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Book Review

Urban farmer establishes her roots

Novella Carpenter chronicles farm life in Oakland, Calif. Novella Carpenter chronicles farm life in Oakland, Calif. (Jakob Mosur for The Boston Globe)
By Lylah M. Alphonse
Globe Staff / October 9, 2009

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For many city-dwellers and suburbanites, being green and eating locally means having a patch of tomatoes out back or in containers on the deck, a few pots of herbs on the kitchen windowsill, and regular trips to the farmers’ market.

But not for Novella Carpenter. In “Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer,’’ she shares how she transformed a weed- and garbage-filled lot next to her second-floor walkup in GhostTown - a gritty section of downtown Oakland, Calif. - from an urban wasteland to a full-fledged farm. What started out as a few raised beds and a bee box on her balcony grew to include fruit trees, chickens (for eggs and for meat), ducks, turkeys, rabbits, and even a couple of 300-pound pigs, producing enough food to feed herself exclusively and supplement the meals of neighbors.

Urban farming isn’t a new concept, no matter how trendy it and the local food movement is just now. Carpenter points out that during the depression of 1893, the mayor of Detroit, Hazen Pingree, looked at the city’s abandoned lots and “wondered why the unemployed should not be allowed to cultivate food on them.’’ Three years later, potato patches flourished in Detroit, nourishing nearly half of all families seeking public relief in the city. New York, Philadelphia, and other cities soon developed vacant-lot farming programs of their own. The programs waned when times were good, Carpenter points out, but were revitalized during both world wars.

Carpenter isn’t the only one trying to grow food in the ghetto. “Ten blocks from my house, I found Willow’s farm and garden,’’ she writes of a fellow urban farmer whom she met at a neighborhood party. “The Center Street garden, just off 16th Street, burst with vegetables and fruit. A pen of ducks and chickens straddled the back of the property. A chayote, a vining squash, covered the entire front fence. Tall columns of peas stood guard near the gate, with strawberry plants at their feet.’’ The soil on the vacant lot where Willow farmed had been full of lead, but the fig and mulberry trees helped purify the soil. “The leaves, which pulled the lead out of the ground, were hauled to the dump. Every year, the soil was getting cleaner. The garden, then, was a giant remediation project.’’

A “poor scrounger with three low-paying jobs and no health insurance,’’ Carpenter understands that she can’t really afford the high-quality meat and produce she craves. “Since I liked eating quality meat and have always had more skill than money, I decided to take matters into my own hands,’’ she writes. She buys a box of baby birds - two turkeys, 10 chickens, two geese, and two ducks - for $42 and starts raising them for dinner. This brings her to another turning point in urban farming: When the time comes to butcher Harold, her heirloom turkey, for Thanksgiving, she’s forced to deal with the gap between raising your food and cooking it.

An incredible stint in the kitchen of chef Christopher Lee’s restaurant, Eccolo, where she learns how to make classic Italian salumi and hams out of her own pigs, is a treat to read. “Farm City’’ is an eye-opener in many ways, leaving you grateful to Carpenter for sharing, in such detail, the real fruits of her labors.

Lylah M. Alphonse can be reached at LAlphonse@globe .com.

FARM CITY: The Education of an Urban Farmer By Novella Carpenter

Penguin, 288 pp., $25.95

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