November 20, 2009

Homestead Chickens and Chow Mein

This week’s article was written by Jessica Goldman

carpenterOn Wednesday evening, a group of agriculture enthusiasts gathered at San Francisco’s Women’s Building for an evening with Novella Carpenter sponsored by Garden for the Environment and 18 Reasons. Part academic lecture, part slide show, and part stand-up comedy routine, the author of the popular memoir Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer gave the audience an intimate view of city farming – in her back yard and across the country.

“I’m not going to kill anything tonight,” she began. “I’m just going to talk about the farm.” Carpenter is the Paula Deen of urban farming. She’s scrappy, real, and hilarious — equal parts dirty hands and dirty mouth — only she champions the benefits of self-reliance and sustainability, not butter. 

“How many of you grow your own lettuce?” she asked.  A third of the audience raised their hands.  “And chickens?”  Not a single hand went up.  “No chickens?”  she exclaimed. “Shocking.  I thought chickens were the biggest craze.” 

For Carpenter, purchasing chickens was an easy move to make after buying her first box of bees, which she calls “the urban gateway animal.”  Her journey began six years ago when she and her boyfriend Bill transformed an abandoned West Oakland lot into a successful urban farm. Seeing city land sitting open, they tore out weeds and cement, tested the soil, and started to garden. They scavenged the streets for materials and fashioned raised beds out of old wood, a trellis from bamboo, and a duck house from an old car. And they called on the expertise of a Yemeni neighbor to teach them essential livestock-related skills such as milking and slaughtering. 

 “One of the great things about living in a first world country is that there is so much waste you can access.” Carpenter and her boyfriend dumpster dove at Berkeley’s best restaurants for food scraps to feed their animals and they trucked in composted manure from a horse farm in the Berkeley hills.

Farming for the rest of us
novella wateringOn a day-to-day basis, Carpenter spends two hours maintaining her farm, with occasional weekends dedicated to large-scale projects. Farming is a daily ritual for her and requires constant problem solving, innovation, and a sense of adventure that she enjoys. But what about the rest of us? How feasible is it to keep a self-sustaining urban farm? 

With bees, goats, pigs, and a wide array of vegetables, Ghost Town Farm provides around 50% of Novella and Bill’s diet. It’s a percentage Carpenter is proud of, but she’s also aware that she’s an anomaly. It would take a total transformation of our cities and our culture for urban farming alone to support our country’s agricultural needs. Even in Detroit, which Carpenter feels demonstrates a strong model of urban agriculture, only 4% of the food consumed come from city farms. If we were to make urban farming more universally effective, says Carpenter, we would need to move beyond its social contributions and build a viable economic model.

Then there’s the importance of balancing farming with other benefits of city life. A while back — as an experiment — Novella attempted to live solely off of her own farm for an entire month.  Although she lost weight and suffered from caffeine headaches, she was able to comfortably survive on the crops and animals she’d raised. But, she says, the experience cut her off from what she enjoys about living in Oakland, and it heightened her awareness of the contradictions she lives with daily. “I can kill a rabbit and then go out for Chinese food,” she says, pointing to the kind of hybridized life she and other urban homesteaders lead at this unique moment in history.  

Can a New Jersey housewife butcher a rabbit?
During her recent book tour, Carpenter hosted a rabbit butchering workshop in New York, where she noticed a growing interest in urban farming. Before the workshop began, a housewife from New Jersey pulled Carpenter aside and admitted that she wouldn’t be able go through with slaughtering a rabbit. But after watching the demonstration, the participant was eager for her turn. “She turned out to be a great slaughterer and a great butcher,” Carpenter recalled. “She felt empowered.”

As Carpenter sees it, reconnection with agricultural practices is key. “We are so divorced from these nuts-and-bolts realities of farming,” she says. “But it is possible to have a really great relationship with animals that you eat.  You can love them, feed them the best food, and then it’s time to eat!”

Not that raising livestock is necessary to start learning more about farming. Understanding the hard work agriculture requires can also help eaters grasp the real value of the food they buy. And Carpenter finds the simple act of noticing open spaces to be as empowering as utilizing them. It is equally informative, she says, “to begin imagining the city as something we can play with and where we, as a people, can grow our own food and make beautiful spaces.”

Want more? Podcast a recent interview with Novella Carpenter from Penguin Books, read the Ghost Town Farm blog, or watch the Obsessives video from Chow.com.

Read more of Jess Goldberg’s writing at her blog Sodium Girl.

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »