Novella Carpenter is an author and founder of Ghost Town Farm, an innovative urban farm in an Oakland neighborhood that was better known for its vacant lots and high crime rates. Carpenter’s books include Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, The Essential Urban Farmer, and Gone Feral: Tracking My Dad Through the Wild.
The mother of a toddler, Carpenter balances a writing career with urban farming. To us, she represents someone who achieves the best kind of productivity: not just getting things done, but cultivating a life well-lived. Her writing is a delight to read, and we’re grateful to her for sharing a bit of her day-to-day habits.
What’s your daily routine like? What habits do you cultivate and what benefits do you find in them?
I get up around 7am, make tea and let the chickens out, collect the eggs. If my daughter stays asleep (she’s almost 3 years old), I can get some work done—weeding, picking pests off my trees/veg, planting. That’s rare, though, so I usually assume I won’t be able to get “real” work done until after I take her to school. Unless it’s raining, I take her on the bicycle to her school, which is 4 miles away. It’s a great workout for me, and fun interaction time with her. If she really wants to cuddle with me, I take the bus instead. What I’ve learned from having my child is flexibility.
As an urban farmer, writer and mother, it seems like you must have to deal with urgent needs of the farm along with attention to longer term goals like writing books. Do you have any tips for balancing these, or habits that support that kind of balance?
I used to power through tasks and get more done by noon that most people would get done all week (dehydrating fruit, canning tomatoes, cooking meals, cleaning chicken coops, etc) but that’s all changed. In some ways, it annoys me that I’m not that productive. But in others, I’m happy to sit back and just observe. I do think routine is important, and multi-tasking can be the only way I make sure everything gets done on the farm and with the family. I always wish I had more time, but now when I do have an extra hour or two, I spend that time wisely—writing or making lists, and sometimes just spacing out, because introspection is so important.
Do you think there’s a difference between the multitasking of an information worker and that of someone working more in the physical realm? You recently shared that you got rid of your iPhone and went back to a flip phone.
I think you have to multi-task to be an effective farmer and mother—otherwise your crops and children will suffer. A lot of it is just looking into the future and planning ahead, anticipating what will need to get done. No step can be wasted, so when for example, I let the chickens out in the morning, that’s when I bring them the table scraps, and then I collect the eggs while I’m there. Then if they need water, I’ll turn on the hose, water them then water some of the veggie beds that look thirsty. If I did all of these things singularly, it would take twice as long, and I don’t have that much free time these days.
Are there any habits you’re trying to develop now? What motivated you to work on them?
I’m trying to be patient and kind. I’ve always been a little harsh and crude, but again, having a child changes things. She makes me want to be a nicer person. She imitates everything I do so I’m trying not to swear as much.
Who or what inspires you? Whose habits would you like to know more about and why?
I love people who are calm and peaceful, relaxed and thoughtful. I always admire people who get stuff done but also have time for silly things. I know this urban farmer in Detroit, Patrick Crouch, and he’s like that. I just read One Straw Revolution, and Fukuoka is inspiring. I love his approach of modeling his farm after nature. And his anti-science rants—those are priceless.
If you’re interested in more about Carpenter’s work and writing, there’s a lovely discussion here on KQED’s Forum with Michael Krasny.
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