The Farm City: The Education of An Urban Farmer

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Farm City is the account of Novella Carpenter’s efforts to turn a vacant lot next to her apartment in Oakland into an urban farm. Determined to eat sustainable meat and produce, Novella recognizes that the only way she’ll be able to afford “the good stuff” is if she raises it herself. So that’s what she does. In a very big way. Novella starts with a garden, then a beehive, then chickens, until she’s also raising her own Thanksgiving turkeys! The book just came out yesterday, so we asked Novella a few questions about her farm and for her advice for any would-be urban farmer.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Throughout the book, Novella gives her farm tally. We asked her to update Kitchn readers on her livestock situation:
The Farm Tally
6 goats
14 rabbits (2 moms, 1 dad, 11 babies)
7 chickens (2 are broody)
50,000 bees

What’s been the tastiest dinner you’ve made, grown from your own labor?
The tastiest dinner I’ve ever made had to be one of the many dinners I made from the two hogs my boyfriend and I raised in our backyard. My friend had a retirement party, so I pulled out one of the pork shoulders, rubbed it with some anchiote paste from the Yucatan, wrapped it in banana leaves, and baked it for 8 hours at 200 degrees. Oh my god. People were like grabbing chunks of the meat off the bone and putting it on hand-made tortillas. Lordy!

On a day-to-day basis, what is the most challenging thing about urban farming?
Urban farming takes a lot of discipline. For both the farmer and her animals. The goats, for instance, need to be milked at 7am every morning, whether I want to get up after a late night or not. All the critters need to be fed and provided water—if I don’t, they won’t thrive and might die. This is a pretty big responsibility. Since we live in an urban area, it can be hard to source supplies–like I have to go on a trek to the local horse racetrack field to get alfalfa to feed the goats. But in the end, its all worth it. I love feeding the animals who then feed me, I love meeting the characters at the racetrack or at a rural feedstore where I go to buy supplies. The animals force me out of my comfort zone and usually that’s a good thing.

At one point you mentioned holding down three jobs. How did you manage working and your urban farm?
I still have two “real” jobs—free-lance writer and biofuel station worker/owner. It can be hard to leave the farm to go to my office or to the station, but again, it’s the discipline thing: i just have to set everything up (food, water) so the animals are happy while I’m gone. When I get home, there they are—and I’m happier than ever to see them. It’s funny because after a hard day’s work, I’m usually tired, but then I go out to the garden and start puttering around, fed the animals, clean out their pens, and all of a sudden, I don’t feel tired. It’s like the farm recharges me. Plus that, I’m like most farmers in that I have to have another job just so I can afford to run the farm. With vet visits, stud fees, seed and feed costs, it all adds up.

What’s your favorite gardening tool?
I rarely use garden tools besides the obvious: shovel, rake. But I do love my Felco 2 pruners. I actually carry them with me everywhere—if I see some sucker branches coming out of a street tree, I’ll shear them off and give them to the goats. They love eating tree branches.

Do you have any favorites among your animals?
I just got a new rabbit, named Sasquatch. She’s a silver fox bunny and has really wonderful fur. I bred her to my buck and they had adorable black and white babies. She’s a real sweetheart. I also had a new goat doeling born on the farm who I think is just gorgeous with her brown fur and blue eyes.

What your farm plans for summer?
This summer is going to be pretty busy. My book’s coming out and so I’m going on tour for a little while. I’m really lucky that our downstairs neighbors are really into the goats and other animals, so they’ll be feeding and milking while I’m gone. When I get back, there are some projects on the horizon: I’m growing dry-farmed tomatoes this year so there will be canning and sun-drying to do. We’re planning on building a cob oven at some point, but I’m not sure when I’ll have time to do that. My dream is to have an outdoor kitchen, with a plumbed area for cleaning vegetables and baking and canning. I imagine it will be kind of wild, with hops or kiwis growing over the roof, and little rabbits running around underfoot.

If someone is interested in embarking on their own urban farming adventure, what do you think is the easiest way to get started?
The easiest urban farm animal is the bee. They are so self-sufficient, so hard working, and they require very little maintenance. Once you set up the hive and install the bees, they go to work. You need to check on them every once in awhile and harvest honey when the boxes get too full, but that’s it. After that, I would say chickens. They are so lovely and giving. Funny to watch, too. The eggs are amazing.
In terms of vegetables or other food, I would urge people to grow food they like. Radishes are easy, but does anyone really *love* radishes? (well, maybe they do). But I like things like carrots and peas so I learned what kind of soil they need, best practices for growing them, and voila! now I have carrots and peas to eat. If you live in a small space, potatoes are easy to grow in a burlap bag, mounding it slowly with soil and straw. Small fruit trees in containers are amazingly productive. I also tell people to start small and build up to a full working farm.

Any urging for a larger spread of land in the country or do you think you’ll stay a city girl?
You know, I have many friends who are buying land and going out there to grow food. I think that’s great, but it isn’t for me. I love my multi-ethnic neighborhood (where the Yemeni storekeeper can tell me about goat husbandry because he used to be a goat herder) and I love not driving. I can ride my bike most places and reserve the truck for getting hay and loads of compost. I love going out to Chinese food. I love living right next to my friends. My parents did the whole back to the land thing, and I think it was hard on them, so I don’t have that urge.

I do, however, want to own some land in the city. My lot where I do the vegetable garden is squatted, so it can be taken away at the owner’s whim. So if I ever make a lot of money, I want to buy several contiguous lots and set up an educational farm for city kids. Someday, too, I hope to get a horse and ride it regularly through downtown Oakland.

Buy the Book: Farm City by Novella Carpenter, at We honestly can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s the perfect summer read—witty and inspiring. We read it twice in one week!

• You can stay up-to-date on Novella’s farming adventures with her blog, Ghost Town Farm.

(Images: Novella Carpenter)

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