The Education of an Urban Farmer

We’ve been enjoying a lot of reading recently. As you can see from this photo, we’ve focused mostly on one topic – or you could say, the many varied yet related topics: homesteading / gardening / small-scale farming.

This morning we finally finished a book we’ve been reading to each other and enjoying immensely: Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter. Novella is a self-defined urban farmer in Oakland, California. Farm City takes the reader through her journey of beekeeping, raising turkeys and chickens, rabbits, and pigs, as well as through her larger journey: searching for meaning and identity as an urban farmer.

Reading this has offered many opportunities to think about our little urban farm project here in Burlington. From thinking about our short-term plans for chickens and bees and other animals in the future, to comparing the great dumpster finds in Oakland to those in our neck of the woods (today’s finds: three bags of perfectly good fruit and veggies, as well as two wooden shelving units used for displaying vitamins at a natural food store – SCORE!), the book has been a fun read and has provided some great  food for thought.

Like the part where she sees a man picking carrots in her garden. Instead of shooing him away, she invites him to keep picking. She sees her plot as a community garden in the truest sense of the phrase. She writes, “This, I wanted to tell him, is your birthright, too. Your grandmother, like mine, grew her own tomatoes, killed her own chickens, and felt a true connection to her food. Just because we live in the city, we don’t have to give that up.”

Similarly, we’ve thought about the idea of making our front yard into a community garden of sorts. Perhaps we’ll invite the schoolkids who pass by every day to pick some strawberries. Host workshops on how to do a lawn-to-garden conversion. Post educational signs about our plants and trees. We strive to be the talk of the town not because we’re the weirdos with horse manure all over our front yard but because we are modeling a fun, vibrant, edible landscape that is accessible to all.

Then there’s the part when Novella is making wine from local grapes harvested with friends and she writes, “Putting up food is, at its heart, an optimistic thing. It’s a bold way to say: I will be sticking around.”

We as a culture are always on the move, transient and mobile people. Taking the time and effort to process food and store it – sometimes leaving it to ferment or cure for months – means you’ve made a commitment to staying in place. For us, buying a chest freezer was a sign of such commitment; we need a place to store all the food we’ll be harvesting this summer. (Not to mention a place to store all the awesome cheap deals on cheese and yogurt we find at Cheese Traders.)

At risk of ‘spoiling’ the ending for you, I’ll share part of the final page of Farm City. “I had come to realize that urban farming wasn’t about one farm, just as a beehive isn’t about an individual bee… Urban farms have to be added together in order to make a farm. So when I say that I’m an urban ‘farmer,’ I’m depending on other urban farmers, too. It’s only with them that our backyards and squatted gardens add up to something significant. And if one of ours goes down, another will spring up…

“I knew that wherever I went I would continue to grow my own food, raise animals, love and nurture life in places people thought were dead. And if anyone asked, I could say: I am a farmer.”

Novella has presented this idea several times in the book: that all the small urban farms and gardens make a real impact when they are added together as a whole. It’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day chores of a farm, even a small one. It’s helpful to maintain a view of the bigger picture: the movement of people re-connecting to their food by producing some of it themselves.

The book does not preach localvore-ism. In fact, it is not preachy at all. It is intelligent, down-to-earth, and inspirational. If you want to watch the 12-minute video that first inspired Mark to buy the book, check it out here.

The next book on our to-read list has a similar title now that I think about it, Up Tunket Road: The Education of a Modern Homesteader by Philip Ackerman-Leist.

In an interview with Chelsea Green, Philip explains that homesteading is “still about not only searching for a meaningful existence, but also carefully crafting it. It’s still about wanting to be connected to the natural world. And it’s still about pushing against the status quo in a relatively quiet manner. But some things strike me as very different in the 21st century.”  Read the interview (or the book) to learn more about why he thinks modern homesteading is so different. Or just stay tuned to this blog as I’m sure I’ll post about it when we’ve worked our way through the whole book. (I’ve learned that reading aloud with a partner is so rewarding but you don’t get through books quite as quickly!)

And with that, it’s time for me to head to bed for our reading date…

4 thoughts on “The Education of an Urban Farmer

  1. I loved Farm City, especially since we live in Oakland. Way to go on your NC farm!

    My wife and I are traveling through South America to visit various farms practicing permaculture.

    I HIGHLY recommend Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway. Just adore the info in that book. :D

    Another soul inspiring book is The Unsettling of America by Wendell Barry. A must read for every person, especially Americans.

    Keep it up!


    • Thanks for the encouragement, Rick! We’re actually (re)reading The Unsettling of America right now! Thanks for the rec on Gaia’s Garden – I’ll have to check it out! Thanks,

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