerve to avoid collision.

Judging by my own — and I would posit from initial reviews and feedback, most readers’ — reaction to Farm City, I’m thinking that we have it all backwards anyway, that it is we in the so-called developed world who are in need of some developing: developing our sense of soil, nourishment, and community. And Novella’s education as an urban farmer shows that this doesn’t need to be done in a guilt-trippy, proselytizing way. In fact, some of my favorite passages in the whole book are the author’s hilarious smackdowns of the self-righteous — noble as the cause may be — finger-wagging that sometimes accompanies our Western interpretations of ancient wisdom. Here is a particularly uproarious gem: (sorry Yoga people ;-) )

Yoga people have been telling me for years that I should give up coffee, that it’s full of toxins and other bad things. But when they suggest that I should stop drinking coffee, I want to tell them maybe they should saw off their legs.

Delivered with irreverent gusto and a hyper-alert bullshit (pun intended) detector, Novella’s radical message is that aside from the great taste and some of the larger global implications of keeping our food sources local and fresh, it’s actually loads of fun to grow veggies in your backyard, keep bees and raise turkeys, then share the delectable fruits of this labor of love with friends and neighbors. While it may not be everyone’s “gateway drug” to 300-pound hogs and home-made salami it’s a great way to debunk the conventional wisdom that the origin of food production is so complex that it needs to be in the hands of engineers in far away factories, and to reacquaint ourselves with the most basic, important, and timeless of all human activity: eating!

Farm City is a tour de force of unadulterated American pioneering and entrepreneurial spirit, a beautifully subversive dumpster-diving squat and- slopfest of ravenous (pro)portions. The founding mothers and fathers would be proud to see that gigantic middle finger flying in the face of the tightly controlled empire of industrialized agriculture whose profit-driven motive is to keep We The People removed from our food source, wandering like lost lemmings in supermarket aisles full of shiny prepackaged foodomercials. Novella Carpenter’s voice is refreshingly new for some and profoundly ancient for others, but from her own perspective she’s just a hungry gal jonesing for tasty food, determined to let her belly do the talking.
Profile Image for hannah.
103 reviews2 followers
February 5, 2015
carpenter gets one star (she'd get none if that were an option), and I'll tell you why: because when you're this astoundingly uncritical - when you display zero signs of having ever thought about your place as an educated white person in a city with a bleak racial history - you don't get points for showing up. when I find myself summing up my opinion on this book as, "the parts that aren't racist are interesting," it's time to shut the whole thing down. I was excited to read a memoir about urban ag. I couldn't have been more disappointed. absolutely do not recommend.
Profile Image for Justin.
122 reviews16 followers
May 19, 2010
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. Whether rich or not, we all need to do our part to make the earth more sustainable, and urban farming is a great way to do that. It makes our food source more localized, brings us closer to our food and the process of producing our food, and builds community. Everyone should urban-farm, from homeless people in Chicago to Bill Gates.

To be fair, Carpenter's negative riff on urban-farming trustafarians encapsulates only one chapter of Farm City, but it was spiteful and unnecessary enough to make me think she might be just a bit holier-than-thou. Or maybe I'm just jealous because I'm not growing a plethora of vegetables and fruits, and raising pigs, rabbits, turkeys for slaughter in an abandoned lot outside my home in the ghetto of Oakland, like she is. Oh, and Carpenter keeps bees too.

For some reason, Carpenter and her boyfriend Bill moved to Oakland years ago, setting up home in one of its most decrepit neighborhoods—which is saying a lot in the Bay Area's not-so-better half. She claims it was their fascination with unorthodox living situations. The cynic in me thinks she had a book idea from day one. Whatever the case, she quickly sets about creating a veritable farm in the middle of the ghetto, doing everything I just described. Her adventures gardening and raising and slaughtering her own meat in the slum are well told, as are the kooky characters that live all around and come to be familiar standbys on the farm. She's a pretty good writer, with a keen understanding of narrative pace and an eye for colorful details. I wish I liked her more, but all in all, I'm inspired by Farm City and I would recommend it. It prompted my girlfriend and me to plan to turn our parking space at our apartment into a little urban farm of its own. We're going to put raised beds in there, put up a little fence and grow some veggies.
Profile Image for Erica.
102 reviews16 followers
October 10, 2009
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/organic by demonstrating that it could be done on a shoestring, anywhere, and that sharing and learning as a community is integral, even if your community is full of gangsters and whores and misfits.

Ironically, this experiment would never work even for a lower-middle class situation. Some chickens, perhaps a hutch of rabbits, but keeping actual livestock could only be possible in a place where everybody looked the other way. There is so much beauty to her coaxing such earnest life and sustenance out of a wasteland. It seems a shame that most people couldn't really obtain this level of urban farmhood if they wished. The situation really seemed to be a star-crossed evolution as each success emboldened her to another level.

What I loved best, though, was the heartfelt addressing of why and how food, especially meat, should be respected and honored. I really believe that the way we feed ourselves is a huge part of our global and environmental troubles, and a large, fundamental shift back to these values would be instrumental in setting many things back on a better path.

And now I really want some salami.
Profile Image for Mary.
203 reviews2 followers
January 26, 2013
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 it also makes you sound like an idiot. Secondly, when you compare yourself to an Indian squaw while grinding corn, you are revealing yourself to be the mind-boggling racist you only previously hinted at. Go ahead and excise that word from your speech, thoughts, and writings."
Profile Image for ༺Kiki༻.
2,000 reviews113 followers
November 28, 2018
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 at the store!

I started the book with much excitement, accompanied by a snack, because I get peckish when I read about food. I did like the first quarter of the book, which is rather quaint and charming. Once the food animals became the main focus, the tone of the book took a dive. It soon became apparent that Carpenter's acceptance of anyone different from herself is limited and small minded. They are not her people; therefore, they are not worthy of her time or respect. Carpenter tries to be edgy and tough, waving her I'm a freak flag, but it all feels contrived.

Carpenter's farming techniques seem haphazard, and careless at times, as evidenced by the loss of several of her animals to urban wildlife. I was really puzzled by her care of the bees.
Not so sweet smelling is the quagmire of dead bees piled up outside the hive at the end of a season. It looked as if my undertaker bees just tossed the dead over the edge of the hive. Since it was on a deck in the middle of a city, the corpses didn’t gently rot into the soil or get blown away by the wind. They simply rotted on the hot roof—and the resultant reek was piercing.

Why didn't she sweep them up before they started stinking? All those rotting bees would invite disease into the hive and could have resulted in its demise, or maybe the bees were sick of the stench and decided to move.

Carpenter's message about farming and eating animals didn't ring true by the end of the book.
I had finally figured out who I was, who my people were: they were folks who love and respect animals, who learn from them, draw sustenance from them directly.
I knew that wherever I went I would continue to grow my own food, raise animals, love and nurture life in places people thought were dead.

She smashed slugs with gleeful abandon. She beat and hacked apart an opossum with a shovel, giving no thought to the traumatic and painful death it was suffering. She dumped the opossum's carcass in the garbage with the other trash, but she buried her animals who were killed by the opossum. Later, she even uses this act to assure herself that she is tough.
I had killed an opossum with a shovel and axed a turkey with my bare hands—did he understand what kind of crazy bitch he was dealing with?

I guess Carpenter's kind of compassion and respect excludes animals that won't become tasty gourmet food.
Profile Image for Bob Redmond.
196 reviews70 followers
August 2, 2010
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, secondary characters, pacing. Often it is laugh-out-loud funny. It's not too long. Her observations are carefully made, and incisive. I found it page-turning, in fact: what happens to the turkeys? What about Lana the neighbor? Will the bulldozers come? Will disaster befall the pig project?

Third, it's not disingenuous. It's not a trustfundian tale of slumming. I kept wanting to make this allegation, but always found it groundless. Carpenter walks the talk--she doesn't just live in the ghetto, but participates in life there (once, at gunpoint), and doesn't ignore what it means to be a white girl in the hood. If the Black Panthers can accept this, so can I.

Fourthly, it's timely: Urban Farming is no lark, and Carpenter shows why this is true with a history lesson through-line. Her project is not self-inscribed (as in "I'm going to cook all of Julia Child's recipes in a year!) but much more expansive. In the end, it's not even about Carpenter the author, but this moment in cultural necessity: feeding people, using land wisely, being an ethical carnivore.

In the end, this is a book of transcendence: transcending genre, transcending usual language, transcending point of view, transcending its own cultural moment. This is a book that has impact, and should for some time.


WHY I READ THIS BOOK: A conversation with the woman who started Seattle's Pollinator Pathway (www.pollinatorpathway.org) led me to GOOD magazine, which earlier this year published the "Slow" issue. I am interested in Slow, since reading Bill McKibben and generally trying to find a way to slow the unsustainable growth machine of Capitalism. I tracked down that issue (January 2010), and in it read a blurb on Carpenter's book. I had crossed paths with Carpenter when she lived in Seattle and we both spent time in the literary arts circles. I don't think we ever shook hands, but we do have some friends in common. I knew she was in the Bay Area doing something with biodiesel, but didn't know about her successful (understatement! NY Times bestseller-successful!) writing career. As an urban apiarist myself, and a writer, I wanted to be jealous, but the truth is that the book is just too damn good for that. I look forward to reading more of what this onetime-Seattle-ite does next.
Profile Image for Karatepop.
126 reviews176 followers
August 5, 2015
If you are romanticising farming, on any scale, you should read this. There's also a great interview with Novella on Vimeo from CHOW (HERE. You should watch that if you aren't sure about reading the book.

Novella Carpenter has always dabbled in farming in some way, but she goes whole hog in Oakland (pun totally intended). She starts out pretty small with a vegetable garden, some chickens, adds some geese and turkeys, bees, rabbits, then pigs. She loves her animals, but not like pets. Maybe a little like pets, but then she learned her lesson. She brutally defends her animals (for real, I was horrified and she was a little bit, too), kills them for food, and continues to love and appreciate them. I 100% agree with Novella that if people (nowadays) had to kill their own food, they wouldn't eat meat. I am a vegetarian and this is the biggest reason why. She touches on our messed up relationship with food, waste, and how it's easy to eat meat when you remove them from view and think of them as plastic-wrapped slabs in a supermarket. Easy and a little bit messed up. She fully admits that she didn't find it easy and that it's still hard for her to do, but now she appreciates her meat and where it comes from.

It's not just a story of her farm and how we are so disconnected from our food that we can't even identify a freaking radish, let alone an heirloom turkey, but of her neighbourhood, the importance of community, the importance of food/farming/gardening in those communities.

Interestingly, this book made me really want to learn more about the Black Panthers (if you have any recommendations, let me know). She brings them salad greens. You'll just have to read it.

Man. I'm so pleased with my pun. Adam's the pun guy.
Profile Image for Becca.
10 reviews
November 23, 2009
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 several issues and topics I find compelling (and the reason for my future front-yard garden) -- food insecurity in urban areas, gentrification, cooking, slow food, environmentalism, the realities of killing animals to eat meat (I still can't believe she slaughtered several animals in her backyard and in her bathtub... but the descriptions of the dishes that resulted in the killings made my mouth water, and all of this made me question my loose vegetarianism), restaurant food waste, and getting to know the "other" in our neighborhoods and communities - and discovering what we can learn from one another. Not to mention, there's nothing better than eating something that you cared for and grew - and that tastes deliciously fresh because it hasn't been trucked from thousands of miles away. The book also has a good bibliography that includes what look like several great resources for aspiring gardeners, farmers, and cooks.
375 reviews3 followers
July 13, 2016
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 one point, she pledged to eat strictly from the spoils of her small farm for an entire month. It is wildly romantic, the notion of knowing your food from start to finish, even as you are responsible for killing your meat, plus the immense amount of work it takes to sustain an operation like hers. In NYC, it's near impossible to embark in an urban farming adventure, seeing as we have no grassy space to call our own, but for now I'm inspired to join a CSA, expand my windowsill herb garden from the one measly basil plant, and dream about a one day vegetable garden.
Profile Image for Ariel.
54 reviews1 follower
July 15, 2011
On one hand, the book is entertaining and informative (I would love to be more self-sustainable and grow my own food). On the other, the way she treats her farm animals is often horrifying, especially how she takes care of the rabbits. As a rabbit owner, it made my skin crawl to read her happy indifference to their health and well-being (for example rabbits should NEVER eat bread), all so that she could have a tasty meal at the least expense and effort. The author is incredibly smug and though she thinks she's like, Oakland's savior or something, she doesn't really care who she pisses off so that she can have her farm, and it is NOT endearing.
Profile Image for Feisty Harriet.
1,202 reviews37 followers
February 23, 2017
I appreciate the idea of growing some things wherever you are, whether that's a large rural farm or a urban ghetto. However. Carpenter is super holier-than-thou and fairly inconsiderate of others, which when you are adjacent to families is kind of a neighborly necessity. Chickens are smelly. Pigs are REALLY smelly. And fishing around in dumpsters for things to feed said chickens and pigs is...well...it's not something I want to replicate. A vacant lot I could turn into a huge garden? Now, that would be lovely. For now, I'll stick with my backyard boxes in a sea of suburbia, because that's all I've got.
Profile Image for gina.
1,320 reviews10 followers
November 30, 2011
I'm going to try and keep this short... so I don't end up ranting unnecessarily. After my last review of a memoirish type book actually being read by the author and commented upon, I feel a bit more, well, exposed.

I'm betting if I met Novella she'd be a nice enough girl. And her writing isn't bad at all. It just, isn't... my cup of tea. And this surprised no one more than me (except my husband). After all, from the moment we fell in love I've been confiding dreams of chickens and farming. He jumped on board and has joyfully been along for the ride.

So for me not to like this book...well. I disliked some of the story, and that's difficult to admit, because it is what it is- someone's life. Who am I to dislike it? Or to openly state so. But despite feeling bad about this, it was a book published for the public, and the public is allowed to have an opinion, guilt or no.

I couldn't relate to Novella, or like her very much as she came across in the book. To me she felt very smug, and very proud of her "squatting" which really bothered me. Squatting? It's not squatting if you have met, talked to, and been given permission to be there. It's NOT squatting. That seemed to be a big deal. I could have done a drinking game for every time she said the word squat.

However, my sympathies did fall with her when her pigs were slaughtered by that god awful woman. I really felt for her as a real person for the first time in the book. Otherwise I just rolled my eyes or sighed sometimes or wasn't that moved. One thing that really bothered me was that she didn't step off her block out of fear for 2 years?!? Which has made other reviewers question if her moving there in the first place was in plan for a book deal. Anyone in the blogging community has seen this... They get an idea, and follow it through and involves a blog, and their hope is to get a book deal. From the very beginning. But they act as if it were all just good luck and the thought of a book never ever crossed their mind. Yeah. Right. If the writer is honest, then it's forgivable. Others questioning whether her moving to the hood for a good angle certainly raises some questions. It would certainly make the whole "I was afraid to step foot off my block" seem a bit more understandable.

Also, the 31 day 100 yard food diet idea was poorly planned and difficult to listen to. The girl just whined the whole time and I just wanted to her to be quiet. It was her own damn fault she had very little to eat. How hard is it to plan for? Or for the love of god just cheat and shut up and move on with the story... It was moments like these that left me not liking the author, and therefore not liking the story.

Anyway, I just wasn't that crazy about the book. I got very tired of the whole "I found my people!" line by the end of the book. It felt like some thing was missing from the book to make me like it. I just can't put my finger on it. While she tried to infuse it with heart and soul with her writing, there was something heart, soul, and truth that just didn't ring true for me personally.
Profile Image for Angela.
41 reviews
May 1, 2012
i dont know why this woman believes she ISN'T part of the gentrification of oakland, or why she doesn't go back to Seattle, Idaho or wherever and leave the "second rate city" to those who regard it positively. i came to this book open minded, even knowing that the author is an animal farmer, which i really don't feel is the best use of urban farming space, among other concerns. i couldn't have been more disappointed with the negative descriptions of oakland, possibly employed to make her urban farming experiment seem more radical and wacky, i'm not really sure.... anyhow, no thank you, if i want to read about urban farming i'll look elsewhere.
Profile Image for Melissa.
382 reviews79 followers
June 14, 2020
Uggh, a book of excuses for why the author thinks it’s good to eat meat. Who is Novella Carpenter trying to convince, exactly? Not me, certainly. I suspect herself.

You know, when *I* was 16, like Carpenter, I also was a failed vegetarian. Ate veg for maybe a year, then on a road trip decided to make an exception for fish, soon vegetarianism faded away. Like her, I subsisted on crap. She says she ate cheese sandwiches. My guess is that it was on white bread. I think back then I was eating mostly sugar cereal and pb&j sandwiches (yep, with white bread). But, unlike Novella, a fellow white transplant to Oakland who quit vegetarianism at age 16, I grew into an adult curious enough to really explore how to eat healthfully and sustainably.

I became vegan 7.5 years ago at the time of this writing. At first, I switched only my diet, after watching Forks Over Knives. I’d been eating mostly vegan before that, keeping no non-vegan items in my home except eggs, which I enjoyed eating fried with toast (somehow I’d gotten the memo by then to switch to 100% whole wheat bread, probably from having read What to Eat by Marion Nestle). I also would eat meat given to me, available at a party, and if I went out to eat, I pretty much always ordered meat. But once I started learning how unnecessary those foods are for health, how calorie-dense and detrimental to overall health, I went plant-based. A few weeks later, I saw a video online of a family killing a small pig in Cuba. So, not a factory farm, a small family farm. I listened to how the pig screamed. It sounded like a human baby. My heart went out to it, and for the first time, the moral depravity of killing animals to eat unhealthy food really struck me.

Honestly, I do think it shows a moral weakness to eat meat. It proves that you’re willing to put your own moment of pleasure above what is healthy for society, for your body, and for another creature’s life. I’m not saying that makes you a bad person. We all have moral weaknesses. And I understand that capitalism has created a world for us where we are so enmeshed in working and true pleasures are more and more difficult to afford, but capitalism has filled that void by making small pleasures somewhat affordable—like eating unhealthy food. Too many people have bought into the notion that life is short, we should enjoy our food. But life is short BECAUSE OF the unhealthy food, and having an addiction to extreme food pleasures makes the space between those moments of stuffing ourselves with fat, salt, and sugar less tolerable, as with any repetitive extreme pleasures addiction. And as with any addiction, when your body finally gets accustomed to not being exposed to the deadening highs, you start to notice all the complexity of flavors in every herb, every shallot, each loquat picked from a neighbor’s tree, a tomato grown in a container on the sunniest spot on your balcony. You seek out the brightest fruits and veggies and a ripe plum tastes heavenly and you’re feeling great and just...happier. I noticed that Carpenter didn’t extoll the particularly delicious flavor of her home-grown produce. She was too focused on eating animals to notice. Only her watermelon caught her attention, and she never got to eat it. Which is kind of apropos of this book.

I’m very interested in homesteading, and I do recognize that in a smallish garden like the one Carpenter started, it would be nigh on impossible to grow enough beans and grains to give her the protein and carbohydrates she would need. That’s why it’s kind of good we have industrial scale farming for certain items, like grains and beans. If she was really attempting to feed herself entirely, which she—foolishly, in my opinion—attempted to do for 1 month, I can understand why she found raising/killing animal necessary. After all, animals have a lot of calories and can eat scraps humans tend to waste. But the fact was, even with the addition of animal calories, this poor author was starved of carbohydrates, and went on a desperate search for them. It seemed pretty irresponsible to engage in this arbitrary experiment when I think she knew full well she couldn’t properly feed herself from her garden alone. Why NOT eat from the dumpsters? Why did she decide to make that exclusion? What point did it prove for her to exclude it? This is treating diet like a game instead of as a serious matter. And it is a serious matter.

I’m all for growing food everywhere possible. I dream of having a garden. I lived in a place only a couple blocks from where this book takes place that had a garden space that the house’s owner, my housemate, was only getting started working on, with a newly-planted fig tree and almond tree, a couple newly-build raised beds, and a fenced-off compost pile in the far corner. There was a large, mature lemon tree that produced a lot and also an incredible bramble of spiky blackberry bushes that were lush with fruit. I used to go outside wearing rubber gloves and pick a pint every day and eat it. I’ll bet that garden is even better now, years later. There is SO MUCH that can be grown in Oakland. Then you can buy dried beans and whole grains in bulk and have them delivered to you in the mail. There is no reason for complete self-sufficiency. Collaboration in key areas is beneficial to all. There’s no reason to get fish slop from Chinatown dumpsters every day to bring to pigs which you then put another massive amount of food miles to travel to a butcher to slaughter the pigs for you, only to find out that—oh, boo boo and what a shocker!—the butcher is, like, kind of a bad person. You don’t say! Meat blindness, I tell ya. Eating meat is a helluva drug.
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