Novella Carpenter Farms. In her backyard. In a city. She’s convinced that you, too, can—and should—give urban farming a try, even if your “farm” is just an herb garden on the porch.
Carpenter recently published a book, Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. She’ll be in Spokane promoting Farm City at Spokane Community College on October 21st at 9:30 am.
OTM: How much of your diet comes from your backyard?
Novella Carpenter: I could eat entirely off my 1/10 of an acre farm—I have dairy goats, meat rabbits, hens, bees, and a large veg.-and-fruit garden. However, I think this might defeat my goals of living in the city—which means I like to go out to eat Chinese food, and probably most importantly, I like to share my harvests with the neighbors.
OTM: Realistically, who can do this? How much space and time does one need for a backyard urban farm?
NC: Time and urban farming is a critical issue. People with fulltime jobs and kids might already feel pressed for time, and so adding hens to the mix might seem crazy. But if you integrate the urban farming into your lifestyle by making the garden into a family activity, or raising chickens a hobby for your kids, it just becomes part of your life. When I feel stressed out but I have to, say, water the garden, I find watering will calm me down because it makes me slow down, look at life and think about what is important.
You can live in an apartment and have an urban farm—rabbits do well on a deck, bees can go on a rooftop, herbs grow in small pots. If you have a bit more space—even a small backyard, you can keep a few hens.
OTM: Which animals do you recommend for novice urban farmers?
NC: If you love eggs and baking, having a few hens is a great way to start. Hens are easy and beautiful and really fun to watch. If you’re more daring, I’d recommend beekeeping. Honeybees are actually less work than hens, and the honey is so good.
In terms of output, meat rabbits are amazing. They reproduce quickly and come to maturity in 12 weeks. Their meat is a gourmet treat—rabbit rillettes are the best thing ever. Their droppings are a great manure for the garden and you can feed them leftovers/discards from your garden.
It is a great idea to plant a fruit tree right now—you’ll be rewarded in a year or two. Within five years, one grafted apple tree can provide for all your apple needs. If you love that expensive mesclun mix, know that it’s easy to grow. I always tell people to grow what they like to eat, but leave field crops like corn and wheat to rural farmers.
OTM: How can chicken-rearing Spokane residents keep their chickens warm and safe during the cold winter?
NC: Chickens in cold weather is not a problem if you choose heavy breeds that can take snow. In extreme weather like you get in Spokane, you want to provide them an insulated hen house where they can hang out during a blizzard. Some people keep a light in the henhouse during the winter—it stimulates egg production and creates some heat. I worry about the light falling and burning down the house, so I don’t do this.
You have to create a totally predator-proof area for your girls: buried hardware wire, aviary wire netting, enclosed roosting area so dogs, skunks, and opossums can’t get in.
OTM: Has your perspective on meat changed since you started raising them and slaughtering them yourself? If so, how?
NC: I see meat eating as a celebration of the animal. It’s difficult to kill cute animals, and slaughter day is not a fun day. But there is satisfaction in it, knowing that their life will feed mine, that we are connected, and that I know everything about the animal’s life—and death. I still, I have to confess, eat meat at Chinese restaurants and taco carts—I know it isn’t “right” but I’m not perfect.
OTM: How does your farm impact your community?
NC: The farm is in the middle of a pretty gritty neighborhood. Some people in this neighborhood seek out the garden to relax and harvest food, which is encouraged by me. Kids in particular love seeing the goats and chickens, especially. Because they have few chances to go to a “real” farm. I had a group of third graders come to my farm last week and it was so satisfying to see them enjoying tomatoes fresh off the vine—they could all taste the difference.
OTM: In a July 2009 Boston Globe interview, you said, “Alice Waters doesn’t speak for all of us.” How do you see yourself and what you’re doing as different from her?
NC: That comment was unfortunate because I don’t want to run Alice down. What I meant is that there is a new generation of farmers and eaters who don’t have the same aesthetic as the generation before us: we don’t expect everything to be beautiful and perfect like Martha Stewart. We expect things to be a bit more rough about the edges, more punk; more playful and ironic. And it’s affordable because it is D.I.Y. and scrounged.