Another One Bites the Dirt

posted in: Ruminations | 15

excerpted from “My Empire of Dirt,” this week’s cover story in New York Magazine:

“Inspired by the coop design in Nick Park’s animated film Chicken Run, I was using the table saw to mill eight-inch plywood into strips to make footholds for the entrance ramp when the blade of the saw tagged my right pinkie, destroying the second knuckle.”

Okay… we’ve all had our shares of blunders in the kitchen, no doubt, and of seemingly ingenious crafty ideas that have gone awry. But reading this story by Manny Howard made me want to bang my head against the subway pole with nearly every sentence. How many wrongs does it take to supercede any possible right you might be doing for the world? Howard could hold a world record for surpassing that number, whatever it may be.

The story is written as a first-person memoir chronicling Howard’s urban farming experiment, a vow to live off of what he produced in his own backyard for the month of August. It sounds like a humble enough task, until Howard brings rabbits, chickens and ducks into the mix. It’s one thing to eat vegetables planted in soil that’s less than ideal or nutritionally bereft. But then he orders in Flemish Giant rabbits from Connecticut and a flock of chickens and cluelessly attempts to contain them in his backyard. Furthermore, Howard describes these additions to his “farm” without so much of a bat of the eye, as if these animals were the most practical proteins for your everyday urban farmer. Then you notice that it’s never really explained just who is Manny Howard? How does he have all the time in the world to work on the arduous task of transforming a tiny Brooklyn backyard into a farm, or the money for the substantial raw materials (and live animals), and where in Brooklyn exactly is this place? Come on, this is New York Magazine after all, and I want to visualize the setting.

I should really be the one to complain, as a blogger. But I look to publications like newspapers and magazines to inform me and serve as examples of good reporting. Howard’s article, however, reads like a long, winding blog entry. Which doesn’t serve the story well; its rushed and half-baked evolution of the farm prattles on and I’m still trying to count how many animals have perished due to Howard’s poor handling of their living conditions.

Here’s the bottom line: I have no problem with building a farm in one’s backyard nor making a raucous over how and what one eats, nor attempting to do the seemingly impossible in an urban environment (wink, wink). But I don’t understand the story’s conclusion. Toward the end, after summing up the enormous expense, unexpected failures and impracticality of the entire project, Howard pseudo-sagely prophesizes:

“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.”

This is from a guy who takes the Flemish Giant rabbits he purchased from Connecticut to a specialist to have them professionally knocked up, only to bring them back to his Brooklyn home and one of them dies of heatstroke within two weeks. Essentially, someone who knowingly went for the spectacular rather than the livable, and screwed up shamefully at making a farm as well as an entertaining read.

And I’m sure that many locavores will be asking the same thing, but what does this whole “farm” stunt — really — have to do with eating local?

15 Responses

  1. erin

    yikes! This issue is sitting next on my counter, waiting to be read–perhaps I can skip some political theory and check it out today…sure seems like he’s hurting the cause of eating local a lot more than he’s helping (for example, the trope that it’s elitist–he may be the poster child).

  2. Hannah Mae

    Man, these kinds of articles depress me – the ones that explain how pointless and difficult ______________ (eating local, riding a bicycle, cooking at home, not having a nanny, whatever) is without even properly trying _______________, inevitably written by someone with way more ego than clue, which explain that ________________ is only for the elite and will never work for “real people.” New York Magazine writers, the salt of the earth! Meanwhile the “real people” who ______________ all the time are frantically trying to get someone’s attention to explain how easy it actually can be, as long as you’re smart about it.

    I like the way he simultaneously compliments and condescends to people who work with their hands, too – farming and sewing and construction may be too complicated for the likes of Us, but We are much too busy doing important things anyway.

    “A willful abstinence from convenience and plenty” – tell that to anyone who’s ever given away twenty pounds of tomatoes from a plant in a pot on the fire escape. Sheesh.

  3. Sue

    Well, basically, he is a moron. And if he ventured out a bit he woud find that most people do try and eat local (or did at one point) because it is cheaper. Most of Brooklyn and Queens grew it’s own herbs and tomatoes, lettuce, etc…because they wanted it fresh and sometimes those particular herbs were unavailable elsewhere. (back in the day before our food centric era)Long Island used to be famous for potato, chicken and duck farms for goodness sake! It is possible, but not if you are an idiot. I just want to kick him for killing all those animals for no reason – what was the point of that?!

  4. Sue

    By the way – how does this guy get a byline/job in a major magazine? There are good writers looking for work and this could have been a decent article, even if done in a somewhat cheeky fashion. Who on earth is this idiot?

  5. Krista

    “The Farm” is in Kensington. I was driven so insane by this article that I had to find the address, just for the sake of finding it, of course (it’s not like I would throw locally grown eggs at his door or anything).

  6. Karen

    As a friend of mine says, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

    I agree with Cathy: saying that the movement won’t catch on because he had dificulty pulling off “The Good Life” ( in his back yard is beyond silly, it’s actively harmful.

  7. guido

    Every time I see that cover I am irritated beyond reason that it’s not a cover story about the excellent community farming project (also in Brooklyn) run by

    They sell produce to local restaurants, and at the farmer’s market on Saturdays. It’s not trendy, it is sustainable, and it’s not a me-me-me localvore-du-jour setup.

    Howard could have joined up there, or at one of many community gardens . . . “written with more ego than clue”, amen, Hannah Mae

  8. Abe

    Guess you missed his puke-alicious NY Mag piece on stealing his wife’s money (from their shared bank account) and squandering it on his bad habits. Followed shortly thereafter by stories on the new wife (did she even read his clips?) and baby. He has a long history of sharing his idiocy with the world. I think that’s why editors like him.

  9. Michele Owens

    Well, thank goodness–a blog where people are actually calling this shameless opportunist on his bull!

    The rest of the Web is applauding–with the exception of me and my partners at

  10. cathy

    I’m thrilled to hear so many thoughtful, provocative comments — thanks and keep ’em coming!

    And Abe: I did read something to that effect as well. What a hoot! Got a link?

  11. Cyclones01

    You guys are all full of it…go check it out for yourselves.

  12. Michelle

    There was another story in the New Yorker a couple weeks ago about eating local in New York:

  13. […] garden to die for, two psyched kids, and a marriage in the weeds." While quite a few people hate it, we think it’s pretty funny, a lot funnier, certainly, than Adam Gopnik’s […]

  14. Daniel

    Does anyone else have any experience with this?

  15. Dawna Schoborg

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