Our public library is pretty great. I am a big fan of public libraries in general, but I especially love the Olympia library. Last week, the Oly library hosted Novella Carpenter, author of Farm City and the Ghost Town Farm blog.
I read Novella’s book last November. I wrote a note in my book journal, “ The book is highly readable, often funny, and I was charmed by the author’s perspective, insight, politics and cursing. It’s not a “how to” but there is a lot of learning to do here.” I would recommend this book to anyone who’s not terribly queasy about meat processing. The stories from Farm City have been knocking around inside my head since then, so I jumped at the chance to see her talk.
Novella started talking about her bees, and how bees are the “gateway drug” of urban farming, and I thought, “Goodness, I am glad Krista stayed home so she wouldn’t get any ideas about raising pigs or bunnies for meat!” (Just kidding – Krista & I are unconditionally, unanimously on the same page on that issue). Anyway, bees are the gateway drug because they can be fairly low maintenance and the rewards are pretty fantastic. Here’s a photo Novella shared of some of her bees.
Novella’s story is a cautionary tale: If beehives are like marijuana, it might quickly seem like a good idea to try LSD (or raising birds for meat). Then you might take up rabbit husbandry. In no time, you might find yourself raising hogs on dumpstered food in your own squatted city lot. Since the book ended, Novella has taken a break from pig farming, but has started raising dairy goats. Yes, all in Oakland, CA. Baby goats are very cute.
Novella has some interesting insights into the urban farming thing. She talked about the disconnect between people and their food. The same people who could “never” kill an animal raised for meat don’t think twice about ordering meat at a restaurant. I don’t eat meat, so it’s hard for me to find a place in this conversation. I’m not sure why this is controversial. It’s common sense to me that it’s better to do something yourself in a localized, conscious way, whether it’s growing peas or slaughtering Thumper. Novella is the first to point out that growing food in cities is not a new trend — this is a very, very old way of doing things. From WWII Victory Gardens to the Black Panthers’ gardens, Americans have a long history of localizing our food production at times when it matters. The branding is just a little different these days. There are people working on community gardens, yard sharing, non-profit organizations and cooperative/collective food-raising efforts within 125 miles of my house.
I also appreciated her reflections on what it means to be a farmer in the city. Farmers feed hungry people, not just themselves, and there are plenty of opportunities to do that in city limits. The food banks are closer, so it’s easy to drop off your extra produce. Your neighbors can help shoulder the burden of too many tomatoes. You have lots places to sneakily leave your extra zucchini. Lots of people walk by your yard and see what’s happening. Urban farming makes sense from an economic perspective if you can interrupt the waste stream for food production – like when Novella was dumpster diving to feed her pigs. She was literally turning garbage into salumi. But there are dozens of ways you can interrupt urban waste streams without keeping pigs. You might reclaim abandoned lots to become community gardens or apiaries, collect rain water (which becomes wasted water) for irrigation, or you might collect compost material from your local coffee shop or arborists. The fuel for my bee smoker comes from burlap bags used to transport coffee to one of the many fine coffee roasters in our city. Concentrated populations offer a lot of support for urban farmers. We all need support like tool sharing, seed swapping, and harvest season pot lucks. Can cities be completely self-sufficient food-producing units? Novella says probably not, but keep an eye on Detroit.