If urban farming has celebrities, Novella Carpenter is certainly one of them. She is the best-selling author of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, the personality behind the popular Ghost Town Farm blog, and a sought after speaker on the topic of urban agriculture. She is also the real deal. Novella has dived into dumpsters to feed her pigs, butchered and eaten rabbits she raised in a vacant lot, and revived a nearly dead, newborn goat in her apartment. Most recently, she co-authored an urban farming guide, The Essential Urban Farmer.
Novella grew up in rural Idaho and Washington State. She majored in biology and English at the University of Washington in Seattle. While attending Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, she studied under Michael Pollan for two years. Her urban farm began with a few chickens, then some bees, until she had a full-blown farm near downtown Oakland. Both inside and outside of the urban garden, Novella continues to share the bounty of her labor with neighbors, friends, budding farmers, and now, Leaf Litter readers.
Your most recent book, The Essential Urban Farmer, (co-written with Willow Rosenthal, founder of City Slicker Farms) is a how-to manual for people interested in growing and raising their own food in the city. What has been the response to this book?
The response has been great. So many books are geared toward people who have a lot of land; we wanted to create a book about urban farming. We’re encouraging people to rethink the city as a place to grow food, and that is happening.
You state your intention in writing The Essential Urban Farmer right in the introduction: to provide a much needed how-to manual for people interested in growing and raising their own food in the city. What was your intention when you wrote Farm City?
Farm City was more about storytelling. I’d find myself at parties, telling people about things that were going on at the farm and they were always so fascinated. When I was trying to be a reporter, I took a food writing class with Michael Pollan. He said, “Your stories are so great. Why don’t you write those instead of reported stories and interviews?”
That was the genesis of me starting to write the stories for an audience. Many of the essays were published in salons before they became Farm City. The response was so great at the salons (both positive and negative) that an agent approached me with the idea to write a book.
In Farm City, you claim to gravitate towards rougher, abandoned, semi-industrial, imperfect areas. Would you recommend this type of land as the highest urban agriculture priority?
The thing about these areas is that they are the places where you can get away with more urban agriculture because there are so many other problems that the city has to focus on. You can get away with having goats, for example. In nicer neighborhoods, your neighbors tend to get mad if you didn’t mow the lawn.
These neighborhoods also tend to have more people from different countries. A man from Nigeria stopped by my farm a little while ago and said, “I’m from Nigeria and I heard you have my goats in your backyard.”
So I showed him my Nigerian goats. He said, “Oh, it’s just like home, with goats on the back stairs!” (He had lived in a city in Nigeria.) I think immigrant neighbors are more accepting of livestock and agriculture in the city. Ultimately, urban agriculture is more of a third world thing. We’re learning from third world countries how to do it here.
Then of course there’s the issue of food justice. Who gets to eat healthy, organic food? Mostly affluent, white people. So yes, there’s the sense of wanting to use the land to feed people healthy food. Willow’s [Rosenthal, founder of City Slicker Farms] mission was to get healthy food to communities that are considered to have food deserts, where there is no grocery store. How can people eat healthy food if the only alternative is to go to the liquor store and get Doritos for breakfast?
Farm City is peppered with historical tidbits about urban farming. Urban agriculture is not new, yet it seems to have flourished in economically challenging times only to fade away. Today, we’re in the midst of a challenging economy and there is a growing awareness of issues like food deserts, food security, childhood obesity, and the benefits of eating unprocessed food. There also seem to be more farmers markets, farm-to-table restaurants, artisanal food, etc. in the U.S. Is this a perfect storm for a burst of urban agriculture?
It definitely is. Farm City came out in 2009, when the recession had just started. A lot of people thought it was going to end quickly, but here it is 2012 and it’s still dragging on. I have seen more and more interest in urban agriculture as an economic reality—that if you’re very wily, you can grow food for less than you’d pay for it at a grocery store or farmer’s market.
What we don’t have now are victory gardens and war gardens projects, where the government told us to grow our own food. How different would it be if George Bush told people to plant a garden instead of telling them to go shopping? That would be insane. It would never happen. We don’t have a lot of government support for urban agriculture, and that’s a shame.
In San Francisco, a giant victory garden was planted at City Hall [in 1943]. They actually had a reenactment of that in 2007. They planted a victory garden and it was beautiful and people were so excited!
We need more government help if we’re going to get urban agriculture up to speed. Otherwise, it’s just freaks like me who want to grow their own food. In fact, I’ve had problems with the City of Oakland because my property isn’t zoned agricultural. It’s these little things that are going to stop people from growing food.
In Cuba, they have a shortage of food, so they’re encouraging people to grow food in the cities. It has been very successful. In downtown Caracas, Venezuela, they have acres-big farms where they are growing food.
Ultimately, the biggest problem with urban farming is land access because land is so expensive in the city. We really need people who, at the policy level, will make it so we have incentives and support for growing food instead of barriers.
I was planning to ask you what you consider to be the top three challenges to urban farming. It sounds like a lack of government support—from the municipal to the federal level—would be one.
What are some of the others?
Managing people’s fears around agriculture. People think it’s going to stink and there’s going to be a tractor in the backyard. So making people feel comfortable with the idea of having a working farm near them is a big one.
A lot of it is education. People are excited now about urban farming, but we have to educate people so they can do a good job. There’s nothing worse than growing food and then having it not work out, or losing your livestock because you didn’t know how to build a chicken coop properly to protect against predators.
That’s another reason why we wanted to publish The Essential Urban Farmer: so people would know that, hey, there are raccoons, possums, and in some cities, foxes, that can get into your chicken coop and kill your chickens, so here’s how you bury your hardware cloth in the ground. If you have failures with crops or you lose livestock, it’s very de-motivating. We really need education and I think that could come in the form of extension agents. In rural areas, you have people come tell you what you did wrong with your corn. People could do that in the city, too. I’d love to see an urban ag extension agent in every city.
I’d assume that one of the challenges of farming in a formerly industrial area is that you have potentially toxic landscapes.
Yes, that’s another huge issue for urban farming. You’re going to have soil that has lead in it. Or you might have someone who wants to grow food at a former gas station. There has to be education at all levels about what is appropriate.
There’s also the sense that the city is so dirty. Well, rural areas are dirty, too. Go to Fresno sometime! You’re like, “Wow, that’s where all the broccoli is grown? Right next to the highway?” We have this romanticism that our food from rural farms comes from beautiful pasture land, with blue skies and green fields. It’s giant agriculture, with cars whizzing by and massive pesticide use. I’d like to see the soil tests for [those areas] because that soil is probably pretty gnarly as well. In urban areas, you do have to make sure your soil is heavy metal free and toxin free, but as depressing as it is, rural areas are not necessarily much better.
In Farm City, you tell of an experiment in which you vow to eat only items you can obtain from or within 100 yards of your garden. What was the greatest lesson you learned from that experiment?
The greatest lesson I learned from that experience was that it was a very stupid idea. There’s this very American ideal of the cowboy individual who can do everything himself, with pioneer spirit. What we forget is that the pioneers survived because they helped each other. My experiment was playing with the idea of “what can I do by myself?” Ultimately, I found myself in a very lonely place: hoarding beets, not having enough food, and feeling kind of anxious. Many survivalists are into this idea of the bunker, and surviving as the fallout happens. I realized that for me, having a garden for myself–which I’d have to defend with a gun if it came to it–is not the best survival idea. I think building a community, helping each other, and educating people about how to grow food is much more important. It’s not just all about the individual.
An incident in Farm City in which various people in your community help you wrangle a pig escapee, really illustrated for me how an urban farm enlivens, intrigues, and brings folks together. Tell us about some of the positive impacts your farm had on your community?
I think I’m getting more out of [the farm] than the people around me. Ghost Town Farm is like a fun fact for the neighborhood. People like to bring their kids and look at the ducklings, goats and chickens. It’s sort of like having a petting zoo. But there’s also this sense of people wanting to share their stories and cultures. It’s a conversation starter, a point of reference for people of different cultures and what they grow. We have Buddhist monks and Vietnamese people in our community, and they all have memories of growing food.
The farm becomes a place to share culture. It opens up a dialogue that normally wouldn’t happen. This idea of culture and agriculture is constantly reinforced with the garden.
How do you scale that up?
That’s a good question. I’m just an individual and not a policy wonk so I can never think of the answer of how to scale it up. I do think it would be cool to have, instead of a park, an urban farm with different sections featuring different cultures growing different things. You could have the Vietnamese section, the Yemen section, etc. You could have a whole demonstration farm that shows how people grow food in different parts of the world. It should be a working farm where they harvest and distribute food and have work parties.
I think people have a huge hunger for agriculture, but it’s hard to access it. So if you had a place in every city that was known as the urban farm, that’d be very helpful.
Were there things you learned about the history of urban agriculture that really surprised you?
If you look at the old Aztec cities in Mexico, they were built around farming. Cities were based around farming. It was only later that we got into this dualistic thinking that the farm is there and the city is here. Historically, cities were places where you wanted to have food growing as close as possible to where the people were. Long ago, in Paris for example, they had amazing vegetable gardens, and they were actually exporting vegetables to the outlying areas to feed people. It was only when we started getting refrigerated trucks and trains that we started growing food off in the country and bringing it into the city. Learning about those projects in cities was surprising to me, and made me start to think of cities in a different way.
In Farm City, you quote environmentalist Paul Shepard, who observes that “Garden style is a continuing expression of the changing idea of the universe.” You then ask, “What does our city landscaping say about us?” I realize you wrote that book a couple of years ago. How would you answer that question today?
Things are changing. It’s like the Prius—it’s cool to have a rain garden now! People are really starting to think about resources, and how we’re not using them to the fullest. We’re also seeing fewer and fewer lawns. People aren’t necessarily installing sod as much, and there’s a drive toward planting natives and being water wise. I think we’re getting to the point where our view of the universe involves thinking more sustainably. That has happened in the last five years.
Architectural and landscape architectural firms are doing fun, new projects, like the High Line in New York and a similar project along the Alaska Way Viaduct in Seattle. It’s become sort of hip to re-imagine landscapes not as a lawn and some petunias, but as an ecosystem.
The other day I was driving in Olympia, the capital of Washington, and they have a public permaculture garden there. It’s very open. You’re welcome to come in and wander around. We need these types of gardens with no gates.
People are like, “Aren’t you worried about vandalism?” Not really, because they’re just plants. Humans are drawn toward nature. You see it with little babies and kids. Somehow we lose that when we are adults in the concrete jungle. It’s so soothing to be able to be in a city and wander around and enjoy some nature without having to feel like “is this okay that I’m in here?”
What do you think the role of landscape architects/planners/ecological engineers is/should be in the urban agriculture movement?
To make it more of a fun thing. There is such a sense of being serious. It’s fun to do playful projects. I recently talked with Dan Wood at Princeton, whose firm [WORK Architecture Company] did Farm 1 in New York. The idea to use construction materials to create gardens was a very cool, beautiful, and fun thing. People see that and they’re not intimidated by that. There’s also Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard. John Bela, who installed the victory garden in front of San Francisco’s City Hall, couldn’t do conventional row crops. So he used rice wattles to form circular beds to make the gardens. This element of playing and keeping it low-tech is nice. Everything doesn’t have to be so serious.
There’s a whole movement of vertical farming; like that’s going to save the world and feed everybody in skyscraper buildings. But that’s not really accessible to people. It’s one of those, “Gee whiz, we can go to the moon” kind of things. A lot of people want to see things they can do in their backyards and on their decks. We can probably engineer our way out of problems, but sometimes I think low-tech is the way to go. Have fun and make [urban agriculture] a sensory experience where you can actually smell the flowers, touch the vegetables and see things up close. Think of it in terms of “What would a ten year-old kid like a garden to look like?” because ultimately, that’s how adults would like it to look, too.
People always want to know how much one can grow, so having some kind of schematic that shows how much food can be grown on a particular piece of land would also be helpful.
You say of your urban farm “It had owned me.” Near the end of Farm City, you also say “That an urban farmer existed before Christ made me feel like I was—that we all were—merely repeating the same motions that all humans had gone through, that nothing was truly new.” You say that this insight gave you peace. Can you elaborate on this? What did your farm do for you? What did it teach you?
The farm is a place where you discover what it’s like to be human. A garden provides a laboratory that is teaching you about your culture. After a while of growing carrots, or raising chickens, you start to look at them and you wonder, “Who thought of domesticating these, and how did they do it?” Gardens bring you back to thinking about basics. There’s a Robinson Crusoe aspect to it. You rediscover the way people learned how to live and feed ourselves. We are not hunter gatherers anymore, so we use these domesticated crops and animals to sustain us.
I now have a baby. If she’s fussy, I take her out to the garden and she immediately quiets down. For a baby, there’s nothing like the tactile experience of being in a garden. All the smells and sounds. It’s an amazing experience for people to have, to be connected to their food and see it grow, and be part of that cycle of life and death. You harvest your broccoli plant, and then you yank it out of the ground, and it becomes compost. There’s a nice sense of the cycles of life and death on the farm that is ultimately a healing kind of thing. If you live in a city and the only thing you see is your dog or cat, you don’t see the cycles of intent. If you have a garden and animals that you are eating, you have a sense of “This is my place. This is my fate. I will live this long and then I’ll be done. Then I’ll become worm food.” There’s something reassuring about that. There’s not the sense of higher expectations of immortality.