Fall is in full swing and Winter isn’t far beyond, I’ve been enjoying local apples, squash and weekly pots of soup. While this time of year usually encourages folks to slow down a bit I hardly have a moment to myself but was thrilled when I was able to recently carve out a little time to read the book Farm City by Urban Farmer Novella Carpenter. And even more excited when Ms. Carpenter agreed to do a little e-interview for us here at Cooking Up a Story. Farm City tells the story of how Novella, a child of Hippie parents discovered her own inner hippie by becoming an Urban Homesteader in one of the poorest neighborhoods in (West) Oakland, California. Reading Novella’s book was truly an inspiration and affirms what I already know to be true, that education and knowledge are the keys to getting people to eat better and care more about where their food comes from and “if you build it (Community Gardens and Farmers Markets) they will come” and in Novella’s case they did.
Q. Being a self-described child of Hippie parents growing up in rural Idaho, are you surprised that you now have your own farm?
I am but I’m not. Because of genetics and conditioning, it does make sense that we do often turn out just like our parents. Like most people, I struggled with that in my twenties, and tried to be anything but a hippie. But now that I’m 36, I’m getting a bit more comfortable with the idea that I just might be a “hippie”. I enjoy growing food and raising animals, eating with friends and family, and building community. If that’s not hippie, I don’t know what is. But I still refuse to listen to the Dead. You have to draw the line somewhere.
Q. To date what livestock due you currently have, and what fruits and vegetables do you grow on a regular basis?
I have three goats (two doelings, one milk doe), about six rabbits in various stages of growth, four chickens, and about 20,000 bees. It’s fall now so the main crops are greens like chard and collards, lettuce, and some remaining tomatoes. I love growing winter squash, carrots, beets, herbs, cucumbers, etc. I’ve raised pigs and ducks and geese, and will probably get ducks again, but Muscovies this time.
Q. Do you think you and Bill (Novella’s Boyfriend) will eventually leave “Ghost town”, by a nice house in a better hood and start all over?
Well, we’re squatting on the land where we farm so eventually we will be kicked off the lot and it will be bulldozed to build condos or something. Since I don’t like the idea of living right next to a construction zone, I’m sure we’ll move eventually, but a nice neighborhood? Doubt it. The neighbors would hate us! A friend of mine who was having troubles with her neighbors put it this way: “you’re a hero if you farm in a ghetto, but a public nuisance if you try to farm in nice neighborhood.” we fit in the public nuisance category, I think, because people with manicured lawns don’t like to see goats pooping. So we’ll probably head out to east Oakland when it gets bad here in west Oakland.
Q. I read that you were a student of Michael Pollan when you attended UC Berkeley. What is the best piece of advice he’s ever given you?
He told me to go to New York City right after graduating from school. Just for a visit, to introduce myself to editors and meet people who might want me to write for them. I ended up getting a book deal.
Q. What words of advice do you have for a budding Urban Homesteader?
Start small and simple, grow or raise things that you like to eat. For instance, grow some lettuce in some buckets if you like salad, or get some chickens if you like eggs. Don’t overdo it, though, I remember there was that urban farmer in Brooklyn who thought he should just get everything–plants, rabbits, chickens–and then we surprised when things got out of control. Learning to be a farmer doesn’t come instantly.
Q. What’s more important to you personally, Local or Organic?
Those labels don’t really mean anything anymore so I don’t like to choose one over the other. Our society is so used to picking one thing over another, we’ve been told over and over again that to find happiness (or whatever) that we just have to make a consumer decision. This depresses me, and that’s why I’m into DIY (do it yourself) so you become empowered to grow your own. I can see the eyes rolling out there for people living in apartments, but there is an amazing amount of stuff in small spaces, or if you search out opportunities to get your hands dirty. Like community gardens.
Q. You’ve had your blog for a while in which we’ve been able to follow some of your adventures at Ghost Town farm, when did you decide it was time to write an actual book about your adventures?
The blog didn’t come before the book. I’ve basically been working on the book idea for ten years. I’m a writer, so as I farmed, I always thought the stories would add up to something bigger. I actually used to think blogs are frivolous, but now I look at my farm blog like a new version of an old farm tradition like the farm log or journal. Recording what I grew and how it did. I actually look back at old blog posts from years ago to remember what I planted or how I canned my tomatoes. Diaries and blogs are just a way to store memories.
Q. What’s next for you? Another Book, a second farm?
I’m working on a proposal for a new memoir. I have a book coming out with Willow Rosenthal that is more hands-on. I’m pretty busy. I don’t have the time or money for a second farm, alas.
Q. What do you think it’s going to take to get people to take a more active role in where their food comes from?
Pure boredom of the “normal” way of living, buying stuff is so unrewarding, and unsatisfying. Once you start growing stuff, it becomes addictive. We need better school garden programs in schools so kids will learn about growing food. Once that happens, it’ll spread like wildfire.
Thank you Novella for taking time out of your very busy schedule to answer my questions, I certainly look forward to your next book and continued adventures at Ghost Town Farm. Novella has been on the road quite a bit promoting this great book.
Heather Jones is a wife, mother, freelance food writer, and graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. She has worked for Gourmet Magazine, TV Personality Katie Brown; and the New York based Indian-fusion restaurant Tabla, and a recent guest on Martha Stewart’s radio program. Heather resides in Woodbine, New Jersey (population: 2800) with her husband and two daughters. She is a strong supporter of the Sustainable Food Movement and believes that education is the key to making a difference.