Book Review-Farm City, by Novella Carpenter

Farm City-The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter is about a woman and her partner Bill moving from Seattle to Oakland California and using the semi abandoned lot next door to their apartment to farm.

The book is from Novellas point of view and she has nothing but enthusiasm for her subject. Which makes it a fun read. She writes in a semi journalistic style reminiscent of New York Times articles and other food writers, creating a mood by over describing the scenes and the characters involved. Almost like a novel with each section talking about a different part of their experiments.

While I had no trouble following I can see how some people might have difficulty with the fact that she uses flashbacks to jump back in time to earlier points in the narrative instead of starting at the beginning and working her way through to the end. The other thing I can see bothering people is that most of her experiments involve growing animals for meat.

I picked this up at my local library last week and started reading it only to realize that I had already read it several years ago. It was just as enjoyable the second time and I felt no desire to put it down. It was good enough to read again. The chapter about pigs was the part that really stuck with me from last time. They seemed like such a huge pain to feed. I couldn’t imagine dumpster diving every other night to keep them fed. But this time I found myself drawn to the chapter about rabbits. She raised them in hutches on her second story porch but I couldn’t help wondering if it was possible to free range them sort of like chickens.

This book drives home that conventional methods of organic farming and gardening are high maintenance and require lots of back breaking labor and heavy inputs from outside. She and Bill must have trucked in half a ton of horse manure alone for the raised beds that they started. Also they never had time to take care of their house, it was always stuffed with gear and farm equipment and messy because they were so busy. She’s oddly proud of this. It reminds me of lawyers and other professionals that are proud of the fact that they work 80 hour work weeks. It’s completely unsustainable and is destined to lead to burn out but there is some kind of self destructive satisfaction to be gleaned from it. In other books I’ve read about many other less labor intensive methods that might have made more sense for them to try.

Her neighborhood was a cul-de-sac and not the nicest of places. Most of the people were transitory. Apartment dwellers and homeless people. In fact the longest resident had been there 15 years and moved out a year after they move in. The garden and the animals kind of start a community and Novella and Bill make friends with many of their neighbors and I was reminded of how everyone moves in our culture. The transitory nature of modern America seems to make it difficult if not impossible to form tight communities. She and her partner never planned to stay and neither did anyone else. In fact the amount of time and energy that the two of them exerted on that small plot of abused land was insane when you consider that down the line all of the soil building that they had accomplished would be scraped off for development into housing or condos later.

Every chapter was full of details that most gardening, farming and permaculture manuals lack. She not only talks about her success’s but her mistakes and her feelings about how the experiments went. They grew an extensive garden, rabbits, ducks, geese, turkeys, chickens, bees and finally two pigs. She even has a chapter about trying out a 100yard diet. I think I would have chosen fall to do it rather than high summer. There would be more food to eat and it would have been easier. Still it was interesting to read about.

All in all a wonderful read.

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