The Q&A Series: Novella Carpenter

Welcome to the Q&A series, a project aimed at examining food politics and the "food debate" through the eyes and minds of people involved in making and thinking about food. My questions are in bold; the interviewee's responses are in plain text.

Today's guest is Novella Carpenter.


Novella Carpenter is an urban farmer in Oakland, California, and a freelance journalist. She studied with Michael Pollan at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. Novella is the author of Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, and co-author of The Essential Urban Farmer. Her website is


Photos courtesy of Novella Carpenter

Photos courtesy of Novella Carpenter

Q.: For those who’ve not read Farm City, tell us briefly how you ended up operating a farm in Oakland, California.

I moved to Oakland from Seattle with my boyfriend, fleeing the rain, and looking for a climate where we could do year-round vegetable production. The Bay Area is really expensive, so we settled in an area that some people might call a "ghetto". In Seattle we had been raising chickens and bees, so naturally, once we were settled in Oakland, we began raising livestock and growing vegetables. In our neighborhood, called GhostTown, there were lots of abandoned lots and burned out buildings. Next to our rental was an empty lot, which is where we started our little urban farm. In addition to chickens and bees, we added turkeys, ducks, rabbits, pigs, and later, goats.  

Q.: Who buys most of the food you grow?

These days, mostly my own family eats the food I grow. When I first started farming in Oakland, we were squatting on the land, so I had an open gate policy. Obviously, I couldn't lock up the property, and the land was free, so I was happy to grow produce for the community. People came and harvested food for themselves. Now that I own the land, I have to pay for property taxes, so to offset costs, I'm selling produce to restaurants and doing a small CSA (community supported agriculture); and I do little farm stand where I sell honey and veggies. It's not much money, but it makes me happy. 


Q.: Are you a farmer? When you meet someone who runs, say, a 25,000-head hog operation, do you find common ground as “farmers”?

Yeah, I know, I'm always embarrassed to call myself a farmer when I meet someone with a "real" farm, but they are the ones who often tell me: if you are producing food, you are a farmer. It's usually someone who is less experienced who gets all bent out of shape about using the term farmer so liberally. We have many of the same gripes: people don't want to pay a fair price for food, it's a lot of back-breaking work, the government tends to hassle smaller-scale farmers. Then there are bugs and diseases to commiserate about. 

Q.: Switching gears a bit: Agriculture in general. 

Farmers are damned if they and damned if they don’t. They’re criticized for using technologies that can lower their production costs. But they’re criticized when food prices rise. And what will happen to our food systems if the anti-science group gets its way? 

For example, if CAFOS and the use of antibiotics are banned, the price of meat will rise. Farmers will have to use more land (which is expensive) and livestock will have higher mortality rates. Consumers will not be happy (as I found during my research into the history of meat in America: when meat prices go up, consumers balk.).

What’s your take on all these controversies? Any ideas about how to make meat on a large scale (i.e., for millions of people) without science as a partner? 

Hmmm, well, I think if someone raised a couple meat birds in their backyard and then slaughtered and butchered them, they would start to have a new perspective on the true cost of meat.

I'm grateful to my farmer who raises the chickens and beef that I buy. I don't have the time to do it myself anymore (I have a baby now), and believe me, I know the value of a good chicken. Keeping them alive, keeping them feed and happy--it's a huge amount of work. Same with beef and pork. People are used to cheap meat, and it's a feedback loop that just goes on and on. Because people don't pay much for meat, they don't value it--think about how much food--meat--gets wasted and thrown away. It's a disgrace.


So, I guess I find myself on the Michael Pollan end of things, calling for meat to be more expensive. If it gets too expensive, maybe some people will try to grow it themselves. I think that would be a step in the right direction. 

Q.: Let’s talk food politics and the “food movement.” I have to admit: the first time I saw someone refer to the “food crisis” in the U.S., I was startled. Is there a food crisis in this country? And on the continuum of food activism --- conventional farmer agvocats at one end, anarchist urban gardeners on the other --- where do you stand? Are you a “food activist”? Are you a member of the “food movement”? Or are you, ya know, simply a farmer who happens to live in a city? And is there even such a thing as a “food movement,” or is all this food reform activity too amorphous and disconnected to be seen as a “movement”? (I should add here, for our readers’ sake, that there are literally hundreds of organization, consortiums, and umbrella associations devoted to food reform.) 

Heck, does the food debate even matter to you? Or are you too busy walking the walk to have time to argue the details?

I am definitely not a politician. I actually got into some trouble with the City of Oakland for my food production activities, and I did not like the politics of the whole thing. I am more of an anarchist, not interested in, and too busy to dabble in politics. But the personal is political, so I guess just by growing food in a city, I am part of a movement.  

Q.: As a food activist [assuming you answer in the affirmative!], what’s your single biggest frustration? The charge of elitism? The bureaucratic hurdles? Consumer indifference? What? 

And how do you or would you respond to that most common complaint about the food movement and food reformers: that it’s elitist?

Well, it sounds elitist, right? Pay more money for your food, vote with your fork. All of those things sound like something someone from a place of privilege would say and advocate. What I like about urban farming is you can get a piece of land, or find a backyard, and actually do something. Plant some seeds. Grow a salad. It's cheaper (and better tasting) than buying a bag of organic salad mix. I guess I don't like philosophizing, I like taking action. 


Q.: Let’s face it, not everyone wants to or can take the time to cook, or to shop at farmers’ markets. But I think that most Americans don’t want to bother because they fundamentally don’t care that much about food. They’d rather spend their time engaged in non-food-related activities: hanging with their kids, shopping, running, chatting online, working.

If that’s the case, then is the food movement a cultural movement, one aimed at persuading Americans to give a damn about food and eating? About changing their hearts and minds first, so that diets will follow? And if so, what’s the best way to do that? Schoolyard gardens? Taxes on “bad” food?

I was just in Florida, away from my garden, where I spent a lot of time on the couch. We didn't do anything real, we watched television and talked about politics. America has become a country of followers, not do-ers. We hardly know where our food comes from, or how something like a television actually works. I think it makes us feel dead and impotent.

But I don't think people should be convinced to eat good food, or pay a tax to get them to change their diet. Americans should ask themselves: am I happy? Am I doing the thing that makes me happy? They need alternatives if the answer is no; models for behavior that might make them happy. I can't tell you how happy growing my own kale makes me; I just feel fulfilled.  

Q.: My greatest frustration with the “food movement” is that its advocates resolutely ignore a fundamental issue: In general, city people don’t make their own food. City people rely on farmers. (And most urbanites aren’t interested in working as farmers; if they were, well, they’d live in the country.)

But for the past two centuries, Americans have demonstrated their preference for city rather than farm. As a result, our American mode of food production (from seed to table) is designed to support an urban society; it’s designed so that a tiny minority can make food for an urban majority. 

Food reformers, however, argue that we should abandon “industrial” agriculture and food production in favor of smaller, local, more artisanal-like modes of production. As I type this, I’m thinking of that scene in “Food, Inc.” where Joel Salatin and a couple of other guys are standing in a roofed, unwalled shed slaughtering chickens as Joel talks to the camera. Ain’t no way that mode of production is gonna make enough chickens to meet demand. Yes, you operate an urban farm. Many people are interested in working as farmers. Backyard gardening is undergoing a renaissance. But none of that is enough to feed an urban nation. 

In short, and in my opinion, the food movement is impractical. For example, bare minimum, in order to return livestock to pasture, we’d have to raze thousands of urban structures --- malls, shops, housing developments --- and return that land to farming. And then we’d have to persuade people to leave the city and work on farms. (N.B.: I’m NOT volunteering. I grew up pulling weeds.) Your thoughts? 

Novella 5.jpg

Yeah, I think Joel Salatin has a lot of good points, but there isn't enough farmland to support his type of farming. The short answer is that people need to stop eating so damn much meat. It's really gross how many salads at restaurants have chicken on it, just for the hell of it. I know what I'm saying is a very Jimmy Carter, wear-a-cardigan kind of argument that many people won't like. But honestly, people don't need to be eating meat every day. 

Q.: It seems to me that a great deal of the food debate boils down to who believes what about science. I’m thinking here of the GMO debate (although that’s certainly not the only point of contention about science and food): it’s unbelievably difficult to figure out what the facts are about GMOs. And many people in the food and environmental movements are hellbent disseminating falsehoods about GMOs (the butterfly thing and the “Indian farmers are committing suicide” claim have both been soundly debunked --- and yet, food activists keep running those two anecdotes up the flagpole). 

But I think all of that is a symptom of a deeper issue: the politicization and fragmentation (for lack of a better word) of science. When each side of a debate claims that its version of the facts is true, then science has lost authority. That has troubling implications: Who should we believe? Anyone? No one? And if we lack a solid set of “facts,” how do we navigate the messy, complicated terrain that is our planet and our lives? If science loses all authority, we humans will have no choice but to rely on “moral codes” as the basis of decision-making, but --- that’s an even swampier morass than science. How can we make public policy if we can’t agree on the basics? Faced with a morass of competing claims, what’s an ordinary citizen supposed to do, know, or believe? 

I'm a trained biologist, and believe me, science doesn't know everything. I think you are setting up a false dichotomy between science and everyone else. It's actually pretty incredible how little scientists know about even elementary things, like soil. So I tend to think that we need to do research on things like pesticides and insecticides and chemicals put into food before it goes out into the public for consumption. The point of science is to test what we don't know, not just blast it out into the world and market it as "scientific". 

Novella 2.jpg

Q.: A related question: Many food reformers lay the blame for the “food crisis” at the feet of “capitalism.” In their view, “capital” and “capitalism” possess autonomy, have power and force; those forces “cause” things to happen. Capitalism, in the form of Big Food, “controls” our kitchens. Where do you stand on that? And if not capitalism, what?

We live in a market driven economy. I'm actually interested in how small businesses can actually transform our society. So I guess that makes me a capitalist. I don't think businesses should have special rights or protections, though, that makes no sense. 

Q.: According to some, “Big Food” has co-opted organic farming and organic food. Many activists seemed to think that once Walmart announced plans to begin selling organic foods, that the end of the world had come. But other people argue that Big Organic is better than no organic at all, especially if Big Organic can help address concerns about elitism and high prices. What’s your view on this?

People liked that organic was like a name brand that they could trust, back in the good old days. The regulations were really clear about what organic meant. Now the organic regulations allow all kinds of things that don't make it quite so "pure". My take is that bigger organic means fewer pesticides and insecticides, and so that might be an ok thing. Co-opting is just how the world works, get over it; there's always some other new thing that's cool, like urban farming. 


Q.: Many entrepreneurs have jumped into the food reform game, presumably because there’s an opportunity to make money. I’m thinking here of companies like Food+Tech Connect, which put together the Hack Meat project earlier this summer, and there are dozens of other examples like it. That seems like a far cry from where the food movement started. How do you feel about those kinds of big money, (relatively) slick, profit-driven reform efforts?

Oh, things change, and things stay the same. I'm never bitter about change, I think it's interesting how it all plays out. 

Q.: As a citizen and a consumer, what changes would you like to see in the contemporary food system?

I'm sad that people in neighborhoods like mine eat crappy food. Like I see kids going to school eating chips for breakfast. I know that those kids aren't learning very well because that kind of breakfast makes it hard to think. I don't know how to change that, except to educate people, teach people how to cook. But in order to do that, everyone needs to have a job--unemployment and poverty are my neighborhood's biggest problems, not food security. You have to give people money and education before you can change behavior. 

Q.: Look ten years down the road: Antibiotics: legal or not? CAFOs: legal or outlawed? GMOs: a normal part of daily life or part of an illegal underground? Ghost Town Farm: still going?

In ten years, antibiotics applied to un-sick animals will be looked at as a preposterous thing to do. CAFOs won't be illegal, but they won't be cost effective if the Feds start looking at the environmental destruction these places create--in terms of shit and smell. Meat will be much more expensive. GMOs will be in every part of our food stream, and we won't know for another 20 years if that causes deleterious health effects. GT Farm will be a full-on fruit orchard with some kind of groovy cabin built on it.