“Farm City”

“Farm City” was this month’s selection for book club, and what a great choice! Written by Novella Carpenter, the book is all about her transformation into an urban farmer. In Oakland, California, no less. I loved this book!

Novella and her boyfriend Bill have an apartment in the middle of a ghetto called GhostTown because most of the businesses had been boarded up. The apartment’s only redeeming quality is the empty lot in back where they start their garden. In places where it’s pavement, they put in raised beds.

Novella grew all kinds of greens, fruit, vegetables — and did most of it on a shoestring. She talks about taking their station wagon to a nearby stable to scoop up horse manure for fertilizer. That’s work. Her plants weren’t just the latest thing put out by greenhouses either. She chose heritage stock, so that she could save the seeds and plant them for the next year’s crop. She did her homework.

OK, an apartment dweller raising a garden is nothing hugely spectacular. But then she decides to expand her repertoire and add ducks, geese, chickens and turkeys. Even this isn’t so astounding. But her retelling is the best part.

Novella is the child of hippies, and although she claims she’s not a hippie, we agreed at book club that she really is. Anyone who would name an animal they were going to eat is just asking for trouble. When an oppossum kills one of her ducks, she buries it. She stops just short of giving it a funeral.

It made me think of my son and daughter-in-law in Alaska. When a ptarmigan met an untimely death in their yard, they didn’t bury it. They ate it. And they said it was good!

Novella finally makes peace with “harvesting” her birds. She’s done her  homework there, too, researching all the different ways you can dispatch an animal humanely. Killing a chicken is one thing, but a rabbit? Her sister’s French mother-in-law described it as “taking off its pajamas.” Funny stuff.

I didn’t think it could get funnier, and then I hit the chapter on Novella and the pigs. She and Bill buy two pigs at a 4-H auction — which is silly to begin with, because she could have bought plain old piglets at a farm for a LOT less. She finds this out after the fact, of course.

Everyone else has a truck to take home their pigs. Bill and Novella have a station wagon. They turn down the offer of a bag of feed, because they’re going to feed their pigs differently. They learn that the pigs will eat ANYTHING, including bread and pastries, fish guts, and anything else remotely edible from Dumpster diving trips.

In fact, it’s a Dumpster diving trip with their station wagon (now nicknamed the Slop Bucket) that puts Novella in touch with another foodie who makes his own salami to serve at the high-end restaurant. Chef Chris teaches Novella how to make all kinds of salami, and offers to help her with processing one of her pigs. The only thing she has to do is find someone to kill the Big Guy.

More funny-ness ensues. Novella researches all kinds of ways to murder her pig, and out of desperation, contracts with a farmer, Sheila. The description of Sheila — the descriptions of ALL the characters in this book — is hilarious. And there are lots of characters living on the dead-end street, including junkies, prostitutes and all kinds of new Americans.

I was inspired by Novella’s resourcefulness. She had and used all kinds of junk for new purposes. I started thinking about digging up all my roses and planting peas and cantaloupe, but then I remembered: I’m not living in California. The growing season is considerably shorter here. Plus, the only thing getting eaten would be me — by mosquitoes.

And I don’t know if I could haul horse manure in my Kia Sorento and then drive it to work the next day. I certainly wouldn’t want to google “dog-poo” to find out if it could be used as fertilizer either. I think my sister’s been collecting and tossing her dog’s poo into the Dumpster.

What really inspired me about “Farm City” was Novella’s generosity. Her garden was in an empty lot that she didn’t own, so when people helped themselves to her garden produce, it wasn’t a big deal. Sometimes she had to teach them what was ripe and what wasn’t. She took collards to an underground restaurant, and took salad greens to a community literacy project.

After her pigs were processed, she and Bill threw a party for family and friends. They shared their meat, as well as other produce from their garden. Certainly they could put the salami away and it would keep for a long time, but somehow it was fitting that they celebrated.

Novella had learned a lot — she developed into a true farmer, who saw her animals as a source of food, no matter how hard she had to work to get them to grow.