Urban Farmer Forgoes Lawn for Livestock and Veggies

05 Feb, 2012

by Anna Soref

Endless reports of pesticide-laced produce, hidden GMOs, and the miles our food travels to reach the store have many of us aching to get back to the land. We want the control that growing our own food offers—antibiotic-free meat from an animal given a decent life, vegetables picked within minutes of consumption, and tree-ripened fruit—not to mention how great it would be to trade in our cell phones for handfuls of dirt a few hours a week.

It was such sentiments that spurred Novella Carpenter to raise chickens in her backyard about 15 years ago. Then came bees and goats, and then the pigs, vegetables and fruit trees. If you’re imagining a bucolic farm scene, think again. Carpenter’s Ghost Town Farm is located near downtown Oakland—closer to the BART* tracks and freeways than to a barn. For years, much of her ”farmlette” squatted on a vacant lot next to her house. And the pigs—they were fed scraps found dumpster-diving.

Carpenter is part of a rapidly growing movement of urban farmers forgoing lawns for food. In 2011, along with co-writer and fellow urban farmer Willow Rosenthal, she published The Essential Urban Farmer (Penguin, 2011). The book is a guide to help other urban homesteaders bring the farm to their backyards.

Taking It to the City

Farming was not new to Carpenter when she got her first chickens in the late 1990s. In the 1970s her parents left the Bay Area behind and moved the family to rural Idaho to live with the land. What’s new about Carpenter and the urban farmer is that she’s not leaving the city. She plants wherever she can and raises small numbers of animals in backyard spaces usually reserved for swing sets.

This twenty-first-century pioneer woman takes a refreshingly laissez-faire approach to the grow-it-yourself movement. Carpenter admits to not knowing how much of her own food she grows. “I know that if push came to shove, I could live off what I produce, except for grains; I don’t have the room to grow grains. But I’m not dogmatic about growing my own food. I don’t live in a city to isolate myself in a self-sustained world. I love to go to the pub for fish and chips or get Chinese,” she says.

Planting the First Seed

Ready to take a stab at homesteading? Start with foods you like and that are easy to grow, advises Carpenter. “A lot of first-time gardeners start with things that sound healthy but that they don’t eat, like kale,” she says. “Then they grow it but don’t like it.” A salad mix makes for the perfect yard crop. “A mix with mesclun and other greens, sown very closely together, makes a beautiful carpet and it will really blow your mind how good it tastes.”

If you’re ready to liven things up on the ranch, chickens are easy and rewarding. These “pets with benefits” are beautiful, kids love them, and all you need to do is feed them, says Carpenter. “Almost everyone eats eggs, and you get this fun thing called chicken television.”

So you’re ready to buy your first chickens, or maybe bees, but what about the Jonses? Get neighbors involved as much as possible, suggests Carpenter. “Often people won’t get it until they see it, and really not until they taste it.” So make sure you include them in the fruits of your labor. “Once you taste homemade honey or greens that are minutes old from your yard, you appreciate the difference,” she says.

If neighbors are complaining about the look of your urban farm, aesthetic upgrades are entirely possible. “Keeping chickens doesn’t have to be this low-class thing. I mean, Martha Stewart keeps chickens.” You can spend thousands of dollars on architecturally beautiful chicken coops if you want to, according to Carpenter.

Want to see urban farms in action? Check these out: http://labriefamilyfarm.wordpress.com/



*BART: Bay Area Rapid Transit.

Anna Soref is the former editor in chief of Natural Foods Merchandiser magazine, a leading B-to-B publication serving the natural products industry. She has been a contributing writer for numerous trade and consumer natural health publications, including Yoga Journal, Whole Living, The Herb Quarterly, Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals, and Vegetarian Times. Anna is a frequent speaker at events, such as the Natural Products Association’s MarketPlace, HBA Global Expo, SupplySide West, and Natural Products Expo West and East.


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