A few years ago, Manny Howard was enticed by New York Magazine to try growing food in his Brooklyn backyard and sustain himself on it for a month. At the time, Manny wasn’t really committed to exploring the meaning of “locavore” (the magazine’s tack); he loves wild challenges of just about any kind (hunting boar or bear, making a film in Afghanistan…) and New York Magazine knew they had their sucker. In trying to create “the farm”, Manny got SO deep into something he had no clue about that he almost lost his marriage (and a finger). He spent months preparing land that had not grown a thing in decades, nurturing seedlings under make-shift grow lights, rigging coops, building an irrigation system, learning to geld and kill chickens, trying to get rabbits to breed… learning on the job. Everything that could go wrong did, including a hurricane landing in Brooklyn – right on the farm. He lost 29 pounds.

In a recent interview in Elle Magazine, Manny described the biggest challenge:

“Well, I could break it down to most miserable, or most discouraging, or generated the most self-loathing. Those are probably the categories. I was so crazy and myopic. I was dedicated to finishing the project. I really became a lunatic. Fix what’s broken, heal what’s sick, feed what’s hungry-which was the real gift of the whole project: Apply work to a problem and the problem would be gone for, you know, seven hours. Nothing ever actually got fixed or healed.”

The article Manny wrote for New York was great, and his book about the year or so spent farming in Brooklyn is even better – riveting actually. My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into a Farm is a strangely escapist sort of read: you get to vicarious experience starting a farm, AND you get to witness follies, mistakes and passions as big as your own.

Note: There were some great, rough photos on Manny’s blog of his rigged chicken coops and other improvisations, which seem to have disappeared…maybe being saved for the book…BUT, Manny just wrote to inform me that he’s got some up on Flickr like this one of his rabbit hutch (notated “too tall for barn door”…


…or this one of the deep hole Manny dug (what a metaphor!)…


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5 replies on “manny howard’s empire of dirt

  1. That sounds fascinating. It reminds me of my old college friends who lived in the countryside of Virginia for one entire year just as people would have at the turn of the century — no electricity, limited plumbing, etc. I certainly like to read about these “adventures” but have no desire to go on them myself!

  2. Elizabeth,
    Funny, I have that book on my shelf right here, “See You in A Hundred Years,” by Logan Ward. He is a great friend of my brother Bill. Bill gave it to me as a gift and I enjoyed it immensely. If I had read it BEFORE I started my Flatbush Farm project, I might only have committed 2/3 of the mistakes.

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