Book Review: Farm City, the Education of an Urban Farmer


Have you ever fantasized about starting your own farm?

You need to read Farm City.

In this strange and wonderful tale it’s clear that the author, Novella Carpenter, didn’t exactly set out to go quite as far as she did into animal husbandry. It just sort of happened, as if it were an enterprise she fell willingly into, or was steered to by some invisible inner rudder.

It all starts innocently enough.

A few vegetables planted on a vacant lot tucked away in a forgotten pocket of Oakland, Calif. The dead-end street (the ghetto’s version of a cul-de-sac) is situated in a scruffy part of town within view of downtown and earshot of the BART trains. When Novella and her boyfriend Bill arrive, the street and its inhabitants have achieved a precarious balance of ordered lawlessness that seems oddly welcoming.

After the vegetables, Novella gets her defunct beehive up and buzzing, and before long we find her receiving a box of chirping baby “meat birds” from a baffled postal delivery person. Then a friend persuades Novella to take on her rabbitry, so she can travel. The next thing Novella knows, she and Bill find themselves out on nightly reconnaissance to some of the East Bay’s finest neighborhoods to dive for choice scraps in the dumpsters of famous restaurants – scraps they take back to feed their growing, and hungry, menagerie.

It’s quite a journey and as readers, we get the pleasure of taking it right along with her. She’s a gifted storyteller who knows how to hook the reader and pull you in. I couldn’t put the book down.

She’s both hilarious and deeply honest in describing the strange cast of characters who make up her neighborhood. She doesn’t judge their motivations and they don’t judge hers. Despite all their differences they learn to trust each other. But there’s no sugar-coating here. I live in Oakland, and the descriptions of the neighborhood are spot on. She’s not making this up.

Some of the most moving parts of the book involve exploring what it means to eat animals you’ve raised yourself. This is not something most of us will ever do, which gives me an immense amount of respect for this woman who is neither sentimental nor unflinching in the tasks that confront her.

It’s a huge responsibility to nurture another life along for the purpose of feeding yourself. Novella doesn’t take it lightly, and neither can the reader.

I think that we’re going to start seeing more farming and animal husbandry in urban population centers in the not-too-distant future. In fact, our survival may depend on it. I just hope I get to live next door to such a farmer. I’ll gladly put up with the noise and odors. Trade you some heirloom tomatoes for a pork chop?

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.