Book Review: The Essential Urban Farmer

I love Novella Carpenter. Her first book Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer is one of my top favorite non-fiction books. She is sharp, funny and bracingly honest. When I saw she had a new ‘how-to’ book out, I could barely contain myself.

Novella wrote The Essential Urban Farmer with Willow Rosenthal. It is a fat, sturdy volume covering everything from soil building to killing rabbits. There are no color photographs, this book is not coffee table material. Instead there are lots of no-nonsense line drawing, diagrams and building plans; lists and tables.

This book would be perfect for someone embarking on a pretty decent sized urban farmstead venture, with very little experience. It goes into good detail about everything a beginner needs to know. They focus on low-tech, low investment micro-farming, tapping into city waste streams as much as possible. They have a practical, punky, whatever it takes to get shit done attitude that you know I adore, but there’s not much personal voice coming through. This book is a bare bones workhorse, it has to be to fit so much detailed information about so many subjects.

If you are just setting out to turn your city lot into an edible paradise on a shoestring budget with little or no experience, and you just want to buy one book, I would highly recommend this one.

However.

I have a problem. At least I know it’s me. I keep reading gardening, farming and homesteading books, even though I already know most of what’s in them. That sounds incredibly arrogant, but it’s true. The problem is how-tos are always written for beginners, yet always bill themselves as being useful to all knowledge levels. And I always fall for it.

I keep hoping I’ll meet a homesteading how-to for people like me, who’ve already been doing this stuff for years and read possibly hundreds of books on the subject. I keep hoping I’ll find something new. Instead, they are 90% beginner information, recycled from countless other sources. In the hopes of selling books (which of course the author needs to do in order to earn any kind of wage for the copious time and energy it takes to write a book, I’m sure!) they try to be the all and everything. The “essential,” the “complete,” “all you need to know.” When really, each author offers only a chapter’s worth of actually novel ideas. The rest has been published before.

Which is not to knock the authors, that’s just how knowledge works in a human social structure. We learn a lot from others, we invent a little piece of our own, we pass it on. I actually think it’s awesome, when you view it in a communal way. Each of us playing our bit part in this big show. A few stars, lots of supporting cast. The whole so much more than it’s parts.

But, as a nearly addictive how-to reader, it gets tedious. I know Novella and Willow have way more experience than me, and I know they could teach me tons. But they had to make space for so much beginner information that there wasn’t room left for the intermediate level information.

I guess it’s only fair for you to ask– why am I still reading about this stuff anyway, if I’m already so damned smart?

How-to books are written for beginners because really only beginners need books. After the initial information flush, you just need to put in your time. Get outside and do the stuff, again and again, becoming your own extremely local expert. The embarrassing truth is that I like to read about doing stuff, sometimes more than I like to actually do the stuff. Don’t get me wrong– I love gardening, and at the end of the day I will always be happier if I’ve been outside working in the dirt. But at the beginning of the day, sitting at the kitchen table with a new gardening book and my notebook of plans is about as close to heaven as I can fathom. The experience of gathering information, of sketching out a plan, of running the ideas through my mind’s fingers like rich silk is so pleasurable I just never get enough.

Really, I need to lay off the how-tos. Homesteading narrative is what I need. Unlike how-tos, which are inevitably more or less the same information presented over an over with slight variations in theme and style, good narratives are truly unique. Which is why I loved Farm City so much, only Novella can possibly write Novella’s story.

And now, I just found out that she had a baby! Welcome to the complex business of loving mothers who still want to kick serious ass. I can’t wait to read her next book.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: The Essential Urban Farmer

  1. Thanks for this. I have a similar proclivity for reading in search of something I ought to just be out there doing — whether parenting, self-help, or writing.

    So, where’s your homestead narrative? Better get to work!

  2. i loved Novella’s first book because it was more of a focus on what not to do, barfing neighbors from smell of pig, etc. I think the intermediate how-to is about learning from each others mistakes the what-not-to-do-how-to. after 14 yrs of “urban homesteading” there is nothing more annoying than someone telling me how wonderful everything is going to be, but yep, i keep reading also. thank you for your perspective, i find it real so i can actually relate.

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