A Love Story, In No Way A Cautionary Tale


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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.
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.

On The Yard

The winter was hard on the flock. The coop was warm enough, but, though great efforts were made in the planning and construction, the building was not as secure as I had imagined. I locked it most every night–well, barricaded the door–but had not counted on daytime raids. Unlike last year–when, on three occasions, I found eviscerated Leghorns frozen to the dirt in the run, this winter when the flock suffered a loss it seemed that the casualty was carried off. Only the top-end predators (here, think lions and crocodiles) bother with the entire carcass. Most lesser carnivores, hoping to make the most of their opportunism before a beast (real or imagined) further up the food chain stumbles across the scene, will satisfy themselves with viscera and beat a hasty retreat. The disappearances were puzzling. Fiona, a neighbor who also keeps chickens, insists that when one of her chickens goes missing it has been purloined for use in a ritual of Santeria held somewhere in the bowels of Prospect Park, the borders of which are not three blocks away. I had my doubts, but no alternate theory to offer.

to avoid violence associated with establishing the peck  order it is recommended that new birds be reduced at night

to avoid violence associated with establishing the peck order it is recommended that new birds be introduced into the flock at night

But I digress. By late February we had lost two of the three remaining birds. The idea of going to zero on my laying flock weighed heavily. I feared that if we lost all the hens, any resulting interruption in fresh egg production would doom my already slim chances of rebuilding the flock and we would default to the grocery store and languish there forever. I did not lay eyes on the culprit until the first week of March. In the predawn I was woken by the alarm call of Last Chicken Standing. I leapt from bed and flung the window open just in time to witness the terrified red hen sprinting down the driveway pursued by the largest raccoon I have seen (not just in Brooklyn, anywhere). There is a gaze of raccoons rumored to nest hard-by the dumpster at the KFC on Coney Island Avenue. I suspect all this locavore chatter had not been lost on the great, shambling filcher staring up at me now, when our dog Fergus leapt up on the window sill to see what all the excitement was about, the raccoon made for the back fence. Last Chicken Standing is now in protective custody in a metal layer cage, terribly lonely, bored and forlorn, but still producing one very high quality small brown egg every morning.

After some negotiation with Lisa I have placed an order for reinforcements. We expect delivery during the week of May 25. The birds arrive airfreight in a cardboard carrying case marked “LIVESTOCK.” The new flock consists of one red pullet, a pair of White Leghorns and two Black Stars. These are not the fancy collector birds you read about when (if) you read about fowl collectors. No outrageous plumage, no miniature splendor, our birds are work-a-day egg machines. At 18 weeks they should begin a life of labor, producing one egg a day. The propaganda from Murray McMurray Hatchery is very encouraging: “If you are after maximum production of eggs with the most efficient feed conversion ratio [and who isn’t?], then this is your ticket. These pullets weigh about 4 lbs. at maturity, start laying at 4 1/2 to 5 months, and will continue 10 to 12 weeks longer than most good layers.”

I have begun the renovations of the original coop. In order to limit pecking order violence, each hen will have her own laying box and there will be ample roosting room. In an effort to limit any further predation, the coop’s run will be completely enclosed and attached to the coop itself. This year’s Winter Palace will be converted into a backyard clubhouse for the children. They will have ungoverned access to it as soon as it is free of vapors from the structure’s planned total immersion in chlorine bleach. More when there is more..