01 March 2011

Review: My Empire of Dirt by Manny Howard

The Book:

Manny Howard was looking for work in 2007.  When New York magazine approached him to write a story about the rising urban agricultural movement and try growing food in his backyard to subsist on for 30 days.  But why stop there?  Howard decided to make his Brooklyn backyard into a farm.  For the next seven months, Howard toiled, struggled and fought for and against The Farm, his lack of knowledge and his family's dismay to prove himself worthy of the challenge.  No matter what happened.

The Yarn:

The idea of locavorism and urban agriculture is one I support wholeheartedly.  Howard's basic idea of creating a sustainable farm in his yard was a great big picture with ideas for gardening and meat animals.   However the big picture seemed to be his best way of thinking.  The actual ideas behind raising rabbits and chickens are erratic, his search for live tilapia is hilarious in its own right.  Howard dives into each project with a lot of energy but little thought.  It hurts a bit to think of the amount of money that went into preparing his dead clay yard for growing, the lumber and parts for housing chickens and rabbits and feeding them, the description of the growing pile of trash, accidental (and not so accidental) deaths of animals.

Amidst the day to day struggle of creating this farm Howard talks about his family: wife Lisa and children Heath and Bevan Jake.  Background of how they ended up married and in the house is there, along with the struggle of keeping some - very little, in fact - normalcy for his family.  The tension and trouble the farm creates for his marriage is outlined in great detail in the book.

I struggled with a lack of empathy for Howard.  His descriptions of making decisions with very little planning, and obvious lack of conversation with Lisa, definitely rub me the wrong way.  As Howard talks about his first attempt at seedstarting and watching them fail (for too little and too far away lights), this is one I have gone through myself, but instead of looking to researching why, he jumps into a hydroponics store and tries to buy the most he can with the least amount of information.  This carries through the book, and while is definitely a thought and action style some may see themselves in, my own need for planning made me want to throw books about gardening and livestock at him.

However, some of that is recovered in the last few chapters, once Howard finishes his 30 days and reflects on what he has done.  Howard's marriage survived dead animals, his daughter's surgery, a lot of alcohol, and a tornado. He is still keeping chickens, and the rabbits (for the most part) escaped being part of the food chain.  He found authenticity on "The Farm", even if it wasn't always the best pieces of himself.

My Empire of Dirt is a strong, if not always sympathetic, story of one man's work on an urban agricultural project.  You can read Manny Howard's story in New York online.

The Ink:

Title:  My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard Into a Farm
Author:  Manny Howard
Publisher:  Scribner
Date:  March 2010
Read:  Library Hardcover