Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
“Once you get a taste of your own pickles, it will be hard to turn back!”
“I have a farm on a dead-end street in the ghetto,” wrote journalist and urban grower Novella Carpenter in her book, Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer. She continued:
My back stairs are dotted with chicken turds. Bales of straw come undone in the parking area next to my apartment. I harvest lettuce in an abandoned lot. I awake in the mornings to the sounds of farm animals mingled with my neighbor’s blaring car alarm.
Carpenter named her plot of land—home to vegetables, chickens, bees, ducks, and two enormous pigs—Ghost Town Farm, after the moniker given to her West Oakland neighborhood.
Oakland has a vibrant urban agriculture scene, even though the county of Alameda hasn’t opted to enact California State Assembly Bill 551, which incentivizes landowners to donate plots to counties for 10 years in exchange for a lower property tax rate. (The bill enables small-scale farming on blighted or unused tracts of land smaller than 3 acres.) Carpenter was embroiled in plenty of red tape before gaining the legal right to farm on her hardscrabble corner. Still, community stalwarts like City Slicker Farms have nurtured more than 300 backyard urban gardens in addition to sponsoring farm education programs. It’s also home to the Institute of Urban Homesteading, which offers courses in fermentation, animal husbandry, and more.
It’s no surprise, then, that Oakland is the focus of a new documentary series about heritage skills set to debut in October.
After meeting its funding goal on Indiegogo, the project, entitled The Urban Homesteader, will launch with webisodes devoted to skills such as fabricating chicken coops. The team also intends to roll out a site full of how-to guides and forums connecting readers with skill-sharing workshops across the country, so you can meet up with other pickling aficionados. (The project’s site promises, “Once you get a taste of your own pickles, it will be hard to turn back!”)
Harvind Singh, a “local forager” for Whole Foods (one of the show’s partners), is on board. The second co-host hasn’t been cast yet—the woman in the trailer below was an actress hired to play the part in the promo, the East Bay Express reports.
If you live in the homesteading-crazed areas of Brooklyn, Seattle, or Oakland—or on the set of Portlandia—you might already know your way around cheese curds or seed saving. If you don’t, these types of skills may seem archaic and unnecessary—or at the very least, inaccessible.
Maybe that’s where the show’s earnest tone could come in handy. In the intro reel, the very earnest co-hosts slip in the pig pen and try to corral flapping hens. The duo doesn’t seem to have a handle on the urban homesteading thing. In fact, the trailer description frames them as “city slickers.” Actually, their cheerful haplessness is part of the appeal. It’s intimidating to raise a brood—but maybe a bit less so when you’re part of a community of folks who are also learning on the fly.