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_Farm City_, Novella Carpenter

Subtitled: The Education of an Urban Farmer

I picked this up at Willow Books a few months ago after seeing it on display. I'd been not reading it this whole time, and kicking myself for buying it hardcover if I wasn't going to read it before it came out on the kindle (which it probably already had when I bought it) or paper. I justified it on the basis that hey, I'm supporting my local independent bookstore.

Well, I'm not kicking myself anymore. I'll likely donate this to BPL or loan it to friends and rebuy it for the kindle, as there are no illustrations or charts or anything to make it anything other than an ideal kindle read. It was fantastic and wonderful in every way and I was sorry when it came to an end.

Ms. Carpenter was raised by hippies who moved from California to Idaho to build their own house, raise their own food -- back to the landers. Dad took off on increasingly lengthy hunting trips so mom divorced him and took their girls to Shelton, WA. The girls went in different directions: Novella traveled and moved from one dodgy neighborhood to another, in each place starting a garden and then raising chickens. When she hooked up with Bill, her boyfriend, he bought her a beekeeping kit and bees and that really put the process in motion.

Novella and Bill moved to a truly shady part of Oakland, CA, where they rented half an old house; three generations of Vietnamese-Americans lived downstairs. Next door was a vacant lot with a house foundation and some garbage and an owner named Jack Chan who turned out not to mind if they gardened. Bill scavenged wood to build raised beds over the slab foundation. A friend loaned a truck so the two of them could go pick up composted horse manure to fill the raised beds. Predictably (for Novella), chickens followed the garden, and then bees. And then she decided to take her urban garden to the next level, by ordering some baby chicks, goslings, poults (baby turkeys). She has her ups and downs with the birds: one turkey flies away, never to be seen again. Another hops the fence to the auto shop next door, where the pit bull and rottweiler kill it quickly. Novella spends one July eating nothing but what she has raised, or can barter to someone else who has raised something herself. This modified Atkins diet (a lot of fruit, greens, some duck and rabbit -- did I mention the rabbits? A trustafarian asked her to rabbitsit and never remembered to retrieve them and you know what rabbits do...) leads to bad breath and substantial weight loss.

Novella is _not_ a trust fund baby. She's working three jobs (at an alternative fueling station, a bookstore and a seed nursery) to pay the bills, which are substantial because at this point she's still buying commercial food for the birds. Gradually, she and Bill start getting creative -- they dumpster dive in Oakland's Chinatown, first for the birds and rabbits, then later for the pigs: two glorious Red Durocs, prize pigs she buys at an auction, knowing less going into this project than any of the others. By this time, however, she has somehow gotten good enough at writing to be selling magazine articles and is down to one job -- her bills are also lower because the dumpster diving proves so successful she never buys commercial feed again, and never at all for the pigs.

Novella thinks a lot about the trajectory of her life, compared to her mother's and father's, and compared to her sister's. While the material success of her sister does not seem to have been particularly tempting to her, she is periodically amazed to think what her mother and father had accomplished at the same age. She has a lot of trouble seeing what she is doing as having worth or merit, certainly when measured against the lives of her immediate family. But the richness of her life in Oakland nourishes her, and her writing career develops -- and the pigs turned out amazingly.

Reviews on Amazon suggest that some people were reading this with a view to picking up tips and tricks on urban farming. While the bibliography might get you started, and I suppose if you could visit her and the people she mentions in the book in Oakland, they, too, would be good sources, that does not appear to be the intent of this book. _Farm City_ serves a couple major functions: one, to take the locavore/grow-your-own/organic/wtf that everyone complains is impossible to accomplish on a budget, and plant it firmly in an unbelievably poor context. Ms. Carpenter is working three jobs and has no health insurance. She hears gunfire. She can watch someone shoot up from her apartment window. Her garden is on land she does not own or even rent. She is a squat farmer, and while it weirds her out initially, she winds up working on that piece of land for several years. The second function is one which is probably more universally appealing: this is a coming of age story. Ms. Carpenter's generational cohort has a life path that involves so many years of education, and such an uncertain career path, that members of it must often feel that they will never become the adults that their parents are -- it's a problem not limited to her cohort, but it is tremendously exaggerated. Ms. Carpenter's story is one in which a young woman attracted to the funky-edgy-kinda-scary-neighborhood, who tends to work dead-end, low paying jobs with no benefits, finds a way to pursue what she loves in life in a way that she can, at first, afford and, eventually, which can pay her other bills. That is the Holy Grail for hers or any other generation.

I don't think everyone would like this book -- that book doesn't exist. But this is a really fantastic book, and I hope lots and lots of people read it, and eagerly await Novella Carpenter's next book (and, in the meantime, articles).

ETA: I am disabling comments on this post because (a) the only comments for a long time were unrelated to the contents of the book and were from months ago and (b) recently, this post has attracted spammage.
Tags: book review, food, non-fiction
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