The Urban Farmer
Do farm animals survive by dying?
interview by Amy Standen
photos by Julio Duffoo
ONE THING to rhapsodize about forging a connection
to your food at the local farmers’ market. It’s
another thing entirely to harvest that food from a rabbit
hutch on the back porch.
Novella Carpenter is the only person
I know who renders lard on her kitchen stove from pigs she
raised out back. She’s
also the only person I know whose spring plans involve brain-tanning
rabbit pelts that have dried stiff as boards in her overstuffed
refrigerator. But while straw piles up in the crooks of the
stairway, and sacks of soon-to-be-cured olives hang from
the pantry ceiling, the home Novella and her partner Bill
share is far from rural: It’s a one-bedroom apartment
in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood of Oakland, California.
Between the back porch, a small yard in the back, and an
adjacent vacant lot where Novella grows vegetables, it’s
a complete, working farm in a very unlikely place.
winter solstice Novella slaughtered one of the turkeys she
raised in her backyard and let Meatpaper photographer Julio
Duffoo document the process. She and I met a few weeks after
the slaughter, in a park in San Francisco’s Mission
Every single day I saw this turkey.
I fed him. I cleaned up after him. I picked him up and held
him. I gave him water. You watch them grow and then it’s
Tell us about this turkey.
I think there were six turkeys who came to us, and he was
one of four who survived. They had a nice little flocking
relationship. The garden was one of their favorite places
to go. They’d march down the sidewalk, and they’d
hang out and play in the garden until it was time to go
back to their little area behind the house. When they were
really little, one of the turkeys almost died. I came out
one day and I found him flattened and freezing. I picked
him up and brought him back to life, so maybe it was this
one, I don’t know.
You can’t tell them apart?
No, there were three bourbon reds, and they all look
Did you name them?
The one we killed didn’t have a name. A lot of farmers
say you shouldn’t name animals you’re going to
kill. Other people will say, “Boy, Oscar in the freezer
is really delicious!” I have a friend who is adamant
about naming the animal he’s going to kill. He really
pampers those animals and gives them the best possible life,
because it’s going to be a really short life. And I
like that philosophy. But naming is for you; it’s not
for the animal. The animal doesn’t give a shit if he
has a name or not.
Is it hard for you to kill the animals?
It’s not really hard, but, you know, every farmer says
this: I don’t look forward to it. Some animals are
easier to kill than others. Birds are easier to kill than
a mammal. With mammals, there’s a closer connection
to being human.
You were a vegetarian at some point, like a real “Meat
is Murder” person.
I must have been about 16 when I started. I can’t remember
what it was I read, but my mom put a steak in front of me
and I was like, “I just can’t do it. This is
an animal!” Then I was a vegetarian for about two years
in college. So all told, maybe four years. Not that long.
And you were converted back by a plate of bacon in Las Vegas,
right? What do you make of that vegetarian period now, looking
I think [my] philosophy was really juvenile. It’s hoping
something doesn’t have to die. It’s very “Babe” or
Charlotte’s Web. But the final, logical conclusion
to being a vegetarian or vegan is that farm animals will
cease to exist.
Sure, but some people — like Jeffrey Masson, for example
(p. 10) — have argued that a life lived for the purpose
of dying is not a real life.
I guess you could say that, but you’re ignoring human
culture. Animals and domesticated farm animals are tied together.
They’re interlocked; they’ve coevolved. We’ve
made them exist, and they’ve helped us survive. And
so for me, it’s like, why don’t we keep up that
beautiful tradition? Part of that tradition is dying, but
part of that is surviving. Those animals continue to exist
because of us.
It’s funny to see you positioned as this champion of
carnivorism when you’re such a conscientious meat eater — you
pretty much only eat meat you kill yourself.
Pretty much. A lot of my vegan and vegetarian friends have
told me, “This is the only acceptable way for you to
eat meat.” And I think that’s true. You see the
conditions that [factory-farmed animals live] in. If it’s
this mindless thing where you don’t know where the
meat came from, you don’t know how it died or anything
about it, to me that’s kind of gross.
But there’s a reason most people don’t know
anything about how their food animals die — it’s
an upsetting thing to see. And you’re someone who has
always felt a strong connection to animals.
That’s part of the reason I sort of build a ritual
around [the slaughter], burn tobacco, etc. Obviously, the
ritual is for us, not the animal, but there needs to be a
boundary between regular life and killing something. That’s
one reason that factory farming is so horrible: The animals
are part of a machine, and you’re just a cog in that
machine, you’re part of it, too. The turkey doesn’t
care if we thank him, obviously. But the ritual is to keep
human, it’s to admit to ourselves what we’re
doing is something that needs to be forgiven. It’s
also reminding yourself this isn’t a normal part of
But at the same time, I know you feel that slaughter is
a very normal part of life.
It’s the logical conclusion of six months of life,
or so, for an animal. The problem that people have is that
they aren’t there every day. They don’t see the
turkey every day. Every single day I saw this turkey. I fed
him; I cleaned up after him; I picked him up and held him;
I gave him water. You watch them grow and then it’s
time. They aren’t children. They aren’t babies
that you’re going to, like, educate or whatever. They’re
farm animals, and that’s what they’re here for.
This is what they do. And so you’re harvesting them
like an apple or anything else you’ve been cultivating.
That’s what humans do, and that’s how we are
able to eat.
They aren’t pets. It’s always been
like this from the very beginning; for every animal we had
I was always really clear that this was its purpose. That’s
why this animal was here. They reach a plateau where they
going to get any bigger, they’re not going to taste
good anymore, and it’s just like wasting food if you
keep feeding them. So there’s a moment when you just
have to say: I’ve got to do this.
It’s true that generations and generations of that
animal have, unless they’re breeders, only lived to
a certain age. So in a way, that is the end of the lifecycle.
But it’s hard to call it a “natural” life-cycle.
Right. Well, animals in the wild die really early. I think
humans are still trying to figure out if we’re part
of nature or not.
Your parents were back-to-the-landers in Idaho.
Do you see what you’re doing now as part of that
tradition, transplanted to West Oakland?
The problem with the back-to-the land blueprint is that it
requires you to live in the country with a bunch of hillbillies
you don’t want to live with. And basically, it was
total isolation for my parents, even though their ideals — to
grow their own food — were laudable. To me, urban farming
is that perfect combination of doing what my parents wanted
to do: having a relationship with my food, while simultaneously
staying in the city, keeping a job, and having interactions
with people from different cultures. It’s the good
things about the city and the good things about the country
The Internet has changed it. You can order poultry online.
I’m buying goats from a woman I found on Craigslist.
The Internet is the modern Whole Earth Catalogue, except
it allows you to customize urban farming. The Whole Earth
Catalog was like a blueprint; it would say: “You will
raise rabbits.” People are more free-thinking now.
When I visit you I’m always struck by how much work
it is to run a farm out of one’s apartment.
I guess so, but it’s not work, like, “go to your
job.” You can do it whenever you want. So I’ll
go pick stuff for the rabbits at midnight, for example. Some
animals, like the pigs, are a huge amount of work, but then
you never have to go to the grocery store. For me, hell is
the grocery store. You drive to the store, stand in line,
wander around in that soul-sucking place, and buy a bunch
of crap you don’t need just because you happen to be
Last July I spent a month living entirely off the garden,
and I felt like I had tons of free time. If I wanted food
I just walked downstairs and ate a bunch of food.
That sounds wonderful, but I can’t imagine
people doing what you do on a mass scale.
In Third World counties, urban farming is huge, but they
don’t call it “urban farming.” They just
live with the goats in the house because it’s practical.
So many people are moving from the country to the city, the
density is staggering, but they’re keeping their culture,
too. So they’re going to raise goats even if those
goats live on the roof, or there are ducks in the bathtub.
not part of our culture, although I would argue that, more
and more, it’s going to be part of our culture.
That’s the future. It’s not going to be “Blade
Runner” where everything’s dead. It’s going
to be crammed with animals. Because there’s not enough
farmland for everyone to live like this.
And not enough oil to transport the food from the farms
to the cities.
Yep. It’s all going to be super localized, I think.
People will [see pictures of cities] and be like, “What?
There used to not be goats in these alleys?” What a
waste of space! I look out at this park we’re sitting
in, and I can imagine a couple sheep out here.
Novella Carpenter’s book, Farm City: The
Education of an Urban Farmer, to be published by Penguin
Press, comes out in spring 2009
This article originally appeared in
Meatpaper Issue Three.