The Island interviews: “Farm City” author Novella Carpenter
Back in 2003, Novella Carpenter began the process of transforming an abandoned lot in Oakland’s crime-ridden Ghost Town neighborhood into a working farm laden with vegetables and populated by a growing cast of livestock. Carpenter chronicled her experiences in the 2009 best-seller “Farm City,” and has expanded her activities to include speaking, teaching and freelance writing; she’s also working on two new books.
Carpenter, whose memoir sparked the “Grow, Eat and Read Local” theme of the Alameda Free Library’s “Community Reads” program, and will come to talk about her book at 7 p.m. today at the Main Library, 1550 Oak Street. (Seating for the free program is limited to 100 spots, so the library is advising attendees to arrive early.) In the meantime, the author and urban farmer graciously agreed to a quick, pre-talk Q&A.
How did your farm in Oakland come about?
My boyfriend and I moved to Oakland from Seattle in early 2003. In Seattle we raised chickens and bees, and grew vegetables. We ended up renting an apartment next to an abandoned empty lot and started growing food on it. It started out with bees, then chickens, then turkeys, then rabbits, then pigs. Now I have two Nigerian dwarf goats.
What were the challenges you faced in getting things started up?
Mostly financial. When we raised turkeys, I ended up spending something like $100 to raise one turkey. That didn’t make any sense. Luckily, the waste stream of the city provided – we started dumpster diving for our rabbits, and later the pigs, so we saved money.
Did you have farm experience before you started this?
My parents were back-to-the-land hippies, but they stopped farming when I was a little kid, so I didn’t have that much experience. Like most people, I taught myself by trial and error.
What are your favorite products from the farm, and what are some things that didn’t work out? Are there other things you’d like to try?
I love the honey from the bees. Because each hive is out foraging widely, you’ll get amazing tasting honey. I’m also getting to be a pretty good cheesemaker. Things that didn’t work out were the geese – too loud and aggressive, and hell to pluck. I think I’m done experimenting and plan to just stick to what I have now: a few chickens, a few ducks, two milk goats, bees, a few rabbits.
How much time do you spend on the farm each week?
I honestly don’t know. I don’t clock in. The farm is my therapy, gym, and meditation center so I don’t keep track of the hours.
I understand you worked with Birgitt Evans, a master gardener who lives here in Alameda?
Yeah, she’s a great lady, and sometimes she sells produce at my pop-up farmstand.
What has happened with urban farming in the time you’ve been running your farm? (I know you said on your blog that Oakland has been talking about legalizing it, for example.)
UF has gotten really popular. People are really excited to learn how to grow their own food. Also, people are trying to make money by growing food, which I think would be a great thing in a town that needs jobs.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to start their own urban farm?
Start small, and grow things you like to eat. Also, don’t do what I did – learn as much as you can BEFORE you start with livestock like bees, chickens, rabbits, goats, pigs, etc.
What new projects do you have coming up?
I’ve written a how-to book with Willow Rosenthal, coming out spring 2012; and I’m in the middle of writing another memoir, called “Gone Feral,” about my dad and goats.