Short Story Long: My Empire of Dirt (A Book Review)

Back in the heady days of 2007, New York Magazine published an article centered on a basic yet hyperbolic premise: have writer Manny Howard turn his Brooklyn backyard into a farm and only consume what grows there. What followed was a tragi-comedy of urban farming that chronicled six months of backbreaking labor, failed crops and a marriage on the rocks. The article went on to win a prestigious James Beard award for writing.

Conceived as a response to a growing local food movement filled with sanctimonious greenmarket consumers, the article, “My Empire of Dirt,” worked because it was a foil for the fetishization of sustainability. 2007 was, after all, the year that the word “locavore” was voted word of the year by Oxford University Press. Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, having struck the sustainable food equivalent of pay dirt, filtered into mass consciousness. Suddenly farmers had groupies.

Three years later, Manny Howard has expanded his tale in My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into a Farm. We not only revisit familiar stories -- the finger he nearly cut off with a table saw, his disastrous attempt at rabbit breeding and the freak tornado that nearly wiped out his food -- but we gain more insight into the project as a whole, for better or worse.

Howard recounts the phone call and assignment that he received from a New York Magazine editor:

Faye wants me to live off my backyard. She wants me to engage the groundswell of enthusiasm for urban agriculture. She wants me to confront the self-satisfied, well-to-do locavores cruising the city’s greenmarkets. It’s one thing to live in New York City and know the farmer who sells your milk or meat or whatever, she says. It’s quite another to live in the city and be the farmer.

What this tidbit disappointingly reveals is that the project, also known as The Farm, was never Howard’s idea. Suddenly My Empire of Dirt seems more gimmick than an earnest desire to take locavorism “to its logical conclusion.” Weaving the book with flashbacks, Howard paints himself unsympathically as an adventure junkie with a penchant for unfinished projects such as a seventeen-foot sea kayak and an Afghanistan war documentary. The Farm is, by Howard’s own admission, a naïve stunt.

Take No Impact Man for comparison, Colin Beavan’s project -- later book and documentary -- that promotes a zero-waste urban lifestyle. Like My Empire of Dirt, it was an extreme idea criticized for being nothing but a scheme to sell books. But unlike Howard, No Impact Man later won over many of its detractors by evolving into a legitimate movement and educational non-profit. Not that we should expect the same post-Farm initiative from Howard, but his seeming ambivalence towards thinking in the broader scope creates suspicions that he was in it only for the paycheck.

This touches on the bigger question of why. Why participate in an adventure in urban farming when you're not passionate about local foods? Why write a book when the shorter version was sufficient? What started out as a timely satire of what it means to truly eat local, ends up disjointed and begging for deeper self-reflection. In a book, a writer is afforded the space and luxury to answer the bigger questions. Without these answers, readers are forced to draw their own conclusions based on unflattering flashbacks and frustrating glimpses into Howard’s deeper psychology.

Ultimately, the book fails to translate into a longer format. The expanded story feels more like a collection of outtakes that neither illuminate nor satisfy. His wife Lisa’s growing hostility to the project could have been better explored to understand some of the deeper meanings behind why his marriage starts skidding towards divorce. This and other additions to the story are no more than pieces that do not add up to a whole.

My Empire of Dirt is a missed opportunity to coalesce manic stories of urban farming into something bigger. What Howard seems to take away from the project is the singular idea that, hey, he doesn’t have to buy eggs anymore when he can get them from his chicken. Really? That’s all? I wasn’t expecting a zealous conversion to the merits of urban farming, but I did expect more reflection on how The Farm, despite its failures, fit within the larger context of the sustainable food movement.

Howard himself confesses that he’s not that guy, explaining:

As word spread about The Farm, well-meaning folks began to induce me around as the Urban Farmer. Simply by doing, I became, in the eye of the casual observer, an expert. Still, even my audience’s enthusiasm for my experience fails to make me the expert they require, fails to imbue the expertise they lust after. Once again a phony. If the equally well-meaning people I was introduced to were familiar with my story, my ‘farm adventure,' they almost always inquired whether I was still, even now, ‘living off the farm.' They wanted me to say yes, hoped that I had, made it mythic. Some were disappointed when I answered no, not exactly, but few were surprised, it seemed, when I prevaricated.

Call me well-meaning, call me disappointed, but I was definitely expecting more than a book that sums up its inspiration and its very existence to an admitted lack of authenticity. Not that I wanted Howard to be that guy, the one goes on an urban farming crusade, but he had a valuable opportunity to explain why subsistence farming didn’t work for him and he chose not to. Instead, My Empire of Dirt is self indulgent and lacking in real substance.