Urban farming books rake in readers
"Farm City" by Novella Carpenter
"City Farmer" by Lorraine Johnson
"My Empire of Dirt," by Manny Howard
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Novella Carpenter isn't your garden-variety urban farmer.
Not content to merely grow gorgeous heirloom vegetables, Ms. Carpenter went whole hog in her back yard near downtown Oakland, Calif. Make that two hogs, Red Durocs she named Big Guy and Little Girl.
It wasn't that big a leap. She'd already raised a couple of turkeys -- Harold and Maude -- along with chickens, ducks and geese, dozens of rabbits and thousands of bees.
But can she follow through and eat all of the animals she named and faithfully foraged and Dumpster-dived to feed?
That's part of the conflict and suspense that hooks you in "Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer," published last year by The Penguin Press and just out in paperback ($16). I won't spoil it, but, like Manny Howard's "My Empire of Dirt," it's not for the squeamish.
Both books, as well as Lorraine Johnson's "City Farmer," are part of a burgeoning urban agriculture press that also includes magazines (such as the new quarterly Urban Farm) and blogs (dozens, maybe hundreds of them).
About 10 years ago, Ms. Carpenter began farming on a "squat lot" -- vacant land next to the Queen Anne-style house where she and her boyfriend rent the second-floor apartment in Oakland's historic but blighted Ghost Town neighborhood. It was the perfect location -- an isolated, dead-end block in a laissez-faire part of town.
Like a lot of us, Ms. Carpenter loves both the country and the city.
Passionate about food, she wanted to grow her own but didn't want the isolation her mother experienced in the 1970s, when her parents were back-to-the-land hippies in Idaho.
"The back-to-the-land movement's failure, as inevitable as the collapse of every other utopia, became a buffet of schadenfreude at which even I had occasionally feasted," she writes. "But now that I was farming, I knew it was hard work and that plans never went the way you thought they would."
Slugs, thugs, a murderous opossum, skedaddling turkeys and pigs, eviction worries, an apartment that doubles as a barn and a station wagon that smells like horse manure -- it's a lot to put up with. Not only is Ms. Carpenter up to the challenge, she has the energy, talent and wit to transform it into literature. Her writing voice is her own; think Sarah Vowell meets Julie Powell meets Euell Gibbons.
The well-read Ms. Carpenter -- she was a biology and English major at the University of Washington in Seattle who also studied under Michael Pollan at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism -- frequently references books that influence her thinking, educating readers along the way about practical matters as well as the history and philosophy of urban farming.
Despite a busy book-tour schedule this year, Ms. Carpenter maintains the blog (ghosttownfarm.wordpress.com) she started in February 2007, where "Farm City" fans can follow her ongoing adventures and newest additions, Nigerian dwarf milk goats.
Unlike Ms. Carpenter, Mr. Howard, a Brooklyn-based writer and editor who's written for Gourmet and Food & Wine, is a neophyte. His urban farming adventure was triggered not by any inner ag glow but by an editor at New York magazine who wanted him to live, for a month, eating only what he could produce in his 20-foot-by-40-foot back yard.
She wanted him to, as he puts it, "confront the self-satisfied, well-to-do locavores cruising the city's greenmarkets. It is one thing to live in New York City and know the farmer who sells you milk or meat or whatever. It is quite another to live in New York City and be the farmer."
His Sept. 17, 2007 magazine article evolved into "My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into a Farm" (Scribner, $25).
Thanks to bass-ackwards planning and his "typically aggressive and devoutly unrealistic" tendencies, stuff happens.
"No sooner has the planning officially commenced than my ambitions begin to carom from inspired practicality to absurd grandiosity," he writes.
Mr. Howard delights in unnecessarily complicating things. Instead of doing the obvious -- raised beds, a term that never appears in the book -- he digs French drains and an 8-foot dry well in his clay soil for drainage, then pays to have 5 1/2 tons of topsoil trucked in. All that and he doesn't even grow organically.
Protein arrives in the form of rabbits, chickens and ducks, and the story takes off. It is, by turns, an enlightening, repulsive, hilarious memoir from a man who, while well-equipped for farm work with his sturdy 6-foot, 4-inch frame, doesn't seem totally engaged philosophically or emotionally, although he clearly becomes more invested over time, especially as his two young children take to it.
And if, over time, this marriage-threatening, rabbit-bashing, chicken-killing, squirrel-drowning, illusion-shattering, tornado-surviving, stunt-farming venture takes its toll, it also has its rewards. He seems to write from the heart, if sometimes in the pumped-up prose of glossy magazines.
"One of the most meaningful gifts we receive from the food we grow ourselves is the gift of story," writes Ms. Johnson in "City Farmer: Adventures in Urban Food Growing" (Greystone, $19.95). It's "invested with dozens of daily dramas that give it a flavor and a meaning more enriching than anything we can buy."
"City Farmer" is a how-to and a why-to, and also a look back at when many of us did. In 1943, 20 million Americans produced 40 percent of the country's fresh vegetables in their Victory Gardens, she writes.
This passionate, optimistic book, published next month, is not about how to plant corn and peas, although the author does weave in her own gardening experiences, including a superb chapter on raising chickens. Rather it's an overview of urban agriculture in Canada and the U.S., with equal emphasis on both countries and reports from others such as England and Bosnia. "City Farmer" is a review of the literature (synthesizing books and studies that capture where we are now), a boots-on-the-ground tour of urban farms and a call to civic action.
"What's interesting is that communities have been taking the initiative and that cities are now playing catch-up -- it's a good reminder that the long, steady slog of grassroots action can, indeed, lead to change."
There's no shortage of abandoned, vacant land, a Brookings Institution survey of 70 American cities found. Missing are the structural mechanisms and incentives that encourage community and individual gardens.
Detroit, with 40 square miles of abandoned property, is leading the way. Thanks to a handful of grassroots groups and a city-run Food Policy Council, Detroit has turned more than 800 vacant lots into gardens and mini-farms.
Ms. Johnson, who lives in Toronto, also covers guerilla gardening (unauthorized planting in public places), yard sharing, foraging and school gardens, among other topics.
That urban farming has a value beyond the food produced is a recurring theme.
"When we cultivate food," she writes, "we cultivate communities."
First Published July 8, 2010 12:00 am