Farm City by Novella Carpenter

photo by Pete Mulvihill

Pete Mulvihill of Green Apple Recommends

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Here's the story of the woman who convinced me to raise chickens in the Sunset (like three-year-old twins isn't hard enough). Actually, Farm City: the Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter is much more than that: it's a very cool book. It's not perfect, but it's very cool: inspirational, bold, funny, sometimes outrageous.

I should back up. Novella Carpenter moved to a, um, "very affordable" part of Oakland from Seattle a few years ago. Next to her apartment was a vacant lot. She planted a few plants, then got some bees, then chickens and turkeys and rabbits, pigs, goats. Oh my. Now she's a bone fide urban farmer, not a backyard enthusiast.

She has some hippie roots: her parents were back-to-the-landers in Idaho. And she's more willing than I am to let her livestock into her home. So slaughtering her first "game bird" wasn't quite as harrowing as it would be for many city slickers, but it was tough (as was the meat—she still had much to learn).

The book traces her journey and that of the vacant lot as Novella learns the ins and outs of farming in Oakland, from dumpster diving for scraps to feed the animals to "harvesting" her own rabbits, from loading horse manure into a borrowed truck, to buying baby pigs at auction.

As I said, it's inspirational. My wife and I had been toying with the idea of raising a few laying hens in our Sunset backyard, and Novella's experiments inspired us to pull the trigger and go for it. (The verdict is still out for us; we're in between cute fuzzy chicks and having eggs, so it's a waiting game.)

Novella goes way further than most people can or want to, of course. What is she thinking raising pigs in Oakland? But at a publicity party for the book's launch, I got to try some salumi made from her pigs, and while I didn't exactly taste the Oakland terroir, it was darn yummy, and I much enjoyed reading about her learning processes.

This book has a rich cast, populated by other lively Oakland characters, Novella's (amazingly patient) boyfriend, and her livestock. Her voice is no-nonsense and earnest and self-effacing. Overall, this book is a great read for anyone at all interested in food.

NOTE: You can come meet Novella and buy her book at the following East Bay events:

Tuesday June 16th, Eccolo restaurant on 4th Street in Berkeley, book release party! Featuring produce grown on Bay Area urban farms and the prosciutto she made with chef Chris Lee. Nima from Analog books will be there to sell Farm City.

Friday June 18th, Berkeley, in conversation with Michael Pollan as part of the Berkeley Arts and Lectures author series. First Congregational Church, 7:30pm, $10 at door.