Oh Manny Howard!

You had created quite the stir among the urban farming community with your book My Empire of Dirt. And it was ugly. But before I passed judgment I decided that I should read it myself. I wish I hadn’t.

Let me start off by saying that it took me forever to read this book. Not because it was long. Not because I’m a slow reader. No, it took me forever because the first half of it couldn’t hold my attention for more than one short chapter at a time. I would put it down not to pick it up again for weeks.

The second half was a different story. It kept me interested because I was utterly appalled at what you had done.

So for those that didn’t read the book, here’s my rundown of it. And yes, I am going to spoil it for you – though there really isn’t much to spoil.

Manny Howard is a magazine writer. You can totally tell in his writing style because he has a really hard time sticking to one subject or story for very long. He lives in Brooklyn in a large house mansion. He spends a great deal of his book talking about his wife and how she brings in a lot of money. By the way, she has been described by other readers as a bitch because she’s completely unsupportive of this project Manny takes on, but in all honesty I’d be just as angry at my husband if he did half the stuff that Manny does and I am an urban farmer.

Anyways, he is given an assignment by New York magazine to “confront the self-satisfied, well-to-do locavores cruising the city’s greenmarkets.” To do this he is to create a “farm” in his Brooklyn backyard and eat off it exclusively for one month.

From the onset he set himself up for failure. The purpose of this project was to prove that it can’t be done and he fully succeeded at his goal. At the end he even claims “I still don’t know if I believe urban agriculture sustainability is the right course, not in any productive way, and not at half the price I paid (both life and treasure). My interest in ‘greening’ the urban landscape was still minimal.”

How can you ever do something the right way if you don’t have the slightest interest in doing it? Throughout his book he exemplifies this perfectly. It seems that the only thing he’s interested in doing is spending money, and spend he did. Over $11,000 on his 800 sf “farm.” He argues that you can’t do it for half of what he paid. Well, guess what Manny, we’ve done it for less than $2,500, and that INCLUDES: purchasing livestock, seeds, fruit trees, soil amendments, water use, animal feed, building supplies, irrigation infrastructure, equipment rentals, hired help, and tool purchases.We have, however, produced well over $5,800 worth of food so we’re ahead of the game.

But this isn’t the most annoying part of his book. My biggest problem with the book is the cruelty and disrespect he committed against animals and his blase attitude towards it. The most shocking act of cruelty involved a squirrel, and as we all know, I hate squirrels. But no animal should ever be treated the way he treated it – leaving it in a live trap for three days without food or water while it screams and then dropping it, trap and all into a water filled garbage can. Other atrocities include letting not one, but two rabbits die of fly strike rather than take them to a vet or euthanizing them (because he didn’t use a wire floor and then didn’t have the common sense to use rabbit waterers but instead bowls which they knocked over so they were perpetually wet AND dirty) and paralyzing a kindling (giving birth) rabbit with a dustpan because he didn’t keep track of their breeding and was not prepared for it. He also spends a chapter making light of cockfighting and the disembowelment of a chicken due to being in a too small space with too many chickens.

Beside the obvious cruelty, his lack of research or even common sense led him to bringing home livestock without having anywhere to house them. This wasn’t an isolated occurrence, but rather happened twice with the rabbits and also with the chickens. He doesn’t realize that maybe hanging a rabbit carcass “to tenderize” in the basement for 5 days isn’t the best idea – the same rabbit he paralyzed with a dustpan. He also forgot about a chicken in the fridge until it was already 9 days old and smelling rank. He allowed his small kids to run around day old chicks and ducklings resulting in a stepped on duckling which he killed by whacking it in a bag against a wall.

In the end his farm gets mostly destroyed by a tornado. He still finishes his project (I think, he’s never entirely clear about that) but doesn’t seem to really learn anything from the experience. The book isn’t even entertaining and I’ve never disliked a book as much as I dislike this one. If you are curious about it still, you’re better off reading the article that the book came from. It is basically the same story without all the extraneous crap.

And Manny, if you’re reading this I want my $25.00 back.

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