April 5, 2012
SOMERVILLE READS BOOK DISCUSSION for FARM CITY: THE EDUCATION OF AN URBAN FARMER By Novella Carpenter
“There was something captivating about making something
useful again – about resurrecting the abandoned…”
Oakland, California seems like the last place on earth one might find a farm. In her memoir Farm City, Novella Carpenter makes a case for it being one of the best, no matter how unusual. When she and her boyfriend Bill decide to make their home in “Ghost Town,” one of the rougher neighborhoods in the area, they immediately see its potential by transplanting their urban farmer instincts to their new plot of land. Establishing a “squatters garden” in an abandoned lot that flourishes into a community garden of sorts is only the tip of the iceberg. Carpenter takes the adventure into many different directions from the joys of beekeeping to the raising and slaughtering livestock, including a turkey called Harold and two enormous pigs. Cataloguing the struggles and triumphs of her endeavors, Farm City is the story of a woman who wants to see sustainable life even in a place long-abandoned by society – she wants to prove that even the ghetto holds promise.
On Thursday, April 5, Jessie Banhazl of Green City Growers, and a Somerville urban farmer, led a group discussion about the book in the Main Library. Jessie spends her day working to install raised bed gardens all over the greater Boston area and thus has a unique perspective about Carpenter’s endeavors. “She wasn’t fearless, but she acted that way,” Jessie said.
The discussion began with why the ghetto and why Carpenter seemed to get away with having her farm there without too much protest from the neighbors. There are places where the notion of someone wanting to keep chickens in his or her own yard might become the heart of a heated public debate, but that didn’t ever seem to be the case for Carpenter, no matter how loud – or smelly – her animal hoard became. Issues of individual survival were more on the forefront for most of her neighbors – and the benefits of the garden were for everyone, since Carpenter freely shared whatever she grew with whoever wanted some. The land wasn’t hers, after all – and in many ways, each of her neighbors was doing something either questionable or downright illegal, so the tendency seemed to be that everyone looked the other way, taking handouts from each other when the opportunity arose. Occasionally, Carpenter expressed frustration with her neighbors – like when she expends a great deal of time and energy into growing a single watermelon only to have it lifted by an anonymous stranger – the reality also had to be acknowledged that the very land she farmed didn’t even belong to her. “Even though someone’s taking something from her, she’s taking something from someone else,” Jessie pointed out. Going on, Jessie added, “I think it’s like driving – some people are respectful and some people aren’t.” The “good neighbors” were the ones who contributed seeds or helped farm or harvest or found other ways to back Novella and Bill up whenever possible.
From there, the conversation turned to the recurring theme of beekeeping throughout the book. Bees, of course, are a wonderful source of pollination, but would you be thrilled to have a beehive on your neighbor’s back porch? Novella and Bill’s neighbors never seemed to mind it. Everyone reaped the benefits of a thriving garden and endless honey. The discussion then became about the wonderful experiences people have had with growing their own food and what a difference it makes to harvest fresh produce from your own backyard. One of the women in the group said, “I’m always amazed when someone says they don’t like tomatoes – they say, ‘Oh, they taste like nothing.’ Taste like nothing?? They taste like everything!” Jessie added that she’d encountered school children who believed that vegetables came out of cans or met line cooks who had no idea where the food they were preparing originated. The disconnect with people of all ages not really knowing how food comes to be shocked the entire discussion group. “Food’s become about convenience, not about thought,” Jessie said. Educating people about how what they’re eating is produced is an extremely important piece of the social puzzle that is often overlooked. Jessie suggested taking children to visit farms and community gardens to lift the mystery and make them better aware of where food comes from.
The discussion group also spent some time considering the frank way Carpenter describes slaughtering and preparing her animals to be meals. “I thought it was both brave and crazy,” one of the women in the group said. Discussion about whether or not certain individuals would be able to do what Carpenter did – raise a turkey from a day old and then eat him for Thanksgiving dinner, for example – led to a discussion about vegetarianism or veganism. Committing to those lifestyles perhaps comes with a certain level of economic security, much the same way a more affluent neighborhood might cause a ruckus over someone wanting to keep chickens on his or her property, whereas in Novella and Bill’s neck of the woods, such things were so far from the big survival issues that no one batted an eye at much of anything. It didn’t matter how cute and fuzzy that bunny was – when you’re hungry, that bunny just might be the thing that will keep you alive.
As the discussion wound down, Jessie praised Carpenter’s candid and honest approach to writing her book, never seeming to back down from what some might consider difficult truths about what she had to do to survive as an urban farmer.
Before the group dispersed, there was an announcement made about the Somerville Reads Celebration happening from 1PM-3PM on Saturday, April 21 – also known as Earth Day. The theme is food, so come hungry and bring a dish to share for this potluck-style event. See the Events Calendar for more information!