City Farming — New York Mag Article

In a recent New York Magazine feature entitled “My Empire of Dirt“, writer Manny Howard takes on the arduous task of growing a farm, complete with flora and fauna in his Brooklyn backyard to explore just what is involved in trying to feed himself locally for one month. The results are a humorous and slightly demoralizing mixed bag of mishaps, small rewards, freakish weather, and rabbit and chicken cannibalism which certainly makes for an interesting and sometimes horrifying read.

Eating local is expensive and time-consuming, which is why this consumerist movement will not easily trickle down into mass society. It requires a willful abstinence from convenience and plenty, a core promise of the modern world. Our bountiful era is predicated on the division of labor: We don’t sew our own clothes, we don’t build our own houses—and we certainly don’t farm—because we’re too busy doing whatever it is we do for everyone else.

The ensuing drama and general naiveté of the author would have left me rolling my eyes skeptically (it seems like every paper and magazine has a writer on board trying out these kinds of food-related ‘experiments’ lately) if he had not captured my heart just a little with his stubborn determination. In the end, the intensity of the experience left both he and his family with a hard won lesson in the value of good food and resolve to buy responsibly.

It wasn’t just a matter of buying regionally, or seasonally, or organically—the important thing was to consume responsibly.

I somehow doubt he will keep The Farm up at its current pace but I wonder if he will continue with the garden.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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6 thoughts on “City Farming — New York Mag Article

  1. Got to agree with JC. It’s one thing to be a novice gardener and make mistakes with seedlings that you can learn from. But he was basically experimenting on those animals. Hearing about the rabbits dying of heatstroke and disease because of his inept husbandry was heartbreaking. He didn’t seem to see the difference between a failed potato crop and losing all his rabbits.

  2. yeah, i gotta admit i found the stuff about the animals a bit disturbing. he says in the article that he figures he’d need a chicken a day, which seems incredibly naive and even decadent.

    still, he seems quite happy to present himself as a bumbling city-boy and it’s quite an entertaining read. good on him for trying.

  3. I also wish he hadn’t gone there with the animals… he was taking on too much within a narrow timeline. The results were inevitable and predicatble.

  4. Exactly. He obviously didn’t put any real research into his project, and at every step he made a bumbling, crucial error. Unfortunately, I think his.. “trials” did a lot of damage to this movement/lifestyle which would prompt people to look the other way.

    I also find that he was unrealistic with his food selections. What he learned, in the end, should have been what he started with — you have to make sacrifices! Of his exceptions, I would have let go of coffee (which is unrealistic in terms of ‘consuming locally’), as well as pepper (you need salt to live, but pepper isn’t a must-have). I would have replaced those with vegetable cooking oil and flour, or even bread.

    If he had allowed cooking oil into his list of exceptions, he wouldn’t have “had” to raise animals for the fat. Though, it doesn’t make sense because he’d have to feed them something, if not veg off his farm, then with pre-purchased feed. It would have taken less resources and energy to grow sunflowers and have them pressed for oil than to invest so much in animals.

    His obsession with finding a source of protein by way of animals was also misguided. To take on a project of such a scale is just asking for simpler eating, closer to the source. Fine, keep chickens, but don’t kill them! The eggs they produce are an okay source of protein and it would be more efficient in terms of the energy he puts into them and what he gets back in return. Not to mention that chickens have the added bonus of feeding on insects that could be harmful to the harvest. But the bottom line is that the raising of animals takes up valuable space which can be used to grow crops, a much more efficient use of the land.

    I think his failure, though, shows that a person cannot take this burden on by themselves. You would either need a large family where everyone shares the work on the farm, like the “good old days”. Or, you rely on your fellow farmers/neighbours with whom you barter your crops against theirs and, say, use their stone mill to grind your wheat in exchange for them using your oil press.

    We’ll all have to eat locally soon. The exotic imports like avocados, olives and bananas don’t seem commonplace right now, but it’s cheap oil that gets them to the grocery store. We’ll either be buying our food from local farmers, growing it in our gardens or leaving the city to start a farm of our own. The result is relative to how serious the oil situation gets, I suppose.

    Technology won’t save us in the eyes of a shortage, so wean yourself off of coffee and start growing your own tobacco, if you smoke it.

  5. I thought that he did a good job of making it clear how much works goes into food and how much we take for granted. I was definately sadend to hear about the treatment of the animals. Unfortunately, I don’t think that he learned that part of the lesson.

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