She stumbles upon the term while carousing at a local speakeasy, and urban farmer is indeed a perfect title to describe her unusual lifestyle. Novella may live in “the ghetto” of Oakland, California, but that doesn’t stop her from pursuing her agricultural dreams: from cultivating heirloom vegetables and fruit to keeping bees to raising poultry, rabbits, and even pigs.
The obstacles she encounters are uniquely urban. She must deal with teenage gang members, neighborhood dogs, and the not-so-minor detail that she is squatting on a vacant lot destined to one day be the site of condominiums. Her creative and resourceful solutions are urban, too. She picks weeds out of sidewalk cracks to feed the chickens, she raids the Chinatown dumpster for her pigs, she fashions pens out of objects discarded by the highway, and she befriends a local restaurateur who shares his kitchen and techniques.
During one particularly challenging month, she experiments with living completely off the land and finds that it is possible. The fruits, veggies, eggs, and rabbits are plentiful. Home-brewed tea replaces coffee. Carbs prove to be more elusive with her disappointing potato crop, but she makes do by grinding up some ornamental corncobs for pancakes. It’s a moment of great accomplishment, but also great consternation. Her breath begins to stink, she is constantly hungry, and she misses the camaraderie that accompanies a great meal out at a local restaurant.
Novella’s gardening skills are impressive, but in this book, it is her relationship with the livestock, rather the fruit and vegetables, that take center stage. And this is where we are able to see her complete transition from a hobby gardener to a real farmer. She must learn to nourish and care for her animals, but she must also learn to kill them.
We the readers learn along with her. First, she tackles technique. As Novella diligently asks the advice of others and checks out books from the library, the reader gets a glimpse of what it takes to move livestock from pen to plate. Next, she must come to terms with emotional component of ending the life of a beloved pet named Maude. Not many Americans have the experience of knowing their meat, unlike in generations past. With Novella’s words, the reader gains a new respect for dinner.
It didn’t surprise me one bit when Novella gets helpful advice from her French relatives on skinning rabbits. My own French family members are very comfortable and knowledgeable when discussing the process of raising and butchering meat. In my husband’s hometown, community plots alive with ducks, chickens, and vegetable gardens border the local church and soccer field in the center of town. The weekly open air market abounds with live animals for purchase. And almost every year, the family gathers at the farm to kill a large hog and transform it into ham, sausage, and hundreds of little mystery jars. Not a single part of the animal is wasted. I respect this culture of knowing your food, but I acknowledge that it is a long way from my suburban American upbringing.
Throughout “Farm City,” the reader is treated to Novella’s bright spirit, engaging wit, and humility. She is not a “trustafarian,” as she calls some members of the privileged class experimenting in agricultural side projects. She is eking out a life doing something she loves. The concept of farming the ghetto may seem a bit far-fetched at first, but her story shows that it is not only feasible, it can also be satisfying, ethical, sustainable, and a lot of fun.
Interested in doing some local, urban gardening? Check out Madelene’s post on the community gardens of Salem.