Updated: Aug 31, 2019
I listened to Novella Carpenter’s Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer recently as I worked on the farm this summer. It’s good – conversational and witty just like Novella actually is (she also teaches at the University of San Francisco). Listening to her stories reminds me how interesting it is to peek at the nitty gritty parts of another person’s life. Details about her first date with her boyfriend and the soap opera of her Oakland home keeps audiences engaged, even if they could care less about plant biology and rabbit rearing techniques.
But as I listen I also realize I have a problem with the implications the book makes about rural areas. Urban settings are inviting and enriching, while rural communities are exclusive and inaccessible, places ordinary people are not able to experience.
“But not all of us can live in the country like Wendell Berry.…These [Oakland city] kids would have few chances to experience the rural places described in Wendell Berry’s books…. Unlike a rural farm, a secret place only a few lucky people may visit, an urban farm makes what seems impossible, possible.”
It is not that I disagree with her that urban farms make learning about gardening more convenient for city dwellers; it is always easier to get into a hobby you can do in your own backyard. What I find troubling however is that she seems to say that a visit to an urban garden can stand in for visiting an actual farm, which is a lot like saying reading about Paris is just like going there (it is not).
Rural communities are harder to visit. There is less public transportation to them, less places to stay, less restaurants to feed hungry visitors. But popular culture has also sold us on the idea that cities are the only places where really important things happen and that everything outside of the city is boring and provincial.
Worse yet, many in the city (although to be clear - not Novella!) have come to believe that those who live in rural America are not worth meeting, that country folks are an uneducated lot with antiquated beliefs and values. Which is yet another way we have divided ourselves in this nation – the democrats and the republicans, the enlightened and the ignorant, the urban and the rural.
A professor I met once told me about a program he started and named “Urban Agriculture.” “Why ‘urban’?” I asked him. “The classes seem to be more generally about sustainability and agriculture.”
“’Urban’ stands for ‘technological,’ ‘sustainable,’” he told me, “Cutting edge.” To follow that logic, rural then means technologically backward and unsustainable. It is the continuation of a myth that innovation can only come from the city, that tech companies in Silicon Valley will “disrupt” the food system as they did with taxis without ever stepping foot on the soil where the food is grown.
And yet rural places are in fact where the vast bulk of our agriculture resides and where innovation actually happens. It is where all of the food at the grocery store actually comes from. Ignoring where it is actually grown, and by whom, is ignoring the food system, not addressing its issues head on.
I’m not claiming that visiting, or living in, rural communities is all glamorous. Carpenter also acknowledges this on urban farms, with her cast of city characters and often, poverty. Many small towns in America are now lined with empty store fronts, closed school buildings and crumbling historic homes. Farms in this country are also most often not cute, small homesteads with chickens roaming free, but are mid-sized operations full of machinery and monoculture crops.
But there are also incredibly beautiful forests and rolling hills in Iowa, a state that many a city dweller would scoff at the idea of even visiting. The birds and cicadas are all I hear when I rise, and the morning unfolds slowly. It is a peace and quiet that is perhaps the most undervalued part of rural communities, a mind-settling stillness in a world that has sold us on the importance of doing, of going, of being plugged into electronics at every moment of our lives.
It is true that the rural places in the Bay area Carpenter writes about are too expensive for most city folks to own a home or even to visit, and I am sure that bus lines don’t venture deep into the Central Valley very easily from her home in Oakland. But I fear that the focus on urban farms works to reinforce the idea that we don’t need the rural ones. It allows people to continue with their often self-righteous confinement in the city, thinking themselves above to the realities that sit beyond the hills and in the fields.