July 4, 2010

Book Review: Farm City -- The Education of an Urban Farmer

Oh, joy!

Novella Carpenter's hilarious book about running an urban farm by squatting on a vacant plot of land near her home in Oakland (aka Ghost Town Farm) is enjoyable from beginning to end.

I loved reading this book after Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. The similarities are obvious, but the differences are amazing.

In particular, I loved to read how the ghetto and Novella's cause co-existed and embraced each other and eventually led her, through her dumpster diving, to a symbiotic relationship with a high-class restaurant from the Chez-Panisse lineage.

It was refreshing to read stories directly conflicting with Barbara's classification of culture wars between city and country. Clearly, the culture conflict that bothers both Barbara and Novella is much more complicated than simple geography or socio-economic status, as the embracing of the farm by some in the inner city and the thoughtless country slaughterhouse story in Novella's book demonstrate.

Of course, I couldn't help but think that in the country, Novella would have no trouble finding someone to kill and butcher her pig. In the city, this was a true conundrum and she ended up driving 3 hours to pay someone to do it in a somewhat heartless way. In the country, hunters who do their own butchering regularly kill and butcher animals significantly larger than her pigs. No doubt, if I had pigs, I could get some books and ask brother to talk me through the more "you-know-it-when-you-see-it" portions of the process, or I could call some of daddy's or brother's friends and they'd do it for me -- one of them (a former electrical lineman and one-time butcher) might even be talked into letting us use his garage with the built-in drain hole where brother and his friends who can't afford professional butcher fees end up slaughtering their deer if I could bribe his wife to put up with it (and I'm guessing Grandma Sherry would let herself be bribed...).

This personal knowledge of the country is what made me side with Barbara, initially. But Novella's tale rings true to my experience in the hoods of Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco. Yes, I realize, the idea that there is or ever has been a hood where SOMA stands today is a bit difficult to process, but in 2000, I lived on an alley with a tent city. Granted, they were North Face tents. But they were still full of people with lighters under spoons and pipes who informed me that they'd protect my car because I was a nice neighbor.

Farm City is a book stuffed with Californian food history from the last several decades. If you are a bay-area or even Californian food history buff, this book will amuse you with its stories and additional color for things you thought you understood. The author studied for 2 years under Michael Pollan at UC Berkeley's school of Journalism, and yet, her message, story and voice are distinct enough from his that this fact is merely interesting, not an "of course she did."

This book is a gritty, honest, true-to-life tale of someone trying to live sustainably with an urban farm. It showed me that regardless of where you do it, my grandfather's saying was true, "Farming is the hardest business. You go bankrupt or, at best, it doesn't pay well. You only do it if you love it."

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