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Cuesta to get urban farming message

By the time she breaks for lunch, Novella Carpenter has fed the chickens, milked the goats, cleaned out the rabbit pen and grafted a few fruit trees.

That might sound like a typical rural routine, but Carpenter belongs to a new breed of urban farmers. She’s dedicated the last several years to transforming a weed-strewn Oakland lot into an agricultural paradise, motivated by a taste for homegrown grub.

“Urban farming is not a new thing,” said Carpenter, author of “Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer.” “People were thinking about these things in the ‘70s.”

Carpenter will speak Wednesday in San Luis Obispo as part of Cuesta College’s Book of the Year program. Her visit coincides with a month-long series of film screenings, lectures, workshops and more.

Growing up in rural area

Growing up on a remote ranch in Idaho, Carpenter witnessed the hard life of a farmer firsthand. At age six, she moved with her mother to a tiny logging town in Washington state.

Carpenter studied biology and English at the University of Washington before moving to California to attend UC Berkley’s Graduate School of Journalism. At the same time, the budding farmer was learning how to grow and harvest her own food.

“I was always the weird kid with the chicken poop on my shoes eating homegrown vegetables in class,” she said with a chuckle.

It was Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” who encouraged Carpenter to write about her experiences as an urban farmer. Penguin Books published “Farm City” in 2009.

Far from a garden-variety gardening guide, the book chronicles the author’s efforts to create a fully functioning farm in a crime-ridden ghetto known as Ghost Town. Her approach is equal parts Earth mother and post-modern punk.

The narrative begins in the spring of 2005, when a box of baby chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys arrives at her doorstep. Carpenter’s menagerie eventually grows to include honey bees, rabbits and two pigs named Big Guy and Little Girl.

“Farm City” follows the author as she digs through Dumpsters for fried rice and frosting-covered wontons, gets meat curing lessons from Bay Area chef Chris Lee, and finally, sends her precious porkers to the slaughterhouse.

“You find yourself doing things when you’re farming that you think you would never be doing,” explained Carpenter, such as scrounging stale baguettes for bunnies or turning a beloved pet turkey into Thanksgiving dinner.

Ultimately, she writes, she found a greater appreciation for where our food comes from.

Great reader response

So far, readers have embraced Carpenter’s message.

New York Times reviewer Dwight Garner compared “Farm City” to Julie Powell’s “Julie & Julia” and Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love.” And Allison Addicott of The Washington Times praised “Carpenter’s indigo charm and chutzpah.”

“(Her book) speaks to the hope and vision of those who really make change — who see urban “blight” and see flowers and pigs and Italian salame by the armful,” Addicott wrote.

Carpenter said she’s been “really pleasantly surprised” by the book’s popularity.

“When I was writing the book, it was still at a time when the economy was really good. (Urban farming) was just a cute idea,” she said. “As time went on and the economy started to collapse, people were more interested in knowing the ‘how to’ part.”

Now she constantly fields questions from backyard gardeners.

“Farm City” fans range from penny-pinching students to organic-obsessed gourmands, she said, “people who are into really good food and paying for it.”

“Everyone talks about the ‘60s as a pivotal time,” Carpenter said. “This is our movement. This is our thing we can get behind and really fight for.”

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