Ghost Town Farms

In late 2009, Novella Carpenter traveled to Brooklyn to teach a workshop on butchering rabbits. Participants paid $100 each and went home with the main ingredient for a fine meal. The New York Times ran a long feature on the event, accompanied by recipes for rabbit ragù and rabbit loin with bitter greens. Afterward, Carpenter flew back to her hometown of Oakland, California, with the satisfaction of having trained a few more local food loyalists in the hard-core art of butchery.

It didn’t take long, though, for the pleasant memory of her trip to be clouded by hate mail, which poured in from vegetarians and animal rights activists, who were outraged at the thought of urbanites slaughtering rabbits as a weekend diversion. What the commenters and letter writers may not have realized is that for Carpenter, this is not a hobby. On days when she’s too tired for hard labor, she doesn’t simply drive to Whole Foods and purchase meat for dinner. She tends daily to rabbits, goats, chickens, ducks, bees, and at one time, a pair of hefty pigs. At the end of the day, she cooks food she has raised or grown. Carpenter is a farmer—she lives off her land.

Ghost Town Farms

Carpenter calls her operation Ghost Town Farm, after the condition ofthe West Oakland neighborhood in which it sits. These days, the ghosts of neglect have surrendered, to some extent, to the controversial advances of gentrification, but when she first arrived with her boyfriend, Bill Jacobs, in 2002, the area was largely composed of abandoned buildings and lots, and populated by drug dealers, drug users, and frequently clashing gangs.

Carpenter and Jacobs didn’t come to the neighborhood as typical gentrifiers. If someone were to open an upscale coffee shop nearby, the couple would not come in for lattes, though they might be found out back after closing, rummaging through the shop’s dumpsters for uneaten pastries to feed their livestock or coffee grounds for their compost pile.

Ghost Town Farms

On the top level of a duplex on a dead-end street, Carpenter began her project with a stack of bee boxes. She kept them on the deck off her living room in order to avoid frightening any skittish neighbors. Next came mailorder chickens, ducks, and turkeys, which were housed inside the apartment while she built a coop and strengthened the young birds enough to cope on their own on the ground. While the house Carpenter and Jacobs had moved into didn’t come with abundant yard space, the adjacent lot was vacant—a 4,500-squarefoot swath of weeds and concrete where a house had once stood. After testing the soil and finding it safe, Carpenter got to work planting almost every square foot with something edible: cucumbers, onions, carrots, garlic, tomatoes, squash, pumpkin, artichokes, herbs, beans, berries, and an array of fruit trees including fig and citrus, which thrive in the Bay Area’s Mediterranean climate.

She took her first leap from feathers to fur when she brought home a small colony of rabbits, for whom she also made a home close to her own sleeping quarters, elevated from streetlevel dangers. Through steadfast self-education, Carpenter learned to breed and butcher her small meat animals, and through instinct, she learned to defend them when the occasional predator did find a way onto her property. As the farm grew,
neighbors began to notice the addition of agriculture to their gritty environs, and Carpenter forged relationships with a cast of characters fit for a novel, from the homeless man who lived out front in a broken-down car to the monks who occupied a quiet monastery across the street to the Berkeley hippies who biked over from their idyll up north to check out Carpenter’s experiment in personal sustainability. She did, in fact, later chronicle her experiences in an autobiographical book titled Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, published in 2009.

Chicago City Farm

Many urban farms, no matter how different the cities around them may be, share a common origin story. Most occupy sites that were once vacant and neglected, and in turning those sites back into thriving landscapes, they have contributed to the overall revitalization of surrounding blocks.

According to Ken Dunn, the founder and director of The Resource Center in Chicago, there is a direct connection between vacant land and the condition of urban communities. Simply by making sure that no city lot sits neglected, he suggests, we can ensure better economic stability, safety, community engagement, and quality of life. Dunn began developing this theory and others while working on a PhD in philosophy at the University of Chicago in the 1960s. “We specifically looked at resources that had been overlooked, such as recyclable trash and vacant lots, and their connection to long-term unemployment.” With a combination of evidence and instinct, Dunn decided to create City Farm in 2000 in order to apply his ideas and see what kind of impact local food production could have on the city. The results speak for themselves.

Chicago City Farm

To look at the farm, raised beds are not visible, but in essence, the entire farm is one raised bed, elevated several feet off of the clay foundation. The wood chips, which are used to form a wide walking path between the beds, add to the sustainability of the garden by absorbing rainfall and minimizing runoff. “The wood chips are porous and the compost is very absorbent,” Dunn explains. “The chips hold the water for up to three weeks, so we only use city water to start seedlings. Rainfall in Chicago is adequate enough that we don’t need excessive irrigation.”

The water-efficient site is ideal for growing crops like heirloom tomatoes, which City Farm cultivates in abundance and sells to Chicago restaurants, along with salad greens and other specialty vegetables. The farm generates enough revenue through restaurant sales to meet a modest overhead, and relationships with local eateries bring value in other forms as well.

Chicago City Farm

Chicago-based celebrity chef Rick Bayless has come to City Farm to work with middle school students, helping them grow ingredients for the Latin-inspired dishes he serves at his restaurants, then working with them to cook meals. “Through working on the farm, kids learn biology, botany, math, and geography,” Dunn says, “I think education in our city could be enriched by being more experiential and getting students out of the classroom. It revitalizes education and excites the kids.”

City Farm also works with high school–age kids—many from the Chicago Housing Authority—in a more structured arrangement, bringing several students on as apprentices and giving them job training, teaching them skills for earning a living through urban farming and farmers’ market operations.

For farm manager Andy Rozendaal, the combination of youth empowerment and agricultural work is an optimal blend of his experiences in church ministry and farming. Rozendaal grew up on a four-hundred-acre corn and soy farm in Iowa, then got a degree in the general agriculture program at Iowa State before attending seminary. After ten years in the church, he was looking for a way to connect his theology background with his desire to address issues of food injustice and urban poverty. “I wasn’t finding anything within the church,” he recalls. “But when I found The Resource Center, I realized that though it was outside the church, their core values were compatible. This is my dream job.”

Our School At Blair Grocery

Since Hurricane Katrina, the architectural and economic glue that once held New Orleans together has been weakened in many parts of the city, and destroyed in some. In the Lower Ninth Ward, the strongest remaining bond is social. Most of the families who have stayed have been here for generations. Residents know their neighbors’ parents and their grandchildren. Nobody is anonymous.

After school, kids have few safe places to go for recreation or studying. Residential streets—most lacking sidewalks—are the default public gathering spot. But on one corner lot on Benton Street, Ninth Ward youth have a budding alternative, which they are helping to build with their own hands.

Our School at Blair Grocery is a three-year-old urban farm and education center, founded by a Minnesota native named Nat Turner, who found his way to New Orleans by way of New York City. Turner was teaching high school in Brooklyn when Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, and soon after, he began taking his students on an annual trip down south to participate in rebuilding the devastated city. The enthusiasm on both sides of the exchange was so great that Turner established an organization called New York 2 New Orleans, which has been sustaining the long distance educational trips, even in the years since 2008 when Turner moved away from Brooklyn to set down roots in the Ninth Ward.

Our School At Blair Grocery

When OSBG began, the grocery was too dilapidated to house a classroom—the building lacked basic utilities and a working kitchen, and climbing the rotting staircase to the second floor was a risky endeavor. As a temporary solution, Turner began teaching kids inside a school bus parked in front of the property. But only part of his curriculum involved the students sitting down to listen and take notes. Experiential education is pivotal at OSBG, so Turner wasted no time engaging his new charges in the dirty work.

The 2/3-acre lot was stripped of weeds and garbage, and the stairs inside the grocery were repaired enough to get everyone safely to the second floor, where a makeshift kitchen was installed for Turner to prepare his own meals and students to catch a snack or breakfast. Before long, vegetables were being planted in the yard, and the building’s broken windows were replaced with new glass. The Grocery once again became a hub where neighbors met and traded news, and Turner grew into an integral part of that network. Today when visitors come through, he introduces the kids playing out front not only by name, but according to whose grandson or niece they are.

Our School At Blair Grocery

Our School at Blair Grocery is now a thriving urban farm, complete with
chickens, ducks, bees, worm bins, and an aquaponic tank full of carp. Every crop, creature, and corner of the farm becomes an opportunity for learning. OSBG began with six full-time students in its first year, and enrollment has been rising ever since. Most of the kids who choose Turner’s alternative education program have had problems navigating the public school system or have been released from juvenile detention centers. Some attend conventional school, then come to OSBG in the afternoons, many of them still wearing their school uniforms.

Through the upkeep of the farm, the kids learn biology, horticulture, and algebra. Through the construction of greenhouses and fish tanks, and the renovation of the building, they learn physics, engineering, and calculus. By selling their cilantro and chiles to local taco truck vendors and running the OSBG Sunday farmers’ market, they learn economics and Spanish. And, of course, by eating their own homegrown food, they learn not only about health and nutrition, but they also come to understand how delicious healthy food can be. They even learn the social value of preparing and sharing a meal, though most already know that lesson by heart: Communities here have long been woven together through culinary traditions.

In New Orleans, the growing season runs opposite most of the rest of the country. Midsummer months are too hot—for both the crops and the farmers—so the season ramps up toward late fall and runs through the winter. Year-round, a rotating crew of young employees and interns cycles through—many of them from far corners of the country, drawn to the city and OSBG by the desire to gain skills for self-sufficiency while making a positive impact on urban youth. The farm manager, Brennan Dougherty, is one such character, though she’s been with the farm since its beginnings and intends to stick around. “I plan to be here at the school as long as is necessary for me to be,” she says, adding, “My heart will be here always.”

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A Colorful Tour Of America's Urban Farms

City farms are popping up left and right, in the middle of so much concrete. A new book takes you to some of the best and most exciting of the bunch.

You may not think of farms as the most innovative places in the world—but you probably should. Every day, new places for growing food pop up in the urban landscape, run by scrappy farmers intent on growing something in the middle of all the asphalt.

A new book by Sarah Rich, titled simply Urban Farms, takes readers on a tour of some of the most interesting and exciting of these projects around the country. From a farm in Oakland that raises rabbits for meat to a project in New Orleans that is helping stitch back the Lower Ninth Ward through the power of agriculture, the book shows how these city-based gardens are changing the landscape of food in our cities.

We’ve excerpted some of the photos and text from the book in the gallery above or you can buy a copy of it here. The future of farming is here—take a look.

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