July 23, 2009

Book Review: Farm City

Photo of her allotment garden graciously provided by Kim. Click the photo to see more of her garden photos on Flickr.

Within the first 25 pages of Farm City, I had laughed out loud numerous times and gotten teary once, a sure sign to me that this would be a good book. And it was. Novella Carpenter tells the tale of how she became an urban farmer, harvesting fruits, veggies, honey, eggs, rabbits, turkeys and pigs in an economically down-and-out part of downtown Oakland, California. She weaves research discoveries in with life discoveries, interactions with those around her, and her family history. It is an entertaining (guffawing on public transportation) and inspiring read, and it is intense.

Carpenter, like most farmers, I am guessing, has (or has developed) a certain toughness. She's a brave, can-do kind of gal. A pioneer. I admire her seeming ability to connect with all kinds of people and animals and yet retain a level of detachment. It was at times uncomfortable for me to read the descriptions of the killing of her meat animals. Her descriptions certainly demonstrate though, the huge effort it takes to carefully raise, kill and process an animal.

Now and then in my over my 25 years as a vegetarian, I have considered eating meat again. I would only eat meat if I could do it responsibly—knowing the animal was raised humanely and in a way natural to the animal (ie not feeding a cow corn for ex), knowing the animal was killed in a respectful way, and knowing neither the animal nor the meat have been trucked too many miles. I can fully appreciate the satisfaction Carpenter derives from eating and sharing meat that she has spent time, labor, struggle and enjoyment producing. The eating must become so much more meaningful, so much more thoughtful and valued, even ceremonial. Carpenter's tale proves there is much knowledge and wisdom to be gained from each part of the farming process. (Nevertheless, and despite enticing bacon and sausage aromas, I don't think I'll be converting to meat eating any time soon.)

Farm City is an engaging mixture of storytelling and information sharing. Living in the Bay Area, one hears so many rumors and sensationalistic news bits about the "bad" parts of Oakland. It is refreshing to get a more realistic and personal perspective on living in one of these infamous neighborhoods. Also fascinating are the tidbits about animal behavior/biology and about the long history of gardens and farms within cities all over the world.

With so many people struggling to buy healthy food, it is strange that public spaces, backyards and abandoned lots are not filled with edibles instead of (or at least alongside) decorative flowers. There could be so many more gardens and so much more fresh produce shared/consumed. Hopefully—especially if this economic situation continues—we will have another big Victory Garden-esque garden and farm b(l)oom. And actually, here in the Bay Area, San Francisco Mayor Newsom recently issued a sustainable food mandate that addresses the use of public space for food production!

Veggies growing in the SF Rainbow Grocery parking lot, above and below

Find out more about urban farming on Novella Carpenter's blog. Note her links to other urban farms. Maybe there is one near you...

Other potential summer reading:

Our Life in Gardens by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd
Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness by Lisa Hamilton

(books found on Civil Eats, my favorite agriculture/food-related blog)


Julie said...

I recently read this book as well, and had the exact same reactions to her writing, and to the meat-eating, as a long-time vegetarian myself. Great review!

lisa s said...

i heard her on the radio not too long ago and was meaning to mark the book to read. of course i forgot. so THANK YOU for the great review and reminder!

Hayley said...

Great review! I had the same "vegetarian dilemma" feeling when reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle- it is a rather interesting question of whether eating locally raised meat is truly greener than being vegetarian. Eating a locally farmed, cage free organic egg is greener than an important vegan protein item, but meat is still ethically troublesome.
SF is so very forward with the sustainable food mandate- I will love seeing how that plays out. It seems so silly that we devote so much time and energy into lawn spaces, when food could be grown at the same, or less, expense.
I will be putting Farm City on my reading list.


nicola said...

thanks for the review! i almost got to hear her speak, but couldn't get childcare that night. there are several beautiful community gardens here in oakland. we are making strides!

shash said...

Thanks gals. Will see if I can find an online version of her radio talk.
oakland and the bay area are making strides, huh?! So much cool food-related stuff going on.

Anonymous said...