Novella Carpenter has grown lettuce for the Black Panthers, gone dumpster diving at gourmet restaurants to feed her pigs, and subsisted for an entire month on what she was able to produce on Ghost Town Farm—a vacant lot in a rundown neighborhood near downtown Oakland, California.
She is a pioneering practitioner of urban farming, in which city dwellers claim what space they can to grow food, raise animals, and reestablish the broken connection between food production and consumption. Her 2009 book, Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, became a bestseller and helped draw other people into what has become, pun intended, a growing movement.
Carpenter’s eponymous blog site, Ghost Town Farm, lists more than a dozen similar operations across the country. She co-authored with Willow Rosenthal The Essential Urban Farmer, a guidebook on how to find appropriate vacant land, woo landlords into agreement, test for toxins, and raise crops and animals. In 2011, she was able to buy the 4,500-square-foot lot on which her farm is located, ending the omnipresent worry of eviction.
The daughter of “back-to-the-earth hippies,” Carpenter grew up in Idaho and Washington State, watching her mother milk cows and butcher rabbits. She came to farming knowing that setbacks and failure were part of the process. She is caring (the lettuce went to make salad for a Panthers literacy program) but tough, writing in Farm City about being accosted by a group of young neighborhood kids, one brandishing a gun. “What do you think the police will do to you if they see you with a gun?” she demands of him. “I’ll tell you. The cops will kill you.”
Carpenter, forty-three, is an engaging and often funny writer, but she’s not just in it for chuckles. She graduated with a degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, where she studied with Michael Pollan. Urban farming, for her, is a serious business. Her email tagline reads: Novella Carpenter, writer:farmer:eater.
I recently spoke to Carpenter by phone about urban farming, the raising of food and killing of animals, and other topics.
Q: What’s new on Ghost Town Farm?
Novella Carpenter: We just started breaking up a lot of concrete. The farm is built on the foundation of a former giant building. When I was squatting there, I would just pile soil and compost over the concrete [in raised beds]. But now I own the land and am finally getting around to busting up the concrete. They took away ten tons of it. The soil underneath is actually really good soil. I sent it in to be tested just to make sure. It’s beautiful, beautiful soil.
Q: Is there a way to quantify the growth of urban farms?
Carpenter: There’s no urban farming organization that counts us and sends out a newsletter to all of us, although there really should be. You can pretty much go into any large American city and say, “Hey, is there an urban farm here?” and there will be one. But it’s just super grassroots at this point.
Q: What are some of the unique challenges to urban farming, besides having to worry about getting kicked out?
Carpenter: As cities get more dense, you have people saying, “Why would you have an urban farm when you could have affordable housing on that property instead?” So there’s an argument against it. Another huge thing is there’s a brain drain toward growing marijuana. You know, if someone has a green thumb in an urban area, especially in places like Washington or Oregon where it’s now totally legal, why wouldn’t you just grow pot? But the biggest difficulty is just getting land. We’ve seen it in San Francisco, where there was an amazing farm called Hayes Valley Farm. It’s gone now because they built condos.
So my argument for that is: Why not create urban farms that are like parks, on public land? There actually is a park that I see as a model: Dover Street Park in Oakland. They took this park that has swings and playground-type things and turned it into a farm. There’s not chickens, just annual vegetables interspersed with fruit trees. And it’s super cool because you see people playing with their kids and then they go pick raspberries and some greens for dinner. It’s like this new way of looking at a park.
Q: People have spoken of urban gardening as a way to get city people to connect with nature and with higher ideals. Is that what you’re up to?
Carpenter: Yeah. I didn’t think that at the beginning. I just wanted to have a garden and a farm and have animals around me. But I do think there’s a craving for people to feel a connection. Honestly, it’s building on an immigrant tradition, where you bring your country to America. You bring your seeds from Italy. My neighbors are Vietnamese, so they’re growing their herbs and stuff that they miss from Vietnam.
I don’t think people are like, “I’m going to save the planet by planting my own herbs.” But [on environmental issues like climate change, there’s a sense of hopelessness and despair. Maybe it’s really a small gesture but if you can have a garden it may make you feel like you’re helping in some way, or that you’re making a connection. You can’t change the world but you can change your backyard.
Q: You came to urban farming sort of organically, having had hippie parents and friends into salvaging. Can anyone do it, or does it take a certain kind of person?
Carpenter: I feel that anyone can do it. But a lot of people start off because it’s trendy. It’s this cool thing. “I’m going to take a beekeeping class.” But people who are in it for the long haul have to have a little bit of tenacity. You have to do it because you love it, not because it’s cool, because there will be moments when it’s not cool.
Q: There’s this new housing model called agrihoods—housing developments that are built around farms. If there is virtue to farming in cities, is there also virtue in creating communities around farms?
Carpenter: Sure. I think that’s part of people wanting a wholesome life, to surround yourself with farm animals and fields. That’s sort of an American ideal. And anyone who has kids knows that children like to be around chickens, goats, whatever. My kid loves to go out and feed the chickens and collect the eggs. It’s a nice way of living.
Q: In Farm City, when a young neighborhood kid wanted a rabbit, you didn’t give him one, you sold him one for $5. Why?
Carpenter: He’d pay more if he got it at a pet shore, so to me it seemed like a fair deal, and also a lesson for him. You have to make people understand that things cost something. Otherwise it seems like they have no value. I can’t just be giving away rabbits. No. It costs five bucks, so make it work for you. And who knows, maybe he’s selling rabbit manure to pot farmers now. That would be beautiful.
Q: Because you personally kill the rabbits and birds you raise for food, historian and vegetarian activist James McWilliams has described you as the “slaughterers’ guru,” part of “a rabid core of urban DIY animal killers” crusading for the right to slaughter in their backyards. How do you respond?
Carpenter: If you’ve ever killed a chicken in your backyard, you’d know that it’s not the same as a slaughterhouse, and the whole point is it’s not a slaughterhouse. There is this really intimate connection that people have with the animals they’re going to eat. A lot of people who eat meat say “I would never kill my own animals.” Well, that means someone else is doing it for you, ultimately. This is the modern attitude that we have: Somebody else will do that for me. And to me, it just seemed wrong. I wanted to be part of the process of what it meant to eat meat. I wanted to be responsible.
Q: If you look at other alternatives, from organic food to green burial, there comes a time when bigger companies horn in on the action, taking it away from its roots. Could that happen to urban farming?
Carpenter: It hasn’t happened so far. But I could see a chain of urban farm stores opening up. It would be like Petco. They’d have some cute name for it. I can also see some kind of brand for rooftop gardening, where they sell a kit, like an urban farm in a kit (laughs). But so far I haven’t seen any signs of major co-opting.
Q: Aside from starting their own urban farm, what other things can people do to experience and support urban farming?
Carpenter: Even if you live in New York City, you can have a little basil plant in your window, and that could be considered urban farming. You can also keep worms and make compost. There are all these ways to get involved without having an urban farm.
Q: Does it matter to urban farming who gets elected in November?
Carpenter: Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know Hillary’s stance on urban farming. I don’t know Trump’s stance or Bernie Sanders’s for that matter. But the Obamas have been amazing. You know, Michelle Obama, she planted that garden. She keeps bees there at the White House. Little known fact, though, is that Laura Bush also had an organic garden but she never told anyone about it.
Urban farming appeals to people on the right and the left. People have different reasons for getting into it. Some people are like doomsdayers, they think there’s going to be some horrible catastrophe and how will we survive? And then there’s people that are more like, “We want to be socialists and have communal chicken coops.” It really runs the whole gamut.