Phil Campbell and Novella Carpenter talk urban farming

Below writer Novella Carpenter answers Phil Campbell’s questions about her book, Farm City, which Dwight Garner calls “consistently involving” and “a serious, if tragicomic, meditation on raising and then killing your own animals.”

The author has a couple of events in New York City this week, at the Horticultural Society and Vox Pop.

You can see photos of some of her pigs, bunnies, and turkeys here.

Farm City is about my friend Novella Carpenter’s experiences as an “urban farmer” in inner-city Oakland. Carpenter grows vegetables, and raises and slaughters livestock on the lot where she squats. She scavenges for leftovers in Chinese restaurant dumpsters for her pigs. She enlists the neighbors to help whenever a chicken escapes. I like Farm City for the way she unsentimentally describes her experiences, and for the way her devotion to killing and harvesting the pigs she lovingly raised, and her skill in describing the fruits of her labor, made me yearn for some quality pancetta.

But I didn’t become interested in interviewing her until other things I heard and read showed that Carpenter is part of a bigger trend. Urban farming feels as hot a topic today as the idea of “livable cities” — community-and-neighborhood-based urban planning — must have felt after the publication of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961. Will Allen recently won a MacArthur Genius Grant for his efforts to make urban farming economically viable. Architects are getting into the act. And the practice is flourishing in a variety of places, from the decidedly blue-collar Flint, Michigan, to my own neighborhood. I was amazed to learn this summer that a new farm/market had opened, half a dozen blocks from my house in Brooklyn, on the top of someone’s roof.

“I want to feel close to my food,” you write in your book, “to see what it means to raise it — and kill it.” Was this ultimately just a personal experiment, or were you hoping for some greater lessons to come out of this?

Entirely personal. I like to learn how things work, to get to their core so I can understand everything that went into making them. This was useful when I was studying to be a biologist at the University of Washington, and later when I became a journalist.

In your book you talk about this dual, contradictory identity you attain once you start farming in the city. You are not someone people either in the country or the city really understand. How did that awareness shape the way you wrote this book?

Yeah, I guess I am a hybrid. I think if I was writing about urban farming ten — even five — years ago it would not have been a popular notion. I have friends who have been urban farming for decades and they had been marked as freaks (loveable freaks, but freaks); now they are hometown heroes. Since Farm City came out, and people like Will Allen won a MacArthur Genius Grant, urban agriculture has started to be embraced even by mainstream folks.

But to your question: while I was writing the book, I was mostly focusing on telling a coherent story. So much happened that didn’t make it into the book. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t making urban farming sound perfect and wonderful. I wanted to share the warts, but I also wanted to express how happy urban farming has made me, and the meaning it has given to my life. Indeed, my rural cowgirl thing marks me as different in my city, in the same way that say the Yemeni shopkeeper around here is considered different because he closes his shop up to go pray, or the el Salvadoran guys who play soccerstand out because they wear their team colors and full-on socks and stuff.

Jane Jacobs, the author, neighborhood activist, and champion of all those who pine for the “livable city,” left out the concept of urban farming in her writings. Do you think that if she were alive today she would rethink some of her ideas about what a livable city really is?

I must confess I haven’t read any Jane Jacobs, but I’m familiar with her theories of walkable cities, making places with a sense of the human scale. I wonder why she didn’t include food production — it is a common practice historically. It’s possible that she wasn’t entirely an optimist, and perhaps she worried about chicken or goat turds on everyone’s back stairs, or the ramifications of everyone having a stinky pig in their backyard. To me, having urban farms makes cities very surprising and pleasurable. There’s that great scene in A Moveable Feast where Hemingway hears the goatherd walking up the streets of Paris, where the guy pauses at various apartments to milk the goats into customers’ pails. I want the secret knowledge of what an udder feels like (warm, pliable), how my hands feel squeezing the teat, and hearing that wonderful plinging sound of a steady stream of milk hitting pail. But I do not want to isolate myself in the country, where it will be just me and the goats, and no one to tell the stories to.

Jacobs was a New Yorker, a Manhattanite at that, in her prime in the ’40s and ’50s, so I’m guessing that urban farming would have been pretty alien to her. But what I’m getting at with these questions involves these relationships between city and country. In your book you give the impression that you don’t think urban farming is sustainable except as a ragtag collection of hobbyists, that gentrification would always push out those who wanted to do something as unprofitable as raising bees, chickens, or pigs. True?

Well, actually there was farming happening in the Bronx and Queens during the ‘40s, and there were reports of Italian immigrants who kept rabbits, for example, in Manhattan. Of course there were the WWII Victory gardens — which grew all across the country in cities — so I don’t think it’s accurate to say the concept would be alien to someone like Jacobs. But now that I think about it some more, maybe Jacobs didn’t want to touch urban farming because there had been some nasty urban animal husbandry happening in the 20s and earlier, like milk cows kept in garages and fed grain from whiskey operations. And because of the Victory Gardens, maybe there was a perception that growing food in cities was an act of desperation. This scar is something urban farming proponents will have to address.

As to my book and what you perceive as my lack of urban farming boosterism, I was careful not to romanticize urban farming. Learning from the mistakes of my parents — who read books like the Nearing’s The Good Life and scampered off to the country where they were sorely disappointed. I want to send a cautiously optimistic message. Urban farming is really intense and requires discipline, thrift, and a strong back (just like “real” farming). While I did make some mistakes that rendered some of my farming experiments economically unfeasible (hundred-dollar turkey), over the years I did learn ways to make it sustainable. I think urban farming does have the chance to change the way we eat. You know, I finish narrating my book in December of 2007. That moment was the end of an era of massive cultural bloat — a time when urban farming was considered fringe-y and outsider. My how times have changed! But, I do want people to be realistic. If you look at places like Detroit, which has the most advanced urban agricultural scene in the US, they still only grow 3% of the city’s produce. So it can’t replace, it just supplements, rural farms.

So you are saying that urban farming could be something more than just one writer’s personal experiment?

I bristle at the word experiment. I mean, the book spans 10 years of my life! Maybe I’m just sensitive to the Elizabeth Kolbert story in The New Yorker which clumped me into the sad group called stunt books, a genre which I loathe. I think I do a pretty good job of laying out the argument that urban farming has always been with us historically, and that there are great organizations in the US and worldwide who are promoting it. In terms of profits, I know city beekeepers who rake it in because people want site-specific local honey to treat allergies. So, yes, attitudes are changing.

I’m pretty familiar with Detroit, with how incredibly depopulated it is. If the willpower existed to turn Detroit into a massive urban agricultural experiment, it could have a tremendous impact, at least locally. I mean, you talk about the Paris almost two hundred years ago producing so many vegetables it exported food for profit. Why can’t that situation be replicated today?

The willpower from Detroit came from many decades of hard work. In the 1980s, people in Detroit basically demanded community gardens from the politicians (see the recent food issue of The Nation). Since there was the will of the people, the urban farming scene flourished there. It’s funny because I was trying to get a gig teaching some urban farming classes in Detroit, and people were basically like, you should just come to Detroit and learn from us. It was a humbling moment and I realized they are totally right. I’m planning to go there in early October because I need to see what they are up to so we can model it for other cities.

The key for an increase in urban farming, then, is the attitude of city dwellers: Why is it normal to hear a dog barking in a backyard but when a chicken makes her morning clucking sounds, it’s grounds for calling animal control? Urban farmers have to be on best behavior too, though; we have to learn how to control odors and flies and rats in order to make the experience pleasant for everyone.


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