Back when she started her weekly "Rev" column about alternative transportation for us in 2003, Novella Carpenter had already planted a garden in the abandoned vacant lot adjacent to her rented West Oakland apartment. Some Rev readers might remember that she and her boyfriend, Bill, were early devotees of biofuels, but what Novella never mentioned in Rev was her odyssey into urban farming under the lee of the thundering I-980.
It's just as well that she didn't give all that good stuff away in a mere column, creating Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer (Penguin; $25.95) instead. Given a prestigious starred review from Publishers Weekly, Farm City details Carpenter's adventures learning how to farm on the hard-scrabble pack of a filthy inner city lot. She appears Aug. 2 at Readers' Books.
Starting with veggies, Carpenter gradually grew to raise chickens, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, goats and even pigs in her backyard. Talking by phone from Los Angeles while on tour, she says that her landlord frankly doesn't know she's written a bestselling book about her experience farming his land. When Bill accompanies her on tour, the two ask their downstairs neighbors to take care of the animals and plants. "One of them is from Cuba," she explains, "and so milking the goats is totally normal. As a young man, he told me that you're trained to do guerrilla warfare and gardening. Milking in the morning and target practice later in the day."
While critics are unanimous in their praise of Carpenter's wit and writing, many have remarked upon her tendency to name, pet, groom and love up her animals before butchering them. "I'll never be apologetic for that," she says. "Naming my animals and killing them is more of a philosophical thing than anything else. I think that people are hypocrites if they eat meat but won't acknowledge where it came from; do they live in some cloudlike static child's world? I don't want to be righteous, but if people are offended, let 'em be."
Teaming up with City Slicker Farms founder Willow Rosenthal, Carpenter's next book is already at the publisher. Tentatively titled The Essential Urban Farmer, this follow-up will be a how-to guide for those who would like to follow in Carpenter's soiled footsteps. "This is the book that I wish that I'd had," she says.
Carpenter is not immune to the irony of her success. "The timing is impeccable," she says with a rueful chuckle. "The recession really causes people to question what they spend their money on. Our food system is broken, and we're always hoping that someone will fix it. But there is no one. After a while, you have to realize that you're the person who's going to fix things. And after a while," she says, "it's really empowering."
Novella Carpenter reads from and discusses Farm City at Readers' Books on Sunday, Aug. 2, at 4pm. 130 E. Napa St., Sonoma. Free. 707.939.1779.
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