Novella Carpenter turned a vacant lot in Ghost Town—the Oakland, Calif., neighbourhood famed for blight and violence—into an urban farm, complete with chickens, turkeys, geese, rabbits and a pair of 300-pound pigs. The 36-year-old’s memoir, Farm City (Penguin Press), hit bookshelves this summer.
Q: How long does it take you to feed the animals in the morning?
A: It takes about half an hour. I have six goats, but only two of them are milking. We have six chickens and about 15 rabbits. I’ve raised turkeys and pigs. It’s always a rotating cast.
Q: What does the garden look like?
A: You have to keep the animals separate from the vegetables—so the goats and the chickens are in the backyard. Then there’s the vegetable garden. It’s about 4,500 square feet. We grow all manner of things. Fava beans and lettuces. In the summer it’s tomatoes and cucumbers and corn and basil and then in the fall, tons of greens and onions. Winter is my favourite growing season because it rains, so I don’t have to water. Daylight hours are limited but you can grow broccoli, carrots and beets.
Q: What does your landlord think?
A: He’s always like: “I love the garden!” The downstairs tenants moved in because of the garden: they were psyched about it. Normally it would be difficult to find renters in a neighbourhood like this. So he likes it, he thinks it’s really beautiful. Then he gets a water bill for $300 and he’s like “OH MY GOD!”
Q: What inspired you to start urban farming?
A: I worked at a publishing house and we published The Encyclopedia of Country Living. I would read it, and laugh—then I was like, “Hey… I think I can do that.” Bill [her boyfriend of 12 years] inspired me to get bees because he had been reading a biography of Sylvia Plath—Plath and Ted Hughes kept bees outside of London.
Q: What happened when you went to pick up your bees?
A: I got the call from the post office: “Lady, come get your bees! They’re freaking everybody out.” So I show up. And there are bees everywhere. The bee pheromone is very strong, so any other bees in the neighbourhood want to come over and check it out. So I loaded them up onto my bike and rode home.
Q: Do you still send for bees?
A: A package of bees is actually kind of expensive—it’s like $100. Over the years, I’ve learned ways to do things cheaper—it’s kind of what being a farmer is. You can’t spend a bunch of money or you’re just going to go broke. So I’m on a swarm list. It’s like: “Hey, this lady on such and such a street has a swarm.” I’ve also caught swarms from friends.
Q: What is it like the first time you killed a rabbit?
A: A rabbit is really difficult. Chickens are kind of like a reptile so you’re like “okay, whatever, seems like kind of a stupid animal.” But a rabbit—they’re soft and furry. I had to get my gumption up. I had to be very hungry in order to do my first rabbit kill. I do a technique where I just break their necks. It’s instant.
Q: Why do you keep them?
A: It’s way, way more economical than chickens. They take up very little space. And they eat stuff you can find easily in a dumpster: bok choy or whatever is in Chinatown. And they grow really fast and reproduce quickly. You get your chick, you raise it for three months and then you have to get more. It’s harder to get a chick to hatch out with the breeds available these days. With two does (moms) you could have a rabbit a week for your household. A lot of people don’t do it because it’s not part of our culture, but in France it’s as [common] as chicken. I have a friend who says that rabbits are the “new chicken” but I don’t know—you have to be pretty hardcore to do it.
Q: Mostly, you feed the animals with food from dumpsters?
A: It’s a hot date for my boyfriend and I. We’ll ride our bikes or drive to a dumpster and load up.
Q: What do the animals eat?
A: The chickens love really mushy papaya. The rabbits are big fans of bok choy. The chickens love this weed that grows everywhere. The goats will get diarrhea if I give them lettuce or cabbage. We feed them alfalfa and hay. But they would rather eat tree branches.
Q: Have you ever met the owner of the lot?
A: He came to the lot and told me he was going to build condos. He never did. Now with the recession, it doesn’t look likely.
Q: You grew up on a farm, right?
A: My parents were back-to-the-landers. The cities had this bad vibe going on, so a lot of young people took off to the country and tried to farm or homestead or be ranchers—even though they had pretty much no skills.
Q: Why is chicken-keeping so big out West?
A: Part of it is the winter: we have such mild, maritime climate on our coast. But chickens are pretty winter hardy if you get the right breed. The west coast tends to have a more frontier mentality, a pioneering spirit. But more and more people are coming around.
Q: Why do people want get their hands dirty again?
A: Partly, it’s the recession. But you don’t save that much money doing these things. And people are really obsessed with eating organic food. Anything you grow yourself is going to taste better than what you buy at the supermarket—no matter how high quality. People with children often want their kids to be exposed to animals and vegetables. And more people—like 20-somethings—want to farm but don’t want to go live out in the country and be bored. Then there’s this non-elitist thing: “wow, I’m going to grow my own arugula and not pay $5-a-bunch for it.” It’s kind of liberating.