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Urban farmer Novella Carpenter on raising animals in the middle of Oakland

Novella Carpenter's farm stand in Oakland

When you think of a farmer, you may picture an old curmudgeon in overalls and straw hat squinting out at a bucolic pasture, chewing a piece of grass as he slaps wildly at flying pests. Well, that was the old breed of farmer.

Novella Carpenter is one of the new breed, and she's raising her rabbits, chickens, and goats right in the middle of Oakland. She blogs about it at Ghost Town Farm, and she just published a book: "Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer." KALW's Ben Trefny sat down with Novella Carpenter to ask her how exactly it all works.

To listen to the full interview, click the audio player above. 

NOVELLA CARPENTER: It is two parts, which is the vegetable garden, which is 4,500 square feet, so it is the same size as a house lot. That is filled with vegetables and fruit trees. Then, in the backyard, I have my goats and chickens. So there is a chicken house and a goat shed.

BEN TREFNY: How many goats and chickens do you have?

CARPENTER: Six goats. There are two moms, and four babies, and six chickens. On the deck in the shady area is where we keep the rabbits. Rabbits hate to be overheated, so we keep them out on the front deck. 

TREFNY: How many rabbits do you have?

CARPENTER: There are 15 at the moment.

TREFNY: Or 16?

CARPENTER: I know ... they breed like rabbits. 

TREFNY: Could you have cows if you wanted to?

CARPENTER: I think that would definitely be looked down upon. I can’t imagine a cow working out in the city. They are just too big, too cumbersome. I’m not sure I could get enough food to them. But I think you could do sheep. You could have sheep that go around and mow people’s lawns. For instance, in the White House, I can’t remember what year, they had sheep that mowed the White House lawn. It is something that used to happen we have just forgotten. 

TREFNY: Are these legal? By zoning requirements in the city? If you want to have an urban farm fully outfitted with livestock then what can you have, and what are you limited to?

CARPENTER: Depends on what city you are in? San Francisco definitely has more strict laws than, say, Oakland. You have to just check your local city ordinance.

TREFNY: I understand you share notes on goats with the local liquor store owner.

CARPENTER: I do. There is a guy named Mossed who owns Brothers Market which is half a block away from my house. He is from Yemen, and he was a goat farmer before he moved to America to become a liquor store owner. He is a  fountain of goat knowledge. He also kept bees, so he has many opinions about beekeeping. So it is pretty normal for me to bring one of my goats over to the liquor store.

TREFNY: Just walk it down the street.

CARPENTER: I brought Hedwig, one of our goats over the other day, just to have him look at her and make sure she is okay. So that is great. I think there is this attitude that this is just a hippy white thing to do, but it is actually not. It is very multi-ethnic. There are all these people with all this information that want to share it, but nobody to tell it to.

TREFNY: What have you learned then by running an urban farm?

CARPENTER: What I learned is that there is no money in farming. It is really hard to make ends meet. It has made me very poor, because I have to feed the animals first. It is kind of like having kids, I think. You always want to make sure the animals are happy and fed, in cages, or in their proper environment.  And that requires some money. I don’t know that I am a total advocate. I feel like it is only something you should do if you want to do it. I think some people think, “Oh, this is a trendy thing, and I should do it.” But I know it is a lot of work, and it isn’t right for a lot of people. A lot of people say to me, “I want to get goats,” and I am like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Wait a minute, do you know how much work it is? Do you know how much time you are going to be spending with these animals.” So I don’t know if I am advocating that, I am just telling a story about my experiences. Because hopefully people will learn. It isn’t like it is always a bright and happy story. There are definitely down sides to the farm, and bad things happen. I wanted to show the spectrum of what can happen when you do do this thing: urban farming.

This interview originally aired on April 18, 2011.

Learn more about Novella Carpenter at her blog, https://ghosttownfarm.wordpress.com.

Ben was hired as Interim Executive Director of KALW in November, 2021.