*Farm City*, by Novella Carpenter

I liked this book.  That was unexpected.  I still don’t understand the gushing blurbs on the back cover.  But a fair reader should like the book however he or she feels about the author’s lifestyle.  Borrow it from your library or buy it used.  The author blogs here.  The book may be based on the blog (I haven’t checked).

It felt like an honest account.  That’s exactly what I was looking for.  Thankfully this book wasn’t the polemic or lecture I feared.  The descriptions of animal raising and slaughtering are worth reading.

Some interesting questions raised are:

  • For whom does urban farming make sense?
  • Is urban farming socially desirable?

Who should be an urban farmer?

If Novella’s experience is representative, my guess is that urban farmers should be those with free time, steady part-time work, and few desirable alternatives.  Grad-school hippies and trust fund babies come to mind.  (I’m mostly serious, a little sarcastic.)  It seems easier to rule groups out instead.

First, I don’t see how parenthood and urban farming mix.  Novella’s home sounds borderline unsanitary.  Generically, babies are time-consuming and expensive.  For what it’s worth, Novella explains in a subsequent blog post how she had to give up the farming when she became pregnant:

“While waiting for the permit, I got pregnant and all the plants died, and I could barely remember to feed the rabbits (but I did, you nosy NOBS people, I still did). I shifted my priorities–having a child meant having a farmstand that makes $5 profit doesn’t really make sense to me anymore (as fun as it was). I realized I don’t have time for livestock (except for bees), and sold or gave all the critters away.”

Urban farming may work better for those with older children.

I don’t think this works for the under-25 and childless set either.  I bet most in this group lack farm-relevant skills.  Instead of diving straight into urban farming, maybe interning at a rural farm first (see Keith Stewart’s It’s a Long Road to a Tomato) makes more sense.  Novella’s constant lack of preparation really bothered me.  It appeared to doom many of her vegetables.  She jumped into poultry impulsively:

“These packages, I had thought, might offer a way to eat quality meat without breaking the bank.  But I had never killed anything before.  Blithely ignoring this minor detail, I settled on the Homesteader’s Delight: two turkeys, ten chickens, two geese, and two ducks for $42″ (p. 13).

Lack of planning also ruins one pig slaughter.  This is a major event in the book.  And when she subsequently attempts a foie de porc rôti with a pork liver, the dish is a failure  Why did this happen?  It seems wasteful.  She could have practiced on store-bought livers at an Asian market.  Now I understand that not everyone learns the same way and my views on learning are extreme, but a fair reader should wonder where is the line between overenthusiasm and recklessness.

 Should we encourage urban farming?

On social desirability, I’m a skeptic.  But let me note this interesting passage:

“In the developing world, urban farming is a way of life.  Shanghai raises 85 percent of its vegetables within city limits.  According to Alternative Urban Futures, 28 percent of urban families in Poland engage in agriculture.  In Tanzania, the government encourages the cultivation of every pieces of land in the city of Dar es Salaam, where residents regularly grow vegetables and raise dairy animals and poultry” (p. 204).

It’s worth pondering.  Here’s a contradictory thought:

“Chris [Lee] was ten years younger than my parents, on the tail end of the hippie generation.  Like my mom and dad, who built their own house and raised their own food, Chris had the urge to make a connection to something tangible, something real.  One day, as we trimmed some meat, he told me that he had considered starting a farm, too, but in the end decided that he had too much to learn from the city.  His craft would be cooking.  When he discovered the art of curing meat, it became his lifelong obsession” (p. 233).

This is the first of my objections.  Does urban farming miss the point of city living?  Fundamental advantages of city living are population density and low transportation costs.  Since we live, after all, in the United States, shouldn’t the opportunity cost of farming be larger here than it is in the developing world?  Chris Lee learned these lessons and directed his efforts accordingly.  Does it make sense for us to steer other young people into urban farming, as it seems Pollan, Ruhlman, and the other blurbers would have it?

My other objection is mundane, but probably resonates more broadly.  Farm animals smell.  I wasn’t sad to leave behind the smell of pigs and their living quarters after my last trip to the Philippines.

“The Saturday before I would take the pigs to get killed, my neighbor… approached me as I took out the trash.

‘Excuse me,’ he said….  ’Your pigs’ — he pointed behind the gates where the pigs were biting each other and squealing over some toothsome bucket of slop — ‘are smelling very bad.’

‘My little girl… almost vomited the other day, it smelled so bad.’

This was one of my biggest problems.  In the case of the pigs, I had to admit it: I had become a neighborhood pest” (pp. 239 – 240).

All in all, I guess urban farming will and should remain relatively rare.  Don’t get me wrong: one day I’d love to have a chicken coop and eat freshly laid eggs.  But I would only do it with enough living space.

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