My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into a Farm
To be published April 2010
by Manny Howard
Scribner (April 27 2010)
“With My Empire of Dirt, Manny Howard has created a new job category, gonzo agriculturalist. The squeamish and the vegan-hearted shall enter at their own risk, for this is no gentle Farmer’s Almanac. It’s more like war reportage—on one side, angry rabbits, crazed chickens, and a patch of backyard clay so dry it makes concrete seem loamy; on the other, a Brooklyn-raised City Boy, who won’t take crop failure for an answer. Howard takes living off the land to an urban extreme that will make people think even harder about where their food comes from. Ultimately, though, as tornadoes come and fig trees nearly go, he discovers a marriage that needs tending to, proving that when it comes to love, at least, you shall definitely reap what you sow.”
—Robert Sullivan, author of Rats and Cross Country
And from New York Magazine 2007
My Empire of Dirt
Article by Manny Howard
New York Magazine
Sep 10, 2007
One man-month of food crammed into 800 square feet.
A Four vegetable planters: cucumbers, cantaloupes, peppers, and heirloom tomatoes.
B The garage, a.k.a. “the Barn”: tool storage, rabbit feed, chicken feed, six rabbit hutches, a slaughter station, a refrigerator, and four egg-laying coops.
C The field, in four beds: 1 Tomatoes, beets, celery, yellow squash, purple eggplant, and a fig tree. 2 Collard greens, cucumbers, and callaloo. 3 Cabbage, Japanese eggplant, white eggplant, rhubarb, leeks, garlic, onions, fennel, rosemary, thyme, and mint. 4 Corn, broad beans, basil, bok choy, and parsley.
D The duck run: a duck coop, a duck pond, and two wayward rabbit hutches.
E The chicken run: a high-rise high-capacity chicken coop and a livestock holding pen (on the porch).
F The potato crop: a raised bed technically known as a “drill.”
The “locavore” movement says we should only eat what is grown within a few miles of where we live. How about a few feet? An experiment in Brooklyn-style subsistence farming, starring smelly chickens, an angry rabbit, a freak tornado, a vegetable garden to die for, two psyched kids, and a marriage in the weeds.
At 6:40 a.m. on August 8, the tornado hit my house in Brooklyn. Most people viewed it as a snow day in summer, a meteorological oddity. Not me. After a sleepless night listening to the wind and the rain intensify, I watched the sky turn green, then heard the hemlock tree in the yard next door split in two, clip the gutter on the third floor of my house, and bounce off the roof of what used to be our garage and had come to be known as “the barn.” As the wind torqued up even further, the limb of an oak torpedoed the most productive quarter of my vegetable garden, smothering a thicket of tomatoes, snapping the fig tree, pulverizing the collard greens, burying the callaloo, and splintering the roof of my main chicken coop.
That’s right, my chicken coop, which happens to be in my tiny backyard farm—800 square feet of arable land.
A tornado hadn’t struck Brooklyn since 1889, when Flatbush was farmland; this one laid waste to the lonely little farm that I had planted in my backyard and that, within days, I planned to rely on as my sole source of food for an entire month.
I started my farm, hereafter referred to as The Farm, in March, with my eye on August as the month I’d eat what I had grown. It was, in original conception, equal parts naïve stunt and extreme test of the idea that drives the burgeoning “locavore” movement. According to this ethos, we should all eat food produced locally, within 100 miles—some say 30—of where we live, so as to save our planet and redeem our Twinkie-gorged souls. Now that the “organic” label has rapidly become as ubiquitous and essentially meaningless as the old “all-natural,” the locavores have established a more sacred code, one meant to soothe our anxieties about what goes into the food we eat.
Take a Video Tour of the Author’s Backyard Farm