Down on the Farm 

Novella Carpenter raises goats, pigs, and produce in Oakland.

Livestock is not usually a major factor as one chooses an inner-city domicile. But when they moved into their Oakland apartment a few years ago, Novella Carpenter and her partner "definitely had our eyes on the abandoned lot next door, with an eye toward farming it," Carpenter says. As they set to work, Carpenter charted the project in a blog,, and in a memoir, Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, which she will discuss at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley (2345 Channing Way, Berkeley) on Thursday, June 18, with her former professor, The Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollan.

"My parents were back-to-the-landers," she says, "so I have vivid memories about harvesting strawberries, feeding chickens, riding ponies, and swimming in the river near my parents' farm in Idaho." In Oakland, a few egg-laying chickens soon shared the lot with produce — corn, pumpkins, and more — as well as turkeys, geese, ducks, rabbits, goats, and two 300-pound pigs. The animals are raised, mated, bred, milked, and in many cases slaughtered. Their skins are tanned whenever possible, and their meat becomes meals.

"Since I am a meat eater — I've tried to be a vegetarian, with unhappy results — I wanted to understand what my choice to eat meat really looks like," Carpenter says. "Over the years, I've learned that eating meat does involve killing. But it also involves living. My animals have a wonderful, loving life, full of good food and comfort. They are killed humanely at the hands of their loving owner and go on to sustain my life. It's a symbiotic relationship that has developed over thousands of years."

Her neighbors, who never expected to live alongside a working farm, "are amazingly gracious and polite. Many of them are from rural Vietnam," Carpenter explains, and they emigrated to America "so that they wouldn't have to farm. I think they think I'm a little eccentric, but harmless."

In light of the drought, she's currently creating an outhouse. "I've been to farms where you just poop into a garbage can, throw sawdust into it, cap it after it's full, and let it sit for a year or two until it becomes soil. ... So that's what we're doing." She built the structure herself, and "it's not totally comfortable. A bathroom should be a pleasure. So I need to make some adjustments. But it is nice to sit out there and see all the chickens and goats frolicking while you poo."

Her favorite part of the farm right now is its milk goats. "They are very complicated and not unlike dogs in their manner. Fresh goat milk is delicious and I've been making yogurt, cheese, and kefir." Farms being farms, manure comes to the fore yet again: "Their poo is amazing for the garden and they like to eat greens, trimmings, and weeds ... so it makes a great little cycle." 7:30 p.m., $6-$15.


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