My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard Into a Farm (Hardcover)

How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard Into a Farm

By Manny Howard

Scribner Book Company, 9781416585169, 277pp.

Publication Date: April 27, 2010



For seven months, Manny Howard--a lifelong urbanite--woke up every morning and ventured into his eight-hundred-square-foot backyard to maintain the first farm in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in generations. His goal was simple: to subsist on what he could produce on this farm, and only this farm, for at least a month. The project came at a time in Manny's life when he most needed it--even if his family, and especially his wife, seemingly did not. But a farmer's life, he discovered--after a string of catastrophes, including a tornado, countless animal deaths (natural, accidental, and inflicted), and even a severed finger--is not an easy one. And it can be just as hard on those he shares it with.

Manny's James Beard Foundation Award-winning New York magazine cover story--the impetus for this project--began as an assessment of the locavore movement. We now think more about what we eat than ever before, buying organic for our health and local for the environment, often making those decisions into political statements in the process. My Empire of Dirt is a ground-level examination--trenchant, touching, and outrageous--of the cultural reflex to control one of the most elemental aspects of our lives: feeding ourselves.

Unlike most foodies with a farm fetish, Manny didn't put on overalls with much of a philosophy in mind, save a healthy dose of skepticism about some of the more doctrinaire tendencies of locavores. He did not set out to grow all of his own food because he thought it was the right thing to do or because he thought the rest of us should do the same. Rather, he did it because he was just crazy enough to want to find out how hard it would actually be to take on a challenge based on a radical interpretation of a trendy (if well-meaning) idea and see if he could rise to the occasion.

A chronicle of the experiment that took slow-food to the extreme, My Empire of Dirt tells the story of one man's struggle against environmental, familial, and agricultural chaos, and in the process asks us to consider what it really takes (and what it really means) to produce our own food. It's one thing to know the farmer, it turns out--it's another thing entirely to be the farmer. For most of us, farming is about food. For the farmer, and his family, it's about work.

Praise For My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard Into a Farm

“The night I turned forty Manny Howard, a younger guy from the neighborhood, led me to the top of the Brooklyn Bridge. We even stole the flag. It was about five in the morning; we weren't sober. It is a great pleasure to now be able to follow him on this slightly safer—well, safer for me—adventure. What a unique wonder this book is! Like a collaboration between Joseph Mitchell, Moe Howard, and Xavier de Maistre (A Journey Around My Room). Informative, grungy, rollicking, hilarious, horrifying, obsessive; most of all, a really great story, lived and written by a writer whose heart is as capacious and teeming as all of Brooklyn.”

—Francisco Goldman, author of The Art of Political Murder

“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

“Manny Howard—husband, father, novice farmer—is not the sort of person who does things halfway, and thank goodness for that. Here is the dark, charming, hilarious—and thoroughly original—account of his simple, insane plan to live off the land . . . in Brooklyn. (Crops will be destroyed, tempers will be lost, and a marriage may, or may not, survive.) All of this personal drama is improbably enriched by virtuoso passages on everything from the science of tornadoes to the art of breeding rabbits. What a book!”

—Jonathan Mahler, author of Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning

“Manny Howard's wonderful book is much more than a breezy romp across the line that divides urban from rural life. Yes, it crackles with intelligence and good humor, sparkles with hilarious anecdotes, and is studded with entertaining factoids about the agrarian life that Howard decided, so improbably, to adopt (you'll never hear the phrase ‘pecking order’ in quite the same way again). But at its core this book belongs to a great American tradition that goes back to Thoreau: a lone man with big ideas decides to confront Nature on his own. That the nature in question happens to be in Brooklyn gives this book—which like its author is characterized by an unmistakably New York mix of huge ambition and wry self-deprecation—its unique and ultimately quite touching charm.”

—Daniel Mendelsohn, author of The Lost