Appalachian Perspective: Novella Carpenter

Hosted by Appalachian State University's Chancellor Kenneth E. Peacock, Appalachian Perspective cable television program has featured prominent and interesting North Carolinians, the university's leading academic and public service programs, and other topics of statewide interest. Episodes air across the state on cable operators' community access channels. The 30-minute program is a production of the university's Office of University Communications.

Novella Carpenter loves city life. She also loves being able to live sustainably off the land. In her bestselling book, 'Farm City: the Education of an Urban Farmer,' Carpenter chronicles how she joined these two loves and what she learned about community and herself in the process. Her book was read by incoming freshmen at Appalachian State University in 2012.


Chancellor Kenneth Peacock: Novella Carpenter loves city life. She also loves being able to live sustainably off the land. In her bestselling book, "Farm City: the Education of an Urban Farmer," Carpenter chronicles how she joined these two loves and what she learned about community and herself in the process. Her book was read by incoming freshmen at Appalachian State University this year. We will meet this urban farmer coming up on Appalachian Perspective.

(Cut to show's intro)

KP: Welcome to Appalachian Perspective. My guest today is Novella Carpenter, who is the 2012 summer reading author and convocation speaker at Appalachian. Welcome, Novella.

KP: It's great to have you on our campus; we have waited a long time to get you here.

Novella Carpenter: It's great to be here. It's so beautiful and ya'll are so nice.

KP: Thank you. Have you been to Boone, North Carolina before or the mountains of North Carolina before?

NC: No I haven't. I have never been.

KP: You know once is not enough.

NC: (Laughs) Yeah the climate here seems nice. Nice and moist. Lots of water.

KP: Yes, so you need to come back. Will you share with me any first impressions you had of the High Country?

NC: Oh man, well we drove through... we came from Burnsville and so we drove through all those beautiful winding hills and then we encountered a rain storm and that was very exciting. It's just beautiful here, you guys are lucky to have such nice views and so many trees really. It's very lush.

KP: We love having West Coast stars come to the mountaintop of North Carolina. We hope that you will come back many times here. From reading your book and meeting you briefly as I have, you are an individual who has a lot of activity in your life. You read, and seek goats and pigs and turkeys and chickens and bees, and now a new daughter. So tell me about this new life that has come in.

NC: Sure. That's a great question. Well you know farming I have been raising and doing urban farming since 1998. It started with bees, which I call the gateway urban farming animal. Then I started raising chickens and at the time living in Seattle it was sort of really weird to do this kind of thing. I had read this book "The Encyclopedia of Country Living" by Carla Emery. She's a woman from Idaho and she's a homesteader. I was working for a publishing company that published the book and I remember sitting in my little office cubicle laughing while I was looking at a picture that's like kill a pig by hitting him there. (Points to forehead) And thinking "Oh, I'll never do that" but then some of the things I thought "Wow I could do some of these things in the city" and that's when I started you know growing my own food and making pickles and things like that. Then I moved to Oakland, California. California has really, really nice weather. It never really freezes and so you can grow amazing food all year round, so then I really started getting into it. That's when I started raising what I call my meat birds, so I started raising turkeys because I thought I should raise a Thanksgiving turkey. You know, what can be more American than growing my own food, raising it up and then serving it for dinner. Of course it wasn't as easy as Carla had made it seem in that book. So I really had to learn how to do all those things. Then I kept pigs and then I had a baby. The baby has been kind of like having an urban farm animal, but in the house. Except she wears diapers, you know, so that's good. I've learned a lot from her just in terms of just care and watching her grow—it's just an amazing thing. She loves to eat stuff on the farm, you know, like off the vine. She'll eat tomatoes and carrots and stuff. She's a happy little baby and I think she likes being around the animals as well. She really does. If she'll be crying she'll stop when I bring her outside into the garden, and just kind of space out and look at the clouds and watch the bees. It's a really nice little life.

KP: Well you obviously from the dedication of your book had a great mom for a role model because you said "my inspiration."

NC: Yeah.

KP: I don't think there could be a finer word, if it were a professor or a parent a mom or a dad, then to say, "You are my inspiration."

NC: Yeah, my mom, you know was a back-to-the-land hippie in the '70s, so she met my dad in Mexico in the late '60s. They were kind of on the hippie road trip. When she met my dad, they sort of had this shared thing and where they thought that we should just go back to the land and farm. So they bought this 180-acre farm in Idaho. Kind of a high ranch, actually kind of like hill country like here. It's all winding hills and roads. That first winter my mom was like "Oh my god" because it's three feet of snow on the ground and it's cold. It was a lot harder for her too, but she taught us when we were growing, growing up how to do all these things. And a real respect for the process of learning how to grow food in a garden and really nurture things and so that's what really inspired me was her kind of care and nurturing.

KP: What was the first thing that you planted that started this? What was the first thing that you said, whether it's a fruit or a vegetable, what was it?

NC: Well you know the thing is when I first started, you know, like any gardener the first thing is tomatoes. That's kind of the typical American backyard project. You're gonna grow some big tomatoes and they are gonna be good and you'll bring them to the office and everyone is gonna be jealous. I had pretty good success with tomatoes even in Seattle where it's not the best weather. Then I started growing stuff that was expensive in the store, but really cheap to grow, like lettuce. You don't think about it but lettuce is really not that hard to grow. You give the seeds some water and they come up. You know those fancy salad mixes where it's all those beautiful different leaves and it's expensive, but you can grow that for cheap. You can use scissors and cut them and then you have a nice salad, so those kind of things are pretty easy. Then potatoes of course are a great easy crop to grow and it really fills you up and makes you feel like you grew something, you know. There's nothing like digging up potatoes, it's just so satisfying. Then I really did get into growing, when I moved to California, I just couldn't believe the stuff you could grow. Maybe you can grow, can you grow citrus here? I guess not, it freezes here right?

KP: Yes, no.

NC: Citrus that was the first thing I did when I got to California was to plan a lemon tree. I just couldn't believe the smell of a lemon tree in bloom, it's just an incredible smell. So, planted a lot of citrus and fig trees and things that I could never grow up in Seattle. I was so excited. Then that got me really into growing fruit, weird kinds of fruit. Now I have this Persian mulberry tree that is like oh my god, the fruit is like the size of a thumb and it's black and looks like a blackberry you know. It just explodes in your mouth when you eat it. It's just the juiciest, most... it almost tastes like spicy wine or something. It's just amazing. I really do like fruit trees a lot.

KP: Do they attract a lot of birds though? That come in, the mulberry tree especially?

NC: You know the birds have kind of figured out about the mulberries, but mostly they want to eat the chicken food. So I have a lot of little birds that come in and kind of, freeloaders is what I call them, they just munch up the chicken food. The chickens are kind of in there first, they are bigger so it all works out actually. Yeah, we don't really. Some people have problems with squirrels. They will eat all their figs and that can be a problem, but I haven't so far. My neighborhood is so urban that I haven't seen a squirrel around. It's not like that.

KP: I really enjoyed your story in the book about the growing of watermelons. You said in there, you had planted them and kept looking and waiting—that is so typical of people, you know, in my category, that you want to plant something. It's that tomato plant you talked about or sometime you may say that you are going to branch out and do cantaloupes and pumpkins, just something. But you are just so anxious to see it come up. And you describe digging around in it a little bit and it wasn't coming up. You quickly blamed the seed manufacture, the seed company, you blamed the fertilizer people. You blamed everybody for something. The ants. Everything and then finally, later you found it did germinate and it was coming up. What is the most difficult thing you say is to grow?

NC: That's a great example. The watermelon really teaches patience. You can't rush gardening. It's going to germinate when it wants to. One of the hardest things to germinate is carrots. They just don't. They have to have completely moist seed bed at all times for a number of days before they will germinate. So carrots have been really hard to germinate. But one thing I did figure out is that you can buy pelleted seed. This is kind of getting beyond being a gardener, you know, you have to think like a farmer. Like I need that seed to germinate. I can't just be messing around here. I need those carrots. I buy them through Johnny's Seeds, they sell pelleted. They have a clay pellet around the carrot seed, so that thing keeps moist once you water it so then you have really great germination on the carrots. Little tricks like that, little farming tricks, really helps.

KP: When you started this project in Oakland what did your neighbors think? I think I read in your blog where you said my neighbors think that I am crazy. Yet this morning, as you said to the students at Convocation, you can be a little wacky. I heard that and thought "I'm not sure I want her saying that to my freshman class."

NC: (Laughs)

KP: I took it in great spirits, but what did they say when you started doing this?

NC: Well you know my neighbors were of two camps. One was that they were either former farmers, especially my downstairs neighbors who are from Vietnam, they just couldn't understand why I wanted to be doing this. It was kind of like, "Oh my god we moved away from Vietnam so we didn't have to farm in the rice patties" and now you want to do this thing, but you're just this white girl. So that was a camp, and then there were the people that were really into and later the Winns, this Vietnamese family, came around and taught me some things about farming. But then there was the camp that, you know, had advice. They had remembered growing up in the South, you know, and how their mom would put Epsom salts on the tomatoes. You know, so people that would have tips and would want to share their experiences with, these are, this is what we use to do. So really this cultural mash-up where people would tell me their different things , what they liked and how they did it in their country or where they came from when they were little kids. There were people who were nostalgic for it and then there were people that were kind of like "Oh my god why are you doing this?"

KP: But from that and you went into, you went to have the animals. So tell me about the animal relationship. You named them. Do you have the tendency to get attached to them because of their names? The little girl in the book, Sophia, I think that said to you is this like a pet, a duck, is this like a pet dog?

NC: Yeah, right. You know it's hard when you're raising animals that you are going to eat. The intention from day one, the moment you look at a turkey poult and you know that that's going to grow up to be a turkey and it's going to be my dinner. It's really, that is what you have to keep, you have to maintain that intention. A lot of times people maybe think that, you know, process a turkey and they can't do it because they haven't really had that intent. I think, and then what happens is then you end up feeding this bird, why is it there? What is the purpose of this turkey anymore? Then it's a pet. I think there is a culture in America, especially of just being that all of our animals are such pets, you know? You've got your pet dog, your pet cat and you love them and you treat them like your babies. And that's great, that's a lot of love, but for people who are farming and actually trying to make it financially work, you can't have them around as pets. They need to go away so they aren't eating your feed anymore. There's a moment where they reach a plateau. They are not going to get any bigger and you're just going to be feeding them and then you'll end up with this giant pig or giant turkey, whatever it is in your backyard. For me it was really a practical matter of always being like yes I'm going to eat this turkey. So, even when my vegan neighbor, Lana, named our turkeys Harold and Maude, I was like I'm still eating them. Yes they have names. Later a friend of mine pointed out that he really likes to name his animals even the ones he is going to eat and of course there's always that joke breakfast, lunch and dinner or you have your pig ham or bacon or something like that. To kind of remind you of what the purpose of the animals are. But, this friend of mine, Jim, keeps goats and he said even when he knew he was going to eventually process the animal and eat ithe would always give it a name, just to kind of be like it was a show of respect. It was like you have a name and you have a purpose and you are going to eventually be, go away. But, for that moment you are going to be alive, we are going to love and respect you. I think there's that sense of wanting to be connected to your food and really feel a closeness to it. It's not like when you kill a turkey or rabbits or something like that on the farm, it's not like you're murdering them. "It's not like, boy I hate this rabbit I'm going to kill it." You know, you're like thank you for your life and thank you for feeding me. So it's this really deep kind of bond you have with the animal. So I don't think it's that bad to actually name them.

KP: As you pointed out this morning it is a cultural thing between here and other countries, you know, because we do think of all animals of being a pet in a way. You travel internationally and you'll find that rabbit you talked about this morning, but you'll find in other countries, China, that dog and cat are delicacies. It's not my cup of tea, but it's...

NC: It's just how it is. I know. I had this concept of edible pets. I mean you're kind of like, okay these are great animals and they're fun and they're cute when they're little babies and eventually they grow up and then we eat them. So it's kind of like having that, you know, kind of like looking at them from the very beginning as being food is important. But yeah, I couldn't eat dog or cat, that's not my culture. But for other people it is their culture.

KP: Do you find, do you think that animals that are raised in the urban setting, I mean animals that we think of as being more wild like chickens, that they have a different personality or that they are treated differently? I went to a small school in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and one person that was in my class brought two bitties to us for Easter. That was a big thing. We had two so I raised them in town, one of them died, but the other one lived and became a terror of the neighborhood. It would chase dogs, people would call and say come get your chicken.

NC: No way.

KP: Yes, yes.

NC: Well the thing is though, you probably know this, is that chickens really need other chickens. Because they want to have a pecking order. What chickens love is hierarchy. If she is just by herself and she has no other chickens to chase, except the dog I guess.

KP: Yeah, that's right.

NC: Yeah, they can really be, they can get some ideas in their head. But you have to kind of model what their normal behavior would be. Like when I had goats, I always had more than one goat because goats, same thing, they need a herd, they need a sense of another goat with them. You can do it with a dog, but they do better when you have more than one goat. You usually have two goats, if you only have one, they are going to be really lonely and they are going to cry all the time. They will become, however you want to say it, perverted by the city environment. So you do have to model what their normal, natural behavior would be. Otherwise you might end up with some crazy, like your little bitty chasing the dog around.

KP: That's right, that was named too. If someone wanted to start an urban farm, you know we are in the rural section of North Carolina, but if you wanted to start an urban farm what advice would you give them? How would they do it?

NC: What I always tell people, you know, is to start with something small. Small successes are really nice. It's just like anything that you learn, it's not like you're just going to just start driving a jet airplane. First you start small, you know like with a bike. I recommend that people grow easy things like radishes or lettuce or really consider what is it you really want to eat. What do you find yourself buying at the grocery store. If you're like man I've got to buy my turnips again, then you might be motivated to grow your own turnips. So that's what I recommend to really think about what you eat and then plant something that you're going to eat. What will happen sometimes is that people will think "Yeah I'm going to become an urban farmer and eat healthy, like a granola kind of person. I'm just going to only eat kale." But then if they have never eaten kale before, having a garden full of kale is not going to change the fact that maybe you don't like kale, so always grow something that you like. Stuff that's easy, you know, like I said, radishes and lettuce are great. Herbs do really well and they can be lower maintenance and they come back every year, so that's a good thing. Also grow stuff that is part of your culture. A lot of people, especially in the South, eat a lot of greens, so they want to grow collard greens. That's a great thing to grow and share with people. I always like to have something that you can share a little bit of with people as well so you're like "Hey here have a bunch of greens." Then they feel happy and you feel happy too.

KP: Given the success of your farming adventure, what do you do with all the food? Do you can, do you pickle? You mentioned some of that earlier.

NC: There are, yeah, I do a lot of stuff with the food. I generally do canned tomatoes every year. I actually have an outdoor kitchen now, because it gets so hot in the summer and so I'm kind of modeling it after that, that old idea of having a stove outside and canning and not getting so hot. I feed a lot of people in the neighborhood and also my neighbors. I'll just like pick stuff and give it to them. I also have a farm stand now, so I'll do a farm stand probably only once a month, but I'll, you know, just clear out all the turnips and sell all the turnips. There's an amazing book as well called "Wild Fermentation" and it's all about how to make pickles and preserve stuff with lacto-bacteria like sauerkraut. So you can do all that kind of stuff with turnips, cabbage and kale. There are all kinds of recipes for doing that. We also have a juicer, you juice kale, oh my god it's so good.

KP: Good for you, very healthy.

NC: Exactly. Good for you.

KP: A rather pointed question here, Novella. Do you buy anything from the grocery store?

NC: All the time. It's a real misnomer when people think "Oh urban farmer, you're just living off the land, totally self-sufficient and would never buy anything at a grocery store." I love going to a grocery store, because the thing is about growing your own food suddenly things like bread, you're like wow someone grew wheat and then they grounded it up and made it into bread. It's like a miracle. Some of those things you know, I don't make sausage because I don't raise pigs anymore. So I'm so happy to be able to go to a butcher and be like, hey, where did those pigs come from and have a conversation about them, about where the pigs came from and then how they made the sausage. It's just more fun that way. I also go to a farmers market. There are a couple farmers markets that I really like. I can't grow peaches, it's not hot enough in Oakland to grow peaches for instance. So, I look at that farmer behind the stand and I'm just so grateful for them to have been growing that food and making it available to me. It changes, it makes it more personal. Where it used to be that I would go through a farmers market and grab some stuff and not even pay attention to who it was that I was buying it from. Now I just really connect and not I'm like "Oh cool, these are great apples." I'm always sure to try to make a little conversation or just really thank them because it is, it's a really hard job to farm. You're dirty, it's backbreaking labor, you have health problems or you're not making very much money and so it can be a real challenge. We're just so blessed when people are willing to take that challenge.

KP: As you say, farming is for some people, it's not for everyone maybe. And on this campus sustainability is truly one of our core missions, it's what we try to do. And a lot people don't think about Appalachian and sustainability in the same sentence, you just don't do that, but it's a big part of us. For students that say working in the dirt, farming that's not for me, that's just not who I am. What advice would you have to say, but you still want them to embrace sustainability?

NC: That's a good question. I think I would say that there are ways to become, be sustainable by not growing your own food. Obviously, you can do things like ride your bike and not drive as much, but I think you know what part of my book "Farm City" was really about was to really look where everything comes from. To really question everything, like your shoes, who made those shoes? Someone's hands touched those shoes.So, you can geek out about all kinds of different things, it doesn't have to just be food. I think that that's kind of a fun project you know. Go back and look at Levis and where did they get made and go to China and go to the factory and talk to the people. Where did the cotton come from? You know really food for me is just my thing that I'm obsessed with, but somebody else might have something else that they can become obsessed with. Like where does the fuel from their car come from? You know all these questions if you just examine anything you can find a puzzle that needs solving in terms of sustainability especially. And then think about, oh what can I change to, you know, to not have that part of our system to, you know, sort of cut out the middleman as they say and to make it a local personal kind of thing. I was just in a store today shopping for a gift for my friend who has a baby and I was able to find a little doll that was made here in Boone by this woman. You know she makes dolls. It's so great to buy that and support her rather than you know, buy some weird doll made in China.

KP: Well as you reflect upon your comments that you made this morning to the students and they are just beginning their university years here. What can you say that you have learned since your university years, undergraduate years. That you could say that "I want to share that with them." What life lessons?

NC: The life lessons that I've learned and it's been a long time since I've been in university. I mean I got my master's later, but yeah it's been a long time. I would say the thing, when I first started school I thought it was all about books. It's all about learning and you know knowing how all those things work in your textbooks. Then what I found out when I got out of school is actually what mattered was who my friends were, what people around me were doing and continued to do because they inspired me and I inspired them. And that was really all about, it was about sharing our resources and so I really have to stress that the most important thing that is going to happen is that you're going to make friends that are going to change your life here. And you're going to meet teachers that are going to change your life because they have advice for your or you'll learn some new path that you'd never thought you could do. I really, I think that is the most important thing that I learned. That you are going to meet mentors and people who going to share with you and you're going to learn from them later. You're always going to learn. It's not like you're done with university you are going to stop reading books, you know.

KP: One think that came in your graduate years was your relationship with Michael Pollen. And he had a statement on the front cover of your book and I read some on the blog about him and his respect for you and your respect for him. So that shows something, a professor, the relationship between a student, you at Berkeley at the time in a graduate program, a professor and a student. That's a special relationship isn't it?

NC: It is. It's so special because it's kind of like hanging out with your friends and geeking out about music, like "Hey have your heard about this band" and you're like "No." And with Michael it was always like "Hey have you read this book?" and I would be like "Whoa, that book blew my mind." So he was so generous in terms of sharing books and people that he knew and ideas that he had. It's such a special relationship. And I don't know what he gets out of being friends with me, but maybe I think it makes him feel good about the next generation of writers and I was so flattered and honored that he was able to write such nice things about my book. I've learned so much from him, it has been really, really critical to how I learned to really consider the world and how I think about food and who I am.

KP: Well that relationship that you had there is one that we try to emulate here. We like for our students and professors to have that kind of relationship that you can share and continue on when life goes on. Like you said, just because you walk across the stage and graduate you're not really finished.

NC: Yeah. Yeah. You know when I was in university I didn't take advantage of that. I never went to office hours and you know, there is this sense of yeah you want to be friends with your professors. You really want to be able to challenge them and talk to them and have this conversation, you know. It's really important as you're learning, because honestly, I would just remember things that people would just say, you know an idea that they would toss out. It would then change your whole path of education. You know it's really important to make those connections early and really try, take advantage of the resources of the campus.

KP: Novella, the book is extremely well-written and the style and all is great and it does what they say -- it makes you laugh and at times have a little emotional moment because it brings memories. I mean , we can all see ourselves in it, the way you presented yourself to the students and in the book too, its genuine. It's authentic and you had said you've got to be who you are and you certainly have done that and done it with style in many ways. So, what's next?

NC: That question.

KP: What's the next chapter, come on. Many chapters left for you, what's next?

NC: I know. I have a lot to do. I'm working on another memoir. It's called "Gone Feral," and it's about my father. So my dad I never knew. We basically grew up without having a dad. He was always off in the distance, in the backwoods like hunting for elk or whatever. So this was going to seek my beginnings, going to find my father. So it's personal, more personal book. There are less characters from the neighborhood, so I wouldn't say it's like a sequel, but it's still set on my farm in Oakland. I have goats, so the goats are part of the story. And so it's a more personal story, but it's definitely still a memoir and talks a little bit about farming and different aspects of goats, raising goats and breeding goats and milking them and things like that.

KP: And that book should be out when?

NC: It will probably be out, they haven't given me a date yet. It will probably be like fall 2013.

KP: That's pretty soon.

NC: Yeah.

KP: So thank you very much for being a part of the Convocation and being the author for this year.

NC: It's my honor. Totally.

KP: And we look forward to having you back. Once, like I said, just not enough.

NC: I know. I'll come back. Invite me back.

KP: Okay I will. Well thank you.

NC: Thank you.

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