Novella Carpenter took over a vacant lot on a hardscrabble corner of West Oakland eight years ago and turned it into a working farm of vegetables, goats, rabbits and, sometimes, pigs.
Carpenter milked goats, made cheese and ate much of the produce. She also wrote a popular book, “Farm City,” about the experience and became an icon of the Bay Area’s urban farming movement.
But the future of her Ghost Town Farm is in question. This week, Oakland officials suggested it may need to close. The reason: She sells excess produce and needs a costly permit to do so.
“It seems ridiculous,” said Carpenter, 38. “I need a conditional use permit to sell chard?”
The news stunned the region’s urban farmers and their supporters, who questioned how a fundamental human task that goes back millennia could become illegal.
“It’s incredibly sad that people can’t grow food and sell it to folks,” said Barbara Finnin, executive director of City Slicker Farms, an Oakland nonprofit that runs produce markets and helps people start their own urban farms.
Profit, not personal use
The city planner who visited Carpenter’s 4,500-square-foot plot at 28th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way said he sympathized with Carpenter, but the rules are clear.
Carpenter “is raising these things for a profit,” said Chris Candell, a planner in the city’s building department. “If you’re doing this for your own home consumption, this would not be applied.”
Though his report is not final, Candell said Carpenter probably has three options: pay for a conditional use permit, shut down the farm, or not change anything and face sanctions from the city.
The permit would probably cost several thousand dollars, Candell said, and Carpenter also would have to pay penalties for operating without such a license as she is now. Carpenter works about 25 hours per week at the farm and takes in only about $2,500 a year, before expenses.
Candell said a complaint about rabbits on the property led to the city inquiry. Carpenter believes the critic was upset because she was making rabbit potpies available for an $8 donation.
Carpenter taught herself to grow food and raise livestock. She went Dumpster diving in Oakland’s Chinatown to feed her pigs and learned how to butcher from top chefs.
“I really like to feel connected to food and understand the stories of where my food came from,” she said. “When I started, I did it to feed myself. Then I realized that in Oakland, people are really hungry. So people in the neighborhood came and picked food.”
But she realized there were other benefits, too.
“A garden in the middle of a concrete jungle is a nice thing,” she said. “The garden has become a community space. It’s like a place of beauty as well as production. If you pick your lettuce, it just has more vitamins. … We’re told to go consume and just buy food, but I want to empower myself by growing it.”
Crops in the city
Oakland is considered the center of the urban farming movement, with numerous nonprofits and individual farmers devoted to the cause. Sunset Magazine featured Oakland last year as a “town of the future” because of citizens’ passion for the movement. Carpenter’s farm was featured in the article.
But zoning regulations haven’t quite caught up, planners and urban farmers say.
A conditional use permit might make sense for 40-acre farms, Finnin said, but not when the farm occupies one-tenth of an acre and beets sell for $2 a bunch.
Candell agreed that the zoning is outdated. But he said the rules nonetheless have to be followed.
“We’ve had (these rules) for 50 years or so, but we’re stuck with them until they’re changed,” he said.
In San Francisco, where similar conflicts have arisen, Supervisor David Chiu and Mayor Ed Lee introduced legislation this week to allow growing and selling of garden produce in all neighborhoods. In Oakland, zoning officials and nonprofits have been working on new rules, which are to be debated by the City Council this year.
Carpenter said it has all been a learning experience. After starting out as a “squat farmer,” she bought the plot for $30,000 in December. The previous owner sold it to her as a favor.
“It was so great squatting,” she said. “I didn’t have costs. I was a total renegade doing something totally illegal, but now that I’m a property owner, that’s when they actually come down on me.
“I can’t fly under the radar and be a punk anymore. I have to actually be an adult and deal with these things.”