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Feed Thyself, Or, More than Just a Tomato Plant for Today's Urban Dweller

Diane Leach
Photo from City Slicker Farms website

You might not have enough good southernly light coming through a kitchen window to nourish a twig of basil. You might not even have a kitchen window. But you might have an empty lot in your neighborhood, and that's where authors Willow Rosenthal and Novella Carpenter can help city dwellers like you grow their own food.

“This is the book we wished we had when we first started out, a how-to manual that speaks directly to farmers trying to grow food and raise animals in the city.”

-- From the Introduction

Any urban dweller who has ever wished to garden, turn a lawn into a vegetable patch, or create an urban farm on an empty lot is well advised to reach for Novella Carpenter and Willow Rosenthal’s The Essential Urban Farmer. After successfully learning urban farming techniques via trial and error, the authors were besieged by calls and emails from flummoxed would-be farmers. In response, they created this comprehensive manual, offering a cornucopia of information about urban organic farming, firmly grounded in a do-it-yourself ethos. Throughout, the novice farmer is gently taken by the hand and lead into the complex world of urban farming.

The women boast impeccable credentials. Rosenthal is founder of Oakland, California’s City Slicker Farms, a non-profit organization that establishes backyard and urban farms in downtown Oakland. City Slicker’s organic produce is sold on a sliding scale, and nobody is turned away for lack of funds. Carpenter is the woman behind Oakland’s Ghost Town Farm and author of the bestselling Farm City, a memoir of farming the plot of land beside the rental she shares with her longtime partner, Bill, and their adorable newborn daughter.

Rosenthal and Carpenter shared a Saturday morning conversation with me about The Essential Urban Farmer and the urban farming ethos.

We met at Carpenter’s house, where I was able to see Ghost Town Farm. After years of admiring these women from afar, I nervously felt as if I were being allowed backstage to meet the band. Their warmth and friendliness soon put me at ease. The women sipped tea as we spoke, the occasion less an interview than a comfortable conversation.

I began by confessing I cannot grow a thing. Rosenthal said she hears this constantly. She pointed out that farming is a learned skill, one that’s been lost to the populace at large. A lot of people, she said, are initially intimidated by the idea of growing anything. For the fearful urban farmer, the women agreed fruit trees are a good starting place, as they require little care apart from occasional fertilization.

In the introduction, Carpenter writes: “growing edibles in the city—even on a deck or small backyard—makes economic sense for people who have more time than money.” Carpenter and Rosenthal advocate tapping the city waste stream when creating an urban farm, scooping up what is left for trash -- discarded pallets, old milk containers, pvc pipe, leaves raked up from a community park -- and repurposing them for farm use rather than the landfill.

While more time than money describes a goodly number of people these days, it doesn’t describe me. In addition to my fear of gardening, I’m not a handy woman. I can barely hang a picture, much less construct a farm trellis from repurposed materials using a circular saw. Even if I were more adept, a full time job makes intensive farming impossible.

Further, prior to reading The Essential Urban Farmer , I had no concept of what it truly means to tend a farm, with its constant myriad needs, minor or major crises, weather considerations, and possible animal care. Surmising many other readers are in similar predicaments—perhaps having a small outdoor space, wanting to do more, yet unable to -- I asked about how urban farming would work for people with little money, manual skills, or time.

“Hire somebody to farm your yard,” Rosenthal suggested. “Work out a barter plan.” The Essential Urban Farmer is not about “shoulds”, she added, nor is it meant to induce a feeling of guilt. “The idea that everyone will grow food is ridiculous,” she said. “Farming is a skill. Do we expect everyone to be doctors? Of course not.” Both were quick to say The Essential Urban Farmer is not prescriptive; rather, it’s about wanting to try.

Both children of hippies, each expressed gratitude for inheriting what Rosenthal called “the gift” of a hippie mentality: do it yourself, make it yourself, figure it out. She used herself as an example: “Women need to be more empowered about these things. You can always take a carpentry class at a community college. When I bought my fixer-upper, I decided to learn how to repair the wiring. But I hired a plumber.”

“Willow is a really good carpenter,” Carpenter offered. “I just sort of throw things together.” Ghost Town Farm, with its flourishing plants, cob oven, and neat chicken coop, belies this modesty.

Given the above, I was curious to know who The Essential Urban Farmer’s audience is. The heavy reliance on do-it-yourself methods, from rudimentary to more skilled carpentry and building talents struck me as limiting even for the more manually skilled. And tapping into the urban waste stream is a concept many Americans find foreign, even repulsive. Going into other people’s garbage? Dumpster diving for animal feed?

The Essential Urban Farmer seeks to “increase urban farming as a goal”. Though Carpenter and Rosenthal feel that readers are largely people intending to sell produce locally, they emphasized the importance of cities and communities taking responsibility for self-sufficiency. Meaning, where you see an empty, weedy lot, they see an opportunity: for chard, tomatoes, radishes, oranges. Both were quick to note that “community” is defined by who your neighbors are, not a select group of like-minded friends. And although differences of opinion are inevitable, the point is to work together as much as possible. “Unintentional communities are critical to farming.”

The road to urban farming, even if you are an avid tapper of curbside wealth, is full of expensive equipment. Depending on where you live, you may need to get your soil tested for contaminants. For urban dwellers living near freeways, toxic tire dust is a hazard. Quality gardening tools are expensive, as are proper beehives and attendant beekeeping equipment. Chickens, ducks, and rabbits all must be housed and fed.

Photo from City Slicker Farms website

How can the farmer with more time than money afford all this? Buy with your neighbors,” Rosenthal said. It was a repeated motif: share and invest with the community. Nonetheless, they are practical, realizing that short of trust funds or equally committed neighbors, most of us will have to make do—or choose to make do--with a few good tools and perhaps a couple of like-minded friends.

Recalling Carpenter’s experience dumpster diving in Farm City, which led to a fortuitous alliance with chefs Chris Lee and Samin Nosrat, I asked whether rummaging through curbside or business waste aroused the ire of owners. Rosenthal smiled. “Well, you can always ask a property owner. If somebody gets angry and asks you to leave, just say okay.”

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