Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer
by Novella Carpenter
Penguin, May 2010
Paperback 288 pp., ISBN: 978-0143117285
On a windowsill seven stories above Broadway in Manhattan, I’ve managed to keep three potted dahlias alive for a month. New leaves emerge and stretch toward the bus exhaust; a tight-wrapped bud becomes, despite the cab horns and the sirens, a blossom. The plants are growing (the yellow-flowered one faster than red- or orange-), and I’m beside myself about it. For the first time in my life, I have a garden.
Flush with my own success, I picked up Farm City, Novella Carpenter’s memoir of urban farming. I felt practically her equal: She grows things, I grow things. We both salivate over “food porn” seed catalogs. Maybe I could pick up a tip or two?
A few pages in, I realized that Carpenter is a whole different species of urban cultivator than most people will ever be, including me. Carpenter grows no mere garden; she raises a true farm on an abandoned lot in what she calls the “ghetto” of Oakland. Open to the Table of Contents, and you’ll catch a preview of her story of escalation: Part 1, “Turkey,” becomes Part II, “Rabbit,” leads to Part III, “Pig.” Along the way, her farm additionally hosts two colonies of honeybees, several geese, too many chickens, and a cast of urban misfits whom her farm also helps to grow.
If you’re anything like me, the pleasure of following Carpenter’s journey derives from a savory mix of three parts voyeurism, one part projection, one part caution. How fun it is to watch someone else build a brooder, raise and kill and cook her own varied livestock, and struggle to subsist for a whole month solely on her farm’s yield. This is voyeuristic pleasure: You peer into her lot and watch the collision of the rustic (buzzing bees, sprouting watermelon, scratching chickens) and the urban (homeless men and street gangs alternately helping and harming her project). While you watch her produce thrive in the “just add water gardening” milieu of California, you’ll wonder what you could grow if you lived in an agriculturally favorable climate. I would grow avocados (and there’s the pleasure of projection).
But even as you muse yourself into an imaginary patch of tomatoes and peas, lemons and peaches, leave room for some caution: Carpenter’s farm is anything but idyllic. In order to reap her bounty, Carpenter must battle slugs, wild dogs and possums, junkies who steal her produce, neighbors with qualms about the stench of her pigs, and a real estate developer who threatens her squatter’s claim to the land. Carpenter is an appealing companion, as bewildered as the reader at her own madcap schemes, and so the reader struggles along with her, wishing her and her farm well.
I read Farm City in a single day—a sweltering summer day in Manhattan—as the jackhammers tore up the street and my dahlias wilted on the windowsill. And although I mentally escaped with Carpenter to a farm no more bucolic than the scene outside my window, I came away invigorated by her example of the possibilities for growth, even in the most unlikely of settings. A few days later, I added to my windowsill plot two edible seedlings: one basil and one oregano. Thanks to Carpenter, I now wonder what might be next.
June 26, 2010