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Ghost Town Farm

While some city dwellers were beginning to dabble in backyard chicken–raising, composting their organic vegetable scraps, and maybe getting really crazy with a rooftop beehive or two, Novella Carpenter had grander ambitions. In the late 1990s, this Seattle transplant moved to a crime-ridden area of Oakland, California, with her mechanic boyfriend, Bill, and started a full-scale farming operation on a vacant patch of earth next door.

On the lot, which didn’t even belong to her, she grew everything from fava beans to watermelons, and raised bees, chickens, turkeys, rabbits, ducks, pigs, and goats, which she slaughtered and ate for food at times. Then, in 2009, she wrote a memoir about it, called Farm City, ensuring her place in history as one badass urban farmer.

The book, with deadpan humor and a lack of sanctimony, describes the grittier side of urban farming. Carpenter’s turkeys roam free down the streets among drug dealers and “tumble weaves” (cast-off hair extensions from the local prostitutes). And when Carpenter slaughters a bird for Thanksgiving, she finds bits of glass in his gullet.

Unlike many other sustainable-food memoirs from this time period, Farm City doesn’t feel like it was dreamed up in a book agent’s office to capitalize on the green trend. Carpenter’s challenges (decapitating an opossum that attacks her fowl, dumpster diving for rabbit feed) don’t seem contrived, and are therefore more affecting.

What’s your typical day like?
“Spring and summer, I get up at 7 a.m. to feed the chickens and milk the goats. Sometimes I almost fall asleep while milking because their udders are so warm and I can rest my head on their flanks. Then I feed the goats, make some Lapsang Souchong tea with goat milk and honey, and, if it’s hot out, I’ll water the vegetable garden and check on the rabbits. Then I go to work at the biodiesel station, or my office, which is 10 blocks away from the farm. After work, I feed the goats again, check on the rabbits (they live on the deck), and make dinner. The rest of the night, I work on writing projects, canning, cheesemaking, or making sauerkraut. Sometimes Bill and I will go to San Francisco and haunt the wonderful bookstores there, then dumpster dive for the rabbits and chickens at Rainbow Co-Op. In the fall and winter, I’m usually not milking, and I don’t have to water the garden, so I write and read more.”

Is urban farming a fad, similar to the back-to-the-land movement of the ’60s?
“I can see younger twentysomethings getting into urban farming, but then they see it’s a lot of work and isn’t glamorous, so they’ll get bored and wander off to the next thing. I think that’s fine. But now that 50 percent of the world lives in urban areas (and growing), more people are going to want to raise food in cities. I worry that too many urbanites are fearful of urban farms, and they will try to pass laws to prevent us from keeping goats in the city, for example.”

What was the last most satisfying meal you had?
“I was just visiting Bob Cannard’s farm in Sonoma [Cannard supplies to Bay Area restaurants like Chez Panisse and Quince], and we picked Padrón peppers, then fried them up on a hot grill, sprinkled them with salt, and ate them by the dozen. I love that simplicity and frankness, sitting on the back porch with friends, talking about rabbit breeding.”

Matt Timms Novella Carpenter Duane Sorenson Sandor Katz Josh Viertel Richard Blakeley and Jessica Amason Ryan Farr Deborah Madison Roy Choi Sam Calagione Bryant Terry Christina Tosi

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