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Unlikely Farmers Make A Homestead In The Hood

"I have a farm on a dead-end street in the ghetto," begins Farm City, Novella Carpenter's witty and freewheeling account of her adventures learning to raise her food — everything from pumpkins to pigs — in a grungy urban neighborhood. Just as Carpenter gives Isak Dinesen's classic opener her own wry 21st century twist, she brings a refreshing irreverence to a trendy topic — urban homesteading — that is too often cloaked in sanctimony.

Carpenter, a journalist who writes about food and who moonlights at a biodiesel station, and her boyfriend, Bill, an auto mechanic, were initially drawn to their Oakland, Calif., apartment because of the ravaged empty lot that sat next door. Where some might see urban blight, these two saw possibility. Carpenter had always been attracted to a rural lifestyle; rural solitude, not so much. "With its late-night newsstands and rowdy bars, a city meant I would never be lonely," she writes.

Carpenter started off by planting vegetables in that weedy lot, soon acquired honeybees, then chickens, turkeys and rabbits. This unplanned escalation — organic in every sense of the word — constitutes the plot of her unlikely page turner. Carpenter's animals, even those who will end up on her dinner table, become eccentric characters in the saga, tenderly and vividly described. At every juncture, Carpenter doubts herself, worries about offending delicate friends and annoying the neighbors, then tries something even wackier.

Until, finally, enter the swine. The arrival of two piglets marks the tale's surreal climax — the extreme, it appears, to which this urban farm, Carpenter's moxie and the neighbors' patience can be pushed. Carpenter feeds the pigs from high-end restaurant dumpsters and watches in horrified fascination as they morph into ravenous and intimidating beasts. Then she learns to make prosciutto.

Carpenter's prosciutto is about as hyperlocal, organic and sustainable as a ham can get. But while Carpenter is a self-described "ecofreak," she manages to avoid sermonizing about the nobility of her endeavor. She cheerfully concedes she might be a little bit nuts, and although (or maybe because) she never once gets on her soapbox, her very funny book is also deeply inspiring. "This place reminds me of my grandma," says a passerby, gazing at the lush farm sprouting out of the ghetto. "Everything's so growing."

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