Novella Carpenter

How much food can you really grow in a city? You’d be surprised.

(Boston Globe / Jakub Mosur)
By Devra First
July 12, 2009
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It’s a tug many of us feel: We love the city, with its culture, nightlife, and buzz. But we crave the peace of the country, where we can dig and plant and feel connected to nature. We can’t have them both, so we choose.

But Novella Carpenter is a have-them-both kind of person.

The author of the new book “Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer” (Penguin), Carpenter grew up in rural Idaho, the child of hippie homesteaders. As an adult, she yearned for the sense of community she felt there, but not for the isolation. Then she moved to inner-city Oakland, Calif., and a bridge between the two lifestyles presented itself: a vacant lot. Soon she was growing her own vegetables and raising bees, chickens, pigs, and rabbits, befriending homeless people and drug dealers and nearly getting mugged by neighborhood teens. “It’s natural to me to be farming in the city, pulling up carrots as BART goes by,” she says. “It’s like a little joke.”

Urban farming is becoming a movement, Carpenter says, particularly among young people who want a connection with their food but don’t relate to the ideas of the previous generation. “The elitism of the slow food movement makes people who are younger want to barf,” Carpenter says. “Alice Waters doesn’t speak for us.”

Why farming, why the city, why now? Carpenter spoke to us recently by phone from Oakland.

Ideas: What is the appeal of urban farming over rural?Carpenter: You get to do these things that are very city-like - go to shows, go to bars, live close to friends. In the country, that doesn’t happen. You have to drive everywhere. I feel there’s isolation in the country. Urban homesteading is a great combination. In marine biology, there are intertidal zones. There’s the ocean and the shore, and then there’s that region in between that is the most diverse and bounding with life and energy. When you have a rural process going on in the city, it opens up all these different things to happen.

Ideas: It brings you into a different relationship with your neighborhood, for example.Carpenter: If I hadn’t done the farm, I wouldn’t have ventured out much. There’s a lot of fear in rough places where there are drug dealers and stuff. But it’s not so cut and dry. A lot of drug dealers are actually really nice people. I learned lessons - yeah, this person does something that’s illegal but is not a horrible person. That was good to know.

Ideas: What are you producing now?Carpenter: We just harvested. We did a big dinner at [Berkeley restaurant ] Eccolo. We opened up a prosciutto we had made that was hanging for 18 months. I brought really delicious chicory, carrots, tons of lettuce; there were a few fava beans left. We’re gearing out of spring and into summer.

Ideas: How was the prosciutto?Carpenter: Oh my God. All these fancy food people told me it’s the best prosciutto they ever had, as good as prosciutto from Parma. It proves you can make really good pork off of dumpster scraps.

Ideas: It seems the phrase “the best” comes up a lot when you’re talking about the food you produce. Carpenter: If you go to Spain and talk to people about garlic, they say it’s the best garlic in the world. In France they say the same thing. You have ownership of it, you’re proud of it, it’s your baby and the best thing you ever had. {hellip} But I’ve grown stuff that’s not the best I’ve ever tasted. I grew a turkey last Thanksgiving that was totally disappointing.

Ideas: How does slaughtering your own animals affect your attitude toward eating meat?Carpenter: It’s important to realize that something dies when we eat it, and to cop to it. If you’re not OK with it, you shouldn’t eat it. If you see an animal die, then you know the price of meat and you know it shouldn’t be cheap. You shouldn’t waste it. You shouldn’t just eat meat all the time. It’s not sustainable, it’s not healthy, it’s bad for animals. It’s good to have meat as more of a ceremonial meal.

Ideas: Is urban farming starting to catch on in a larger way?Carpenter: Yes. Some of it has to do with recession. The new mayor of Detroit is starting to commission gardens in the same vein. It’s happening all over the country. There are abandoned lots and people willing to do urban farming, especially young people.

Ideas: Does the appeal go beyond simply eating good produce?Carpenter: A big aspect of it is the social justice thing. It’s messed up that people in poor neighborhoods don’t have access to healthy produce. There are all these food deserts in run-down parts of town. You look at an empty lot in a neighborhood like mine and it seems so wasteful.

Ideas: Why all the interest now?Carpenter: People are looking for realness. Especially with digital stuff, iPhones, you’re on the computer a lot . . . It’s so great to have the chance to use your body and dig and sweat and harvest. Those are verbs we don’t get to use very often.

Ideas: Do you think this interest in farming is here to stay?Carpenter: I was at an event with [“Omnivore’s Dilemma” author] Michael Pollan, and so many people were like, “I have chickens and I want to get bees.” It’s trendy right now, but that’s not always going to be the case. People are feeling a little disconnected from the natural world and food in general. I’m worried people are going to be like, “Been there, done that” and won’t get anything out of it. It was the same with the back-to-the-land movement. It was kind of a disaster because most people didn’t know what they were doing. They were like, “Farming sucks.” I’m cautious about it. I’m not saying, “Go get some goats!” I’m saying, “Do you know how much work it is to have goats?” There are pitfalls and pleasures.

Ideas: What about you personally? Why are you an urban farmer?

Carpenter: I don’t have so much of an agenda, the environment or even social justice. I was never like, “I’m saving the world by growing lettuce.” That’s [baloney]. The world is messed up and we have to do what we want to do. For me, it’s having a farm in the city without having to deal with hicks and no action at night. Why not? It’s really fun.

Devra First reports on food for the Globe. E-mail